The Competitiveness of Nations in a Global Knowledge-Based Economy

Kenneth Boulding

The Image:

Chapter 5 -The Public Image and the Sociology of Knowledge

University of Michigan Press, 1956, 64-81.

THE IMAGE NOT ONLY MAKES SOCIETY, society continually remakes the image.  This hen and egg process is perhaps the most important key to the understanding of the dynamics of society.  The basic bond of any society, culture, subculture, or organization is a “public image,” that is, an image the essential characteristics of which are shared by the individuals participating in the group.  It is with the dynamics of the public image that we shall chiefly be concerned in this chapter.  We must not suppose, of course, that society has no influence on private, unshared images or that these unshared images have no influence on society.  Indeed, every public image begins in the mind of some single individual and only becomes public as it is transmitted and shared.  Nevertheless, an enormous part of the activity of each society is concerned with the transmission and protection of its public image; that set of images regarding space, time, relation, evaluation, etc., which is shared by the mass of its people.

A public image almost invariably produces a “transcript”; that is, a record in more or less permanent form which can be handed down from generation to generation.  In primitive nonliterate societies the transcript takes


the form of verbal rituals, legends, poems, ceremonials, and the like, the transmission of which from generation to generation is always one of the principal activities of the group.  The invention of writing marks the beginning of the “disassociated transcript” - a transcript which is in some sense independent of the transcriber, a communication independent of the communicator.  As we have already noticed, the transcript of society has been in process of rapid development and elaboration in the past few centuries.  Beginning with the inventing of printing, and especially with the coming of the camera, the movie, the phonograph, and the tape recorder the elaboration of the transcript has proceeded to the point where an enormous number of aspects of life and experience can be recorded directly.  There are still large parts of the image, however, which can only be transcribed in symbolic form. Generations yet unborn may be able to see President Eisenhower in three-D as he appeared to the present-day observer.  They will be able to hear the exact cadences of his voice as well as read the words he has written.  We are still, however, unable to record touch, taste, or smell.  We have no direct means of transcribing sensations, emotions, or feelings except through the crowded channels of symbolic representation.

An effective transcript has a great effect in creating a public image, that is, in ensuring that the images of the various individuals who have access to the transcript are identical or nearly so.  As an example of the building-up of a public image through the development of a transcript we might consider the formation of maps.  The spatial image can be transcribed very briefly and commodiously in the form of a map.  The map itself, however, has a profound effect on our spatial image.  When we look at the crudely constructed charts of the South Sea


Islanders they mean very little to us because we visualize the sea as a plain blue surface dotted with multicolored dots which we interpret as islands.  The South Sea Islanders probably visualize their space in a somewhat different way in terms of the things you have to do to get from one place to another, the stars you have to observe, the directions you have to go, the courses you have to keep.  Instead of being a plain blue surface their space is a series of intersecting lines.  The Romans had only vague ideas of the shape of their own empire. They knew pretty well, however, how far it was from Rome wherever they happened to be, and their maps indicate this spatial conception.  The maps of the Middle Ages show the world centering in Jerusalem.  The shapes were unimportant.  The theological symbolism was the vital thing.  With the coming of surveying, trigonometry, and accurate measurements the map becomes an exact representative of the bird’s-eye view.  The invention of latitude and longitude reduced the multidirectional space of earlier days to two simple directions, north-south, east-west.  The gradual exploration of the globe leads to a closure of geography.  This has profound effects upon all parts of the image.  Primitive man lives in a world which has a spatial unknown, a dread frontier populated by the heated imagination.  For modern man the world is a closed and completely explored surface.  This is a radical change in spatial viewpoint.  It produces effects in all other spheres of life.

