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The Structure of Social Space
To understand the relations between society and
self, to make sense of our experience as sentient and moral beings,
we need to develop knowledge which doesn't at present exist. The division
of labour in the intellectual marketplace has resulted in a profound
and pervasive disarticulation of knowledge. For example, sociologists
know little of what psychologists are doing, and neither group is likely
to be familiar with the work of moral philosophers. Even if they were
(and in those rare instances when they are) the various forms of specialized knowledge are
not constructed to fit together at all easily. Academia has become
a competitive industry, not a body of men and women seeking to understand
the place of humanity in the world.
Social injustice and inequality are intimately
linked to personal pain and unhappiness, but there is no academic discipline
centrally concerned to investigate and explain the relations between
them. Such work takes place only incidentally and on the margins.
Although, thankfully, it is coming at last to be
recognized in the social and life sciences that a separation of mind
from body is not one that can validly be maintained, a similarly unhelpful
separation of self from society is still very much in evidence. The
very fact that sociology and psychology are set up as separate disciplines,
splitting what is in fact an indissoluble whole (i.e. the social and
the personal), means that even the student who strives for integration
is stuck at the very foundation of his or her thinking with the assumptions
derived from one end of an artificial dichotomy.
There is a further, logical, difficulty at the
heart of our efforts to understand ourselves, and that is that, in
order to do so, we cannot get outside ourselves. We can do a
lot better with inanimate matter and with biological systems less complex
than ourselves precisely because in the process of investigating them
we do not (so much) have to take into account our own essential
nature. We can look at them from the outside. When thinking about ourselves,
however, we are caught up in covert purposes and motivations which
are so much a part of ourselves that we cannot possibly be objective
about them. In the context of our thinking about ourselves, there is no
outside. Even so, perhaps we could get quite a bit further than we
Psychology, for example, seems almost wilfully
blind not only to the significance of its own existence (in maintaining
an individualism which is of the first importance to the preservation
of the current social order), but also to some of the most glaringly
obvious factors in human motivation (e.g., the operation of interest).
I do not mean that psychology should not exist,
but its potential value, from a clinical perspective at least, lies
less in its exclusive focus on individuals than in its ability to illuminate
subjectivity: what it feels like to be a person in the world (and
why). It is in any case a pretty strange sort of individual that emerges
from the typical introductory psychology text a disjointed collection
of mechanisms (perception, sensation, emotion, cognition, etc.) which
somehow manage to combine to generate behaviour which is,
in the final analysis, willed, rational and apparently entirely detached
from the kinds of preoccupation (about money and power) which in fact,
whether or not we like to admit it, so dominate our daily lives.
Although psychology attempts to preserve its scientific status
by seeming to stand outside the object of its study so that the latters behaviour can
be predicted and controlled, it nevertheless, tacitly or otherwise, ends up
with a perspective on the person as a rational agent who looks out at the world
from the self as centre, processes stimuli and decides what
This kind of view fits in, of course, pretty well
with our everyday understanding of ourselves and how we function, and
no doubt helps thereby to preserve the appeal of official psychology.
One of the more obvious features of the vast bulk of the findings of scientific psychology
is that they accord closely with common sense. This is of course not
necessarily a fault, and could I suppose be taken as an indication
that things are not going too far wrong. However, it seems to me more
likely that this somewhat tedious confirmation of received wisdom is
a reflection of a set of assumptions which underlie the views of us
all psychologists both lay and professional.
For when we come to thinking about ourselves, our psychologies and
our relations with each other, we are governed by some very basic prejudices
which, though in part very much culturally and socially determined
(and, as we shall see, mercilessly exploited by power) are also very
nearly inescapably imposed upon us by our nature as creatures embodied
in time and space.
View from the self as centre
Each one of us occupies, in the grander scheme
of things, an infinitesimal space for an infinitesimal length of time,
and yet, for us as individuals, this is all the space and all the time
we have and so figures subjectively as hugely significant.
