Ian Hacking

  • How institutions think by Mary Douglas
    Syracuse, 146 pp, $19.95, July 1986, ISBN 0 8156 2369 0

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.

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[*] Routledge, 115 pp., £7.95, 6 November, 0 7102 1108 2.