How institutions think 
by Mary Douglas.
Syracuse, 146 pp., $19.95, July 1986, 0 8156 2369 0
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This is the delightfully short, exuberant, slightly jerky and certainly tumultuous product of five lectures that could have been advertised under the ponderous title ‘Human Knowledge and the Social Order’. The lectures were weighty, I think, but ponderous they were not. Douglas dances over an amazing array of topics. The effect is some sort of intellectual hopscotch; the reader hops from square to square, sideways, diagonally, sometimes landing with feet in different squares. The squares have amazing titles like ‘Institutions remember and forget’ or ‘Institutions do the classifying’. The second square is titled ‘Institutions cannot have minds of their own’, but only as a proposition to be rebutted. The assertion that institutions think is never seriously put in question. But what does it mean?

Perhaps it is best to start at the beginning, or rather the end, for in her preface Douglas engagingly says that she has been writing her books in reverse order. The first one should have been the latest, while this one should have been first. In 1963 she analysed her fieldwork in Zaire among a people who are very conscious of pollution in every aspect of daily and ritual life. Purity and Danger of 1966 explains, among other things, how rules on uncleanness help define a people and keep it together – and apart (Jewish dietary laws being an outstanding success story). These themes recur in Implicit Meanings, even down to the English Sunday midday meal that she calls lunch but a majority calls dinner, a distinction which with its different menus itself helps unite and separate.

Then there was an essay written with a political scientist, Risk and Culture of 1982. It is mostly about the ecological sects of modern times, obsessed with the risks of power plants or the evils of environmental pollution – with purity and danger, for short. Some such groups fall apart almost at once, while others serenely continue untroubled by schism. Perceptions of purity, community border, evil and authority are invoked to explain the differences. There is more about risk in the book she has just published, Risk Acceptability according to the Social Sciences.* It chiefly addresses our present pressing problems of how to think and act about catastrophic danger. It is most powerfully against the idea that disagreements arise from conflicts of vested interest. Institutions and modes of formation create the chasms of misunderstanding and confrontation. Nor is this some accident, some byproduct, for the institutions are both constituted by beliefs and define the beliefs of their members.

That thought takes us close to the originating book: namely, the present work that Douglas says she wishes she could have written at the start. ‘Half of our task is to demonstrate [the] cognitive process at the foundation of the social order. The other half of our task is to demonstrate that the individual’s most elementary cognitive process depends on social institutions.’ That is the agenda for Chapter Four (eight pages!), but also, when generalised a little, for the book as a whole. The earlier books were also about why and how people band together and are bonded into social units. The explanations tended to be in terms of practices or rituals of enforced separation, where outsiders are made out as dirty or as dirt, to be counteracted by cleansing. That idea is in no way abandoned now. But the talk of purity and danger suggests that groups form themselves in terms of values (pollution being evil). Now we move back; it is beliefs, not values that work the trick. So we are offered a theory of epistemologies, not moralities.

Is there a question about why people get together and often stay together? People are naturally gregarious, herons are not. Asked to explain that, perhaps one resorts to sociobiology. Douglas starts where the putative biology gives up. Every human group, whether it be the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (a splinter from Greenpeace that scuttles whalers) or the Japanese people (homogeneous and indivisible, according to their prime minister), has its own peculiar and specific set of practices and characteristics. As Douglas observed of herself after her initial fieldwork, I ‘discovered in myself a prejudice against piecemeal explanations’. She would like an entirely general account of how groups get together and stay together, forming intricate and often fragile patterns of stabilising relationships. She is sure that self-interest, be it in the form favoured by Hobbes or by today’s rational choice theory, won’t do. Naturally there can be some meeting of minds out of pure self-interest, as in a fiercely controlled structure like a prison, or in wide-open entrepreneurial competition where deals are made and alliances formed. Douglas is more struck by the universality of self-sacrifice, despite the fact that opting out, being a free rider, is almost always more enticing. Moreover, when there is secession, be it from Greenpeace or the Papacy, rational self-interest usually has precious little to do with it.

So what institutionalises a social group? If we have the individualist, liberal, traditionally Western picture of people banding together, then the answers must be couched in terms of choice, will, desire, wants, But even to think of one of the older sorts of European establishment is to become wary of that: it is creed, not need, that defines our religious institutions.

