The great works of drama offer a wealth of lessons for business leaders. Shakespeare’s King Lear, for example, displays the dangers of a narcissistic, erratic leadership style. Moliere’s The Misanthrope warns against excessive, untactful honesty. This blog post focuses on Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. Building on a previous post on social systems theory, I will look at Chekhov’s play through the lens of Niklas Luhmann’s theory of society. I will look particularly at forms of social differentiation and the obstacles to cognitive processing of social system change and its implications for business leaders.
Setting the scene: Key players in Chekhov’s "The Cherry Orchard".
Chekhov’s last play, which opened in Moscow in 1904, offers a glimpse into the transition from a society differentiated by inherited social rank, or stratification, to one based on functional differentiation. In the play, the estate belonging to Madame Liubov Andryeevna Ranevskaya (note: Transliterations of the Russian names vary.) is about to go up for auction to pay the mortgage, and Ermolai Alexeyevitch Lopakhin, a merchant and son of a former serf, advises her to lease some of the family’s land, including their beloved cherry orchard, so that it can be divided up into summer villas for the new rich. Of course, Liubov Andryeevna won’t consider this option, and she and her ridiculous brother just propose borrowing more money and praying to God for help. In the end, the estate is purchased by Lopakhin and the cherry orchard is cut down.
Act 1: The need for change.
In Act 1, Lopakhin says,
Up to just recently there were only gentry and peasants living in the country, but now there are all these summer residents. All the towns, even quite small ones, are surrounded with villas. And probably in the course of the next twenty years or so, these people will multiply tremendously. At present they merely drink tea on the verandah, but they might start cultivating their plots of land, and then your cherry orchard would be gay with life and wealth and luxury. . . .
Leonid Andreyevitch Gayev, the widow’s brother, cuts him off with
Before going off to bed, the following exchange between Lopakhin, Varia (Madame Liubov’s adult adopted daughter), and Gayev takes place:
LOPAKHIN: If you think over this question of the country villas and come to a decision, let me know, and I’ll get you a loan of fifty thousand or more. Think it over seriously.
VARIA [crossly]: Will you ever go away?
LOPAKHIN: I’m going, I’m going. [Goes out.]
GAYEV: What a boor! I beg your pardon. . . Varia’s going to marry him, he’s Varia’s precious fiancée.
In Act 2, the following exchange takes place:
LOPAKHIN: I keep telling you. Every day I tell you the same thing. You must lease the cherry orchard and the land for villas, and you must do it now, as soon as possible. The auction is going to be held almost at once. Please do try to understand! Once you definitely decide to have the villas, you’ll be able to borrow as much money as you like, and then you’ll be out of the wood.
LIUBOV ANDRYEEVNA: Villas and summer visitors! Forgive me, but it’s so vulgar.
GAYEV: I absolutely agree with you.
Looking behind the scene: Social system structures that inhibit change.
It’s significant that Gayev does not directly address Lopakhin. When Gayev speaks to someone, he forms a closed social system (an interaction system) that excludes the “vulgar” businessman. Consequently, what Lopakhin says does not count as information in this closed social system; his words are registered as mere "noise." In order to be processed as actual information, Lopakhin's words would have to lie within the participants' "horizon of expectations." In other words, Lopakhin's words would have to somehow connect with what his listeners already know or what they can meaningfully respond to. It is almost as if Lopakhin is not speaking Russian or any other language the noble family understands. I say "almost" because Lopakhin's words do have meaning for the others but they don't have any information value. In social systems theory, meaning and information are quite different because an utterance can be understood as meaningful yet lack information value. An utterance with information value will elicit some kind of change in the communication system. Change is key because a "healthy" social system features continual, dynamic change.
This dramatic interaction is also a good example of the role language plays in managing change. When there is no "compatibility" between the language used by the change agent and the social system (e.g. team, organization, company) to be changed, it ends in frustration, denial and change resistance. In such a situation different social realities clash with a high potential to end in conflict.
Luhmann points to four forms of social system differentiation.
Synthesizing the work of earlier research in sociology and anthropology, Niklas Luhmann discusses four forms of social differentiation:
Segmentation: Social differentiation in archaic societies.
Segmentation was the dominant form of social differentiation in archaic, oral societies, which were made up of both similar and equal segments—lineages, clans, tribes, nations. Segmentary societies define themselves in terms of kinship or geographic areas inhabited (Luhmann 2013, 27). For segmentary societies, boundaries (geographical and kinship boundaries) are crucial, as the primary distinction is between inside and outside.
Centralization: Geographical concentration of power.
In the course of the Neolithic, or Agricultural Revolution, processes of centralization occurred that turned some geographic areas into more powerful centers and others into the periphery.
