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How Institutions Think (Routledge Revivals) (Volume 3) by Mary Douglas
ISBN: 0415679524
ISBN13: 978-0415679527
Author: Mary Douglas
Book title: How Institutions Think (Routledge Revivals) (Volume 3)
Other Formats: lit rtf doc azw
Pages: 160 pages
Publisher: Routledge (June 29, 2011)
Language: English
Size PDF version: 1696 kb
Size ePub version: 1764 kb
Size fb2 version: 1710 kb
Category: Social Sciences

First published in 1986 Mary Douglas’ theory of institutions uses the sociological theories of Emile Durkheim and Ludwig Fleck to determine not only how institutions think, but also the extent to which thinking itself is dependent upon institutions. Different kinds of institutions allow individuals to think different kinds of thoughts and to respond to different emotions. It is just as difficult to explain how individuals come to share the categories of their thought as to explain how they ever manage to sink their private interests for a common good.

Douglas forewarns us that institutions do not think independently, nor do they have purposes, nor do they build themselves. As we construct our institutions, we are squeezing each other’s ideas into a common shape in order to prove their legitimacy by sheer numbers. She admonishes us not to take comfort in the thought that primitives may think through institutions, but moderns decide on important issues individually. Our legitimated institutions make major decisions, and these decisions always involve ethical principles.

Books reviews
digytal soul
I was recommended this book by a social science colleague whose judgment I trust. I certainly would not have bothered on my own, after reader her book with Wildavsky, which I found to be shallow and misguided (see my review of this book).

Douglas's major thesis in this book is that the notion of rational action as the behavior of the socially isolated self-regarding actor is incorrect. Her alternative is that "mind is society writ small." That is, individual beliefs, desires, and hence actions, are the product of the individual's social connections and social experience, and have a strong other-regarding and ethical element of self-sacrifice on behalf of the group and its moral principles. She develops this theme with great eloquence, insight and erudition.

Nevertheless, her arguments could have been stronger. Even thirty years ago, she would have benefitted from the incredibly powerful works of the sociologists Talcott Parsons and Ralph Linton (Douglas only recognizes the late Parsons, whereas the early Parsons of 1937 is relevant for her thesis). Moreover, she does not understand the scientific notion of rationality, as developed by Von Neumann and Morgenstern as well as, even more critically, Leonard Savage (1954). In terms of modern decision theory, stemming from Savage, we would summarize her argument is that the subjective prior of rational choice theory must be replaced by a model in which beliefs are socially constructed. Most important, her critique of rational choice theory as necessarily self-regarding is completely incorrect.

Douglas' stress on the importance of Durkheim is well-founded, but she does not find a way to overcome the most common objection to Durkheim, which is that its portrayal of society is completely functionalist---society functions when people agree on basic beliefs and conventions. This is simply incorrect. Societies can function quite well with serious ideational conflict (although general adherence to certain core principles tends to facilitate constructive social cooperation). I have argued that individuals are embedded in social networks of minds, and individual beliefs and knowledge are distributed over these networks. We may call this socially distributed cognition.

Socially distributed cognition almost never takes the form of a single network of consonant information and values, and indeed, major forms of social change are the result of the clash of contrasting networks of social cognition. With this emendation, Douglas' brilliant argument makes much more sense.
Not for everyone. I was riveted
Great condition
Without doubt, one of the best books of M. Douglas that shows us how our understanding and thinking structures through institutions. A must-read for students of sociology and other social scientists.
I wanted to give it 3.5 stars. But that wasn't an option.

Mary Douglas’s book is about how people in Western industrialized societies think within and on behalf of social institutions. Institutions are extensions of our brains and we create and use them to make tough decisions for us, much to our detriment. By “institution” she means any social grouping of people organized for a purpose. I get the sense you can use the word “institution” interchangeably with “organization.” However, her book seems to heavily rely on academic fields as examples of thinking institutions like the fields of economics, sociology, and biology and how they do the thinking for the corresponding professions—economists, sociologists, and biologists. But she also explores non-academic ones like wineries, publishers of encyclopedias, and the American judicial system. She compares some of them to institutions in Eastern societies deemed “primitive,” implying that the Western world misunderstands the smaller institutions in these societies. Here in lies her real reason for writing the book. Douglas wants her readers to understand that social institutions have largely defined the way we think of the world and ourselves—especially how we think of non-Western societies. To do this, she embarks on a philosophical inquiry and debate against critics who say we think for ourselves outside of the social constraints of an institution. She uses the ideas of sociologist Emile Durkheim and biologist Ludwick Fleck to frame her main argument: institutions do the thinking for people.

So, was she persuasive? She was to the extent readers can understand the various debates discussed. This book was a very hard read. Readers will need a strong grasp of social theory (in sociology, anthropology, and economics) and some knowledge of fundamental philosophical debates to decode her main points on justice, free rider phenomenon, self-knowledge, and -discovery. Moreover, her writing is not the best. Generally, I have a hard time following authors who address on-going debates to support or make a broader point. That takes a lot of brain power—if you’re like me, then you have to familiarize yourself with the debate by doing some research on them then re-read the paragraph to understand how they support or make her broader points. She could have referred to the various academic debates in a sentence or two, then fleshed them out (e.g., how they originated) in the footnotes for interested readers. This way, readers could understand her points clearer. Douglas refers to these debates to show how institutional thinking inform them regardless of the merits of the opposing groups.

So, why read this book? I think Douglas wrote this book for academics. But, if you’re willing to familiarize yourself with the debates in her book while you read, then this is the book for you. Otherwise, if you are “in the know,” a well-informed person of social and anthropological matters, then this too is the book for you. The book is so grounded in philosophy and science that it seems only academics could understand it. Fortunately, I have a strong background on social theory with a PhD in sociology. So, I managed to plow through the book. Otherwise I would have put the book down like the previous reviewer. I read this book for an independent research project. I learned a great deal about the effect institutions have on human memory, behavior, and concepts. I couldn’t agree with Douglas more when she explained how institutions are energized by members who strongly believe in them as the end and be all for solving problems within and outside the institution. I also agree with her on how institutions are essentially human make-shift tools (a pulling together of pots and pans—of inadequate concepts) to fix pressing social issues of our day—e.g., think of taken-for-granted outdated or ill-conceived ideas to handle the issue of present-day homophobia, racism, and immigration. Yet, we so readily will hand over the reins to organizations to deal with such important issues. Overall, Douglas’ book is worth reading about the effects of institutional thinking. I just wish it was written much clearer. I could feel her making profound statements that were unfortunately inaccessible due to her writing style and target audience.
I bought this book expecting to find a scientific analysis the functioning of institution. I was expecting to find a list of the facts relevant to the functioning of institution, notably from anthropological sources, an analysis of these facts, conclusions drawn from this analysis, and then a discussion on the validity of these conclusions.

I didn't. What I found instead was a philosophical discussion of the ideas expressed by previous authors - very little facts, analysis of these facts and conclusions dawn from them. So I didn't manage to finish the book.

Given my strong interest in science and its approach and my dislike for philosophy and its approach, I rate this book 2 out of 5. However I realize that my judgment may have been totally different if instead I were interested in philosophy...
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