MARY DOUGLAS, 2/89
X: Social thought. Conversations with the original personalities who are rethinking the way our society and institutions work. With your host, Michael Phillips.
The best memories, the strongest ones, are the ones you've communicated to somebody. Like a dream, if you remember it in the morning, if you haven't told it to anybody you can't remember it at all by breakfast time. But, if you've told somebody something, that etches it a bit more. If you've written it, that etches it in your mind a bit more. But the strongest memories, the ones that are most instrumental for building a social form, are probably the collective memories, the ones that we all share. And we don't have to share them by having been there, but share them by talking about them and using them for reference, in making claims on each other.
Michael Phillips (MP): Our guest today is Mary Douglas, author-of How Institutions Think, and several other distinguished books. She is visiting professor at Princeton University in religion, in anthropology, and in sociology. The program was recorded in Princeton, New Jersey. I'm your host, Michael Phillips. Welcome to Social Thought, Ms.ÝDouglas. How do institutions think?
MARY DOUGLAS: Well, of course the institutions don't think at all, and the title is meant to be provocative. The reason I put it like that, perhaps unwisely, in case people are deceived and think that I think that there's a group mind or that institutions think, the reason I did that was because I wanted to be very definite that most of the thinking about thought goes on as if we were isolated beings, not in any kinds of institutions. That was why I called it that, to insist on the point that most of our thinking, I would argue, goes on through institutions, and, before we think of anything else, when a funny idea is put to us or an important idea, we reject it or we accept it according to the way we think that the institution that we like is going to be affected if that idea is accepted.
MP: So that essentially the institution plays a structural role in both providing and regulating the information that comes to the participants or members of the institution. Could we talk about why information is limited and how that shapes the structure of the institution.
MARY DOUGLAS: Information has to be limited so that it can be ordered, so that you can get some organization into it. If you don't want it to be flooding around in all directions, so that the thinking process imposes order on the information and, in doing that, it rejects quite a lot. That limits the information.
MP: So then, institutions, when we talk about the origins of institutions, they have a function in limiting the information. Could you talk about how they do that?
MARY DOUGLAS: I really would like to direct my contemporary colleagues' thought to how institutions do just that. Because there's a kind of utopian idealism which suggests that the human individual thinks in the blue, off the top of his head, off the cuff, without any reference to his social world, as if individuals were non-social beings. How the institutions structure the thinking that each person does will have to be tackled by thinking about kinds of institutions. And, to do this breaking up of the field of institutions into manageable slices and hunks, you have to think what your problems were. You have to decide first, well, What kinds of structuring would an institution put upon the members so as to maintain itself? Now that immediately sounds as though the institution is doing it. Whereas, I have to keep reminding myself because of my language, that it's not an institution acting, it's the people in the institution who like it or who want to keep it, or who want to change it, who are doing the institutional thinking.
MP: We can make the word "institution" a little more understandable to our listeners if we take the institution of driving on the right-hand and the left-hand side of the road. Again, the type of institution that you allude to, and you, in that you ask the question of How does the freeloader and the common good play off together?
MARY DOUGLAS: I think you have to start with some idea of what you think is a human person. And if you have a very idealistic view of them, as only too ready to collaborate and to sacrifice their own interest to everybody else, you probably haven't got any problems at all, and you're probably not really interested in this question. The real problems about solidarity and collaboration come when you have a different model of humans, such that sometimes they want to collaborate and sometimes they don't, and sometimes it just seems too much trouble to keep to the same side of the road or to respect the traffic lights. And, as soon as that becomes a central issue in your thinking about society, then you have to take an interest in this question about institutions dragging out of individuals some kind of consent to their being this way or that way, and so the individuals putting inside their own heads, and inside their own hearts, the kinds of institution that they're ready to accept, and to go along with to the extent of following the same side of the road or observing the traffic lights. The issue will have to be treated as What kinds of institutions are there? Then, we look at the repertoire of institutions we've got in our minds about two kinds of organization, and it's very curious how it's difficult for us in this day and age to get more than two kinds. There's endless literature typologizing modern society in terms of markets on the one hand, that's free individual competition, with shading off various towards hierarchies or great corporate organizations on the other. As if there were just a one-line dimension between the two. Then you have a lot of literature saying there is a third kind and trying to describe it, and this is always called "community." But community is described as, and I can cite you a lot of literature on that, as spontaneous, personal, immediate, small organization in which individuals collaborate without being coerced at all. And as if there was a loss of community in setting up either of the two organizations. That's a major difficulty, for me, in talking to people about this problem of how institutions think, because, they get these two big typesómarkets and hierarchiesóout of our own organizations, so that it's letting the organizations speak for themselves, and letting the organizations take over the classification. Whereas, if you want to be in charge of it yourself, in charge of the problem that you wanted to research, you have to impose your own classification on the ?lives that you're seeing.
