Here’s a photo taken a while ago that never made it into a post. It’s an advert I saw on a bus shelter. It isn’t the clearest photo in the world, but it tells a story. The story it tells is very clearly expressed by the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. It shows that in our society, being an individual is a task we’re assigned. We have to work hard at it. For example, there are things to buy. Buying things also bought by others is the surest way to achieve individuality. The irony, according to Bauman, is that individuality – the mandate of the society of individuals – is thus impossible to achieve. The quotations below are from Chapter 1 of Bauman, Z. (2005). Liquid Life. Cambridge : Polity 15-38.
Individuality is a task set for its members by the society of individuals – set as an individual task, to be individually performed, by individuals using their individual resources. Yet such a task is self-contradictory and self -defeating : indeed, impossible to fulfil.
When it is serviced by the consumer markets, the marathon of the pursuit of individuality draws its urgency and impetus from the terror of being caught up, absorbed and devoured by the crowd of runners breathing heavily behind one’s back. But in order to join the race and to stay in it, you first need to purchase the ‘special marathon shoes ‘ which – surprise, surprise – all the rest of the runners wear or deem it their duty to obtain.
(Bauman 2005 :25)
As a task, individuality is an end product of societal transformation disguised as a personal discovery.
(2005:19; cf. 29)
There’s a good summary of Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Modernity – Chapter One at Realsociology.
But individuality isn’t the only kind of societal transformation that might be found disguised as a personal discovery. Communality, being part of a group, is also a kind of social demand dressed up as a personal task. There is a Japanese phrase: minna no kimochi. This means something like ‘being of one heart’. One could say: “Our feelings about the game came together and we played well”. Marie Mutsuki Mockett has written about how minna no kimochi is used to explain how political change might come to Japan after the great tsunami of 2011: by everyone feeling united about it.
This approach to the person is a little disquieting, since it encourages us to question the solid assumptions we have about our selves, how we come to even have something called a self, and how this process of ‘selfing’ relates to wider social processes.
Fourcultures has previously reviewed the work of Perri 6 , Professor of social policy at Nottingham Trent University. The Institutional Dynamics of Culture (which he edited with Gerald Mars) remains the most important compendium of sources on Mary Douglas’s cultural theory.
“Explaining political judgement” lays out a full specification of a neo-Durkheimian institutional theory of political judgement, emphasising its causal mechanisms as much as its typology. It argues that political judgement is best understood as a form of thought style, and it proposes a set of measures for capturing thought styles in political decision-making. These styles are best explained, it argues, by the work of informal institutions shaping the ways in which decision-makers are organised. Those institutions shape judgement by quotidian ritual processes in meetings and exchange of memoranda etc. To make an illustrative case for the theory’s promise, plausibility and for its comparative merits over rival explanations in the social sciences, the book re-examines the evidence about decision-making by the US, Soviet and Cuban governments in the period immediately before and during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. The case has been chosen to set the argument in direct comparative relationship with one of the great classics of the social sciences, Graham Allison’s “Essence of decision” (2nd edn, 1999, with Philip Zelikow). “Explaining political judgement” concludes with arguments about the prospects for the neo-Durkheimian approach generally.
Nice quote from the introduction to journalist and academic Jeff Jarvis’s new book, Public Parts:
“Society splinters and splits and then reshapes in new forms. Think of us as atoms in molecules. Centuries ago, our molecules were villages and tribes; location defined us and often religion guided us. In Europe, Gutenberg empowered Luther to smash society apart into atoms again, until those elements reformed into new societies, defined by new religions and now nations. Come the industrial revolution—for which Gutenberg himself was the first faint but volatile spark—the atoms flew to bits again and reformed once more, now as cities, trades, and economies. We atomize. We reform into new molecules. We don’t evolve so much as we blow up in wrenching bursts of violence, breaking strong, old bonds and forcing us to feel disconnected until we can connect again. This is not a debate about whether we are meant to be alone or together, whether our natural state is independent or social, private or public. We are meant to be both; we just change the formula, given chance and necessity. We like to think that we finally find the right balance and discover our natural state. And then technologies come along and ruin our dear, old assumptions and order. That is what is happening today.”
Great metaphor – except that it assumes the Individual [atom] is always and everywhere, deep down, the fundamental unit of society [molecule]. Some societies make this assumption. Others don’t. This isn’t to criticise – simply to note that every metaphor carries its own freight.
It’s been hard to move recently for people leaping to conclusions. Everyone with an Internet connection has already posted an opinion about the supposedly obvious causes of the London riots.
Medhi Hassan’s heartfelt plea for pundits to to stop generalising certainly makes sense. The introduction reads:
The debate about the riots is being hijacked by those who want to push partisan agendas and narratives. But shouldn’t we wait for evidence?
Yes we should, in the same way we should shut the door after the horse has bolted. Unfortunately the evidence will not help us in quite the ways we might expect. The Cultural Cognition project people claim to have shown that in at least one public debate (over climate change) the greater scientific knowledge there is, the more (not less) the preconceived opinions are reinforced. The facts tend to fuel, not calm the fire.
Margaret Heffernan has written a book on willful blindness [excerpt] and there’s a great article in New Statesman. Here’s just one of the telling quotations Heffernan uses to illustrate her case. It comes from the economist Paul Krugmann, speaking of the blind spots in his own economic modelling:
“I think there’s a pretty good case to be made that the stuff that I stressed in the models is a less important story than the things I left out because I couldn’t model them.” [Paul Krugmann]
We all risk seeing only part of the story – the part we want to see. It’s really important to notice this and try to do something about it. I’ve written before now that Cultural Theory is one attempt at trying not to fool yourself. It seeks to understand how our social contexts effectively do some of our thinking for us. They make some thoughts easy and others hard. They make some things easy to see and render others invisible. Margaret Heffernan cites the example of Richard Fuld, the former head of Lehman Brothers. Before that company’s collapse Fuld would get to work by helicopter and chauffeured limo in such a way as to avoid seeing anyone. The point is that while he may have made the bubble in which he lived, nevertheless the bubble also made him.
The subtitle to Willful Blindness is “Why we ignore the obvious at our peril” . Surely part of an answer is that the obvious is less obvious than it should be. It is our institutions, not just our brains, that make it so.