the Fossian trap

Mike Lieber (U28550@UICVM.BITNET)
Mon, 24 Oct 1994 13:05:26 CDT

Dan Foss has set his trap, that clever devil. He starts with "environment",
which is an even bigger quagmire than genetics and intelligence, and he asks
three perfectly reasonable questions--beware the reasonable question, as we
have already seen in this convoluted race thread. To wit (or toquote):

In what sense is society an environment?
Here are my suggestions for consideration by wiser heads.
1. Society is the environment for the human organisms found living in it.
[Note: The word "persons" is eschewed in that many organisms, eg slaves,
may be denied the social construction of "persons."]
2. Society is the environment of itself.
3. Society is the environment of other societies; else it comprises sub-
divisions or subcultures whose environment is both society as a whole
and one another.

His question is a fundamental one, and the answer is that it depends. It
depends on what one means by "environment" and by "society." It also depends
on the conceptual framework within which these concepts (a) make sense and (b)
function. Without a specification of one's framework--where I am coming from--
Dan's question and its 3 correlaries are a trap. Dan knows very well that I
approach these questions from a cybernetic systems framework. While that
framework demands a specification of the system under observation and a
delineation of its boundary such that the environment is any set of variables
not included in the system, it also includes the observer, who is free to
draw and redraw the boundary as the purposes of observation or the level of
observation changes. So, for example, if I'm interested in how Polynesian
fishermen organize their work, then the fish are part of their environment. If
I'm observing the relationship between fishermen and fish, then the fish are
part of the system, and the reefs, islets, coral heads, channels, winds, tides,
ocean, etc., are parts of the environment. Indeed, an important part of the
research is the identification of and the ORGANIZATION of the environment.
One other variable--the most crucial for explanatory purposes--is whose orderly
universe is being described: the universe of the fishermen or the universe of
the ethnographer/observer. This is not a rhetorical distinction. What
constitutes constraining environmental variables in one universe may be
different from what constitutes them in the other. In my universe,
reproductive habits of particular species of fish is a major constraint on
the availbility of particular species and on the techniques used to catch
them. But fish reproduction is not now nor does it ever appear to have been
acknowledged as a phenomenon that (a) anyone knew anything about and (b) that
had to be considered by the fishermen! In order to describe these fishermen's
environment as THEY understand it, fish reproduction is unnecessary, because
it does not exist as a cognized phenomenon. An accurate cultural account
would not include this as a variable, though I might want to include the
absence of this variable in a note, particularly if I intend to use this
variable later on to describe the order in my universe. The kind of
description and the level of explanation offered determines what will be
considered as environment--i.e., whose environment are we describing?

>From this perspective, Society, like Culture, is not seen as a thing or
a phenomenon of observation. We observe people doing things, by themselves
or with other prople. Not one human being ever observed a Society or a
Culture. These are constructs, abstractions based on inferences from what we
observe that we used to classify our observations. They are what Gregory
Bateson calls "classes of explanation." What each of them seeks to explain
is human variability: culture focussing on the sorts of axioms that shape
human perceptions and inform and infuse those perceptions by conferring
meaning on them; society focussing on the variability in the ways that people
organize their social relations with one another in order to live together
more or less predictably. Both classes of explanation can be applied to the
same observations, of course, and an explication of some cultural premise can
sometimes explain a particular way of organization social relationships. It
is also the case that particular organizations can constrain people's
perceptions of particular situations: "why are they fighting? They're siblings
after all."

So my answer is that I'm uncomfortable using Society in a way that implies that
"it" does something to someone (other than the social scientist who uses it to
structure his/her observations). I'm very comfortable using the adjective,
social, just as I'm comfortable using the adjective, cultural, to designate an
arena of observation and explanation. Do social relations like household,
family, peer group, etc., form an environment of a person, however defined?
Of course. Can one distinguish hierarchical levels of social order, that is
nested orders like household, family, neighborhood, etc.? Of course. Is
each level seen as an environment of the level it encompasses? Yes, by
definition. How far up the hierarchy do you want to go? World Systems folks
take it to the interconnected global corporate elite. The problem that these
folk have, however, is that they can't handle the variability at the lower
levels. A growing trend that I see on the horizon is regional observation and
a regional analysis where "the village" (my people) are part of a larger,
interacting set. John Terrell has done some very creative work with this
concept, centering on the most difficult of all places to generalize about--
Melanesia, especially New Guinea. John has an on-line version of his paper
on regional analysis that I would be happy to post or pass on to anyone who
wants it.

Is Society the environment of all societies? No. It's part of the conceptual
apparatus of social scientists, not to be confused with particular congeries
of people who live together. It's a way of making maps, not the map itself,
and certainly not the territory. Therefore, it cannot be the environment of
the territory. This is probably not what you wanted to hear, and it is not
a thorough discussion of the notion of environment, either. But you asked
the question, Dan, and I answered the best I could. We'll have to do up
'environment' some other time.
Mike Lieber