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unanticipated or unintended consequences (of social action)

any consequences of social action which are unintended and unforeseen by social participants. That social actions have consequences which are unforeseen by SOCIAL ACTORS is a major part of the drive to undertake sociological analysis. The same impetus was often uppermost in many forms of social thought prior to modern sociology, for example, Adam SMITH's ‘invisible hand’ of market forces, an idea taken and transformed by MARX (see also APPEARANCE AND REALITY).

An important discussion of unanticipated consequences is Robert MERTON's discussion of MANIFEST AND LATENT FUNCTIONS, and SELF-FULFILLING AND SELF-DESTROYING PROPHECY. Within Marxism and modern STRUCTURALISM the analysis of underlying realities is central. It is also present as a main objective in many other forms of sociology, including Weberian sociology (e.g. Protestants did not intend to establish modern capitalism, but according to Weber, this is one outcome of their religious orientation – see PROTESTANT ETHIC).

Among the reasons why social participants do not always intend or comprehend the implications of their own actions are:

  1. layers of unconscious and subconscious mind beneath conscious intentions, including various modes of tacit knowledge and human social competence;
  2. long chains of interdependence in and between modern societies which no one is in a position to view, still less to anticipate, in their entirety;
  3. the operation of ideological distortions, cultural HEGEMONY, etc, which hide an accurate view of social relations from some or all social participants.
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
References in periodicals archive ?
Contributing to the downward movement was an easing of supply problems, combined with weak demand for semiconductors and other electronic components after a somewhat unanticipatedly strong year in 1988.