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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 February 28, 2022 (Week 2)

Slides available at http://anthro.rschram.org/2700/2022/2

Main reading: Bashkow (2006)

Other reading: Hanks (1996)

Social facts and the essence of society

Durkheim says that society is rules, but not rules in the sense of explicit dos and don’ts in a rulebook or policy. They are implicit and automatic, as they were facts (Durkheim [1895] 1982, 60).

Social facts are just ideas, but they feel real to us because they are the thoughts of a “collective consciousness” which we all participate in (Durkheim [1909] 1982, 238).

  • Social facts appear to be external, objective facts
  • Social facts are coercive; you can’t not think the thoughts of the collective mind. 🤖🤖🤖

Do we accept that this is what it means to be a member of society, that society is a big brain that thinks for you? 👨‍💻👩‍💻🧑‍💻💻🤖

Society as totality

Durkheim sounds like he defines society as a force that constrains individual freedom and forces each individual to confirm.

In fact, Durkheim’s ideas are more abstract. To understand society we have to get beyond the individual. We need to see the whole system at once.

  • From the top of a tower, the people below look like ants. They’re small, and they each reproduce a social pattern with no discernable individuality.

Durkheim argues that to explain any part of society, we must look its place in a whole system, rather than how individuals relate to one part of society as a rule or as an obligation.

Durkheim’s organic analogy: a society is like an organism.

  • A society is a single whole made up of parts that fit together and depend on each other. The individuals are the food and fuel of the social organism. A society is like an anteater, and individuals are the ants.

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.

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 Lightness of Whitemen.” In The Meaning of Whitemen: Race and Modernity in the Orokaiva Cultural World, 64–94+12pp (photographs). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Durkheim, Emile. (1909) 1982. “The Contribution of Sociology to Psychology and Philosophy.” In The Rules of Sociological Method, edited by Steven Lukes, 236–40. London: The Macmillan Press. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-349-16939-9.

———. (1895) 1982. The Rules of Sociological Method. Edited by Steven Lukes. London: The Macmillan Press. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-349-16939-9.

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.

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