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Society as mind

Society as mind

Ryan Schram
ANTH 2700: Key debates in anthropology
Social Sciences Building 410 (A02)
Week of March 08, 2021 (Week 2)

Slides available at http://anthro.rschram.org/2700/2021/2

Main reading: Bashkow (2006)

Other reading: Hanks (1996)

The split subject

Durkheim’s split subject:

  • One part of each person is individual. One is consciously aware of this mind
  • Another part thinks the thoughts of the collective mind and is inaccesible to the individual mind

Social facts are just ideas, but to an individual they appear to be things.

Society constructs (thinks) reality for people.

The linguistic analogy

Language gives us a way to understand the split subject.

  • Everyone speaks a language, and they speak their first language automatically.
  • Language is not just sound. What makes linguistic sound meaningful is what people perceive when they hear it.
  • Two speakers of the same language have identical copies of the same rules for processing the speech they hear.

Language is a system of social facts in the minds of the people who speak it.

This has lead anthropologists to apply a linguistic analogy to culture: Possessing a cultural worldview is like being fluent in one’s first language.

Languages are systems

Much like Durkheim redefined society, Ferdinand de Saussure redefined language:

  • There is no good or correct way to speak a language. Someone’s utterances either make sense or they don’t; everything else is an opinion.
  • The history of a language does not tell you anything about why people understand each other at one moment in time.
  • Individual variations in speaking don’t change the language, and don’t need to be explained.

Language is a collective fact

In French one can talk about “language” with several different words, so Saussure defines his words precisely:

  • parole, speech, or the ways people speak, or the particular examples of people’s use of their language to communicate
  • langue, language, in the sens of a system of rules that everyone shares when they speak a language.
  • langage, language, encompassing both langue and parole.

Parole is an individual fact, and is not interesting to Saussure.

Langue is a collective fact, and we should look to the collective to understand why people have a language that works for them.

Individuals cannot see langue because they exist in time

To understand why people can use language to communicate, we must freeze time and look at all of the ideas and their relationships. We need a synchronic analysis of the linguistic system.

Language use is diachronic; it unfolds in time. Speakers speak as time passes. (And, over time, variations in parole lead to changes in a language as a whole, but at anyone moment these changes do not explain why communication works.)

The basic element of langue is the sign

Langue is a system of signs.

A sign is:

  • a signifier, or “sound-image”
  • a signified, an idea.

( “horse” | 🐎 )

( “cat” | 😹 )

( Sr | Sd )

Ceci n’est pas une pipe

When we see “horse” we think 🐎. If your first language is English, you cannot not think about 🐎.

And yet signs deceive us.

There is nothing in h, o, r, or s that has anything to do with 🐎. The relationship between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary.

Why does “horse” mean 🐎?

There is an economy of signs

Sr–Sd relationships are determined by Sr–Sr’ relationships.

c-a-t: 😹

b-a-t: 🦇

The only difference between these signs is the difference between the sounds c and b.

Signs are also distinguished from each other based on where they occur in a linear chain.

The system of oppositions among signifiers construct (think) the world for us

In English there are two signs:

( “sheep” | 🐑 )

( “mutton” | 🍖 )

but in French there’s one:

( “mouton” | 🐑 🍖)

English and French speakers live in the same material world, but they see different things because they each have different systems of signs.

Cultures are like languages because language is a medium for culture

A sign is a sound-pattern that stands for an idea.

Signs can also stand for other signs.

An example courtesy of Roland Barthes (1972), based on Claude Levi-Strauss (1963).

( “rose” | 🌹 )

Signs can be signifiers, a diagram

Here’s a diagram of a sign that is a signifier:

( ( “rose” | 🌹 ) | ___________ )

A closed economy of signs means each culture is ethnocentric

( “ejeba” | 🎈 )

( “boka” | 🧱 )

( ( “ejeba” | 🎈 ) | 🙎🏻‍♂️ 🚀 💵 )

( ( “boka” | 🧱 ) | 😀 )

The limits of a synchronic perspective

  • A synchronic perspective lets us see the collective mind of society, which is easy to ignore or deny.
  • But a synchronic perspective is like looking at a society from 10,000 feet in the air. You only see what people have in common and what is constant.
  • The structural perspective on signs or on cultural categories seems to imply that a culture’s conceptual structure exists in isolation from everything else in the world, but it isn’t.
  • How do we retain the value of this perspective yet avoid the pitfalls of its limits?

References and further reading

Barthes, Roland. 1972. Mythologies: The Complete Edition, in a New Translation. Translated by Annette Lavers. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Bashkow, Ira. 2006. The Meaning of Whitemen: Race and Modernity in the Orokaiva Cultural World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hanks, William F. 1996. “The Language of Saussure.” In Language and Communicative Practices, 21–38. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press. https://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/bibliographic_entity%7Cdocument%7C1677290?account_id=14757&usage_group_id=95408.

Levi-Strauss, Claude. 1963. Totemism. Translated by Rodney Needham. Boston: Beacon Press.

2700/2021/2.txt · Last modified: 2021/03/07 23:00 by Ryan Schram (admin)