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Virtual Meaning:Problems of Interpretation in Social Sciences 

Vladimir Dimitrov and Bob Hodge

1. Introduction

2.  Observations on Social Process and the Theory of Virtual Meaning

3. Vortices of Communication as Generators of Virtual Meanings

4. The Reality of Social Complexity: A Case Study

5. Classic Sociology: The Case of Durkheim

6. Discourse Analysis and the New Social Theory

7. Postmodernism and the Crisis of Meaning

8. Virtual Meaning: Applied Aspects

9. Conclusion


1 Introduction

Our starting point is Zadeh's proposition that for computing, a 'paradigm shift' is needed in approaches to data from a traditional valuation of numbers over words, to one in which words are recognised as important tools for thinking, able to solve problems which are 'intractable when merely numerical solutions are sought' (Zadeh 1996).

In the social sciences, this shift has taken place in two phases. One is the 'qualitative' (or 'linguistic') turn, which corresponds to Zadeh's proposed paradigm shift, from the previously dominant 'positivist' empiricist tradition to a form of social analysis that draws on qualitative data, meanings, discourse, text, words and other signs. The second is the 'postmodern turn', which recognises indeterminacy, instability, approximation as endemic in contemporary social life and intrinsic to systems of meaning and interpretation. 'Qualitative' approaches have been decentred, and qualities that correspond to 'fuzzy' are part of the basis for these new approaches to the social sciences which can be grouped together under the label of Postmodern Social Theory.

The result of these parallel developments, in social theory and in theories of information and intelligence systems, is that there are exciting new possibilities for fruitful collaboration that can integrate these two areas of knowledge. Where classical ('modernist') sociology rested on assumptions about society and meanings that severely limited the scope of possible strategies of analysis and uses of computers, the newer ('postmodern') forms of social theory are highly compatible with the principles of fuzzy logic, and with ideas from chaos theory and complexity science.

In this chapter we will outline a fuzzy approach to meaning and interpretation in the social sciences, and explore how such an approach could hope to find compatible possibilities for computing with words.

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2 Observations on Social Process and the Theory of Virtual Meaning

2.1 Social Analysis and its Objects

Social processes and actions (development and deployment of concepts, opinions, judgements and expectations, the unfolding of events) change and evolve in the dynamics of real-life complexity, with outcomes that can be paradoxical and chaotic, because its dynamics are unpredictable and sensitive to changes in the magnitude and location of the relevant forces.

Many social situations and processes typically pass into a situation of criticality, an out-of-equilibrium condition where the phenomena of bifurcation, phase transition and rapid system change or system collapse occur.

The relationship between higher levels of phenomena ('macro-social') and lower levels ('micro-social', 'individual/personal') is fractal and not 'part-whole', so that 'micro-social' lower level phenomena are as complex and socially significant as 'macro-social' phenomena.

Social forces act through processes of meaning, (discourse, language, significant contexts and behaviours) and social processes can only take place through the medium of semiotic activity.

Social action always involves in some way the management of emerging complexity through ongoing systems of interpretation and intermittent systems of control. These systems of control and the systems of interpretation on which they rest normally follow one of two broad strategies:

(i) Containment strategies, where complexity is reduced by identifying linear processes, eliminating fuzziness, contradiction, ambiguity, and targeting individual elements in simple causal chains, and

(ii) Fuzzy strategies, where contradiction, indeterminacy and ambiguity is tolerated and managed.

 2.2 Virtual Meaning

The Theory of Virtual Meaning can be built on the overlap of Fuzzy Set Theory and Semiotics (or the Theory of Semiosphere).

Fuzzy set theory, as introduced by Zadeh (1965), has its roots in the social nature of human understanding. Our abilities to understand (up to a degree) have been developed through our 'being-in-common', that is, through an inevitable process of fuzzification of meaning, so that to make it understandable, acceptable and operational for a multitude of people with different mental, emotional or spiritul worldviews.

According to fuzzy set theory, meanings of words can never be precisely defined - each linguistic construct in use can be described by a set of 'degrees of freedom', i.e. ways to be understood (interpreted or transformed into action) by individuals or groups. The larger the power of this set, the richer in meaning the linguistic construct related to it.

