Thursday, July 18, 2013

Reading :: How Institutions Think

How Institutions Think 
By Mary Douglas

I picked up this slim (138pp.) book based on its title and description as well as through a stray citation in a recent reading. Although it's good work, unfortunately it didn't do the job that I wanted it to—that is, to discuss how institutions (that is, large hierarchical organizations) think (that is, collectively reason or cogitate). 

Douglas, an anthropologist, builds on Durkheim (whom I've read) and Fleck (whom I haven't) to examine how human thinking is to a degree dependent on the institutions in which we find ourselves—"institutions" in this case meaning organizations or social structures. Along the way, she contrasts different schools of thought in anthropology and related fields, reexamines anthropology's assumptions about simple societies vs. complex ones, and challenges some of our assumptions about institutions. 

For instance, in the last chapter, Douglas airs the "myth" that minor decisions are offloaded so that individuals can think about important matters (p.111). In reality, she says, "The individual tends to leave the important decisions to his institutions while busying himself with tactics and details" (p.111). (Note: Douglas very much likes to use this sort of chiasmus, but I think that it sometimes results in false choices such as this one.) Indeed, she argues, "any institution then starts to control the memory of its members... It provides the categories of their thought, sets the terms for self-knowledge, and fixes identities" (p.112). 

The book is, or should be, provocative. But I confess that I was not captivated by it. Beyond the fact that it didn't address what I had hoped, the book seemed to oversimplify certain questions about how individuals relate to institutions, seemed to minimize differences in kinds of organizations, and tended to focus on anthropological disputes without deeply considering how discussions from parallel fields might productively impact those disputes. Then again, it could be that I'm simply not in the intended audience for this Oxford-trained anthropologist. If you're interested in how institutions think—in Douglas' terms—certainly you should take a look. 

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