Our greatest intimacy is with the bodily sensations
that mediate our relations with the world around us: because we feel,
physically, what is going on, we have a sense of interiority which
seems to be just about the most indubitable indication of what is happening
to us. We feel we know what is going on in our own minds with
an especially privileged certainty, while we can only make educated
guesses about what goes on in the minds of others. The physical experience
of doing things experience which is absolutely unavoidable convinces
us that, most of the time, doing things means assessing options and
taking decisions. We seem to be given an indisputable knowledge of
wishes and intentions which are entirely private to ourselves, and
our greatest guarantee of the truth of someone elses wishes and
intentions seems to be to induce them to give a truthful account of
them from their own inner experience.
Our understanding and assessment of the world around
us is mediated socially by the people and things we come into direct,
bodily contact with. The language we speak we learn from those who
speak to us, and we speak (extraordinarily precisely) with their cadences
and their accent. Our experience of social power is transmitted by
those with whom we have daily contact first families, then educators,
then employers. On the whole, the nearer people and things are to us
the more significance we are likely to accord to their effect upon
us (inevitably, for example, children experience their parents as enormously
powerful). At the same time we are of course surrounded by a complex
apparatus conveying information and controlling meaning; the extent
to which we are able to gain a critical purchase on this apparatus
will determine our understanding of our world. In all these spheres
we are encircled by an horizon beyond which the world is a mystery.
From the perspective of time also we occupy a life-span
which gives us a sense of the length of history. The elderly
live in an era which, for their grandchildren already beyond the reach
of fashion, becomes a realm merely of nostalgia. The Norman Conquest
seems to most of us in Britain (who know about it at all) to belong
deep in the mists of the past and yet there are still families
living on estates seized then, and it takes only 13 seventy-year-olds,
living back-to-back, to get there.
We live, then, at the centre of a world of proximal
This world is deeply, perhaps even by now indelibly,
established in modern culture. Only rarely from within our social and
cultural institutions - as rarely, for example, in literature as in
the law - is there a glimmer of acknowledgement that we are not, at
least ideally, the originators of our own conduct and masters of our
own fate. The whole tendency of Western ways of thought has been increasingly
to see the individual as autonomous.
Just as it was difficult for mediaeval men and
women to shake off the conviction so powerfully endorsed by
their own senses that the earth was at the centre of the universe,
so does it appear self-evident to us that it is our experience as individuals
embodied in time and space which yields us our most reliable knowledge
of how we and others tick. It is my belief that we are as profoundly
misled by the perspective from self-as-centre as our ancestors were
by their geocentric view of the universe1.
I hope in the rest of these pages to show in more detail how, and with
what consequences, we fall into error in our understanding of ourselves.
Before that I want to sketch the basics of a possible alternative view.
An alternative perspective
Global society constitutes a system of inexpressible
complexity. It is like a huge central nervous system in which social
neurons (i.e. people) interact with each other via an infinity
of interconnecting and overlapping subsystems. The fundamental dynamic
of the system is power, that is the ability of a social group
or individual to influence others in accordance with its/his/her interests. Interest is
thus the principal, and most effective, means through which power is
Here, already, is the starkest possible contrast
with our conventional psychology: what animates us is not rational
appraisal and considered choice of action, but the push and pull of
social power as it manipulates our interest. It is not argument and
demonstration of truth which move us to action but the impress of influences
of which we may be entirely unaware.
Reason, then, is a tool of power, not a power in
itself. Just like moral right, rational right is not of itself compelling
and, when it is in nobody's interest to regard it, will be disregarded.
Those who - like Thomas Paine for example - seem successful advocates of Reason
in its purest form, may fail even themselves to see that it is in fact
not reason alone that makes their words persuasive, but the causes
(interests) to which reason becomes attached. No doubt Mein Kampf was
as persuasive to those already sold on its premises as The Rights
of Man was to 18th century revolutionaries in America and France.
This does not mean, to those who value reason, that Paine's writing
is not worth infinitely more than Hitler's; it means simply, and sadly,
that Reason alone is impotent. What really matters is power itself.
