Uncertainty absorption, decision premises and the maintenance of social control

Since a good portion of this site’s search traffic comes from terms related to uncertainty absorption, I thought I would clarify the term and show how it works in action.

Uncertainty absorption in social systems: March and Simon

In their landmark Organizations, James March and Herbert Simon pioneered the “organization as system” framework that has since become a core toolkit for the analysis of organizations, and articulated concepts like satisficing and bounded rationality that are now mainstays in sociological, psychological and economic analysis of decision-making and organizational behavior.

March & Simon treat organizational systems from the perspective of social psychology as being primarily engaged in information processing and decision-making regardless of their physical output, a generalization that allows them to focus on the path of information across such systems. One of their primary observations is that organizations look to reduce uncertainty wherever possible, often by transforming the chaos of their external environments into information that is of use within the context of the organizational system (I am drawing from Luhmann here as well, who had very similar views on the subject). This entails a filtering mechanism that operates largely at the system boundary:

Uncertainty absorption takes place when inferences are drawn from a body of evidence and the inferences, instead of the evidence itself, are then communicated….

Through the process of uncertainty absorption, the recipient of a communication is severely limited in his ability to judge its correctness. Although there may be various tests of apparent validity, internal consistency, and consistency with other communications, the recipient must, by and large, repose his confidence in the editing process that has taken place, and, if he accepts the communication at all, accept it pretty much as it stands. To the extent that he can interpret it, his interpretation must be based primarily on his confidence in the source and his knowledge of the biases to which the source is subject, rather than on a direct examination of the evidence.

They go on to point out that power in organizations (and by extension other social systems) often flows to those with access to external information and the ability to shape its communication within the system:

…the person who summarizes and assesses his own direct perceptions and transmits them to the rest of the organization becomes an important source of informational premises for organizational [ed. or system] action. …by the very nature and limits of the communication system, a great deal of discretion and influence is exercised by those persons who are in direct contact with some part of the “reality” that is of concern to the organization. Both the amount and the locus of uncertainty absorption…affect the influence structure of the organization... (emphasis in original)

March, J., Simon, H. (1993 paperback). Organizations, pp. 186-187

The broader application to social systems and the news media is both obvious and more interesting than it seems since it raises questions about the unit of analysis. We can treat the media itself as a system (as Luhmann does), but the more relevant approach here would be to treat the U.S. itself as a system. This would make the uncertainty to be avoided any possibility of divergence from the imperatives of the social system’s equivalent of management, including any possibility of instability. This approach has the added benefit of situating the press within the control structure of the system, since there is no point in uncertainty absorption for its own sake. It also moves the conversation away from less useful dichotomies of liberal vs. conservative since I’m dealing with the news (rather than editorial) operations here.

In the context, of the U.S. as a social system the press works at precisely those points where information enters the system, and it the primary provider of uncertainty absorption in the form of editing, framing and repetition. The New York Times is a perfect case for this, given its central role as the titular paper of record, as well as its past performance (e.g. the lead up to the Iraq War).

But before I get to that, there is one more idea to introduce.

Decision premises and unobtrusive control: Charles Perrow

Writing thirty years later, Charles Perrow commented and expanded on the power dynamics in March and Simon’s work in his own book Complex Organizations (the source of my earlier quote in this post).  Perrow focuses especially “the control of the cognitive premises underlying action” (p. 129) by a variety of mechanisms:

Such mechanisms affect organizational behavior in the following ways: they limit information content and flow, thus controlling the premises available for decisions; they set up expectations so as to highlight some aspects of the situation and play down others; they limit the search for alternatives when problems are confronted, thus ensuring more predictable and consistent solutions; they indicate the threshold levels as to when a danger signal is being emitted (thus reducing the occasions for decision-making and promoting satisficing rather than optimizing behavior); they achieve coordination of effort by selecting certain kinds of work techniques and schedules.

He goes on to situate this “unobtrusive control” in the context of bureaucratic rules and other mechanisms, and finds that:

But the control of premises, while far more difficult to achieve, is even more effective. Here the subordinate voluntarily restricts the range of stimuli that will be attended to (“Those sorts of things are irrelevant,” or “What has that got to do with the matter?”) and the range of alternatives that would be considered (“It would never occur to me to do that”).