The semiosphere penetrates all dimensions of life and consists in complexity of communication: sounds, odour, movements, colours, electro-magnetic fields, waves of any kind, chemical signals, touch, speech, etc. The semiosphere poses both constraints to the umwelt of populations (since these are forced to occupy specific semiotic niches, i.e. they will have to master a set of signs of visual, acoustic, olfactory, tactile, bio-chemical and social origin in order to survive in the semiosphere) and opportunities for their further evolution (growth, adaptation and transformation).

Main Postulates of the Theory of Virtual Meaning:

(1) The character of life is fundamentally semiotic: since living systems are mortal their survival has to be secured through semiotic rather than physical means (genetic communication through generations, communication throughout all ecological and social space)

(2) Meaning cannot be precisely defined: it is always fuzzy - it leads to more than one way of understanding.

(3) Meaning in the social sciences (meaning in action as the primary object of the social sciences) is open: it always includes virtual meaning as a potential open set of meanings arising from the different relations it may form, in different contexts, through different transformations or metaphors, at different levels and in different semiotic media.

Main Propositions in the Theory of Virtual Meaning:

(1) Virtual Meanings exert a force on a core meanings as well as being the sites where core meanings are extended, elaborated, and negotiated.

(2) Virtual Meanings act as catalysts of human creativity by activating, propelling and helping 'materialize' people's search for understanding their world.

(3) Due to the fractal structure of the semiosphere, Virtual Meanings are both 'microcosmic' expressions of larger semiotic systems and 'macrocosmic' expressions of smaller semiotic systems.

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3 Vortices of Communication as Generators of Virtual Meanings

Communication is a complex dynamic process, in which physical, emotional and mental characteristics of communicators are inseparably tangled together.

The notion of the vortex of communicationis introduced (Dimitrov 1997) in order to emphasize both this unique inseparability and the emergence of new meanings in communication process.

The study of fluid dynamics shows that the sucking ëself-organizingí force at the centre of a vortex cannot appear, unless the participating streams (e.g., masses of running water, turbulent airs, etc.) are: (1) permanently in motion, that is, in an out-of-equilibrium state, and (2) intensively interacting with each other through various feedback loops.

The streams of thoughts and feelings, expectation and hope, intentions and aspirations, expressed in verbal or non-verbal ways, are involved in the dynamics of human communication. In analogy with the sucking force of a maelstrom or tornado, the self-organising force of meaning-creation arises from the vortex of communication.

The meanings emerging from the vortex of communication are virtual - they are unknown before the act of emergence and once emerged, they open a new space for interpretation and understanding by communicators. They are meanings in dynamics - not settled beforehand, not imposed from outside the vortex, but born from within the vortex and impregnated by its whirling ëenergiesí.

One can find examples of so called ëtrivial communicationí, deprived of virtual meanings. In those examples, the thoughts and feelings, expressed in communication process, seem to be in a kind of ëstandstillí - without intellectual or emotional drive or zeal. As usual, any once-for-ever adopted conceptual stanza, habit and stereotype, as well as any ëborrowedí from outside the communication vortex viewpoints and arguments, intent to impose frozen patterns in the space of mutual exchange of thoughts and feelings. Examples of such frozen patterns are the ëgroupthinkí (strongly manifested in former East-European communist societies) and the exhaustive competition (manifested in the present Western democracies).

The unknown, felt and experienced in different ways by different individuals, serves as an activator of communication vortices and as a catalyst for emergence of virtual meanings.

It is the unknown, reflected in existential uncertainty of human life, that

In this way the unknown exerts a force for transforming communication from a mere information exchange into a creative search for virtual meanings.

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4 The Reality of Social Complexity: A Case Study

We will begin to illustrate these concepts by reference first of all to a particular case, one which is 'unimportant' in the sense that it is not out of the ordinary and has no obvious wider consequences or effects on larger social structures. Our aim in doing this is to show how the concept of virtual meaning allows us to examine complex and representative instances of social action under a powerful microscope that throws light on the constitutive elements of society itself, in the sociological equivalent of the close analysis of processes at the level of cells or chemical reactions.

