Friday, 5 December 2014

The Individual versus Society

One of the consequences of discovering the traditional notions of self-hood within the Cartesian picture are incoherent, is that it does challenge our conception of the individual in society. The Cartesian picture is based on the simple object-subject relations that we use to frame the world around us. 

When we say Cartesian picture, what we are referring to is Descartes' account of dualism, where we view subjects and objects as discrete causal entities. However, once we start looking at the concepts on which the illusion of self is based, we start discover that things aren't what they seemed initially and our assumptions don't hold water too well. 

Implicit in this Cartesian picture then, is the idea that there are other causal selves out there, who are separate from the world and act independently as agents. This brings us to a series of fundamental problems that have troubled social psychologists since the field began its empirical endeavours. 

These problems are known as the 'agency-structure' divide, and 'individual-society' dualism. 
Let's unpack these terms and try to stipulate exactly what they mean.

Agency-Structure Dualism

What we mean by the Agency-structure divide is where we delineate individual agency from social practices, or the structure of of our social world. 

For example, we can consider peer pressure to start smoking cigarettes as an example of this. 
We might ask what role does individual agency play here, when the social structure people find themselves part of, may place pressure on its members to smoke? 

We may argue that peer pressure may influence our agency, however, if we knew smoking was harmful then why would we ever utilise our agency and choose to smoke? If we answered “Because everyone else is doing it” then we have clearly allowed societal pressure to influence our actions, and it is here where we ask; was it society making the structural conditions for action, or was it the self sufficient subject making a decision in isolation from the social world? 

Individual-Society Dualism

 With individual-society dualism, we are stepping outside of society metaphorically and looking at where an individual starts and ends. To what extent is someone an individual separate from society, and to what extent is society embroiled within the individual? 
Going back to our peer pressure example, the person being pressured in to smoking will use concepts and shared language from the social world and in this sense, the shared social world we inhabit, forms a part of each of the individuals within it. 

At this stage we might have an opinion about which of these is correct. For instance, we can argue away the agency structure divide by placing the onus on the individuals agency. In this sense we would like to claim that the executive function overrides peer pressure and people have a choice ultimately. 

However, when I look back at my own experience it seems to conflict with this account. If you can ever remember a time when you were subject to peer pressure, was it not the case you felt an urge to go along with the moment, and experienced the dissonance of thoughts related to the future negative outcomes of your actions? 

It seems counterintuitive to separate this into a simple matter of exercising rationality independently from the situation we are in. Were we to have the ability to do this, then phenomena such as peer pressure would not exist. 
This highlights the impoverished view of self sufficient Cartesian 'selves', that subsist separately from the social worlds we inhabit. 

In the Cartesian picture we have to view minds as self-sufficient entities that process intentional content. By intentional content, we simply mean content in the form of imagery, concepts, feelings, and the like, which 'cause' our actions or intentionality. 

We need not deny that there is intentional content, however, this does not necessarily entail this processing occurs independently or closed off from the situation we find ourselves in. 
It is clear this process is influenced according to circumstance, and it is our being in this situation which helps to shape our actions and responses. In this sense our cognition is embodied, and does not operate independently from such situations.

Drawing the Line?

This area has been contentious among social psychologists. It was the orthodox view to simply assume that individuals acted completely independently from the social world. However, we can clearly see from our peer pressure example that this view is untenable. 
What we are really talking about is the way in which we are interrelated with the social world, and on this account, it makes no sense to draw binary distinctions such as agency-structure, and individual–society and  claim they are mutually exclusive. 

This does raise questions about where we draw the line between agency and social structures, and the State versus the individual. Our justice system implicitly assumes the Cartesian picture is correct, and relies on it for notions of individual responsibility and guilt. Furthermore, this also brings into question the notions of left and Right wing politics which tacitly assume one side of the dualism. 

We might also ask is it being born into poverty that causes crime, or is it just a few bad eggs that need to be separated from the rest of us? 

Clearly the way in which we conceptualise the individual and society is quite important, since it is one of the cornerstones upon which the foundations of our society is based upon. Even the way we view ourselves as consumers presupposes that we are trying to further our own individual interests. Of course, we can view this as an extension from our animalistic survival instincts  but we are not just self interested, since we care about the people around us - our family and friends.  

What if we've had it all wrong? 

The point here is not to argue for or against a particular political system, but it is to highlight the way in which the individual and society is conceptualised. 

What if self interest was an illusion that we had subscribed to all our lives, and how would this influence the way we conceptualised the political field? 

How can we conceptualise individual agency and justice if there is no such thing as individual free will?

It seems these notions are empty in the sense that they inherently exist. We can make sense of them conventionally, although we can question the substance behind them.

Of course, we will not be able to put this to bed in one foul swoop, but I hope we can apply what we have learned to our phenomenological investigations (AKA Looking), that you are hopefully undertaking as a result of coming across 

We have a tendency to think within the constraints of the subject-object dichotomy and this has been conditioned into us from the very beginning. When it comes to delineating ourselves from society, it becomes difficult purely for the fact that we are carving up cause-and-effect into the subject-object regime. What we need to do is bracket off this preconception, and apply the results from our experimentation into the mix. 

 There seems to be a real difficulty in trying to carve up the individual as some discrete entity separate from the world itself, when our very being is intertwined with the ever changing world which constantly throws up new scenarios, and the cultural practices that shape our thinking. 

Anywhere we try to find a dividing line between discrete individuals and society, we run in to major problems. Of course, it makes sense that we try to provide accounts of how individuals behave and reason etc which has been the goal of psychology. 
However, we find that psychology is always in a social context and to theorise the individual as being isolated from the social world, creates a subject-object dualism that cannot be consistently maintained.


Post a Comment

Popular Posts