We’ve got this all wrong. (Part 2)
So, I asked in the first part of this discussion two posts ago: What criteria would you use to determine whether your society is ok or not? A number of you commented. You mentioned things like civility, or the lack of it and the discrepancy between training and getting work related to that training, something especially important for recent graduates of training programs. One of you noted that this is a very complex question! Indeed it is. Sociologists have seen this question as one of the most important in sociology. To even ask whether your society is ok or not implies a number of basic questions and assumptions. The first regards the definition of society itself. First point to consider here is that society, the word, represents what many sociologists consider to be a system of interrelated and interdependent institutions and structures with a particular culture whose job it is to keep the whole thing running smoothly. ‘Society’ does not equate with ‘country.’ The concept of ‘Canada’ is a political one. Harold Innis argues that if we use Canada as a basic unit of analysis, we allow politicians to lead us about by the nose and that’s not terribly pleasant or effective as the point of departure in an analysis of society. Society does not stop or start at borders. I’ve argued elsewhere that Canada is not a very useful unit of analysis for a number of reasons. (https://rogerjgalbert.com/2012/07/27/is-canada-a-capitalist-country/)
There may be many ways of deciding whether a society is OK or not. Much depends on how we conceive of a healthy society. Functionalists like Emile Durkheim were very clear in their sense that a ‘healthy’ society is one where there is a balance between individualism and collectivism, that is between the needs of the individual to stand out, especially in a competitive situation, and the needs of the group for solidarity. Too much individualism and the glue that holds people together in society fails and the whole thing comes crashing down. Too much collectivism and individuals fail to thrive and innovation falls flat and as a result society itself stagnates and fails. So, according to Durkheim and his colleagues, a balance between individualism and collectivism indicates a healthy society. But what practical tool or way can we measure this? Durkheim came up with suicide, or more accurately, the suicide rate. Suicide itself is imponderable. It’s impossible to ask a suicide why he or she did it. Even leaving a suicide note may not tell the whole story. So it’s not suicide per se that interested Durkheim.
But what about the suicide rate? The suicide rate is measured by dividing the number of suicides in a population by 100,000 people in the population. It varies according to some very predictable social conditions. Canada’s suicide rate is about 11 per 100,000 and men commit suicide at a rate 3 or 4 times the rate of women and that means that women have a rate of close to 5 and men more like 17. Single people commit suicide at higher rates than married people. People from different regions commit suicide at different rates. In Nunavut, the rate is 71. Now that’s way over the Canadian average. Durkheim asked himself what accounted for this variation. After conducting extensive research, the first ‘real’ sociological research of its kind, he dismissed imitation and ‘insanity’ as causes of suicide. Read his book Suicide for the details. Suffice it to say that Durkheim concluded that suicide rates varied with the amount of integration and individuation evident in a society. He identified 3 major types of suicide, anomic, egoistic and altruistic. He also identified fatalistic suicide as a way of keeping his theory in balance. (See this Wikipedia entry for a bit of an ok discussion of Durkheim’s views on this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suicide_(book)) His whole idea is that too much integration or too much individuation is ‘bad’ for society. By this argument, if Canada’s historical suicide rate is 11 per 100,000, but in Nunavut it’s 71, Durkheim would say that it’s because there is not enough social integration in the north. Colonialism has marginalized a formerly very stable society and now people have no social glue to hold them together. They’ve lost their traditional means of doing so and they have no new ones because they’ve been systematically excluded from them at every turn. So, their suicide rate goes ballistic.
On the other side of the ledger, if Canada’s suicide rate suddenly fell to 2 or 3 per 100,000, that would be equally bad because the historical balance that existed in Canada to keep its rate at 11 was no longer extant. So, if fewer people commit suicide, that’s also an indication that there is something wrong in society, in this case, namely that the glue that hold people together in society is too strong and prevents people from expressing themselves individually, even if that means to commit suicide. Now this is where my students’ heads began to explode. How could it be that fewer people committing suicide is a bad thing? Well, Durkheim’s analysis is not about individual wellbeing, it’s about social wellbeing. Durkheim’s theory is based on the premise that society is like an organism itself with a life of its own. My body is composed of billions of individual cells, but my life is not the sum of those individual cells. My life is more than the sum of the cells that make up my body. If at some time I suffer a major trauma and lose millions of cells (as in an arm or leg) my body can survive that. The survival of my body is what’s important, not the survival of individual cells, maybe not even millions of them. Makes sense even though it’s counter-intuitive.
So, from this perspective, balance is what’s crucial to a society’s health. Throw off that balance and suffer the consequences. Durkheim’s view also has as a basic premise that like all organisms, including societies, are composed of parts (organs) that have to work well on their own as well as work together for the good of the whole organism. If certain parts no longer function properly, the whole organism is in jeopardy. That goes for individual human organisms as well as for societies. If education isn’t doing its job, the whole rest of society suffers. If families aren’t socializing children properly, the whole society is stressed. If the economy or the polity fail, the whole social structure is in danger. Thus, for Durkheim, sociology is social pathology, how societies go wrong. So now, looking at your society, do you think everything is in balance? If it is give examples of how. If you think it isn’t also give examples of how.
I’m not suggesting for a minute that I wholeheartedly agree with Durkheim’s views, but he has a point. See if you can use his theory to make some sense of your own society. In my next post I’ll outline another theory about how society can be OK or not.