We learn our geography mostly in school, not through our own personal experience.  I have never been to Australia.  In my image of the world, however, it exists with 100 per cent certainty.  If I sailed to the place where the map makers tell me it is and found nothing there but ocean I would be the most surprised man in the world.  I hold


to this part of my image with certainty, however, purely on authority.  I have been to many other places which I have found on the map and I have almost always found them there.  It is interesting to inquire what gives the map this extraordinary authority, an authority greater than that of the sacred books of all religions.  It is not an authority which is derived from any political power or from any charismatic experience.  As far as I know it is not a crime against the state nor against religion to show a map that has mistakes in it.  There is, however, a process of feedback from the users of maps to the map maker.  A map maker who puts out an inaccurate map will soon have this fact called to his attention by people who use the map and who find that it violates their spatial image derived from personal experience.  The map maker usually places a high value on accuracy, that is, upon not receiving any such adverse criticism.  This high valuation upon accuracy may be derived from purely internal standards of workmanship.  A map maker who is caught out in an error suffers from internal devaluation of his own skill and therefore of his own person.  There may also, of course, be external sanctions.  The map maker who puts out inaccurate maps will find it hard to sell them, at least if he makes claims for accuracy.  A few years ago a department of the United States government put out a map of the United States in which through the inadvertency of the draftsman a considerable portion of what is officially Texas was assigned to Mexico.  The map had hardly been published before the indignation of Texans reached such a volume that it was hastily withdrawn from circulation.

Even the map, which is apparently the most “factual” of all transcripts, may have strong elements involving other parts of the image.  This is particularly true of po-


litical maps which one sometimes thinks are one of the principal sources of international conflict.  A serious international situation was caused in Central America not long ago when one of the countries issued a stamp showing a map which represented its territorial ambitions rather than its territorial realities.  It has been seriously suggested that the history of World War I was profoundly affected by the fact that in school atlases of the old German Empire the United States and Germany each occupied a single page.  This led to a serious underestimate on the part of the Germans of the size and capacity of the United States.

The public image of time is enormously affected by the nature of the transcript of the society.  In primitive societies where the transcript consists mainly in oral tradition, the transmission of which is difficult, there is great fear of a change in the transcript.  The emphasis is upon the transmission of the heritage from one generation to another, unspoiled, unsullied, and unaltered by the events of the day.  The time image of nonliterate societies therefore has a strong tendency to be circular in character.  Its basic notion is not that of succession but that of appropriateness, of the “right” time to do this or that.  With the written transcript comes history and the learning of history in formal education.  This is again a factor of great importance in determining the whole image of the individual.  One of the main purposes of national educanon is to distort the image of time and space in the interests of the nation.  The school atlases have one’s own nation large and others small.  The school history books have the history of one’s own nation large and of others small.  It is the history teachers above all who create the image of the Englishman, the German, the American, or the Japanese.  This also is an important source of war.


The writers of history also have a license which the map makers do not have.  Map makers are continually checked by the fact that it is possible to travel through space.  Historians are free from this particular form of feedback because of the fact that we cannot travel through time.  An error in a history book, therefore, cannot be rectified by personal experience.  We cannot go back to Henry VIII and ask him if he really had six wives in the way that we can go to Australia and see with our own eyes that there is a continent where the map makers say there is.  The records of time can only be checked against other records of time, and many of these records are irretrievably lost.  The task of the historian is always to make bricks without straw, to make what he believes are correct images of the past from an extremely imperfect sample of recorded data.  It is no wonder that history is so phenomenally subject to abuse, that it becomes the agent of propaganda, and also that it is so continually being rewritten.

One of the most interesting things about history is the history of history, that is, the way in which the discovery of new records and the reinterpretation of old ones continually modifies the image of the past.  Two examples may be noted.  The discovery of the documents of Greece and Rome, or perhaps one should say their rediscovery, for the West at the time of the Renaissance had a profound effect not only on the view of history but also on the whole image, temper, and spirit of the age.  In a very real sense the classical past was relived in the Renaissance.  Another example is the effect of the discovery of the Egyptian papyri on the interpretation of the New Testament.