MP: We've gotten very quickly to classification and categories as they are created or built into the institutions. But can we go back a second and try and find a specific example of freeloader versus the community, the typical problem that you identify as the one between the market institutions and the hierarchy?
MARY DOUGLAS: Well, the middle one I tend to call "institutions of the third kind" now, because nobody likes being assigned to this third kind of institution. And yet they don't like being assigned to either of the other two, so that it's perhaps very significant that people resist being called "sectarian," although being named a sect was a proud claim amongst large numbers of Christians who wanted not to be associated with the great denominations or the hierarchies. Being called "faction" has got a bad name too, being called almost any kind of literary name that you can give to this third kind is seen as offensive. So, my colleagues call it "egalitarian communities" or "communitarian." And the characteristics of this is that, well, there are very many characteristics, but the main one is that it's a community that has a strong outside boundary, and no organization inside. And that kind of community has a special way of organizing the experience of members so as to keep their consent to the form of organization. The hierarchy has a special way of organizing the experience of its members so as to keep them consenting the inequalities of hierarchy. And the market has a special way of organizing the insides of people's heads so that they will encourage each other to go ruthlessly and give them honor for going about their market affairs. So each of them has got a bad side and each of them has got a good side.
MP: Now, the cohesive bonds are, in all these three categories, is the classification scheme of the world, which is of course metaphor, or includes metaphor. How, before we even talk about classification, what's an example of a classification?
MARY DOUGLAS: It depends on how you classify individuals, how you classify humans. Do you classify them, or do you characterize them, as beings that are infinitely capable of good? Or do you classify them as hopelessly flawed internally? Then, do you classify the world as composed of outsiders who are bad and insiders who are good? Or do you classify the world as people who are absolutely neutral, with no moral connotations in your classification, just numbers? That would be appropriate for a market-type kind of classification. Either they could enter the market because they've got something to sell, and then treat them as sovereign and as exactly like each other in every way. That would be one classification, of the individuals and of the world. Another one for the sectarian or institutions of the third kind is, we are inside, are privileged, and saints. We are much morally superior to those on the outside. Unfortunately, inside our group there are a few who have infiltrated from outside or who have been weak and allowed themselves to be tempted. The hierarchical structure has some of us destined to be leaders, and privileged, and others of us to serve, but we're all serving. And outside there are other hierarchies of similar kinds. I really should confess that I much prefer the hierarchical structure. I think it's only fair to come out with my own position.
MP: How about, say, the right-hand/left-hand, that you use as a metaphor that we find in nature? And you suggest that institutions look to nature, or look to something greater than themselves, to organize their, or to justify their organization.
MARY DOUGLAS: Why do we use nature for metaphors, first of all? Ultimately, in our arguments with each other about what kind of society we're all trying to build, we have to have recourse to some outside authority beyond the two of us discussing, or beyond the hundred of us. And if it's a religious organization that's discussing how we shall be organized, the ultimate reference will be God, God wants it this way. If it's not a religious organization, or even it is, it's a convenient authority to drag in the way we see nature, and if the people consent to the way the institution's being organized in the name of nature, they will consent to that view of nature. So nature tends to be a resort, a rhetorical resort, producing these great metaphors for the kind of society. Now, if you're in a hierarchy, and everybody agrees to the hierarchy, then the right and the left will be a wonderful metaphor of complementarity, of the left hand being a servant of the right or a support to the right, but not the first hand. The first is the right and the second is the left. And so you get gender, authority, and the rest, all modeled on the way that the body uses one hand preeminently and the other hand secondary, in support. But if you are a sectarian, there's the right hand are the sheep and the left hand are the goats. The world is divided between the good and the bad, and so the right and the left are used for quite a different society-building job. And if you're in the market type of society, the duality of right and left doesn't really make much sense, and we have to write books to each other explaining how in other societies right and left carry all these other meanings.
MP: We'll be right back. This is Michael Phillips. The program is Social Thought, and our guest today is Mary Douglas, author of How Institutions Think and several other distinguished books. So far we have discussed what institutions are, the three categories of descriptions Ms.ÝDouglas uses, the metaphoric concepts, and classifications that institutions use to project their perception of the universe and to shape the behavior of their members. What is the metaphor of the marketplace?