In her mordantly compelling Lugano Report2, Susan George vividly draws attention
to the inadequacy of rational argument as a means of influencing
people. In starting to consider alternatives to the potentially
disastrous practices of global capitalism, she writes:-
This section has to start on
a personal note because frankly, power relations being what
they are, I feel at once moralistic and silly proposing alternatives.
More times than I care to count I have attended events ending
with a rousing declaration about what should or must occur.
So many well-meaning efforts so totally neglect the crucial
dimension of power that I try to avoid them now unless I think
I can introduce an element of realism that might otherwise
because I am constantly being asked what to do, I begin with
some negative suggestions. The first is not to be trapped by the should,
the must and the forehead-slapping school. Assuming that
any change, because it would contribute to justice, equity and peace, need only
to be explained to be adopted is the saddest and most irritating kind of naivety.
Many good, otherwise intelligent people seem to believe that once powerful individuals
and institutions have actually understood the gravity of the crisis (any
crisis) and the urgent need for its remedy, they will smack their brows, admit
they have been wrong all along and, in a flash of revelation, instantly redirect
their behaviour by 180 degrees.
While ignorance and stupidity must be given their due, most things come
out the way they do because the powerful want them to come out that way.
Power is generated within and through social institutions.
The institutions of power operate independently of particular individuals
and at varying distances from them, affecting them via almost unimaginably
complex lines of influence that travel through individuals as
well as through other institutions. A highly simplified diagram (from The
Origins of Unhappiness3) suggests the
basic structure through which power operates:
The further away from the individual person a particular
social institution is, the more powerful it is likely to be and the
more individuals it will affect. For example, the machinery of global
capitalism has enormous effects on vast numbers of people in the world
who are themselves in no position to be able to see into its operation.
Fig. 2 attempts to give an impression of the pervasiveness of distal
influence. Individual citizens have virtually no way of resisting the
powers which bear down upon them - their only hope is to act in solidarity
Apparently paradoxically,the nearer to the (average)
individual an institution is, the less its total power is likely
to be, though, owing to the distortion of his or her perspective, it
will be experienced by that individual as more powerful.
For example, as might be the case with employers, we tend in every
day life to attribute considerable power to those whose decisions most
nearly affect us. However, it is rarely, if ever, that an employer makes
a decision in the sense of spontaneously exercising free will
over us; it is far more likely to be the case that the employers decisions are
conditioned by economic events which operate at such a distance from
us (as well as the employer) that we cannot even discern their basic
A number of interesting
consequences follow from the notion of 'power horizon'. One
is the new meaning it gives to the concept of the 'Unconscious'.
Unconsciousness ceases to be, as it is in Freudian theory,
a property of individuals, and becomes an external, social
phenomenon: we are unconscious of what we cannot know or
have been prevented from knowing. At the most proximal level,
parents may conceal aspects of the(ir) world from children,
or exercise their power to forbid access to activities or
information they deem unsuitable for their children, or indeed
threatening to themselves. At more distal levels, we are
nearly all unconscious of the origin and manner of transmission
of powers which affect our lives in all kinds of crucial
and intimate ways, not because of our own stupidity or wilfulness,
but because they lie beyond the zone our gaze can penetrate.
A further consequence
of our limited power horizons is, as already implied, the
opportunities which are opened up for the more or less deliberate
exploitation of our perspective. The globalization of the
'free market' is one obvious area where the ruthless malpractices
of Business can be shifted beyond the horizon of those most
able to object. Opposition to abuses of power in 'developed'
democracies can be dealt with by media manipulation and appeasement
while the most brutal exploitation of labour, etc., is shifted
to places likely neither to fall readily under the eye nor
to engage the feelings of the general public. What goes on
in Burma, Brazil, Indonesia or Singapore is, for example,
relatively easily maintained as a matter of indifference
to the vast majority of voters in Britain. (It is true, of
course, that readers of the broadsheets - often now sneeringly
referred to as 'high-minded' - and viewers of televison's
intellectual safety-valves, Channel 4 and BBC2, may be to
some extent apprised of what goes on further afield. But,
as one BBC political commentator elegantly put it 'the trouble
is, it's a tabloid world' in which it matters little what
goes into high minds.)