4.1 Phases

Phase 1 was largely a private matter. It involved a male academic in his mid fifties who had migrated to Australia, where he lived in a small provincial town which hosts a university. The man had developed a habit of walking in the evenings, along some of the streets in this semi-rural town, and along pathways designed by the town council for precisely this purpose. One of his preferred routes took him along a road which was a cul-de-sac for cars but had a pathway for walkers opening out into a larger green area. One of the houses in this cul-de-sac was occupied by a young woman, an unemployed single parent with two children. Over a period of six months, this woman became very agitated about the activity of this man. On a number of occasions at night she heard noises which she attributed to an intruder, and summoned the police. She became convinced that the man whose habit of walking disturbed her was also responsible for the noises at night.

Phase 2 moved into the public sphere, when this woman made accusations to the police. The man was duly charged with the offences of 'stalking' and 'trespass', and the matter was heard by a magistrate. Some features of the case caught the attention of a court reporter from a national newspaper, so it entered into the next phase.

In Phase 3, details of the first day of the hearing appeared in a prominent place in the next day's issue of a paper with millions readers in Australia ("Daily Telegraph", Sydney).

In this case there is sufficient data even regarding phase 1, which often occurs outside the gaze of social theorists and public administrators. From this data it is possible to recreate the main stages and processes in phase 1. The young woman's anxieties about noises she heard at night connected with her sense of unease at the behaviour of the walker, which did not fit in with the cultural expectations of her group, who did not have the custom of walking in this way. These anxieties fed into a system of positive feedback in the small cul-de-sac community and exploded into paranoia and hysteria, creating the conviction in the woman that the walker was a threat to her safety. The anxieties of this woman as potential victim were taken up and acted on by a number of legitimate or self-appointed protectors - her mother and brother, her 'boarder' or lover and four other people. The actions they took on her behalf contributed to the sense of solidarity and community in the cul-de-sac, and gave everyone, including the young woman, a role and status.

The process from the point of view of the walker would have been an extraordinary example of dangerous paranoia if he had known about it, which for a long while he did not. But from the point of view of the cul-de-sac community it was very productive and socially bonding.

 4.2 Key-features

(1) Criticality - the situation reaches a situation where meaning follows non-rational trajectories in an increasingly turbulent space.

(2) Butterfly effect - within this kind of situation very small changes in the initial conditions produce dramatic effects of meaning, interpretation and action. So the walker, for reasons that seem unimportant at the time, follows one route rather than another. As a person from a different cultural background, there are some minor differences in his habits, perhaps his way of walking, that initially seem 'odd' but as they are inspected again and again come to seem dangerously perverse.

(3) Bifurcation - at a certain point, two separate anxieties in the mind of the woman converge, and she has a sudden certainty that the walker is a stalker, the cause of all her night-time fears. For eight other persons there is a transition point, when they too are co-opted into an experience that is not theirs (or anyone else's) but which they act on as though it were.

(4) System Collapse and the loss of reality. The cul-de-sac community closed around an agreed interpretation of reality in which there is no distinction made between what is said (by members of the community) and what anyone has seen or experienced. This dominant reality, which determines as well as arising out of their ongoing roles and relationships, is a pure discursive construct.

4.3 Generation of Virtual Meanings

The above features are of fundamental social importance, because they occur at all levels of social life. This single situation is a microcosm of processes which on a larger scale produce social prejudice and discrimination in pathologically bonded communities, where paranoia overdetermines the processes of social judgement and action, and where 'truth' ceases to be available in the constitutive public discourse.

In the second phase, this private process intersected with the legal and policing process which has the typical qualities of a normal system of control over social actions, such as this one, where 'things have got out of hand' - where either the actions of one party are declared to be intolerable and prevented, or the complaints of the other are declared to be without substance.

Police and legal action that occurred in this case contained a number of devices deliberately designed to act as negative feedback to contain the processes of discursive explosions that are well-known to activate sets of virtual meaning, which in this system are always seen as negative and undesirable.

The police used their 'professional judgement' not to respond to every complaint made by the woman. They collected statements by the various witnesses from which hearsay evidence was carefully removed by the rules of evidence, and they cleaned up the fuzzy everyday language of the complainants and replaced it with the seemingly more neutral and precise language of the police statement. In the court room, further checks continued to operate, all designed to replace the disorderly and fuzzy discursive processes of phase 1 with an idealised non-fuzzy form of discourse, in which rational (linear, objective, non-emotive) 'truth' would prevail.

