28 November 2007

Usage-Based Social Structure

Filed under: Culture, Ktismata, Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 11:30 am

I’ve been quoting long passages of Berger and Luckmann because they address the relationships between subjective and objective realities. They say that, largely through routinized social interaction, everyday reality comes to be regarded as objective by those who participate in it. To reiterate part of yesterday’s quote:

It is important to keep in mind that the objectivity of the institutional world, however massive it may appear to the individual, is a humanly produced, constructed objectivity… The institutional world is objectivated human activity , and so is every social institution. In other words, despite the objectivity that marks the social world in human experience, it does not thereby acquire an ontological status apart from the human activity that produced it.

In prior posts about psychology I’ve distinguished the more pragmatic, dynamic, usage-based structuralism of Chomsky and Tomasello from the more architectural and static structuralism of Saussure. The usage-based psycholinguists contend that consciousness doesn’t invoke pre-structured entities stored in the unconscious; rather, consciousness actively structures loosely-linked unconscious material on the fly according to present circumstances and intentions.

In their discussion of social roles Berger and Luckmann present what amounts to a usage-based conceptualization of social structure. Roles are stereotyped performances that take their meaning within the institutionalized social order. But B&L say that roles are more than just a component of the social order: The roles represent the institutional order. Institutions are represented in a variety of ways — in language and other symbol systems, in laws and codes, in institutions, in physical objects and their arrangements, etc.

All these representations, however, become “dead” (that is, bereft of subjective reality) unless they are ongoingly “brought to life” in actual human conduct. The representation of an institution in and by roles is thus the representation par excellence, on which all other representations are dependent.

Suppose I have a lot of knowledge about everyday social reality — symbol systems, values, expectations, common-sense understandings of the way things are, institutions. Roles, expectations of role-taking attitutes and activities, social situations in which particular roles are invoked. And now I’m at large in the world, carrying around in my head a representation of the larger social structure in which I’m embedded. This knowledge isn’t conscious, since at any given moment I only need a little bit of it to guide my thoughts, actions and interactions. It’s also not rigid, since in our world social institutions have very fluid boundaries that overlap in unpredictable ways. I need to be able to call up from my unconscious representation of everyday social reality those particular structures that serve my needs right now, in this particular situation. And I need to be able to act spontaneously and, yes, creatively while I traverse that small sector of the multiply-interconnected and dynamic institutional matrix which I happen to be traversing. So I call up from my loosely-structured and unconscious representation of social structures various components that I can assemble into a complex role performance, possibly a novel and unprecedented performance, that still falls within the accepted parameters of everyday institutionalized social reality. I don’t need to understand the whys and wherefores of these social structures: I just need to be able to use them when I need them. They are role-playing machines with which I generate novel yet socially stereotypical scripts.


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