MARY DOUGLAS: The famous metaphors of the market started out with thinking of ant hills, and ants, working together, each following their own self-interest and each building up the whole. So that it's a picture of, I mean the invisible hand is a better description of the parallel to the right and the left in the market. The market is the invisible hand, it works through its own processes to the ultimate profits of everybody. I think that's perhaps enough of a quick answer on that one.
MP: Let me try and find some substantiating ways that our listeners can imagine what you're talking about. The relationship between the institution and its members, the type of institution, its classification scheme, and the metaphors, in nature or outside of itself. You use memory as an example of how institutions, as a way of validating the role that institutions play in our lives. Could you say something about that?
MARY DOUGLAS: Probably it's a good idea to think of memory as being very much sustained by institutions. Most of the work in psychology is on individual memory, and for this reason I think we need to bring the social dimension in, to help psychology to understand memorizing. The things your remember privately are probably very few. The best memories, the strongest ones, are the ones you've communicated to somebody. Like a dream, if you remember it in the morning, if you haven't told it to anybody, you can't remember it at all, by breakfast time. But if you've told somebody something, that etches it a bit more. If you've written it, that etches it in your mind a bit more. But the strongest memories, the ones that are most instrumental for building a social form, are probably the collective memories, the ones that we all share. And we don't have to share them by having been there, but share them by talking about them, and using them for reference, in making claims on each other. I have a bold theory that I haven't put into that book yet, but I'm working on. Yes, it is there, a little bit. That memories depend on claims. That insofar as we hope to make a claim on somebody else, in our individual thoughts, and we hope that it will be honored, as a claim, in the future, we will draw upon their memories of the past, and the past only probably exists to a large extent insofar as it produces claims that are going to be honored. So that, in my theory, our memories are strongest where we can have claims in the present and expect to have benefits in the future, by making other people remember these very things. Like, mortgages. A friend of ours was telling us recently that mortgages of 99Ýyears were falling due, and that this was a long time and that it was making a big rearrangement of property. Well, if you think of memories based on claims, and claims generally involving some kind of property, this would be a very good model. We answered, being rather interested in the conversation about 99year leases, that some leases that were made in the time of William the Conqueror, on a 999-year basis, had fallen due in England recently. And that that had caused a great commotion and scrambling for new kinds of mortgages. Probably now nobody would ever dream of getting a 999-year lease; in fact, it's the same as outright ownership. Even a 99year lease is like outright ownership. It's an awfully long slice into the future that you're cutting when you claim something for 999Ýyears, or 99Ýyears. Or 9Ýyears. If you could work out the length, the time structure of all the claims that people are making on each other, you'd have a pattern of all their public memories. When you send somebody to prison for 100Ýyears, for rape, that recently. Or, for 30Ýyears, calling it a life sentence. These are etched into the future, and there are still people who are serving sentences that go back into the past, or getting remission because it's felt that the time that they've done is enough. So that, I think the memory of a society depends entirely on the willingness of the people in that society to entertain claims, against each other, and that this is the basis of the social institutions. Now, some institutions are empowered by the people living in them to allow claims going a long way into the future. I have the idea that you couldn't do that if you weren't having a hierarchical structure. That the complexity of the institution, already, with all the complex claims that people have got against each other, in a hierarchy, allows people in it to be offering each other very long term payoffs. And that if you have a kind of society that, for instance, a revolutionary society, if you are living in a revolutionary moment, as so many places in the world are now, this means dissolving all the claims of the past, and not allowing many claims on the future because you've got to make the future from scratch. So that would be a society with a very short leverage on the past and on the future. Markets don't generally have a very long leverage on the future, compared with hierarchies. Nor do sects. And it's partly, oh, it's mainly because they don't wish to. Because they wish to keep their options open.
MP: In the book you use a reference to African, anthropological research, and an example of memory would be, for our society would be that we remember the names of our presidents, Lincoln and Washington and, I guess, Franklin Roosevelt, because the memory of those people serves the types of institutions in our government that we now wish to remember. And that history essentially goes back from Washington to Jesus to Moses, in order to give ourselves a little more historic validity. But within a family, we also tend to focus our short-term memory on the names of parents and grandparents and in some cases the patrilineal great-grandparents, but that's because it's a society in which we still have inheritance along those lines, we don't tend to remember our cousins, our second and third-removed cousins. Would that be an example of what you're talking about? in institutions?
