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. Continue reading