However, as meanings pass from phase 1 to phase 2 they enter a situation where the discursive stakes are raised, producing its own kind of effects on virtual meanings. For instance, the terms 'stalking' and 'entering a property without lawful excuse' are not used in everyday language, and they are supposedly carefully defined in their legal sense. However, they are also situated in a conflictual context in which innumerable disputes have once again activated a whole set of virtual meanings. To 'stalk' in this context no longer means simply to follow a person. It now signifies a serious but vaguely defined criminal offence, with significant penalties. In the situation of phase 2, then, the energy contained in the virtual meanings of phase 1 is damped down and neutralised, but such elements that survive the process acquire an expanded scope in the force of their virtual meaning.

This is the sequence that precedes the third stage, the entry into media discourse. The third stage shows a similar pattern: the entry of meanings from one phase to another is carefully controlled by specific rules that aim to prevent a paper publishing anything that might prejudice a fair trial. So the newspaper account gives evidence on both sides, implying both innocence and guilt. In contrast to the requirements of legal discourse, media discourse is 'fuzzy' - it allows contradictory meanings to co-exist and its descriptions are loose and often inaccurate summaries of what was said in the court. Yet this is also a condition where virtual meaning grows and flourishes, with significant effects on all parties. The evidence of both the man and the woman is severely reduced, but this version now reaches a million readers. Photographs of the man and the woman are included, able to be inserted into a highly active set of virtual meanings (is he really a weirdo or a decent man?, is she hysterical or an unfortunate victim?) which are expanded, by the normal creative processes of interpretation of countless readers, into a set of narratives in which the truth of the matter is decided in summary ways that will often be deeply prejudicial to the reputations of one or both the key participants. Whatever the outcome of the trial, both are certain losers.

4.4 Virtual 'Resolution' of the Conflict

A genuinely 'fuzzy' alternative to this linear process would seek reconciliation and consensus, instead of pursuing the aim of legalism, to end the matter by determining who was right and therefore who was wrong, and distributing rewards and punishments accordingly. The legal method achieves an enforceable outcome, but the two sets of meanings of the two sets of participants are equally negated - the pleasure of the walker in his walking, and the anxiety and fear of the woman, leading her to an excessive dependence on a range of authority figures. In a fuzzy solution in this instance, as in the use of fuzzy logic in any turbulent social or socio-ecological situation, it is essential to introduce the two principles of non-exclusion (of options, interpretations, values) and non-isolation (of a supposed reconciled outcome).

Virtual meanings and their networks inevitably proliferate through the semiotic space of all participants. They can be controlled in some contexts but they can never be eliminated or contained. The only reliable way of managing social conflict is to work at the level of seeking integration of the virtual.

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5 Classic Sociology: The Case of Durkheim

For most of this century the dominant approach in sociology has been 'classic' ('positivist', 'modernist') sociology as represented by the work of the French sociologist Emile Durkheim, its methodological assumptions developed in Rules of Sociological Method (1964) and exemplified in his major study: Suicide (1951). This approach aspired to the status of a science of society, drawing on modernist (linear, non-fuzzy) concepts of science as the articulation of causal laws, based on inductive generalisations drawn from a large set of carefully collected empirical facts.

There are three aspects of this tradition that we need to address, in order to explore how it relates to a postmodern fuzzy set of approaches. First is its analytic method, which prioritises macro over micro levels and attempts to establish correlations among social variables. Second is its attitude to language and meaning, which is modernist and non-fuzzy. Third is its attitude to crisis and order, where disorder is seen as the greatest enemy of any social form.

5.1 Method

For Durkheim, in this tradition the primary object of sociology was the 'social fact', a pattern in social life that was above the level of the individual, a set of forces and factors conditioning behaviour, often in ways the individual was unaware of. The case of suicide was an exemplary instance. His study took what appears the most individual and asocial of acts and demonstrated regularities which connect with and express basic features of the overall social order. The theory established links between macro and micro, but it was the state of society as a whole which conditioned the individual instance.

