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Institutions and collectivities

Constructing and performing society

Types of human association

Human society in practice. Social relations

The globe

Countries and nations

Institutions and collectivities

Lecture №3

ALMATY 2008-2009

Lecture №3

Specialty 050202 - International Relations

Chair of International Relations



Discipline – Sociology

Theme «Society as the main category of Sociology»




Theme «Society as the main category of Sociology»

The independence of money from personal control, its widespread acceptance, its continuity beyond your life and mine, the way it penetrates other aspects of human existence, the need for its management and technical control are not unique to it. Rather they make it an example of one of the most important general features of human society: the social institution.

Money as an institution shows too how relations between people are concealed behind calculations of the abstract qualities of material things. In general, institutions embed social relations in material things and technology, in life-spheres—which in the case of money we call ‘the economy’. Institutions are sequences of social practices which are widespread, impersonal, subject to, and yet always resistant to control.

What is true for money and the economy applies equally to life-spheres like law, education, science, religion, sport, medicine, art, government—with institutions like litigation, examining, experiments, communion, competition, consultation, exhibitions and elections. Each is maintained in and through social relations even as each constrains, shapes and facilitates our lives.

In the contemporary world the life-spheres in which institutions are embedded become fields for specialist practitioners on whom we all depend: bankers, lawyers, teachers, and so on. Equally, no matter how specialised the activities which develop in any one sphere, they involve participation on the part of a much wider group of people than just the specialists.

The grounding of institutions in people’s relations provides sociology with one of its most important tasks in the contemporary world. It explores the way institutions are based in social relations and lodged in the wider society, not excepting, indeed especially including, those spheres like law, science, medicine and the economy which often appear to have been taken over exclusively by the experts. This will be the special subject at the next lectures.

For the moment we need to note the way institutions involve cultural definitions of social relations as they incorporate values and techniques in practices. The main concern of institutions is the definition of right practices irrespective of the people involved. But they never escape, however much they strain at, the bonds of human association.

Everything that is done in society is done by people. This is true of institutions and applies to all projects, whether massive, like the exploration of space, or rather minor, like painting my house. They are explained not by reference to the personal characteristics of the people involved but by the general logic of human practices in relation to the world.

Practices are shaped in customs, conventions, usages, rituals, styles, manners, fashions, tastes, plans, projects, procedures, laws, as well as, of course, institutions. They are lodged in the world such that people relate to each other in certain material settings and with practical ends in mind. The boundaries around these are often bonds between people. Working means both belonging to a firm and going to a factory. Learning is both a matter of belonging to a class of pupils and attending a school.

Sometimes the boundaries in a physical and social sense coincide so closely that the activities are exclusively conducted by one group of people behind walls, as with a prison, barracks or asylum. Erving Goffman (1922-82) drew our attention to these by calling them ‘total institutions’ and also to the fact that so much social activity takes place in ‘establishments’ of one kind or another where we allude ambiguously at the same time to technology, people or setting.

Very often the building itself becomes the name of the institution—the church, university or office. We can never be sure at first whether the talk is about a building, people, or set of practices. Goffman calls his total institutions ‘hybrids’, part community, part organisation. Bruno Latour says all these mixes of society and nature, ‘collectives’ in his terms, are ‘hybrids’ and the examples he gives include even a nuclear power plant and the hole in the ozone layer. This provocative formulation calls on us to recognise the intimate connections between nature and society.

We both make and organise around material things. Consider the car. We often hear about ‘the impact of the car’. But no producers, no car. No drivers, no impact. When driven the car is a human/machine unity and in this way it is a factor in making our world. Similarly we talk of the ‘household’. The house with its people is the purchasing unit which makes sense for market researchers. It is in and through the household that its members consume and spend. There is no need to talk here about ‘the family’.

But what holds these hybrid objects together? Human beings of course mainly, though in diverse ways, and I call them human collectivities for that reason. The bonds which tie them together and make them objects for our concern, however, remain open to inquiry. In particular the social relations embedded in them are often obscure. In any one household we don’t even know in principle how many people belong to it, let alone how they relate to each other. These are all open questions, with answers depending on the facts of the case.

With both institutions and collectivities we know that social relations are central to them and that they could not exist without them, but they are never inscribed on the surface. Society makes our worlds possible, enables us to fulfil our needs and spin our fantasies. But we have to search for its reality in our experience of the world. This is especially true for countries.

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