Standard Operating Procedures (SOP)

Standardization, division of labour, assembly and time lines, formalized in the development of industrialism, became the operational procedures of all institutions and huge bureaucracies were created based on standardization of human interactions. Breaking down processes into parts – analysis – then creating and assembling them – synthesis – are principles that inform the way in which our lives are organized.

In The Third Wave, Alvin Toffler describes processes as ‘structures” with component parts ... “hammered and bolted together” to form systems. For example, the system (machinery) of representation in government consists of the following component parts that are integrated as on an assembly line in a huge factory: “1. Individuals armed with a vote; 2. Parties for collecting votes; 3. Elected representatives; 4. Legislatures (parliaments); 5. Executives (Presidents, Prime Ministers, etc.) who [feed] raw material into the lawmaking machine in the form of policies, and then [enforce] the resulting laws.” (85)

Systems become reified and once one enters a system one is carried along by its momentum. Locked into its logic, it becomes difficult to challenge the process. The system’s standard operating procedures (SOP) take on greater significance than the individual.

For instance:

if you develop breast cancer, you are into a cycle of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, medication for five years, annual mammograms and blood tests. These are standard procedures and apply irrespective of individual differences.

If your child is missing and you ask for assistance from the police, they refer to standard procedures: no assistance for 48 hours.

The logic of systems is to be found in SOP and may or may not meet individual needs. In Schools, for example, knowledge is broken down into levels, from Grade 1 to Grade 12 and into disciplines – science, arts, languages, etc, and further into subjects – maths, physics, chemistry etc. Subjects are assembled into curriculum packages.

A pupil in a school, the consumer of packaged knowledge, is also raw material that has to be processed, i.e., fitted with standardized knowledge along the assembly line of Grades and curricula. We take for granted this form of acquiring knowledge. We accept the logic of starting in Grade 1 and proceeding to Grade 12 and the curriculum that is organised to place us at different levels and in different categories. We also accept assessment procedures that enable us to move from grade to grade. Assessment is a measure of the extent to which a learner absorbs and conforms to packaged knowledge.

All are treated as the same. This view of equality is simply compliance with standardization. For instance, if a pupil is interested in the arts and the sciences, there is usually no package at school that allows for this dual interest. Standardization which treats all people as the same, reduces the complexity of the individual and places her into categories – reducing her to type – small, medium, large, extra-large for example. Psychiatry is the means we have devised to assist those who deviate from norms (SOP) to fit into standard patterns of behaviour.

We do not question the logic that informs the functioning of organizations and institutions and of society as a whole. Thus, as in school where assessment procedures determine whether we are at the top or bottom in our compliance with SOP, in society we become fixed in its hierarchical structuring. Power is at the top echelons of systems where managers are responsible for maintaining SOP. At the lowest level are workers, learners, ordinary citizens who are made to conform to SOP.

The division of work into graduating steps along an assembly line, gave rise to a new class system. Those at the lower levels of processes came to be regarded as less capable and those at higher levels as highly competent. That led to the development of a class system based on function and prejudice is standardized in terms of work levels. Managers are the upper classes and workers the lower classes. TV shows, such as Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey, which clearly demonstrate this, are mistakenly understood as depicting a past era. In the film, Remains of the Day, the butler played by Antony Hopkins is asked to give his opinions of international and fiscal policies and he cannot. He is made to seem a fool when really it is just that he has been programmed differently from the “gentleman” questioning him. He understands perfectly SOP of service and that is where his expertise lies but service is looked down upon because it is lower down on the hierarchy of social functions.

Though the movement between classes in the modern day, is much easier, the structure of classes still obtains. Though standardization is based on an understanding of equality, division of labour promotes inequality. Despite our insistence on equality, the work one does determines one’s position in the social and political hierarchy. A manager’s salary is not the same as a worker’s. There is no such thing as equality; human beings are individuals with different abilities and we pride ourselves on our capacity to rise above others. So the processes of standardization based on sameness, are only there to help facilitate the running of society and its organs. When the individual becomes aware of the mechanisms that preserve society, the individual can understand the choices that are open to her.

In South Africa, in the wake of colonization came industrialization; colonists became managers; the colonized became workers. As managers and workers were of different races, prejudice became standardized along racial lines, and led to incipient separate development. Apartheid, a logical development from industrialized colonialism, formalized separate development. All institutions under apartheid adopted standard operating procedures based on racial prejudice and all people living in South Africa became locked into a system of racial difference. Everyone, whether forced or not, operated in terms of racial perceptions. It was standard operating procedure. Racism is simply a different manifestation of the class system, i.e., the classification of work as hierarchical – managers being of the upper class and workers of the lower class. And racism obscured the reality of prejudice that arises from differentiation of function.

As long as people see racism simply as personal prejudice, they will continue to believe that it is just a matter of changing the attitudes of people. But racism and classism derive from being in community. Community translates into living and working together and that requires organization. Organization leads to the development of systems of administration with organisers taking on leadership roles, i.e the development of hierarchies of functions. Even in the the most basic communities, there is a chief and a council of elders. A family is a hierarchical structure. Schools are hierarchical structures and learners soon discover their places in the hierarchy through assessment procedures which place those who score highly at the top and those who do not at the bottom.

We may stop thinking of people in terms of race but we can never stop thinking of people in terms of their competence and positions in society. And those at the top will always look down on those below and those below will always aspire to getting to the top. The only way to be free of prejudice is to abandon community and that is not possible.

In This puppet is no free speech hero, an article about a spat between Conrad Koch and Steve Hofmeyer over racism, Sharmini Brookes writes: “Hofmeyr’s comment [Sorry to offend but in my books Blacks were the architects of Apartheid. Go Figure.] may have been offensive to some, but most people would not have taken it seriously. To me, it came across as a coment from an embittered Afrikaner about how, 25 years after Apartheid, South African society is still very much defined by race. In fact, Hofmeyr campaigned for the African National Congress (ANC) in the Nineties, alongside my mother, who was then the mayor of Midrand.” (Spiked, 5 December 2014)

I sent Brookes the following email: “It’s too bad we can’t get beyond racism, which is only a symptom of a system that is founded on division. It’s the system that needs changing.”

And Brookes answered:“Yes but before the system can change, we need to change the way people think and that means the need for full and free debate without restrictions is fundamental.”

True full, free debate is needed. But we have to understand that the system in which we operate programmes our thinking. There can only be full and free debate if there is understanding that racism, classism, sexism reflect the hierarchical set-up of society. It is possible to eliminate racism and sexism but not classism. All our efforts are geared towards rising above the ordinary. We give awards to those who prove they are superior to others. So we may end racism, i.e. remove race consciousness from our endeavours, but we will never end differentiation and the prejudice that results from it. Those who rise to the top expect, demand and are given acknowledgment for having proved themselves superior to the rest.