Social analysis in the classic tradition following Durkheim sought clues about these underlying and invisible 'social facts' through correlations between observable factors. Some of these factors might be items of meaning, particular words or sentiments that could be reliably encoded and correlated with other variables, but in order to treat them in this way all fuzziness had to be removed, so that they could be treated by a standard set of statistical procedures, which can now be powerfully assisted by computers. That is, non-fuzziness in the elements of meaning under analysis was essential to the operation of this paradigm.

There is a scope here within the modernist paradigm for introducing some elements of fuzzy logic. For instance, Smithson has developed a computer program called FUZZYSTAT (FUZZYSTAT is available through its author: Michael Smithson, Faculty of Science, Australian National University, Canbera 0200, E-mail: which extends the use of statistical techniques when dealing with linguistic variables, i.e. variables which instead of numbers are characterised by words, such as 'large', 'medium', 'small', etc. described as fuzzy sets (Zadeh 1975).

Andersonís computer program FUZZYGRID (Anderson 1997) uses fuzzy sets to incorporate the ënaturalí fuzziness of human ability to discriminate between observed items into Kellyís Repertory Grid technique based on his Personal Construct Psychology (Kelly, 1955).

5.2 Meaning

The meaning in its fullest most fuzzy form as virtual meaning has a paradoxical status in Durkheim's sociology. While his rules of method attempted to control fuzziness, its goal was precisely to understand the fuzzy meanings that for him were at the heart of social life. For instance his study of suicide enabled him to identify a crisis in the condition of meaning in contemporary capitalism which he labelled 'anomie', a condition of loss of order, lack of rules, a social pathology expressed through particular types of suicide. In this process, the term 'suicide' is treated as an important index, dealt with in a way that eliminates fuzziness as far as possible, avoiding the differences introduced by fuzziness in methods of reporting (since different people might classify the particular event, the death of someone, in different ways that significantly affected the objective picture that resulted). But in contrast, the key term 'anomie' itself is a fuzzy term, bringing together a whole set of factors and meanings into a complex and undecidable whole. In this sense, we can say that 'anomie' has operated in sociology for a hundred years as a term with a powerful and extensive virtual meaning.

This is equally true of most of the important concepts in sociology, such as 'alienation', 'ideology', 'legitimacy', 'class', and of course 'society' itself, all of which are continually and extensively debated in the literature, never with any stable outcome. In a framework based on fuzzy sets, then, it would be possible to investigate these primary fuzzy categories directly, instead of leaving them to be inferred from a set of individual linear empirical studies of their supposed component variables. The goal would be to set up search techniques for the core fuzzy word, in which the scope and dynamism of its field virtual meanings would be central to the study.

5.3 Criticality

For classic sociology in the Durkheimian mould 'crisis' is typically given a negative value, opposed to order which is seen as typically good. So 'anomie' is seen as a social pathology Durkheim's work. But in terms of chaos theory, a state of criticality will always be characterised by turbulence, through which there are many different critical paths, with possible bifurcations that in some cases may lead to the transition to a different and perhaps more comprehensive state. Criticality is the precondition for creativity as well as the system-death that a sociologist like Durkheim so feared. Criticality is also the condition under which the scope of virtual meanings is massively extended. Paradoxically, Durkheim's own work illustrates this, since the unlimited plenitude of meaning of his famous and durable term 'anomie' ows much to the double point of transition in which he worked, at the boundary of modern capitalism, and at the founding moment of the discipline of sociology.

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6 Discourse Analysis and the New Social Theory

As we have said, classic sociology in the Durkheimian tradition has insuperable problems in using empirical methods to account systematically for the role of meaning in social processes, which are however indispensable in their account of society. Meaning has a more central role in the various forms of the 'verstehen' tradition in sociology, stemming from the work of Max Weber, represented by the 'Symbolic Interactionist' tradition influenced by Mead (1964), and the 'ethnomethodology' of Schutz (1972). From this view point, social reality is ongoingly constructed by the social processes of the construction of meaning. A social act is only social insofar as all of its elements are understood in particular ways by social actors.