It is also worth noting
how the limited reach of our personal memories through time
hugely facilitates the recycling of fashion and the maintenance
of obsolescence, the disruption of on-going organized resistance
(e.g. the demise of unionism, whose ideological origins are
by now totally obscure to most people), and the ability to
veil in a fog of oblivion the savage iniquities upon which
much of our social structure is founded (the manner in which
those who robbed and murdered their way to property and wealth
have managed since to clothe themselves in the regalia of
honour, virtue and distinction, is a matter for unceasing
Each of us is thus surrounded by a spatio-temporal
'power horizon' beyond which it is impossible to 'see'. The radius
of this horizon will of course differ between individuals according
to the availability to them of power. In a general sense, the better
educated and well connected will have 'longer' power horizons compared
to less advantaged people. Despite obvious benefits of class, however,
the majority of us probably find ourselves in boats more similar than
different - hence the ability of higher-order power to manipulate entire
populations in terms of their understanding of how the world works.
The extent to which an individual can be said to have power
will depend upon the availability to him or her of power within
the system, i.e. how much power is transmitted through him or
her from outside sources. (I have tried to outline out what this model
signifies for the experience of psychological distress in Fundamentals
of an Environmental Approach to Distress.) Fig. 1 gives the
impression that power flows only in one direction - from the more to
the less powerful. This is of course somewhat misleading: it is possible
both for proximal to influence distal institutions and for individuals
to act back onto their environment. It is however the case that the
flow of influence in this 'reverse' direction is strictly limited in
scope and distance.
An individual can in this way be defined as an
embodied locus in social space through which power flows. People
are thus held in place within the social environment by the influences
which structure it, and their freedom to change position or influence
people and events is strictly limited by the availability of power
within the sub-systems in which they are located. In fact, no significant
amount power is available to the individual beyond that which is
afforded by the social environment.
Some of the complexity of social space is conveyed
in fig. 3. A (rather stereotypically conceived!) family
floats in social space, the direction of influence between its members
and some proximal systems shown by the arrows and its relative strength
by their thickness. Rather as if each of the smaller spheres were like
a neuron or system of neurons in a nervous system, the electrical
impulse of conduction is power and the neurotransmitter is
interest. But the diagram leaves out infinitely more than it can illumine.
Quite apart from the different ways in which power can engage or coerce
interest, it is impossible to convey the way it flows through the
system. Power does not originate within the individuals, nor within
the institutions shown (e.g. work, school), but is generated much more
distally within and between socio-economic and cultural systems whose
all-pervasive influence defies intricate analysis4.
By defining the individual as a locus in social space without any significant
intrinsic power of his or her own, I suspect I will be felt by many to be making
a travesty of our idea of what it is to be human, and to be attempting wantonly
to destroy precious notions of freedom and dignity.
I do acknowledge that the project I am engaged in is in some ways reductive,
but I would also claim that it is a reductionism with a difference. Scientistic
programmes in psychology in the past have, knowingly or not, always sought
to place the scientist him or herself beyond the reductive notions applied
to the object of study (i.e., people). It was for the behaviourist to discover
and apply the 'laws of behaviour' and for the rest of humanity to be predicted
and controlled by them. Psychoanalysis, in pronouncing judgement on the contents
of our 'unconscious minds', takes up its 'scientific' position with insupportable
What I am proposing is rather different: a set of concepts that take account
of and to an extent explain the anomalies and difficulties of our conventional
psychology but that also accommodate and elaborate rather than undermine our
sense of ourselves as social agents. I am, it is true, actively seeking disillusion,
but from illusions which in fact serve to enslave rather than sustain us.
In the following page I will try to clarify some of the issues in a little
1. This is of course not a view which
I have simply invented for myself out of nowhere. An excellent academic
account of the social origin of self may be found in Ian Burkitt's Social
Selves. Sage, 1991.
2. George, Susan. 1999. The Lugano Report. Pluto Press.
3. Smail, David. 1999. The Origins of Unhappiness. Constable.
4. For a website packed with information about the scientific understanding
of complex systems, try
page last revised 5/11/00