Perrow, C. (1986 paperback). Complex Organizations, pp. 128-129.

The management of decision premises is parallel to Herman and Chomsky’s work on Manufacturing Consent in the media, and adds another layer to the unseen effects of uncertainty absorption in defining the scope of acceptable political behavior in social systems.

Uncertainty absorption at the Times: bold political protesters abroad, stupid criminal hippies at home

The simultaneous protests here and abroad offer a perfect case study of the media’s role in the uncertainty absorption process.  I was on the way to a meeting the other day and saw  the cover of the Wednesday Times, with its dramatic photos of protests around the world and eye-catching headline, so I bought a copy with my iced coffee. The article didn’t disappoint – it led by linking all of the protests to a common set of complaints:

MADRID — Hundreds of thousands of disillusioned Indians cheer a rural activist on a hunger strike. Israel reels before the largest street demonstrations in its history. Enraged young people in Spain and Greece take over public squares across their countries.

Their complaints range from corruption to lack of affordable housing and joblessness, common grievances the world over. But from South Asia to the heartland of Europe and now even to Wall Street, these protesters share something else: wariness, even contempt, toward traditional politicians and the democratic political process they preside over.

So far, so good. But as I read on, the framing became more obvious and (unfortunately) more obviously contrary to their approach to the same kind of events at home. In particular, note their treatment of the protesters and their methods (highlights added for the remainder of this post):

 Increasingly, citizens of all ages, but particularly the young, are rejecting conventional structures like parties and trade unions in favor of a less hierarchical, more participatory system modeled in many ways on the culture of the Web.


“You’re looking at a generation of 20- and 30-year-olds who are used to self-organizing,” said Yochai Benkler, a director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. “They believe life can be more participatory, more decentralized, less dependent on the traditional models of organization, either in the state or the big company. Those were the dominant ways of doing things in the industrial economy, and they aren’t anymore.”

Yonatan Levi, 26, called the tent cities that sprang up in Israel “a beautiful anarchy.” There were leaderless discussion circles like Internet chat rooms, governed, he said, by “emoticon” hand gestures like crossed forearms to signal disagreement with the latest speaker, hands held up and wiggling in the air for agreement — the same hand signs used in public assemblies in Spain. There were free lessons and food, based on the Internet conviction that everything should be available without charge.

Compare this to the Timestreatment of protesters at Occupy Wall Street:

When members of the loose protest movement known as Occupy Wall Street began a march from the financial district to Union Square on Saturday, the participants seemed relatively harmless, even as they were breaking the law by marching in the street without a permit.

But to the New York Police Department, the protesters represented something else: a visible example of lawlessness akin to that which had resulted in destruction and violence at other anticapitalist demonstrations, like the Group of 20 economic summit meeting in London in 2009 and the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle in 1999.

The Police Department’s concerns came up against a perhaps milder reality on Saturday, when their efforts to maintain crowd control suddenly escalated: protesters were corralled by police officers who put up orange mesh netting; the police forcibly arrested some participants; and a deputy inspector used pepper spray on four women who were on the sidewalk, behind the orange netting.

The police’s actions suggested the flip side of a force trained to fight terrorism, in a city whose police commissioner acknowledges the ownership of a gun big enough to take down a plane, but that may appear less nimble in dealing with the likes of the Wall Street protesters. So even as the members of Occupy Wall Street seem unorganized and, at times, uninformed, their continued presence creates a vexing problem for the Police Department.

The New York protesters are framed as “unfocused,” “unorganized,” and “uninformed,” indicating that they are vaguely absurd and thus not to be taken seriously. Bizarrely, they are simultaneously framed as a threat to social order. The article manages to go on to discuss the atrocious pepper spray incident in language that dissolves the emotional impact into an anodyne discussion of police policy and hypothetical statements from government officials.