This emphasis on meaning in the 'new' social science approach has been developed in influential ways by Foucault, whose core concept is the notion of 'discourse' as the primary site through which social relations, processes and identities are activated. Foucault understands discourse not simply as a form of communication but as a force whose chaotic potential (in our terms, its power of virtual meaning) is in constant need of control: "I am supposing that in every society the production of discourse is at once controlled, selected, organised and redistributed according to a certain number of procedures, whose role is to avert its powers and its dangers, to cope with chance events, to evade its ponderous, awesome materiality." (Foucault 1976:216)

Foucault has a conception of power that has proved influential and productive for the new (postmodern) social sciences. Foucault emphasises the study of the micro-politics of power in a set of relationships mediated through discourse and operating like a diffuse network. In this vein he writes (1978:92-3): "Power must be understood in the first instance as the multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate and which constitute their own organisation; as the process which, through ceaseless struggles and confrontations, transforms, strengthens, or reverses them; as the support which these force relations find in one another, thus forming a chain or system or on the contrary, the disjunctions and contradictions which isolate them from one another; and lastly, as a strategies in which they take effect, whose general design or institutional crystallization is embodied in the state apparatus, in the formulation of the law, in the various social hegemonies."

In this conception society and the operations of power which constitute it are a complex and diffuse set of relationships at many levels, not simply a force from above which determines everything beneath it. We believe that it will prove fruitful to see this set of relationships in terms of fractals (Mandelbrot 1982) in which self-similar structures at different levels are linked by a vortex trajectory.

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7 Postmodernism and the Crisis of Meaning

Foucault's concept of 'discourse' is a generic one which applies to all forms of communication and the production of meaning in all forms of society. But in postmodern social science there has recently been a productive concern with new technologies and forms of communication and with the new social relationships and forms of meaning and consciousness that these forms have allowed or produced. Influential here has been the provocative work of Baudrillard on the implications of the new rules of 'virtual reality' and the conditions of a society which produces and is affected by the vertiginous possibilities of cyberspace. Baudrillard is as negative about these possibilities as Durkheim was about anomie. He projects a cataclysmic collapse of the possibility of meaning itself, moving from the 'soft inferno of simulation' of 1980s communication technologies to a cancerous invasion of every part of the socio-semiotic fabric of contemporary life, which he sees organised in terms of fractals, all characterised by a self-similar vacuity in which "there is no point of reference at all, and value radiates in all directions, occupying all interstices, without reference to anything whatever, by virtue of pure contiguity" (Baudrillard 1993: 5).

With Baudrillard's apocalyptic prediction as with Durkheim's it is not essential for him to be right for his work to still be important. In his picture of the exponential expansion of 'virtual space' and its dangers his greatest value for postmodern social theory is that he is identifying a rapidly emerging and important condition of criticality of the kind that can be and has been achieved by many other technologies of communication, including verbal language and the print media. In this space of criticality, divergences and convergences, collapses and system deaths and explosions of creativity and phase transitions are equally possible paths and trajectories. It is precisely this far greater set of possibilities that needs analysis in terms of the kind of theory of virtual meaning that we propose.

For Baudrillard this point is reached only in the semiotic end-game of postmodern communications technologies, when meaning passes through a cascading set of fractal levels like a virus or cancer causing everything to implode and become indistinguishable from everything else. But in the particular case study we looked at there is a similar outcome, even though only the simplest communication technology is involved - the human voice. So it is important to note that in both instances, at the two extremes in level (a new global condition versus an everyday incident in a small community) and in technologies (latest and future technologies versus the timeless language resources of everyday life) there is an important outcome in common: total fusion of what is said and what is seen and what happened. Mediated reality constructed in language under conditions in which the processes of virtual meaning have ample scope is not only indistinguishable from 'reality', it actually takes its place. Baudrillard's 'virtual space' meets the virtual meanings of everyday discourse, and they turn out to be the same.

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8 Virtual Meaning: Applied Aspects

8.1 Fuzzy Management

In the theory of Fuzzy Management (Dimitrov 1975, 1976), the process of understanding a fuzzy instruction by an individual is described as a generation of a fuzzy set by this individual - the support of the fuzzy set (i.e. its non-zero elements) includes a number of alternative ways of interpretation of the instruction. Each alternative way is presented by a weight (rank, priority) assigned by the individual to express up to what degree this alternative way relates to the meaning of the instruction as understood by him/her. In the case when the fuzzy instruction is presented to a group of individuals, a group choice rule can be applied to map the individual meanings of the instruction (i.e. the individual ways of understanding it) into a virtual (or fuzzy) meaning that is satisfactory for the group as a whole.

