History of Sociocracy
The history of sociocracy begins in the mid-19th century when the idea of a sociocracy developed along with the social science, sociology, the study of people in society.
A sociocracy is an organization that is governed by the “socius,” those who associate together, companions who know each other. It differs from a “democracy” in that it was intended and has developed as a method in which people work together to govern themselves. While it shares the values of democracy, equality and freedom, it is based on specific governance methods that ensure these values.
Today, sociocracy is a fully developed method of organization that can be applied to all business and social groups. It’s principles are derived from:
- The ideas of that also led to the field of Sociology
- The Quaker tradition of peace education and the equal valuing of each person.
- The best modern management theory and practices,
- Cybernetics, the science of communications and control, and
- Systems Thinking, viewing the parts and the whole and how they affect each other,
Some people use sociocratic methods because they work and others because they share the values of equality and freedom.
The Beginnings: Monarchies Are Gone, Now What?
The sociocratic idea of using something other than autocratic power to govern complex societies began in the mid-19th century when Europe and America had emerged from monarchies and the struggle to develop alternatives was…, well, still a struggle. With very few exceptions, monarchies were replaced with autocracies of one kind or another. Sometimes the autocrat was a single person and sometimes a class of people. Sometimes benevolent and sometimes oppressive. By the mid-nineteenth century it was clear that the democratic ideal on which the United States of America had been founded, and which was operative in many other counties in one form or another, was not producing equal representation for all people. Workplaces were still autocratic, often brutally so.
In the search for a more intelligent society, the word “sociocracy” was first used by French Philosopher Auguste Comte, a leader in establishing sociology as a formal study. He called for a society governed by sociologists who could balance humanism and critical analysis to set social and economic policy by using scientific methods and not personal power.
The root word for both “sociology” and “sociocracy” is from the Latin, “socius,” which means associate or companion. Sociology is the study of companions or social groups. Sociocracy is governance by companions, or society as a whole.
While others besides Comte spoke of a sociocracy, notably renowned American Sociologist Lester Frank Ward, there were no attempts to establish a sociocracy until the twentieth century.
The First Sociocracy
When WW II began to engulf Europe, the first practical application of a sociocracy was achieved. Before the war, Dutch educator Kees Boeke and his wife, English educator Beatrice Cadbury, had been active internationally in Quaker peace education, predominantly in the Middle East, particularly Palestine. Boeke’s efforts to convince Hitler to adopt more peaceful methods failed and he was deported from Germany. The Boeke’s returned to Bilthoven, a small community near Utrecht in The Netherlands. Needing a school for their children and to continue teaching, they started the Children’s Community Workshop and began applying Quaker egalitarian principles to its governance. The developed the first sociocratic organization in which everyone participating in determining how they would live and work. The school grew to 400 students in 1945 with the teachers and students continuing to work together as equals to develop and manage the school, making decisions by consensus.
Although confined to the Netherlands and arrested by the Germans, Kees Boeke continued to write about the abuses of power that were becoming evident in democracies. His most well known essay is “Sociocracy: Democracy as It Might Be.”
A Sociocracy for Business
It was a graduate of the Boekes’ school, Dutch Engineer Gerard Endenburg, who discovered how to implement sociocratic ideals in the governance of a large organization in a competitive, results-oriented context. Endenburg’s family owned an electrical engineering company and in 1968, he became managing director. As an engineer, he found it frustrating that he could design remarkably successful electrical and mechanical systems but in managing people, it seemed impossible to produce satisfactory results for everyone—managers, workers, and investors. He knew from his own experience and the Boekes’ teachings that everyone’s needs had to be addressed in order to create a highly productive organization. Anything else was self-defeating.
While teaching radar technology in the Army, Endenburg had become interested in cybernetics which studied the ways that systems self-regulate, how they manage themselves successfully by self-correcting in response to a changing environment. Could cybernetic principles be applied in business?
In 1970 Endenburg reduced the size of his company from 160 to 100 employees and began using it as a laboratory to experiment with a new way of managing a business. His goal was to produce the same environment of harmony and self-directed achievement that he had experienced at school. The negative spirit of competition that he had found in the university and in the army, he found present and intolerably counter productive in his business.
Over the next few years, step by step, Endenburg developed the sociocratic circle method based on the now famous four principles: consent decision-making, circles of equivalent persons for policy making, double linking between circles, and consent elections to functions and tasks.
After ten years of experience with implementing ideas, evaluating the results, making corrections, and starting over again, Endenburg had developed a revolutionary method for organizing and managing businesses, associations, and even civic organizations. His method was more than ideas as Comte’s and Ward’s had been, and more than Boekes’ school with its important but limited goals of group support and personal achievement. In a demanding, fast-paced business Endenburg had produced an organization that was, harmonious, self-regulating, and highly successful, that could be replicated.
In 1995 when Endenburg stepped down as managing director, the company, still at 110 employees, had an annual income of fl 14 million, approximately US $5.6 million.
The First Sociocratic Centers
In 1978 Endenburg had established the Sociocratisch Centrum in Utrecht (now in Rotterdam) and began consulting with other organizations that wanted to implement the sociocratic circle method. He also began training consultants who travelled to The Netherlands to study with him and joined the faculty of the school of business at the University of Maastricht.
Endenburg continues to be active in both the Centrum, as a consultant, and in decisions related to the growth of sociocratic organizations world-wide. They include national and international associations, building and manufacturing companies, health care services, public school systems, villages, private schools, Buddhist monasteries, software companies, residential communities, colleges, a wholesale florist provider, veterinary offices, and consulting firms.
There are consultants working internationally to help organizations implement the method, and a growing number of publications and websites. A network of sociocratic organizations, including SocioNet in the United States, is being formed to increase general awareness of sociocratic principles and methods.
(Note: Socialism, which advocates centralized ownership and distribution of wealth by the state, is unrelated to sociocratic thought.)