Conforming and resisting. Thinking with and within institutions

In her book How Institutions Think (1986) the social anthropologist Mary Douglas, who died in 2007, struggles with the paradox of the individual and the social. On the one hand, she argues, it is unreasonable to assume that institutions can think and act as though they had some group mind and body. These are only figures of speech, shorthand, because only individuals can think and act. But on the other hand, the institutions which we form, with their organised ways of doing things, their procedures, rules and sets of values, are one way of organising to promote specific categories of thought, certain choices, and particular values:

Our social interaction consists very much in telling one another what right thinking is and passing blame on wrong thinking. This is indeed how we build the institutions, squeezing each others’ ideas into a common shape so that we can prove rightness by sheer numbers of independent assent. (1986: 91)

One of the things that she is concerned to do in this book is to illuminate more clearly the ways that individuals come together to shape organisations, and consequently the way that individuals in their turn are shaped by the sustained processes and functioning of institutions. She draws on the work of Ludwik Fleck, who coined the term ‘thought collectives’ to describe the way that particular approaches to science become institutionalised so that it becomes impossible to think or argue in a different way. For a more thorough treatment of Fleck’s thought, see Ralph Stacey’s post here. Similarly, institutions constrain individuals in the way that the price of belonging may rely upon obedience to particular ways of understanding the world.

This brings Mary Douglas hard up against the age-old difficulty for the social scientist: how can we possibly think of ourselves in society except by using the classifications established in our institutions? For Douglas this is a necessary task to secure some degree of autonomy and freedom of thought, because institutional concerns are not necessarily our concerns:

They fix processes that are essentially dynamic, they hide their influence, and they rouse our emotions to a standardised pitch on standardised issues. …For us, the hope of intellectual independence is to resist, and the necessary first step in resistance is to discover how the institutional grip is laid upon the mind. (Ibid: 92)

Intellectual independence, which may take the form of resistance, is particularly important in times of crisis such as we are enduring economically and socially at the moment in the UK and throughout most of Europe, and more broadly and deeply in the less developed world. Things need not be the way they are.

Douglas shows how belonging to institutions encourages us to remember and forget, to classify, conferring our identity on us,  and helping to decide questions of justice and morality. Institutions determine who suffers and who survives in times of crisis, a topic we will deal with later in this post. In order to gain legitimacy, she argues, and keep the institutional shape, people in institutions need to make an appeal both to nature and to reason, in order that they can refer to the naturalness and reasonableness of the institutions’ laws and decisions. More than this people operating in institutions have to sacralise the principles of justice. Whilst for every other area of its operation, the institution operates more or less invisibly, in terms of the things held sacred, Douglas argues, after Durkheim, that sacred artefacts, values and judgements are highly public and are appealed to as such. If the sacred is profaned then terrible things will happen. Second, any attack on the sacred will rouse strong emotions to its defence. Third, the sacred can be invoked explicitly, to arouse such emotions and to invoke dire consequences if sacred judgements are not upheld.

Reading this passage in Douglas’ book put me in mind both of the recent riots in Belfast to protest about the compromise decision of Belfast City Council only to fly the union flag on certain days of the year, rather than every day (in line with every town hall in the UK), and the UK Chancellor’s autumn statement. Douglas states:

Entrenched in nature, the sacred flashes out from salient points to defend all the classifications and theories that uphold the institutions. (1986: 113)

So some Unionist parties in Northern Ireland have interpreted the decision not to fly the flag every day as a flagrant assault on their identities as British citizens, and have aroused strong feelings and violence in defence of their concept of their institution and its sacred symbols. Equally, George Osborne made similar appeals to the British public’s sense of fairness, by arguing that keeping benefit increases to 1% over the next year was ‘fair’, making a distinction between those who rise early to go off to work and do the right thing, and those who have yet to open their blinds because they are ‘skiving’ and living off handouts from the state. On the other hand, and earlier in the year, he decreased the top rate of tax for those earning over £150k a year on the basis that this demonstrated that ‘Britain is open for business’. With both stratagems Osborne is recruiting both nature and reason on his side, and appealing to sacred values which need defending, fairness, pro-business, anti-dependency, hoping to stir up strong feelings in those to whom he makes his appeal. If the opinion polls are to be believed so far, then up till now he has succeeded, with the majority support currently for his government’s benefit ‘reforms’.

In terms of the UK economy, why is it that stronger feelings are not stirred up in favour of the already more vulnerable in society and against better-off people, most of whom seem to be surviving the economic crisis very well? Douglas draws on anthropological examples to demonstrate how responses to emergencies are culturally defined and will often work along cleavages that already exist in society. In times of crisis institutions such as governments are likely not to abandon their moral principles but to switch to their emergency set, which will define much more distinctly existing hierarchies and inequalities. Douglas draws on the work of William Torry who observed what happened in Indian villages afflicted by famine. In the crisis the emergency norms dictated that the first to suffer should be the disadvantaged, the marginal and the politically ineffectual:

He (Torry) traces the lines of victimage through the selection process of the regular social system. Whatever are the normative principles of exclusion from privilege or security – whether by birth, or office, or sex, or age, or by definition of deviancy and criminality – these regular exclusions point to who will get less as resources diminish and who will finally be turned out or left behind to starve. (1986: 123)

Existing social hierarchies are exposed and amplified in conditions of scarcity and crisis. But what is surprising to both Torry and Douglas is that the victims meekly accepted the iniquity of their fate and showed little resentment towards those in positions of power who have made decisions that added to their suffering. What both anthropologists thought they were witnessing was not the destruction of the social order, but its affirmation. So in the UK it is the poor who are bearing the burden of austerity, and so too in the developing world in terms of their suffering through trade inequalities and climate change. This does not pass without protest, but protest is far less significant that it might be given the scale of the assault on the most vulnerable.

Of course, there are similarities between Britain and India as well as some major differences. The parallels are to be found in the way that existing social inequalities have been both clarified and amplified by crises and by the particular economic and social programme of the current government in the UK. The government appeals both to nature and reason in implementing their policies and to sacred principles of ‘fairness’ and ‘striving’, what G.H. Mead referred to as ‘cult values’. The differences arise from the history of contestation and protest in the UK, where there are few groups who have accepted their situation as meekly as we are to understand underprivileged villagers in India did. What links the two situations together, however, as Douglas observed: ‘ for better or worse, a community can make its preordained victims bear the brunt of the crisis and solve its allocation decisions by letting the institutions do the choosing, but only when it has conferred legitimacy on them.’ It is the extent of this legitimacy that the British people will only get to explore in the next election.

What is interesting in both Douglas and Fleck’s work is the way they write about the paradox of the individual and the social, how individuals are often thinking within, and on behalf of institutions, constrained and enabled by them. Institutionalisation permeates our thinking, our acting and our moral choices. Douglas reverses the idea that individuals leave trivial decisions to institutions and do the heavy moral lifting themselves, arguing instead that it is the other way round. We are who we are because of the group which we belong to and the way these groups, more or less formalised, condition our responses to ourselves and to other people. Shedding more light on how this happens and what effects our involvement in institutional life has may help us to gain some partial autonomy and perhaps to resist where we need to.


2 thoughts on “Conforming and resisting. Thinking with and within institutions

  1. Pingback: Conforming and resisting. Thinking with and wit...

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