In an earlier posting I discussed the idea of the 'social mind' and the way in which such a collective consciousness' must be understood as dispersed to and contained in the minds of the individual members of a society. This provides us with a way of understanding social structures, seen by Durkheim as external and constraining factors in social life. In my work on social structure I showed that the institutions and relations that comprise a social structure must be seen as 'embodied structures', but I did not properly specify how such individual phenomena relate to collective structures.
In this posting I want to try to show that the structures of everyday life - Goffman's 'interaction order' - and the 'macro' structures of specialised economic and political activities can be understood as rooted in individual subjectivity yet act as real forces in shaping individual activity.
The world of everyday life - the backdrop to all our activity - comprises the myriad locales and persons that are typically encountered - houses, shops, roads, pavements, workplaces, etc. - and all the various objects that they typically contain. The everyday world is a sedimentation of our experiences, the sedimented elements that can be taken-for-granted as what 'everybody knows'.
The everyday world becomes broader and deeper as more aspects of specialised activities become routinised and sedimented. Places newly encountered may be assimilated by us to our understanding of the everyday world as they become more familiar to us. In contemporary societies, the department stores where we do our shopping have become parts of the everyday world. As we become more familiar with staying at hotels, aspects of hotel life, too, come to be familiar and are sedimented in the everyday.
Aspects of our school or work life may become extensions of our everyday world: those parts that we regularly encounter on a day-to-day basis and that are familiar to us. Similarly, a person elected to parliament will come to see aspects of the Palace of Westminster and its surrounding public buildings as everyday phenomena, though they remain unfamiliar, and often closed, to others.
The specialised activities in which we engage - going to work, lobbying parliament, attending church, etc. - all take place against the backdrop of the everyday world, yet all add to this a distinct point of view and view of the world that acts as a frame of reference to shape our specialised actions. Thus, the everyday world coexists with a number of distinct (and perhaps mutually discrepant or contradictory) realities. Each specialised activity depends upon a commonality and complementarity of understanding: there must be some common understandings that define the nature of the activity and some complementarity of understandings that ensure the actions of those in different social positions will mesh. This complementarity may not form a perfect concordance between actors. All that is necessary is that there be sufficient congruence for their interaction to be mutually predictable.
The everyday world and the specialised worlds may be largely intersubjective realities, by virtue of being similarly understood by all members of a society. Each individual may understand the world differently - uniquely - but there will be a greater or lesser commonality or overlap in views. Whenever such a commonality exists, individuals will tend to act in such a way that their interactions mesh: the relations in which they engage are expressions of the common understanding and the definitions of situations that they inform.
When there is sufficient commonality in subjective orientations, whether in everyday or specialised activities, it is as if the actors are acting under an external structure that shapes their actions. Speech, for example, is experienced as if it were governed by an externally real linguistic structure, in terms of which utterances may be judged to be grammatically correct or incorrect. However, in speech and in interaction generally there are no separate structures but merely virtual structures: structures that are experienced as real but that exist only in the subjectivity of individuals and the communicative flows that sustain them. It is the commonality and complementarity that 'contains' the virtual structures that can be said to be governing their actions.
Social structures are, therefore, virtual structures. They can be identified and their properties be described by sociologists, but they have no substantive existence apart from the individuals whose subjectivity sustains them. The virtual structures that we can identify (concepts, values, norms, roles, institutions, etc.) may be more or less integrated or contradictory depending on the degree of coordination that is achieved between the multiple realities in which actors must engage over the course of their lives.
Originally Posted June 3, 2017< What are 'British Values' Social Consciousness and Social Mind >