Intended But Unrealized Consequences of Purposive Social Action

Sociologists often study unintended consequences. Robert Merton codified this habit in his oft-cited essay, The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action. As Merton notes in that essay, analyses of unanticipated consequences go back hundreds of years, to Adam Smith and before. Indeed, as Gavin Kennedy likes to point out, when Adam Smith uses the metaphor of “the invisible hand” in the Wealth of Nations, he is using it to discuss an unintended consequence (not a self-ordering market). Specifically, Smith notes that some merchants prefer to invest their capital domestically because they are somewhat risk averse, and think that investing abroad is more risky. These merchants, whose only intention is to safely make money, thus tend to promote domestic industry: “he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.”

So, unintended consequences are pretty cool. But Albert O. Hirschman notes that in their quest to uncover all the unintended consequences of purposive action, scholars often miss the very much intended, but unrealized consequences of action. Below is an extended quote from his fantastic essay, The Passions and the Interests. The essay in general examines how pre-Smith political economists argued for capitalism by emphasizing its civilizing and moral features rather than economic efficiency – that is, they argued that governments should promote trade because the love of money would restrain the love of power or other vices. “The passions” could be restrained by economic “interests”, and interests were seen as less harmful or outright beneficial. Of course, Hirschman notes, the civilizing features of freer trade do not seem to have been born out – it would be hard to argue that wars in the 19th and 20th century were less bad than those of the 17th and 18th, for example. Thus, the civilizing restraint constraint of “interests” was an intended but unrealized effect:

“On the one hand, there is no doubt that human action and social decisions tend to have consequences that were entirely unintended at the outset. But, on the other hand, these actions and decisions are often taken because they are earnestly and fully expected to have certain effects that then wholly fail to materialize. The latter phenomenon, while being the structural obverse of the former, is also likely to be one of its causes; the illusory expectations that are associated with certain social decisions at the time of their adoption help keep their real future effects from view.

Here lies one of the principal reasons for which the phenomenon is of interest: the expectation of large, if unrealistic, benefits obviously serves to facilitate certain social decisions. Exploration and discovery of such expectations therefore help to render social change more intelligible.” (130-131)

In other words, actors not only fail to see all the consequences of their actions, but they also foresee consequences that don’t happen (which is why they often bother to act in the first place). As scholars, we need to pay attention to both sides of this coin if we are to understand where actions come from and where they wind up.

Or, as Foucault pithily summarizes, “People know what they do; they frequently know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does.”

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  1. Michael Bishop

     /  January 26, 2010

    Good post. I don’t think you can so easily dismiss the idea that free-trade reduces war. Furthermore, commerce could also be reducing intranational violence. See Pinker on the decline in violence:

  2. I’ll agree with Michael in that I also believe free trade decreases the chance of conflict.

    On another point though, I think we need to make an important distinction. Although you never explicitly said it, the realm in which “Intended But Unrealized Consequences of Purposive Social Action” are most often found is in politics where the costs are diffuse and the benefits are concentrated. I know you (Dan) are a big fan of the broader concept of “political” which is gaining popularity in sociology, but I still think there is a fundamental difference between state and social (market and non-market) action.

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