Unintended Consequences, Old and New: a Typology
Nielsen, Torben Hviid
Department of Sociology and Human Geography University of Oslo Oslo, Norway
Robert K. Merton's neo-classic from 1936 characterized five distinct sources of unanticipated and unintended consequences. Standing on the shoulders of Merton a new typology of four types of unintended consequences (UIC) is outlined.
Merton's horizon was to understand and eventually reduce "dysfunctions" in modern complex society, partially using insights from the new sociology of knowledge. His five sources of UIC were consequently presented as parallel, of the same standing, but "tacitly" ranked, starting with the most widespread as well as easiest to reduce and ending with self-defeating predictions.
Following Ulrich Beck?s concept of "Neue Nebenfolgen" and exemplified by the emerging climate crisis and recent developments in military technology and strategy, a "new" type of UIC, achieving intended as well as unintended consequences, is discussed. Beck's concept is embedded in his diagnosis of the Second Modernity and partly a metaphor from medicine and law, but the persistent coexistence and dubious tension between intended and unintended consequences is a novelty with implications for the character and function of Merton's five sources.
Merton?s third and fourth sources immediacy of interests exemplified by Adam Smith's "invisible hand" and basic values exemplified by Max Weber's ?Protestant ethics' are (partly) desired necessities in modern societies. The reconstruction of their origin does, however, not explain their reproduction in contemporary society, where they - though still unintended for the individuals - are anticipated and used intentionally from a system point of view.
Merton's final sources self-defeating predictions (and self-fulfilling prophecies) are now habitually used reflexive and intentional, i. e. to avoid the unintended and/or to achieve the intended. The change is discussed on hand Our Common Future's "warning" from 1986 (intended as self-defeating) and ?The Bush Disjunction? from 2001 (intended as self-fulfilling).
Finally Merton's two first most "obvious" and "pervasive" sources ignorance and errors are reconsidered in the light of the agents - overt and/or tacit - adaptation and adjustment to new conditions and motivational structures, as well as of recent insights from rational choice and game theory.