The relational image also is largely transmitted by the transcript.  In primitive societies and to some extent in


all societies, this takes the form of proverbs and wise sayings handed down from parent to child and even more from grandparent to grandchild.  Part of the relational image, of course, comes through direct experience.  It is not quite so inaccessible as the image of the past.  The burnt child receives a vigorous message from nature regarding the relationship between heat and pain.  The unburnt child, however, likewise dreads the fire because it has been taught to do so by its elders who speak with the voice of authority.  Probably by far the larger portion of our relational image comes with the authority of the transcript not with the authority of experience.  For this reason it is possible for the relational image to exhibit wild and fantastic growth especially in primitive cultures where the complexity of the relational image prevents it from being directly verified by experience.  The value system which places high value upon messages which conform to the tradition, that is, to the transcript, operates to select those messages which conform to the transcript and to reject those which contradict it.  From these forces superstition is born.  Particularly where the relational image gives as causes acts and duties on the part of the individual that are all too easily neglected it is constantly confirmed by messages.  The relational image that those whose heart is pure will have the strength of ten is constantly being verified by the plainly observable relation that the weak are no Galahads.  If it is believed that the crops will not grow unless magical ceremonies are performed every failure of the crops will be met by a rewarding searching of the heart, for on reflection something will be found to be wrong with every ceremony.

It is the peculiar glory of science that it has systematized the growth of the relational image within its subculture in a way that enables it to tread lightly over


the relational quicksands of common sense.  Where connections are constant and functions are stable science can find them.  By measurement, careful observation, controlled experiment, and statistical methods science explores the relational world with much the same kind of feedbacks that guide the map maker.  The scientist who proclaims a relation is in much the same position as the map maker who issues a map.  He is in danger of being put to shame by anyone who cannot find the relation that he has announced.  Science, however, buys its success at a price; indeed at a high price.  The price is a severe limitation of its field of inquiry and a value system which is as ruthless in its own way in the censoring of messages as the value system of primitive man.  Messages which will not conform to the subculture are condemned as illusion.  Furthermore, the world of the scientist is the world of the repeatable, the world of the probable.  The rare occurrence, the nonrepeatable event, the unanswerable question elude him.

That part of the relational image which deals with the relations among persons is peculiarly subject to strange dynamic instability arising out of the fact that persons themselves are to a considerable extent what their images make them.  Because the image is a creation of the message people tend to remake themselves in the image which other people have of them.  Personal relations, therefore, involve an extremely complex action and reaction of image upon image.  If I think that Mr. A is a mean and surly individual I will treat him in such a way that he will become meaner and more surly.  If I think he is a good fellow I will treat him in such a way as to increase his affability.  So there is opportunity here for fantastic dynamic series of misinterpretation, misunderstanding, frustrations, and breakdowns.  We must reckon with the


fact that in passing from one person to another messages become strangely transformed.  My friend lets fall an innocent remark which I interpret falsely as being hostile and before we know where we are my action and his reaction and my reaction have made us enemies.  We are dealing here with a world of mirrors and it is often hard to see what is being reflected.

The impact of society on the image is nowhere more apparent or more important than in the value image.  We may suppose, of course, that there is a basic “biological” value image which is built into the organism by its genetic constitution.  The process of natural selection alone would justify some such assumption.  An organism which put a high value on pain, hunger, and self-immolation would be somewhat unlikely to survive in the course of the evolutionary process.  The modern psychologist assumes that these biological values exist in the form of certain elementary drives, hunger, thirst, pain, fear, and sex.  The specific forms which these drives take, however, are elaborated and varied almost beyond belief by the baroque processes of acculturation.  Indeed, what might be called the acquired values in many cases dominate the biological ones.  Because of their hunger and thirst after righteousness men willingly endure the hunger and thirst of the body, chastity, pain, torment, and even death itself.  Survival is not the highest human value.  One doubts, indeed, whether it is even the highest value in the biological world.  One suspects that survival is frequently a byproduct of the play of genetic forces.  It is by the willingness to risk death that both men and animals gain life.