MARY DOUGLAS: Yes, I like the example so much because it reminds us how difficult it is to remember anything. Ask somebody to remember the names of their great-grandparents and they probably don't know them. And the relatives in a circle 'round your family, like your mother's sisters, you can do it with your grandmothers' sisters. Can you do those? It's probably easier to remember the grandfathers' brothers, because the male line carries more responsibilities and more privileges than the female line. This is just the kind of thing I meant.
MP: If we can try and find some way to integrate a great deal of these things, of the things you've covered, how the institutions confer identity, and, how the individual, let's say, in the three institutions, how the individual determines their identity, and then how the individual perceives the world, and then how the institution itself interacts. Because institutions change over time, they must necessarily change some of their classifications and some of their categories and some of their history. Can we talk about that?
MARY DOUGLAS: Well, let's start with identity. So in a sense the individual get his identity conferred on him, by the institution, and on her, by the institution. But there's also obviously got to be lots of scope in the theory for the individuals' transforming their own identities, and having some choice of identities. All of ?picking a slight different definition from the one that was handed to them, and getting enough other people to change that definition, so that the whole defining system might change. If you've got a model of the individual as a kind of robot who just does things when society, some mechanical thing called society, presses the levers and switches and then he jumps through the hoops, then you've got a nasty model of institutions' thinking, because you've got a strange idea of the individual. But if you start from the other end and have the individual being keen to make some kind of society, and to being rebellious as much as you want, when the definitions don't suit him, then you see the society clamping down on him sometimes and letting him go through at other times, clamping down on her and blocking her, from creating an identity that she can live comfortably with, I think you've got a better start. What kind of examples do we need to have for that? The mother has a vague idea of her motherly role, and she interprets it, under the exigencies and pressures of everyday life, she finds herself never living up to her ideal or what she thinks the ideal is, probably comparing herself unhappily with other mothers who seem to be doing it so much better, continually correcting the role. When she gets to work, it's the same person you're thinking of, they're having another role in society. Then she becomes this robot-like, efficient secretary who takes the notes and takes down the shorthand and fixes the phone calls and makes the appointments for her callous and mechanically minded boss. Secretaries aren't like that. They're much more like the mother, they're developing their role, they're seeing what they can get away with, they're also seeing what they can do that the boss never thought of asking them to do to help him, or her. More fundamental than the example of those two roles is both that the mother is one kind of person at home and another kind of person at the office. And I would be very sorry to concede that. I would like to think that if the mother has got some kind of model of herself, as a mother in the home, and as a wife in the home, and as a neighbor in her community, then she only will accept certain kinds of jobs, that she can see herself being a complete person in. Because I think the model of society would be a bad one if you had to accept a splintered individual, operating in it, being individualÝA in this context and individualÝB at the weekends and individualÝC in the evenings. You have to, I think, assume that the person has some kind of program of what's tolerable and bearable. In fact, the play we had last week in which the mother who was letting herself be deceived by her husband, and the daughter not able to bear the mother, giving in like this. The mother says, "Truth?! Truth is what you can handle." Well, people are thinking about what they can handle, and also what they can achieve, in all their roles.
MP: Can we go back to two of the original images, because you have now come back to what people can handle, which is on the information concept. And you use I think it's Williamson as model of the market to show when we will choose to join a hierarchy and when we will choose to be in the market. You also use several other references to the need of an institution to reduce the amount of information. You talk about human beings as information-bounded people.
MARY DOUGLAS: Williamson's got several very useful ideas about individuals in the market. One of them is that the individual is an opportunist. That means that he takes opportunities when they turn up. But the funny thing about Williamson's account of this, which I don't think is at all necessary, is that Williamson's individual has got a tremendous load of original sin, and he always cheats and is totally unreliable and never keeps his promises. I say "his" in this case, 'cause his individual is a market man. But, you take out the moral blame and assume that everybody is looking to see how they can have a little opening in order to do whatever it is they want to do in their lives, then you have the market sometimes closing in on them and making the costs too heavy for staying as a person running an independent firm. And then, when they just can't pay the costs, they seek employment in a hierarchical structure, in an organization, and they seek a contract of employment. That's his theory, and I think it's a great opening for relating economics to sociology, and for relating cognitive science to sociology too.
MP: Thank you for being with us, Mary Douglas. This is Michael Phillips. The program is Social Thought. The books mentioned today were How Institutions Think from Syracuse University Press. The other book is OliverÝE. Williamson, Markets and Hierarchies, 1975, Free Press.