by Phin Upham
The tension between the macro and the micro – psychology and sociology, the individual and group/organization, traits and context – is a major theme in sociology. Many hold that these two layers are not antithetical, mutually exclusive, or even necessarily conflicting. How does the individual, on the intellectual, institutional, social, and structural level, simultaneously shape while being shaped by his/her surroundings.
Clifford Geertz has an elegant way of thinking about ideology, which he views as an often undeservedly maligned part of “that part of culture which is actively concerned with the establishment and defense of patterns of belief” (231). He goes through many peoples perception of ideologies as rude and limiting ways of thinking and emerges with the conclusion that far from being simplistic, they in fact allow for emergent social attitudes that are complex and beneficial. They “render otherwise incomprehensible social situations meaningful, to so construe them as to make it possible to act purposefully within them… they are, most distinctively, maps of problematic social realities and the matrices for the creation of collective consciousness” (220). His essay neatly addresses the problematic question of how individuals grasp onto social realities and “group” beliefs. They do this, according to Greetz, not simply to reduce cognitive complexity or as a mistake, but (at least sometimes) by embracing the necessary contradictions and difficulties of this view for a deeper understanding of the world. The individual thus has a deep and complex interaction with the social artifact of “ideology.”
Karl Marx, in his short and pithy piece “Camera Obscura” provides a similar analysis to Geetz. He sketches out a view of the world in which individual actors are the prime movers and real concrete drivers of this movement. Ideas and consciousness emerge as a product of this real action and the views about the nature of man and the world espoused in these conceptions should be taken as the “upside down” view of a derivative process such as the print that comes from a camera obscura. It seems that Marx here is cautioning people to beware the necessary and intrinsic distortion of theory and never keep their mind to far away from the raw energy and verisimilitude of acting man, which is the dynamo and rejuvenation of the our world. Though at first gloss a polemic against theory, this piece is actually more of a cautionary warning about the deeper realms of ontology.
Scott, in his piece on Institution and Organizations, provides a nice summary and framework for how to view an individual’s interaction with his institutional surroundings. Reminiscent in many ways of our earlier readings on groups and self-identity, this piece established a review and analysis of how we interact with the structured (consciously or unconsciously) world of institutions. They shape our rational choice structures (March), our mode of discussion and transaction (Coase) and our usual meanings systems as well as the frame for our means-end calculations (Selznick, Merton) through “institutionalizing” and “legitimizing” (Parsons) certain processes. He outlines the three pillars on which he sees theories of institutions resting: the regulative, the normative, and the cognitive. Ultimately, he views institutions as social structures which deeply affect human behavior and thought. He contributes a structural dimension to the earlier readings. Not only do we join ideologies that mediate between us and the whole, but we join institutions which do the same thing.
Pierre Bourdieu is very hard to read, as his critics have noted. He takes Scott’s idea that individuals interact with structures to create a social and cultural reality one step further by generalizing and examining the question on a profound level. Paul DiMaggio’s gloss on Bourdieu is helpful in distilling elements of his theory out from the obfuscation of his language (perhaps a result of translating from French?). He is quoted by DiMaggio as describing his central notion of habitus as “a system of lasting, transposable dispositions which, integrating past experiences, functions at every moment as a matrix of perceptions, appreciations, and actions and makes possible the achievement of infinitely diversified tasks.” (1464). Like Geertz, he views actions as mediated by the world but at the same time shaping it. We exist in a social reality, which we simultaneously shape and are shaped, act and are acted upon. The mediation of this concept is crucial. Bourdieu also incorporates what appears to be some of the tenants of Marxist theory into his work. His conceptions of class, power, and ideology are reminiscent of such frameworks and the rhetoric is often similar. But to Bourdieu, classes are as defined by their idiosyncratic (historically based) habitus that has socialized them.
Anthony Gidens introduces Weber’s Protestant Ethic provides us with a pithy understanding of both the content and the context, personally, intellectually, and socially, of Weber’s thought as well as outlining some of his major lines of criticism. Weber’s work is an intellectual dissection of what he sees as the unique and fundamental explanation for Western capitalistic society – which he sees as the uncoupling of the protestant ethic of predestination onto a materialistic drive. This system, as a framework, contributes to the week’s readings by providing us with a way of synthesizing the individual and his role as an actor. But it also confuses the issue. He says “The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to.”Weber thus synthesizes much the literature for this week’s reading when he describes how we are socially conditioned with goals and predispositions, that we are deeply affected by the structures and modes of the world around us, which Weber nicely points out. And these levels of analysis are all holistically related, with cause and effect loops swooping and looping in intersecting, overlapping spirals over the centuries.
Giddens’ The Constitution of Society attempts to understand how we function in accordance to the deep and complex rules of society without even being aware of it. In this sense it is the deepest level of analysis, an analysis of how the individual is embedded in complex social processes and acts in accordance with them as well as, most importantly, is able to assert his/her own independence and individual personality through them. Giddens builds heavily on the philosopher Wittgenstein, who can be seen as anticipating much of this argument in Philosophical Investigations. Wittgenstein, for example says, “To obey a rule, to make a report, to give an order, to play a game of chess, are customs (uses, institutions). To understand a sentence means to understand a language. To understand a language means to master a technique… This was our paradox: no course of action could be determined by rule, because every course of action can be made out to accord with the rule.” Similarly, Wittgenstein speaks of a social “bedrock” which is the accepted social context of an action which provides it meaning and substance. Gibbons formalizes Wittgenstein’s insights and takes them explicitly into the realm of sociology. Gibbons emphasizes that human action is not divisible, but rather should be seen as a process, or better yet, as “as embedded sets of processes” (3) and he sees actions often as signs in a context rather than as expressive in and of themselves. His view is a complex and sophisticated exploration of the way the individual interacts with society and synthesizes much of the themes and issues on the topic.
Karl Marx, “Camera obscura.” (1845-1846), in Charles C. Lemert, ed., Social Theory (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1998), pp. 36-37.
Anthony Giddens, “Introduction” to Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons,  1958), pp. 1-12.
Clifford Geertz, “Ideology as a Cultural System.” In The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973), pp. 193-233.
Pierre Bourdieu, “Structures, Habitus, Practices.” (1974, 1980), in Charles C. Lemert, ed., Social Theory (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1998), pp. 441-445.
Paul J. DiMaggio, “On Pierre Bourdieu.” American Journal of Sociology 84(6) (May 1979):1460-1474.
Anne Swidler, “Culture in Action.” American Sociological Review51(2)(April 1986):273-286.
Anthony Giddens, The Constitution of Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), pp. 1-40.
W. Richard Scott, Institutions and Organizations (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1995, pp. 16-62.
Samuel Phineas Upham has a PhD in Applied Economics from the Wharton School (University of Pennsylvania). Phin is a Term Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He can be reached at email@example.com.