For most people there can be little doubt that the value image is mainly a product of a transcript.  Education in most societies is a matter of harnessing the biological


drives in the interests of establishing the value system of a society.  By constant reiteration these acquired values become internalized and acquire the same status in the image as the biological values - or perhaps even a superior status.  The ceremonial life of society largely centers around the reinforcement of the acquired value system.  By investitures, coronations, graduations, reunions, and festivals, and even by weddings and funerals, we get together to give ourselves mutual encouragement by the making of solemn affirmations.  From early childhood we are surrounded by an impressive symphony of declarations, commandments, dedications, confirmations, resolutions, and reaffirmations.  By dint of much speaking the transcript is heard.

It is not by ceremonial and formal instruction alone, however, that value images are created.  In our consideration of the dynamics of the value image we must not forget the extreme importance of the small face-to-face group, especially the group of the individual’s peers.  In every society there seems to be a ceremonial value image which is transmitted by the official and formal institutions of the society; there seems also to be, however, an informal value image which is often much more important in governing the actual behavior of an individual.  It is this informal image which is transmitted by the peer group and also very often by the family.  The value system of the schoolboy, of the street-corner society, of the student, of the soldier, or of the executive is often markedly different from that which is invoked from the rostrum or sounded from the pulpit.  The sanctions of the peer group, however, are usually much more effective on the individual than the sanctions of superiors.  This is the basic explanation of the persistence of crime in the face of organized law and the persistence of sin in the face of


preaching.  We rapidly learn to order our images in the way that the gang orders them because of the extremely low value we place on exclusion and loneliness.  We can bear everything except not to be borne by others.

In the intimate face-to-face relationship of the family we find also an important source of acquired values.  Because of the dependence of the child on the parent the child quickly learns to value things in the way that the parent does.  As in all interpersonal relationships, however, we find in the family too a “vicious dynamic” frequently at work.  We are what we are because of the way our parents treated us, because of what they did to us.  What parents do to children, however, is very frequently a result of what children do to parents.  The child is less socialized, is more of an animal than the parent.  It cries when it is hurt, roars when it is angry, and exhibits an unrestrained naturalness of behavior.  Any adult who behaved in a way that it is perfectly natural for any child to behave would soon find himself in a mental hospital.  He would not be tolerated by society.  Because children are children, however, they must be tolerated.  The price of this toleration, however, is that they get to be treated in a way that makes them deplorably like their parents when they grow up.  So, parents breed parents forever, in a vicious circle which can be broken only by outside forces.

In the last paragraph we have been clearly hovering over the abyss of the Freudian subconscious.  Of all the parts of the image the value system is most likely to sink into this underworld where the scanning focus of consciousness cannot penetrate except at twenty-five dollars an hour.  Value systems are themselves valued, and the low-valued ones get pushed firmly into the basement and the trapdoor is shut down upon them.  There, how-


ever, they have their revenge.  They devise secret ways of intercepting the messages that come to our doors.  They distort the messages which go out from us.  They creep up the back stairs at night in our dreams.  They frustrate our will.  They distort our self-image and ultimately they may destroy our whole personality.

In considering the dynamics of the public image it will not suffice to focus our attention solely on the ceremonial and traditional means of imposing the image.  Nor will it suffice to concentrate on the transcript.  Nor will it suffice to deal merely with the face-to-face group.  All these elements account for the persistence of the image but do not adequately account for its change.  To a very large extent change in the image comes about through the impact on society of unusually creative, charismatic, or prophetic individuals.  These individuals represent, if we like, mutations in the image.  They do not follow in the footsteps of their parents.  They question the sanctity of the transcript and they defy the sanctions both of their superiors and of their peers.  How these individuals originate and how they exercise their influence on the images of others is a profound mystery.  Nevertheless, it is a “fact,” that is, it is part of the sophisticated image of society.  Often the names and records of these individuals are lost.  We know them only by their work.  The origin of the images of ancient gods, like the origins of agriculture and the domestication of plants and animals, is lost to record.  We can only guess, however, that behind every culture there are heroes.  In historic times we know who many of these heroes are.  It is not unreasonable that our image of time is studded with great names.  Abraham and Moses, Homer and Hesiod, Buddha and Jesus, Paul and Mohammed, Galileo and Newton, Marx and Einstein.  Lest we think that all the great are good, let us add Caesar