But that article is nothing compared to this one from the regional section:

By late morning on Wednesday, Occupy Wall Street, a noble but fractured and airy movement of rightly frustrated young people, had a default ambassador in a half-naked woman who called herself Zuni Tikka. A blonde with a marked likeness to Joni Mitchell and a seemingly even stronger wish to burrow through the space-time continuum and hunker down in 1968, Ms. Tikka had taken off all but her cotton underwear and was dancing on the north side of Zuccotti Park, facing Liberty Street, just west of Broadway. Tourists stopped to take pictures; cops smiled, and the insidiously favorable tax treatment of private equity and hedge-fund managers was looking as though it would endure.


“This,” presumably was the opportunity to air societal grievances as carnival. Occupy Wall Street, a diffuse and leaderless convocation of activists against greed, corporate influence, gross social inequality and other nasty byproducts of wayward capitalism not easily extinguishable by street theater, had hoped to see many thousands join its protest and encampment, which began Sept. 17. According to the group, 2,000 marched on the first day; news outlets estimated that the number was closer to several hundred.

By Wednesday morning, 100 or so stalwarts were making the daily, peaceful trek through the financial district, where their movements were circumscribed by barricades and a heavy police presence. (By Saturday, scores of arrests were made.) By Thursday, the number still sleeping in Zuccotti Park, the central base of operations, appeared to be dwindling further.

It all amounts to cost-free support for protest in the rest of the world coupled with a dismissal of protest at home as unserious at best, and implicitly seditious at worst. The lesson to anyone thinking of joining the protests is clear – it is not only not worth your time, but you are also implicitly a dangerous criminal if you do.

The establishment press’ role in uncertainty absorption is equally clear in the editing of information. I heard from my partner last night that the bus drivers’ union had decided to join the New York protests, a significant development that should be part of any well-informed description of the protest.Here is Crain’s coverage (via firedoglake’s live blog):

Some of the biggest players in organized labor are actively involved in planning for Wednesday’s demonstration, either directly or through coalitions that they are a part of. The United Federation of Teachers, 32BJ SEIU, 1199 SEIU, Workers United and Transport Workers Union Local 100 are all expected to participate. The Working Families Party is helping to organize the protest and MoveOn.org is expected to mobilize its extensive online regional networks to drum up support for the effort.

“We’re getting involved because the crisis was caused by the excesses of Wall Street and the consequences have fallen hardest on workers,” a spokesman for TWU Local 100 said.

Community groups like Make the Road New York, the Coalition for the Homeless, the Alliance for Quality Education and Community Voices Heard are also organizing for Wednesday’s action, and the labor/community coalitions United New York and Strong Economy For All are pitching in as well.

As of 11:11 this morning, I could find no mention of this on the search page at the Times.

There are so many more examples but I will stop here as I think I’ve made my point.

This entry was posted in Information and systems, Organizations. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Uncertainty absorption, decision premises and the maintenance of social control

  1. Pingback: Uncertainty, fear and the media | aluation

  2. Arno says:


    First of all, thank you for investing time in the redaction of this post, it has been of much help in my understanding of the concept of “uncertainty absorption” that I had first encountered in Perrow’s book “Complex Organizations”. I was pleased to see that you also devoted part of this post to the illustration and contextualization of Perrow’s argument. Forgive my ignorance but as a foreign undergraduate student whose native tongue is not english, I find it quite difficult to shed light on what exactly Perrow hears by “premises”. I understand that a raw definition from any dictionary would go along those line: “a previous statement or proposition from which another is inferred or follows as a conclusion” but I feel that I am missing on something, it bothers me and I have the impression that I cannot fully grasp the complexity of this matter. Would you mind providing me with your understanding of this term in this context?

    Thank you very much,


  3. Anchard says:

    Hello Arno,

    I apologize for my slow response.

    What I take “premise” to mean in this context is the set of assumptions, information and beliefs you hold at the time you make a decision, and that go into your process of deciding (if you’re into stats, you could call these “priors”). Since these premises are so important, the ability to limit them by controlling what information people are able to see, and by influencing the kinds of assumptions people make about the world, is a sort of power.

    In politics, the extreme version of controlling premises is the idea that “There is no alternative” or TINA. What TINA does as a statement is to attempt to shut any other solutions out of the space of possible alternatives. It reduces all possible premises to one, or at least tries to. Margaret Thatcher used this very effectively in arguing for her policies:


    Hope that helps, and sorry again for the delay.


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