It has long been sociologically unfashionable to characterise religions in terms of beliefs, but Douglas, ever avant-garde, wants to put back the clock. In particular she wants to return to ideas propounded by Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss at the beginning of the century. The two men jointly wrote a monograph, ‘Primitive Classification’, in 1903. In 1912 Durkheim published his Elementary Forms of Religious Life. That was about Australian totemism. Douglas improbably pairs this book with one about European syphilis, Ludwig Fleck’s 1935 The Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact. Fleck was a Polish epidemiologist who made substantial contributions to public health. He published extensively before the war, managing to continue writing about medical topics up until 1943 in the underground medical journal of the Lvov ghetto. After 1945 he went on to print some sixty more professional studies. His ‘philosophical’ book went almost unnoticed, however, until recently.

What brings these disparate figures together is the theme that Douglas shares with them: the notion that ways of thinking derive from and sustain what is social. Durkheim and Mauss proposed that the classifications of aspects of nature by ‘primitive’ peoples are structured in analogy with their own social organisations. The social bond is held in place in the following way: people converse; to comprehend each other they need shared categories; as these categories are the reflection of the social order, their very conversation confirms the formal ordering of their society. Later Durkheim’s study of mid-Australian clans was used as a self-professed work of general epistemology. Space, time, substance, causality and the rest of the Kantian ragbag were presented as analogues derived from social organisation, so that space was structured as the plan of the village habitation. The spatio-temporal structure was locally a priori, inescapable for the clan, part of the organisation of its thought. Yet it is no Kantian universal, for different societies produce their own conceptions of space in their own images.

The Durkheimians spoke thus only of primitive peoples and religion. They were positivists living in a world of facts, and these facts were couched in terms of categories liberated from the social. Enter Fleck, whose organising concept was the ‘thought-style’ of a ‘collective’. ‘Knowledge is the paramount social creation,’ he wrote, and held that the prevailing thought-style in one’s milieu ‘exerts an absolutely compulsive force upon [one’s] thinking ... with which it is not possible to be at variance’. His own detailed case-study was venereal disease, with its shifting classifications, and a long inability to distinguish diseases we now say are utterly distinct except in superficial means of transmission. He has an account of how thought-styles changed in order to make new facts constructible out of experience and enquiry. He wrote precisely of the positive science that Durkheim treated as inviolate and post-sociological. For Fleck and Douglas, the religious life is just one more body of knowledge. Primitive classification is just one more kind of classification. Durkheim himself was locked in his thought-style in which the sacred had to be distinct from positive knowledge. Otherwise, he was on exactly the right track.

Sociological theories of knowledge, sociology of science, and the ‘social construction of reality’ are much in vogue at present. In a quite different tradition, that encouraged by Michel Foucault, one reads of an ‘historical a priori’ (an idea adapted from Mauss), which could perfectly well characterise part of Fleck’s notion of a thought-style. Douglas is, however, quite unusual. Although she writes in a context of this kind of talk, she restores an aspect of the original Durkheimian project that most students of society now want to forget. She is, like Durkheim, an avowed functionalist.

A functionalist is one who favours functionalist explanations of some human behaviour, practices or institutions. I’ll try to explain the idea in a moment. What it comes to for Douglas is this. The concepts, classifications, judgments, even notions of justice, possessed by individuals are not free formations of the individual but consequences of being part of a network of social groups, participating in or at least being part of certain institutions which effectively define who the individual is. Individual thought, as she says at one juncture, is social thought writ small. It is a consequence of the social order. But (and here’s the functionalism) it also sustains the social order: without those shared classifications and judgments, the order would collapse. One function served by human knowledge – that is, the knowledge of a community of relevant people – is the preservation of the community itself.

Aware that functionalist explanations in social science are now regarded as disreputable, Douglas leaps to their defence, admitting many past ones have been disgraceful, but urging that they can be logically sound. To this end she takes a formal characterisation of functional explanation from Jon Elster. Because it is not easy to grasp abstractly, I’ll venture a colourful example.

A well-known phenomenon of the British Dominions up to 1939 was the remittance man. English sons who fell out with their fathers due to disgrace, dissension, stupidity or simply being supernumerary were given a lifetime’s standing banker’s order and sent to the ends of the Empire, and told not to come back. One effect of this was that rather empty regions which would in the normal course of things have been populated by vigorous upwardly mobile and rebellious people, glad to get away from the homeland, were also populated by dull, stupid, incompetent, but because of their substantial remittances by no means uninfluential characters. They were loyal to king and country, and pined to be like father. Thus they damped down tendencies towards independence, encouraged complacency (and contributed to an officer cadre that would willingly follow orders at places singled out for the slaughter of colonials such as Gallipoli or Dieppe). Moreover there was a certain feedback mechanism: the more vulgar and uppity a region might become, the more attractive was that as a place for a father to exile his son.