and Constantine and Napoleon and Hitler.  These are the “nucleators,” the bearers of viable mutant images.  These are the founders of nations, churches, societies, businesses, unions, and universities.  These are the true entrepreneurs of society.

As in the biological world, we see only the mutants that survive.  The world is full of frustrated geniuses, unheard prophets, and unsung heroes, both inside and outside our mental hospitals.  Without this mutation of the image, however, society would rapidly settle down to an equilibrium which might not be featureless but which would certainly be stagnant.  Many societies, indeed, have done so.  Most primitive societies exhibit at least a moderate degree of stability in the image that is transmitted from generation to generation.  Even some quite complex civilizations like that of Mohenjo-Daro seem to have been able to suppress all change for nearly a thousand years.  Evolution, however, is patient, and change is largely irreversible.  We can never go back to any of our Edens.  Under the impact of the creative and prophetic powers of the human race the old image constantly changes, giving place to the new.  A message comes that speaks with authority reorganizing the images of a whole society from the inside out.

We may not be able to say very much about the appearance of the mutant images.  Sometimes the time seems to be ripe and there is no harvester.  Sometimes there is a harvester and no harvest.  It would seem to carry historical determinism, for instance, to the point of absurdity to argue that if Hitler had had the good fortune to die in infancy another exactly like him would have arisen to perform the function which he performed.  Sometimes it is not the single individual but rather the chance combination of individuals which produces the striking effect.


Thus, the sticks which could never burn separately break into a blaze when they are brought together.  Had it not been for Saint Paul the history of Christianity would have been greatly different.  A Boswell must find his Johnson and the Johnson his Boswell.  A Luther must find his princes, a Newton his Royal Society.  The talents of many a Gilbert and many a Sullivan must have sputtered out in deserved obscurity because they did not happen to meet the right collaborator.

Nevertheless, in spite of the importance of chance and in spite of the mutational nature of changes in the public image, one cannot avoid the impression that, looking over the long course of recorded history, there is an orderly development in the public image as recorded in the transcript of successive civilizations and generations.  We see this very clearly in the spatial image where early images can always be seen as partial and unclear expressions of later and more exact images.  From man’s image of himself as standing at the center of a small three-storied locality to his image of the four-dimensional relativistic continuum of space and time there is a record of continuous orderly expansion and growth.  It is a record characterized by some extravagances and blind alleys.  There are still many people who believe that the earth is flat.  There are even people who believe that they live on the inside of a hollow sphere.  The change in the image comes in mutations, through a Ptolemy, a Copernicus, an Einstein.  The over-all development, however, is neither random nor haphazard.  The earlier images can almost all be seen as special cases of the later.  This is the great test of the developing image in all spheres.

As we trace the image of time also we see a similar orderly development.  Here the change in the image takes place mainly through the discovery and development of


new records - records in documents, records in rocks, records in carbon 14.  The new images, however, are seen as extensions and modifications of the old.  The time image of Genesis may be a little weak on measurement, but it is not bad on the order of events!

The relational image likewise exhibits an orderly development through time.  We see this most clearly perhaps in mathematics, the purest form of the relational image.  New mathematics does not displace the old.  The old is almost invariably seen as a special case of the new.  Algebra generalizes the operations of arithmetic.  The calculus generalizes some operations of algebra.  The theory of games is a generalization of the theory of simple maximization.  In physics Newtonian mechanics is seen as a special case of the mechanics of relativity.  In economics the Keynesian system is easily seen as the generalization of the classical system.