According to the Incoherence Principle (Dimitrov 1983), the more certain (non-fuzzy, determine) individuals, the more uncertain (fuzzy, indeterminate) the group, and on the contrary: the more fuzzy are individuals in their ways of interpreting (understanding, executing) the meaning of an instruction, the greater is the chance for the group to negotiate a concrete (categorical, non-fuzzy) way(s) for practical execution of this instruction. Thus, the Incoherence Principle helps overcome the Arrow Impossibility Theorem establishing the impossibility of generating a 'socially satisfactory' choice function from the choice functions of individuals making up a group (society). Under fuzzy management, i.e. in the context of the virtual meanings, there is a socially satisfactory choice function mapping fuzzy individual choices into a non-fuzzy choice of the group (Dimitrov 1976).

The above result provides a sound theoretical basis for the use of innovative participatory approaches in the contemporary management practice. It serves also as a theoretical basis for seeking consensus between stakeholders with different positions (this is discussed in the next section).

Unfortunately, in Western democracies, the Incoherence Principle is often misused by the politicians: the fuzzy charisma in their speeches serves as a tool for deceptive ësellingí of policies and decisions based on hidden agenda of ideology and power. By keeping majority of people ignorant (uncertain, fuzzy) about these agenda, they try to impose (with the help of their most influential supporters) non-fuzzy ëgroupí decisions which work only for a privileged part of the society.

8.2 Virtual Consensus

In the turbidity of human interactions, consensus ceases to be a peaceful long-term commonality of stakeholders' interests. Such commonality grows on ëdeterminacyí and stability. Unfortunately, neither determinacy nor stability are features of social complexity. The more we reach for commonality in human interactions, the farther away it seems to be. "Consensus is a horizon that is never reached" (Lyotard 1984).

An irreducible indeterminacy constantly emerges when we explore more deeply both variety and uncertainty of group decision-making. Paradoxically, instead of consensus being the power house of common social action, it is 'dissensus' which operates in consensus seeking enterprise, permanently implanting chaotic vibrations in the process of communication. However, in this case chaos does not cause the communication network to dissipate. Rather, it eventually gives birth to an emerging order in the form of a new type of dynamic consensus between stakeholders: consensus for seeking a consensus.

This can be defined as a ësecond order consensusí or virtual consensus - people try to seek consensus by exploring different virtual meanings of the issues of common concern that might lead to mutual understanding and preparedness to move together - to make the next step into the fuzziness of common expectations.

It does not matter that actually achieved consensus in to-dayís dynamics is 'condemned' to be momentary and transient - what can endure in time is human anticipation and aspiration, the impulse to act together, the natural desire to interact and communicate, to share with and care for others. These are factors that bring forth virtual consensus.

Virtual consensus is a search process entirely open for emergence of new features and unpredictable situations - spontaneity is an important characteristic of this process. Any pre-imposed goals, constraints or requirements inevitably narrow the scope of the stakeholders' search.

The search for consensus by itself is a powerful generator for virtual meaning - the propelling force of this generator is stakeholders' drive to be mutually complementary in their efforts to more fully understand complexity of the issues of their concern and to find out how to act together in order to benefit from the differences in their knowledge. While conducting their inquiry, the stakeholders are aware of the irreducible fuzziness and uncertainty of this knowledge, yet they agree to explore it together and construct it anew.

Virtual consensus is inherently dynamical - not a static overlap of stakeholders' views, but interplay between their interests, motives, values, goals, positions. Virtual consensus assumes a shared acknowledgement that stakeholdersí knowledge abounds in zones of ignorance in which neither the causes nor the effects of what occurs is clear or even can be known. Also, there must be a kind of tacit agreement between the stakeholders to explore social complexity together in order to arrive at a better understanding of it, by using not only your own but each other's experience, expertise and ideas. Virtual consensus assumes an improved preparedness to act together; that is, to engage in a joint, collaborative action to work with complexity.

