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

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).

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.

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.

The linguistic analogy

Language gives us a way to understand the split subject.

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:

Language is a collective fact

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

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:

( “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

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.

———. (1895) 1982. The Rules of Sociological Method. Edited by Steven Lukes. London: The Macmillan Press.

Hanks, William F. 1996. “The Language of Saussure.” In Language and Communicative Practices, 21–38. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.

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