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Essay, HIB basic course, Subjectivity & Learning Spring 2011

A discussion of the relationship between the individual and society.

Allan KortbĂŚk House 3.1.1

Society and the self, Allan KortbĂŚk


This essay attempts to examine the relationship between the individual and society. In doing so, an examination of the notion of the self, indeed the very definition of the self is investigated in considerable depth. In this regard, the positions of several philosophers, anthropologists and social psychologists are considered in tandem with the practices and traditions of people as individuals as well as in groups. The second part of this document discusses how one can study the aforementioned relationship and highlights some of the possible conundrums inherent in such a study.

Comprehension of the relation between the individual and the society entails a clear understanding of the concept of the self (i.e. the individual.) Rather than viewing individual and society as two disparate, unrelated notions, Burkitt seconds Norbert Elias’ view of society as a society as individuals vis a vis instead of distinctly separating the two entities as adherents of the methodological individualist persuasion do (Burkitt 2008, 3.) From these assumptions, it is fair to state that the relationship between society and individual is a non-dichotomous one insofar as both entities influence each other and are significantly linked to one another. Metaphorically phrased, a study of this relationship is not a study of the drop, nor the ocean beyond it, but of the drop in the ocean. In this respect, Burkitt posits that people are born into a place and time that is not of their making and that much of who and what people are is framed in the context of individuals being born into predetermined social structures (Burkitt 2008, 3.) Additionally, Burkitt also maintains that society consists of many different selves and that this multiplicity extends to the very core of the definition of the self itself, whereby one is not exactly the same person in all the situations they act in nor are they the same person today that they

Society and the self, Allan KortbĂŚk


were in the past (Burkitt 2008, 3.) Society therefore structures the individual and in similar vein, individuals, through individual thought collectively structure society.

Burkitt’s perceptions are echoed quite resoundingly by the prevalent Western philosophical discourse on the subject on the individual and his / her relationship to society. Bourdieu’s interpretation of Mauss’s position on the concept of habitus is one way of understanding the relationship of the individual to the society insofar as it illustrates how the individual is molded by society. Bourdieu argues that all mankind was “born into, brought up within and lives within various social fields that have formed our habitus” (Burkitt 2008, 148.) It follows that the inclination of the individual toward certain dispositions and habitual tendencies is shaped by our habitus, which starts to form during childhood through aspects such as family, neighbourhood and education, all of which vary from one individual to the next. Rousseau and Nietzsche concur with Bourdieu’s theories on habitus albeit in a more cynical, skeptical fashion. Both philosophers maintain that the individual is molded by society insofar as he /she is directed away from his or her natural instincts. Whilst Rousseau believes that all humans are inherently good by nature but become corrupted by society, Nietzsche more cynically presents the view that humans and nature are at best amoral, based on his discourse on natural selection in species, as outlined by Darwinian thinking (Burkitt 2008, 13.)

Further skepticism of the manner in which the individual is shaped by society can be sourced from Marxist depictions of the relationship between the social world and the self. Marx argues that all mankind is “born into a social group, a social class, culture, religion, gender, ethnicity or any other position by which we can classify ourselves” (Burkitt 2008, 13.) Moreover, transcending the limitations of such a position entails working within the social framework that governs ones existence, implying hence that the power of the individual in shaping his own identity is in fact rather limited. Concurrently, Marx concludes that humans construct and sculpt their societies through collective activities from which differing self-identities are generated, depending on the individual’s role in the labour market. (Burkitt 2008, 18) This sense of social collectiveness is cultivated by what Durkheim termed the collective conscience; “the ideas and values formed within

Society and the self, Allan Kortbæk


society which became the basis of all individual thinking and feeling” Again, the individual is seen as an entity whose identity is shaped almost exclusively by the social structure within which he or she exists.

