4th International Conference of Sociocybernetics
- Society from Ancient Greece to Cyberspace and Beyond -

Corfu, Greece, June 30-July 5, 2003

Insider Coding
Congruence in the Theories of Luhmann and Miller

Kenneth D. Bailey
ISA RC51 Past President
Dept. of Sociology, UCLA
Los Angeles, CA 90095 USA


The argument can be made that while the insider/outsider dichotomy is one of the basic dichotomies in social research, it remains logically unsound, and has not been properly analyzed. A dichotomy that is so widely used should be examined in detail to ensure that its logical foundation is sound, before it is centrally incorporated into social-systems theory. Unfortunately, this comprehensive analysis is thoroughly lacking for the insider/outsider distinction. The result, unfortunately, is that this dichotomy fails the two most basic tests for classificatory adequacy—the requirements that an adequate classification scheme must be simultaneously mutually exclusive and exhaustive. These interrelated tests for adequacy can be administered in two forms—a weaker synchronic form, and a stronger diachronic form. In the weak form, a sample of N concrete cases to be identified for inclusion in the two cells of the dichotomous classification must be simultaneously mutually exclusive and exhaustive at time T, meaning that each empirical case in the sample can fit into only a single one of the two cells, and each case in the sample must have an appropriate cell into which it can fit. The minimum weak test for adequacy is failed in the event that a single case fits into both cells of the dichotomy (is deemed to be simultaneously both an insider and an outsider), or an outlier is found which cannot be housed in either cell (is considered neither an insider nor an outsider). Unfortunately, it can easily be documented that the weak test for mutual exclusiveness has already been broken.

As one instance, Merton defined an insider researcher as one with inside knowledge. Thus, he considered a black researcher to be an insider when studying a black sample. This characterization was quickly challenged by critics, who claimed that black researchers were relatively powerless, and thus must be classified as outsiders. Other writers used terms such as ”outsider insiders”, or ”outsiders within”. The need to resort to such logical gibberish is procedurally untenable in empirical research, and clearly shows that the insider/outsider dichotomy lacks minimal research adequacy. The stronger diachronic test also easily shows the inadequacy of the dichotomy. For example, an insider at one point in time (when his or her group is being studied), quickly becomes an outsider at another point in time, when the research project switches its focus to another group. The reality is that the insider/outsider dichotomy is a subjective indexical. That is, it is almost totally context specific, and cannot be defined without out a clear empirical referent. Further, this apparent dichotomy is in reality basically a single-cell classification, meaning that only one cell (the insider) has a clear empirical referent. The outsider is not clearly specified, is simply a residual category comprising all non-insiders. As such, it can be so heterogeneous as to be both theoretically meaningless, and virtually impossible to apply in research.

All of this discussion might be dismissed as mere analytical rhetoric if the insider/outsider dichotomy were not so central in social-systems theory. In reality, it is perhaps no exaggeration to say that scuttling the insider/outsider classification could ultimately result in scuttling second-order sociocybernetics as well, since the whole notion of second-order sociocybernetics centers around the idea of the external observer (outsider) observing the social system observing itself. If the existence of the outsider cannot be firmly established, then the whole notion of second-order sociocybernetics is vulnerable. Furthermore, even if we can assume the existence of an outsider observer who is analytically distinct from an insider observer, how are we to deal with the fact that since the outsider category is residual, we cannot assume homogeneity in the notion of ”observer”. Specifically, what assurance do we have that the outside observer has a different viewpoint than the insider observer, or that two or more outsider observers have the same viewpoint. Even more specifically, how can we assume that outsider observer 1 and outsider observer 2 have the same vantage points, as they may be extremely different from each other in age, race, religion, language, gender, and national origin. The implicit or latent assumption of a homogeneous pool of outsider observers becomes increasingly untenable over time, as societal pluralism increases.

Although this summary has not dealt with all of the problems inherent in the insider/outsider dichotomy, it suffices to demonstrate that the dichotomy is a troubled one that sociocyberneticists should not continue to rely upon, either manifestly or latently, as they have in the past, unless further analysis is done to shore up both the dichotomy’s logical and empirical adequacy, including the heterogeneous residual nature of the outsider (observer) catEgory.

Fortunately, un-mined tools for such an analysis exist in the seminal work of both Niklas Luhmann and James Grier Miller. Both have worked extensively on the problem of insider coding. These two approaches are very different, but fortunately are also very compatible and congruent. This paper will combine these two approaches in an attempt to strengthen the critical insider/outsider dichotomy, and to make it more useful in sociocybernetics. Of particular interest in Miller’s approach are his concepts of the internal encoder and decoder, as well as the channel and net, decider, input transducer and output transducer. Of particular interest in Luhmann’s approach are his general discussion of the role of binary coding in the social system, as well as his discussion of the problems of tautology and paradox that originate with binary coding, and how these can be resolved. These two approaches are combined to offer new insights into the vexing conundrum posed by the insider/outsider distinction.

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Created, January 18, 2003
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