This has the logical form of a functional explanation. There is a pattern of behaviour. It has an effect. It is beneficial to the ruling classes of the Empire. Fathers from these classes don’t intend this effect. Nor do they see the causal connection between remittance men and dour but loyal Dominions. Finally there is a feedback effect: whenever a region might get out of hand, it tends to be stabilised by pumping in more remittance men.

This ‘explanation’ has a virtue of many functionalist explanations: it has corollaries. Why in general were remittance men not sent to Kenya or the USA? The former was an unworrisome colony and the latter was uninfluenceable, and hence there was no feedback effect. Why (as Mavis Gallant observes in a short story, ‘Varieties of Exile’) were there no remittance women? Because they would inevitably marry the vigorous independent stock and hence with their remittance would encourage tendencies towards disloyalty.

This ‘explanation’ also has the common vice of functionalist explanations: that all the phenomena seem adequately accounted for in terms of the professed intentions of the fathers, and the effects (if they were effects) are just casual byproducts of these intentions. But I have wanted only to illustrate the logical form of a functionalist explanation: behaviour, effect, effect unintended and unrecognised as an effect, effect beneficial to agents who produce the behaviour, and feedback loop.

Douglas takes just this structure from Elster. She also offers three instances of such explanations which, combined, are to explain how a completely non-authoritarian ‘latent’ group can form. The social behaviour in question is characterised by constant credible threats to withdraw from the group, and by an insistence on complete equality and 100 per cent participation by everyone in group affairs and responsibilities. Consequences are weak leadership and a firm, sharp boundary between members and non-members.

Douglas’s faithful readers will notice that the example goes back to the work in Zaire and to the discussion of ecofreaks in Risk and Culture. Here her idea is to give a functionalist account of how people can band together, make individual sacrifices, and for some time stay stable without there being any coercion (and hence behave in apparent violation of rational choice theory).

Unfortunately the attempt to reconstruct a sequence of three functionalist explanations ends in disaster. In the first explanation she inserts the thing to be explained into Elster’s schema at that place where we should have the consequence that does the explaining. I do not see how to rectify this slip. In the second example she puts the feedback loop in the wrong place, but this can be corrected easily. In the third case her feedback mechanism will, I regret, strike most readers as a sequence of non sequiturs; this reader could not put things right.

Douglas thinks that ‘sociology can ... little afford to do without functionalist arguments ... ’ In fact, it is easy to find reasonably distinguished Schools of Social Science none of whose members believe in or practise functionalism. They may be wrong. If so, then someone must either do a better job on the formal logic of functionalist explanation, or else argue that it is not a type of discussion that lends itself to formalisation. The rest of Douglas’s book suggests the latter alternative.

The rest is immensely rich: it has to be read to be believed. I’ve said this book is about beliefs and epistemology, but beliefs require categories and classifications, and these in turn need notions of identity and difference. Lots of her sentences deserve essays, and many could serve as titles of learned dissertations. How about ‘One well-instituted tool can ruin the career of a theory that cannot use it’? Each of the following three consecutive sentences would do, for example: ‘Nothing else but institutions can define sameness. Similarity is an institution. Elements get assigned to sets where institutions find their own analogies in nature.’ The last could title a thesis on Durkheim; the first, one on the American nominalist philosopher Nelson Goodman, also very much admired by Douglas.

She’s very good at posting notices guarding against opposition approaches. I mentioned that she won’t let contemporary rational choice theory explain how small groups of people band together out of self-interest. At the end of the book she fends off a different kind of marauder. Maybe institutions do the thinking on routine matters, allowing us to go on automatic pilot most of the time, leaving us to think about difficult matters? Not at all. ‘The individual tends to leave the important decisions to his institutions while busying himself with tactics and details.’ Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the fundamental principles. They are the ones that keep the social edifice together, and they are the ones that must be made sacred, like Durkheim’s religion, or at least venerable, immutable, perfect, distant. Principles of justice, for example.

David Hume enters, not for the first time, as an ally here. ‘The sense of justice and injustice is not derived from nature,’ he argued, ‘but arises artificially, though necessarily, from education and human inventions.’ People resent this. It is all right to say that the sacralising of totems and the eternalising of taboos is artificial, but not justice! Douglas takes on a couple of philosophers who try to naturalise justice. I find her arguments as good as her opponents’ – which is no compliment to anyone. In the background, of course, is John Rawls’s naturalist doctrine of justice as fairness, and also the fear that if you go with Douglas you end up in cultural relativism.