On the other hand, man is not merely a puppet whose strings are tugged by the social settings within which he finds himself; a viewpoint that was argued for by discourse as far back as Cartesian thinking, whose cogito ergo sum argument maintains that individuals are capable of free thought. More pragmatically, Hegel’s Phenomenology of the spirit (1807) “understands the idea of human beings as social beings while retaining the notion of the self as an individual in its own right, albeit one that is the product of a dialectical historical process” (Burkitt 2008, 13.) Unlike Marx, Hegel puts forth that reason can develop independent of human effort or design, i.e. that despite social notions of what the self should be, the individual can in fact shape his or her own identity. A more modern day approach on the matter in the form of Beck’s perception of social life further highlights the power of the individual in shaping his or her own identity independent of societal structures that do so for them. Beck argues that in the face of modernity, social structures within society are shifting in such a way that dismantles the traditional roles of institutions such as the family and religion in shaping the identity of the individual. This, and the advent of globalisation has led to unprecedented freedom on the part of the individual as far as the construction of one’s own identity is concerned. Modern Life through Beck’s reasoning is hence seen as an increasingly reflexive, selfdriven occurrence as opposed to a process of fulfilling predetermined standards of social conformity with regard to concepts such as social class as advocated for by traditionalist societies (Beck, Ulrich 1992)

Studying the relationship between the society and the individual can be done in various ways. Qualitative research rooted in ascertaining the how and why (as opposed to the what where and when) behind social phenomena provides anchorage for an investigation into this relationship. In this concern, an example of a qualitative enquiry would be an investigation of how language classes in the schooling system impact on the everyday lives of children, with an emphasis on examining the effects on the relationship structures

Society and the self, Allan Kortbæk


between the children themselves as well as between the children and adults. Such an investigation, conducted in the form of a series of interviews for instance, would allow one to identify the connection between the private lives of subjects and the public worlds within which they live and interact, providing a fundament from which suppositions as to the relationship between the individual and the society can be drawn. Like all research, this approach to studying the individual and society is not devoid of challenges. A persistent conundrum in this regard is the issue of validity. Silverman & Yin point out that “establishing the validity of one’s findings is seen as an essential component of both quantitative and qualitative research (Silvermann & Yin 1994.) Validity here refers to how accurately the results of an investigation reflect the phenomena under analysis. A key hindrance to validity in this context would be the differences between those conducting the interview and those being interviewed. In many instances, questionnaires may be misleading or reflect a bias on the part of the researcher which in turn would lead to answers that aren’t as objective as they ought to be. This is true of cross-cultural investigations where those researching social phenomena within specific cultures are unable to get objective answers from their sample for the simple reason that they do not relate adequately to the position of those they are interviewing. Hammersley and Atkinson propound that researchers ought to adopt an attitude of “respect or appreciation towards the social world (Hammersely and Atkinson 1983, 6.) In other words, they should empathize with the situation of their interviewees in order to gain more objective results. This however is easier said than done, even in a world that is increasingly globalised and homogenous in cultural and economic terms.

Hence, the relation between the individual and the society can be understood by a study of both entities that interact freely and mutually with each other as opposed to a study that distinctly separates the two from each other. It follows that individuals shape their societies, just as societies shape them. Historically, society’s role in sculpting the identity of the individual was far more significant than it is in this day and age. The advent of modernity has led to a greater empowerment to the individual as far as forming an identity of his or her own is concerned, shifting the nature of the relation between society

Society and the self, Allan Kortbæk


and the self. Qualitative research offers a medium by which to analyse this relation, yet it is limited by methodological dilemmas such as validity.

List of References

Baird, Forrest E.; Walter Kaufmann 2008

Burkitt, Ian. Social Selves. Theories of Self and Society. Second edition. Sage 2008

Beck, Ulrich 1992

Silvermann & Yin 1994

Hammersley & Atkinson 1983

Society and the self, Allan KortbĂŚk


Society and the self, Allan KortbĂŚk


society and the self  
society and the self  

A description of the relationship between the society and the self.