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How Institutions Think (Mary Douglas, 1986)

How Institutions Think
by Mary Douglas
1986, Syracuse University Press

This book is based on five lectures presented by Mary Douglas at Syracuse University during the last two weeks of March 1985.
Mary Douglas
Dame Mary Douglas, Order of British Empire, Fellow of the British Academy (25 March 1921 – 16 May 2007) was a British anthropologist, known for her writings on human culture and symbolism.
Her area was social anthropology; she was considered a follower of Émile Durkheim and a proponent of structuralist analysis, with a strong interest in comparative religion.
Mary Douglas is best known for her interpretation of the book of Leviticus, and for her role in creating the cultural theory of risk.
Douglas’ book “Purity and Danger” is considered a key text in social anthropology.
The line of enquiry in “Purity and Danger“ traces the words and meaning of dirt in different contexts. What is regarded as dirt in a given society is any matter considered out of place (Douglas takes this lead from William James). She attempts to clarify the differences between the sacred, the clean and the unclean in different societies and times. Through a complex and sophisticated reading of ritual, religion and lifestyle she challenges Western ideas of pollution, making clear how the context and social history is essential. (Source: Wikipedia)
Cultural Theory of risk
The Cultural Theory of risk, often referred to simply as Cultural Theory (with capital letters; not to be confused with culture theory), consists of a conceptual framework and an associated body of empirical studies that seek to explain societal conflict over risk. Whereas other theories of risk perception stress economic and cognitive influences, Cultural Theory asserts that structures of social organization endow individuals with perceptions that reinforce those structures in competition against alternative ones. Originating in the work of anthropologist Mary Douglas and political scientist Aaron Wildavsky, Cultural Theory has given rise to a diverse set of research programs that span multiple social science disciplines and that have in recent years been used to analyze policymaking conflicts generally. (Source: Wikipedia)
Interesting findings:

• Institutions Cannot Have Minds of Their Own
• “In sum, thinking and feeling are for individual persons. However, can a social group think or feel? This is the central, repugnant paradox.”
• “The program of Durkheim and Fleck can answer the functionalist criticism and the rational choice criticism only by developing a double stranded view of social behavior. One strand is cognitive: the individual demand for order and coherence and control of uncertainty. The other strand is transactional: the individual utility is maximizing activity described in a cost-benefit calculus.”

• Smallness of Scale Discounted
• “Smallness of scale gives scope to interpersonal effects.”
• “The current, more sophisticated, anthropological record shows these small-scale societies as never static, nor self-stabilizing,, but being built continuously by a process of rational bargaining and negotiating.”

• How Latent Groups Survive
• “Both science or religion are equally joint products of a thought world; both are improbable achievements unless we can explain how individual thinkers combine to create a collective good.”
• “The only initial assumption necessary was the minimal one that they would like to see the community survive without giving up their individual autonomy. The constraints in the situation only afford certain solutions. By adopting the easiest strategy, they start to move together along a path that ends in their joint construction of a thought style.”

• Institutions Are Founded on Analogy
• “To acquire legitimacy, every kind of institution needs a formula that founds its rightness in reason and in nature.”
• “For a convention to turn into a legitimate social institution it needs a parallel cognitive convention to sustain it.”
• “The favorite analogy generalizes everyone’s preferred convention.”
• “Thus the institutions survive the stage of being fragile conventions: they are founded in nature and therefore, in reason. Being naturalized, they are part of the order of the universe and so are ready to stand as the grounds of arguments”

• Institutions Confer Identity
• ”How does one constructed analogy win over another?”
• “It is naive to treat the quality of sameness […] as if it were a quality inherent in things or as a power of recognition in the mind”
• “We can start to trace the effects of turning individual thought over to an automatic pilot. First, there is a saving of energy from institutional coding and inertia”
• “But when an analogy matches a structure of authority or precedence, then the social pattern reinforces the logical patterns and gives it prominence”

• Institutions Remember and Forget
• “When we look closely at the construction of past time, we find the process has very little to do with the past at all and everything with the present.”
• “Public memory is the storage system for the social order.”
• “For them [anthropologists], remembering is the peculiar thing that needs to be explained.”
• “It is merely that there is no special reason for remembering certain names, there is even strong pressure against it.”
• “The competitive society celebrates its heroes, the hierarchy celebrates its patriarchs, and the sect its martyrs.”

• Institutions Do the Classifying
• “When the institutions make classifications for us, we seem to lose some independence that we might conceivably have otherwise had.”
• “For us, the hope of intellectual independence is to resist, and the necessary first step in resistance is to discover how institutional grip is laid upon our mind”
• “[…] life outside of human society transforms itself away from the labels in self-defense, while that within human society transforms itself towards them in hope of relief or expecting advantage.”
• “First the people are tempted out of their niches by new possibilities of exercising or evading control. Then they make new kinds of institutions, and the institutions make new labels, and the label makes new kinds of people.”

• Institutions Make Life and Death Decisions
• “Thus, no single element of justice has innate rightness: for being right it depends upon its generality, its schematic coherence, and its fit with other accepted principles.”
• “When the analogy with nature has been changed, the system of justice also needs revision.”
• “The most profound decisions about justice are not made by individuals as such, but by individuals thinking within and o behalf of institutions. The only way that a system of justice exists is by its everyday fulfillment of institutional needs.”
• “For better or worse, individuals really do share their thoughts and they do to some extent harmonize their preferences, and they have no other way to make the big decisions except within the scope of institutions they build.”