Social stratification: Families or kinship units rise above others.
Next, centralized control of resources, including arable land, water, and access to trade routes, resulted in new wealth creation and social stratiﬁcation—a process by which some families or kinship units rise above others, leading to the distinction between hereditary noble and common (Weber, 1922/1978).
Functional differentiation: Distinction of different, operationally autonomous function systems.
In the transition to modern societies—first evident in sixteenth-century city-states of Florence, Venice, and Milan, and rapidly accelerating in the second half of the 18th century—stratiﬁcation was supplanted by functional differentiation. Functional differentiation features the distinction of different and operationally autonomous function systems, including politics, the law, the economy, science, art, healthcare, education, mass media (beginning with the printing press), and religion—religion being relegated to just one function system among several.
When social systems clash and change wins.
As functional differentiation took off in the second half of the 18th century, the system of inherited social ranking, or stratification, came under serious stress. When the major function systems—the economy, politics, and law—differentiated themselves as autonomous function systems, aristocratic privilege was lost. This does not mean, however, that social hierarchies vanish and we live in classless society. It simply means that when stratification (or segmentation or centralization) and functional differentiation conflict, functional differentiation usually wins.
In Europe, the power of the Church was also greatly diminished. Henceforth, there would be, in principle, one economy, one legal system, and one political system for everyone. Top-down social control would never work the same way again. Considering the sweeping social changes, there would inevitably be some members of the nobility who could not (or refused to) process as information what was happening around them. They had no way of making sense of it. All they had left was nostalgia.
Functional differentiation arrived later in Russia than in Western Europe. Thus, Russia experienced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries what Great Britain, Germany, and France experienced at least 100 years earlier. In The Cherry Orchard, first performed in 1904, we see that Liubov Andryeevna Ranevskaya’s ancestors, though not her late husband, belonged to the nobility. Her ancestors would have lived in a stratified society for perhaps centuries, and they cannot make sense of their loss of privilege.
Denying change by drawing on moral stereotypes.
Gayev states that their rich countess aunt is unlikely to loan them money because Liubov Andryeevna married a solicitor rather than a nobleman, and Gayev associates this marriage with loose or declining morals. Having a profession is frowned upon and given a negative moral interpretation. In the following, Varia, who is Liubov’s 24-year-old adopted daughter, turns to divine help, and Gayev talks about morality.
VARIA [weeping]: If only God would help us.
GAYEV: Do stop blubbering! The Countess is very rich, but she doesn’t like us . . . First, because my sister married a solicitor, and not a nobleman. . . She married a man who wasn’t of noble birth . . . and then you can’t say her behaviour’s been exactly virtuous. She’s a good, kind, lovable person, and I’m very fond of her, but whatever extenuating circumstances you may think of, you must admit that she’s a bit easy-going morally. You can sense it in every movement . . .
The upper class, or those born into wealth, often presents those below them on the social ladder as immoral. They inevitably fall back on moral stereotypes, seeing the newcomers as lawless. But the main force that is disrupting the life of the family in the Chekhov play is the economy, not changing morals. Changing morals are just a distracting side effect. It’s not just the economy, however. Russian society, in general, was becoming more complex. Politics, education, mass media, and science also added complexity to 1904 Russia, but the only response of someone like Gayev is nostalgia and daydreaming.
Change management lessons for business leaders.
One lesson 21st-century business leaders can learn from this play is that those with long-established social privilege should listen carefully to the “upstarts” such as Lopakhin.
Use appropriate language.
Managing change is always connected to language use. Address the need to change in a way such that it connects to the "horizon of expectations" of your audience. You could, for instance, ask yourself whether there are any important historical events important for your audience you can draw into your argumentation. Is there any wording already known by your audience you can use instead of introducing a new one for a certain topic?
Understand the social structure.
Managing change requires understanding the basic structure of the social system you want to change. What types of social structures (e.g. ranks, titles, events) are the source of power? How important are specific rules, procedures and process descriptions for the organization? Once you understand those structures, you get a better understanding of which interventions "trigger" change and which ones prevent it.
Carlton Clark, PhD, is a Lecturer in the English Department at the University of Wisconsin―La Crosse, where he teaches writing and American Literature. He earned his PhD in Rhetoric from Texas Woman’s University. He is coeditor of Affect, Emotion, and Rhetorical Persuasion in Mass Communication, Routledge, 2019. He has published articles in Erfurt Electronic Studies in English, Kairos: A Journal for Teachers of Writing in Webbed Environments, Teaching English in the Two-Year College, Technological Forecasting and Social Change, and Kybernetes: The International Journal of Cybernetics, Systems and Management Sciences. He blogs on social systems theory at https://socialsystemstheory.com/.