One can hardly escape the impression that the growth of the public image is an orderly process of development, almost one might say from within.  The tree of knowledge unfolds in good order and proper succession, first the blade and then the ear, first the trunk and then the branch.  It cannot be denied also, however, that the growth of the public image is profoundly affected by disturbances and conditions which are outside the internal structure of this growth.  The tree of knowledge may grow from within, but it is also constrained from without.  It is bent by storms or encouraged by sunshine in one direction or another.  Values are the food of knowledge, and knowledge like any other organism moves toward that part of a possible field of growth where the values are highest.  We shall not be surprised, therefore, to find that there is “sociology of knowledge.”  The messages which come from nature have an urgency, an insistence,


and an authority in and of themselves which are not possessed by messages which come from the transcript no matter how weighty the book nor how authoritative the lecturer.  It is not surprising, therefore, to find that in an age of clocks Newton fashions the universe in the likeness of an orrery or even that Leibnitz should conceive the incredible notion of the parallel clocks of the physical and mental universes.  It is not surprising also that in an age of rapid economic development and extraordinary population increase Darwin should think of evolution and natural selection under conditions of competition and should build an image of the whole history of the earth in the likeness of nineteenth-century England.  It is not surprising also that the Bell Telephone Corporation should be the father of information theory or that a world hovering on the edge of automation should produce the science of cybernetics.

All that this means, however, is that the growth of the public image is part and parcel of that larger growth of organization and society.  There is no point in getting into a hen versus egg controversy.  The egg theory of hens is just as good as the hen theory of eggs.  The causal relationships of historical development are too complex to be caught in a catchword.

It is not fanciful, however, to detect pathological relationships at certain times and places in history between the public images and the rest of the social universe.  Curiously enough, it is often the most successful images that become the most dangerous.  The image becomes institutionalized in the ceremonial and coercive institutions of society.  It acquires thereby a spurious stability.  As the world moves on, the image does not.

A brief scanning of the historical record calls many such cases to mind.  The image of Chinese society became


so firmly institutionalized in the family that it took a major revolution to upset it, if it indeed has really been upset.  The powerful, unifying, monistic and yet tolerant image of the early days of Islam hardened into a self-perpetuating repressive orthodoxy and a fossil culture.  Orthodoxy and capricious power nipped the growing bud of Islam and another branch of human society became the leading shoot.  Marxism represents another fossil image, understandable and not wholly unappropriate in its day and capable like Islam of reorganizing whole cultures.  Marxism too, however, exhibits marked signs of fossilization.  It too has become a sterile orthodoxy maintained by the coercive power of the state.

History is so full of these dead branches of the tree of knowledge that we may well wonder with some trepidation whether our own society will be exempt from what seems to be the almost universal law.  There are signs in our own society of a lack of self-confidence in our political images and a desire to maintain them by violence and coercion.  This, however, means the cessation of growth.  Science is still young.  One wonders here also, however, whether this too is not a phase of growth which will come to an end.  Science can only flourish in an atmosphere of freedom and uncoerciveness.  By its very development, however, the scientific subculture cuts itself off from the society around it.  Already there are ominous signs in our society of a revolt against science on the part of those who feel themselves bewildered and frightened by its unintelligible and yet seemingly magical powers.

There are those, of course, who see salvation in the development of the social and behavioral sciences.  I cannot, I regret, share this optimism.  These sciences can all too easily play into the hands of the manipulators.  It is by


no means clear that self-consciousness in all things leads to survival, much less to heaven or to Utopia.

It is the vitality, not the particular direction of the tree of knowledge which makes for hope in the whole course of time.  It always seems to have a growing shoot somewhere.  If one shoot dies another takes over.  In growth we trust!