She tries to dispel the worry. We do compare systems of justice. As part of their stabilising function they must be simple, coherent, and not arbitrary. When, in the course of legislation and precedent, ours becomes heavy with complexity, contradiction and arbitrariness, we embark on reform. Likewise we can compare systems of justice for their efficiency, for their closeness to the populace, for their contextuality (could old English witchcraft law have made for justice in colonial Sudan? Does English law of bigamy bring justice to Muslims in Bradford?).

We may well agree that these matters can be studied, as she puts it, ‘objectively’. We may also agree that our tinkerings with justice must be piecemeal, diversified, and that there is no one virtue, such as equality or fairness, that is always and ineluctably the best or most germane. We may agree with her further remark: that our systems of justice rely on a great amount of knowledge of the world already incorporated into our institutional fabric. A system which decrees that a third of its population is not fully human may be known on the basis of experience to be in error. None of this cheers the person scared of cultural relativism. One does not have to look far in our own history to find efficient, pertinent, non-arbitrary coherent systems, co-ordinated with vast amounts of empirical data that have been internalised in the social fabric, and which have been or are monstrous, not to mention unjust.

I’ve given no indication of the pace of the book. Eight pages innocently labelled as an introduction take us through a contest between a radio-immunological team that saves lives, and radiophobic partisans opposed to any kind of irradiation. It takes us through the four speleologists caught in a cave who eat their fifth colleague, and through the five opinions about the case given by five judges of the Supreme Court. And it ends with Durkheim and Fleck.

Maybe my favourite quartet of sentences is in Chapter Seven, of nine pages:

His story is full of ironies. The expert on memory had himself managed to forget his own teachings. He who taught that intentions guide cognition forgot his own intentions. Looking for a cybernetic system, he had the extraordinary luck to meet the inventor of cybernetics.

All background is provided. The ‘he’ is Frederick Bartlett, premier Cambridge psychologist of memory and learning. He ‘forgot’ a programme of studying learning and memory in a societal context that he got from his anthropological mentors – men who had sailed off together to study the evolution of human cognition on a suitably primitive people, Melanesians in the South Pacific. We get glimmers of the intellectual hanky-panky on that 1898 expedition to the Torres Strait, that connects the Arafulfa and the Coral seas. The ‘inventor of cybernetics’ is 19-year-old Norbert Wiener, Harvard PhD in hand, come to sit at the feet of Bertrand Russell and casually teaching Professor Bartlett how to design his experiments. You won’t be bored by this book. It is the sparkling product of a sparkling mind.

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Vol. 9 No. 3 · 5 February 1987

SIR: I was surprised and distressed to the point of anger to encounter an aside of such arrogantly unsupported presumption as to destroy my enjoyment of an otherwise generous, lucid and enlightening review by Ian Hacking (LRB, 18 December 1986). Venturing ‘a colourful example’, he mentions ‘an officer cadre that would willingly follow orders at places singled out for the slaughter of colonials such as Gallipoli or Dieppe’. What a wantonly irresponsible assessment of appalling sacrifices inherent in major strategic blunders in both world wars – about which he presumably knows very little and cares, seemingly, even less. Blunders, even of this magnitude, are historically inseparable from warfare: but tragic as they undoubtedly are, they simply are not maliciously planned slaughters of courageous and invaluable voluntary allies. Why should they be? Desperate combatants need all the help and loyalty they can get. Like countless others, about half of whom survived, I served as a Volunteer throughout World War Two. Our ages then probably covered the same span as Mr Hacking is currently enjoying: which is perhaps one reason why his casually dismissive slander irks me so. He jests at scars that never felt a wound.

David Stafford-Clark
Consultant Emeritus, Guy’s Hospital

Vol. 9 No. 12 · 25 June 1987

SIR: It’s rather late, I am afraid, but your delivery in this Dominion is very slow and I have just read Ian Hacking’s review of Mary Douglas’s How institutions think (LRB, 18 December 1986). Mr Hacking alleges that remittance men ‘damped down tendencies towards independence, encouraged complacency (and contributed to an officer cadre that would willingly follow orders at places singled out for the slaughter of colonials such as Gallipoli or Dieppe)’. I challenge Mr Hacking or any of your readers to name a single remittance man among the Canadian officers at Dieppe. The merits of the orders for Dieppe are controversial, but they will not be properly judged if those who followed them are supposed to have been cartoon characters. The common impression of remittance men in Canada has been that, as generally pretty feckless and disproportionately representative of their class, they encouraged contempt for that class and tendencies toward independence: exactly the opposite of what Mr Hacking supposes. The characterisation of the Dominions as ‘dour but loyal’ reveals a massive condescension toward countries that were not dour and whose loyalty was heavily qualified and more knowing and less easily manipulated than he allows.

John Pepall

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