Dimitrov and Kopra (1997) express group preparedness to act together (PAT) as a fuzzy composition of the following three fuzzy characteristics of the stakeholders: willingness to engage in dialogue (W), trustworthiness (T) and creativity (C).

Fuzzy Logic based rules of the form "if W and T and C then PAT" have been generated and used to map the fuzzy characteristics (W, T and C) of the stakeholders into the fuzzy class of their preparedness to take actions together (PAT).

All fuzzy classes have been described using three linguistic variables: ëlowí, ëmoderateí and ëhighí. An assumption has been made that in the consensus-seeking practice, the values of the membership function to the above fuzzy classes could be assigned by a facilitator who participates (observes, facilitates, helps) in the process of search for virtual meanings as realised by participating stakeholders. A software prototype called FLOCK (Fuzzy Logic-based Consensus Knowledge) has been specially designed to help facilitators in practical realisation of this search (FLOCK is available through the Cooperative Research Centre for Waste Management and Pollution Control Ltd, High Street, POBox 1, Kensington 2033, Australia; fax: +61(2)96621971).. The program computes the degrees of (virtual) consensus between the stakeholders in any stage of negotiation and maps them into a comprehensive picture of the overall dynamics of the facilitation process.

.8.3 Political Discourse

Virtual meanings are at the very basis of politics. The fuzziness of political statements and narratives is constructed to be endlessly reproduced. The expressions politicians use are chosen with a view to persuasion and pleasing. They project an image of the politician as someone ëgoodí - likeable and close to the people, dedicated to the great principles of democracy. The fuzzy umbrella of words is used to generate virtual meanings which cover the inevitable struggle for power and compulsory deceptions inherent in it. A deliberate linguistic fuzzification is used as a tool for deceptive ësellingí of policies and decisions based on hidden agendas of ideology and power.

There are situations where the butterfly effect manifested in the virtual meanings of the political discourse can bring forth gigantic social transformations. The world still remember the initial 'tiny little' changes in the virtual meanings of the political statements used by the ruling politburo of the former Soviet Union in the mid-eighties (after the appointment of M. Gorbachev as a secretary-general of the Soviet communist party). The effects of those initial changes were shocking.

The treatment of this false face of representative politics requires a continued public disclosure of the ambiguity and deception in policy narratives and decisions as well as in the charisma and behaviour of politicians and political parties; it requires a permanent exposure and denouncement of political actions in conflict with the public interest (Dimitrov and Kopra 1997). The butterfly effect (or sensitive dependence on initial conditions), characteristic for chaotic dynamics, clearly manifests itself in the socio-political contexts of virtual meaning and can serve as a signal for organised community actions aimed at urgent socio-political changes.

People living in Western democracies know well how slight changes in the ideological platform of a political party or a politician, expressed by means of seemingly insignificant fuzzy hedges (that is, words used in the statements to intensify or dilute their degree of fuzziness, such as: 'more or less', 'very', 'quite', 'somewhat', 'slightly', 'extremely', 'positively', 'generally', 'around', 'about', 'near', etc.) can often bring forth enormous changes in the way these statements are interpreted as a basis for action.

For example, during an election campaign, politicians can promise 'to pay an increased attention to the defence potential of the state', but once in power, they can use the virtual meaning imbedded in this statement as justification of quite a large program for testing new nuclear weapons with enormous negative consequences for the life on the planet. This was the case with the French nuclear experiments in 1996. People in France and in the rest of the world energetically protested against the experiments.

Both Fuzzy Logic, with its tools for computing with fuzzy hedges (Zadeh 1975, 1991), and Chaos Theory, with its analysis of sensitivity of social dynamics (Dimitrov et al 1996), provide opportunity to grasp the virtual meanings imbedded in the political discourse and withstand its antisocial connotations.

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9 Conclusion

Social systems function in a virtual reality of meanings constantly emerging from the vortices of human communication. The dynamics of this reality is chaotic and yet subject to human action. Virtual meanings are of crucial significance in such 'real' and complex fields of social activity as management, consensus seeking and politics. By providing unique tools for computing with words as well as describing and analysing their virtual meanings, fuzzy logic expands human understanding of social complexity and thus helps humanity deal with it in a better way.

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