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Wednesday 30 November 2011

Social Institution (Brief idea)



Any pattern of behaviour which by repetition, traditional sanction and legal reinforcement acquires a degree of coercion could be described as a social institution: marriage would be a good example. The use of the term institution in sociology, meaning established aspects of society, is close to that in common English usage. However, there have been some changes over time in the exact conceptualization of the term, and there are differences in the analytical precision with which it is used. In some ways an institution can be seen as a sort of ‘super-custom’, a set of mores, folkways, and patterns of behaviour that deals with major social interests: law, church, and family for example. Thus, a social institution consists of all the structural components of a society through which the main concerns and activities are organized, and social needs (such as those for order, belief, and reproduction) are met. Social institutions are forever being modified because they rest on repetition
(and hence may change if large numbers of people stop acting in accordance with them or become selective in precisely how they will support them) but they have a degree of solidity that allows us to forget that they are human creations. In many traditional societies social institutions are bolstered by being given supramundane origins: marriage, for example, is often presented as a divine obligation. Modern societies are more likely to admit the human origins of social institutions and justify them by claims for efficiency: in the West marriage is now commonly defended with the claim that it provides the most effective way of meeting a wide variety of personal and social needs.
A very useful way of grouping social institutions is as follows:
(a) kinship institutions deal with marriage, the family and primary socialisation;
(b) political institutions regulate access to and the use of power;
(c) cultural institutions deal with religious, artistic and scientific activities;
(d) stratification institutions deal with the distribution of social positions and resources; and
(e) economic institutions produce and distribute goods and services.
A term used to describe the adverse psychological effects on individuals of residence in institutions, especially of long stays in large-scale institutions, such as mental hospitals and prisons. Most frequently mentioned effects, whose precise causes are debated, are dependency, passivity, and lethargy. These effects are sometimes termed institutionalism. Therefore, institutionalisation is the process whereby social practices become sufficiently regular and continuous to be described as institutions. The notion is a useful corrective to the view that institutions are given and unchanging entities, indicating that changes in social practice both modify existing institutions and created novel forms. This is the correlate of the idea in role theory that people have some freedom to role make in their interactions with others and do not simply act our prescribed patterns of behaviour.


The concept of institution is widely used in sociology, though often without precise specification. Different schools of sociology treat it in different ways. For example, funcionalists can see institutions as fulfilling the needs of individuals or societies. This is the sense in which Kingsley Davis and Wilbert Moore (1945) used the term. For both of whom it was central to the notion of society as an organism or functioning system. However, as the functionalist perspective gave way to ideas based on society as being in a state of flux, with fewer consensuses over values, so the functionalist association between institution and function also withered away. The phenomenologists may concentrate on the way in which people create or adapt institutions rather than merely respond to them.
The new institutional theory, developed in the 1970s and 1980s. The basic proposition is that the actions of organisations are not determined solely by the logic of economic and technological factors, but also by the institutions which comprise their social environments. These include, for example, the state, professions, and other organisations, together with the values of culture of the broader society in which an organisation is embedded. Institutional pressures influence both organisational goals and means.
It follows from the basic proposition that organisations within a particular institutional environment should tend to be similar. For example, it is a leager rewuirement of the Germand system of Industrial democracy in large firms that employees’ representatives occupy a certain proportion of seats on company’s top board of directors and that managers also consult regularly with employees about workplace issues vial works councils. This legal framework, enacted by the state, reflects, and is reinforced by, a wider culture that values participative management. Thu business organisations in Germany are likely o share similarities in their stricture and how they are managed and to doffer from organisations in, say, the UK or USA. Institutionalists contend that organisations select institutionalised practices which are appropriate within a particular environment.
Institutional theory is a useful corrective to the notion that there is a simple link between economic and technological variables and how organisations act. This link is made in the contingency approach to organisational theory and also in the rational profit-maximising assumptions of neo-classical economics.
The current concept of institution is more fluid, seeing the family or church, for instance, as comprising changing patterns of behaviour based on relatively more stable value systems. This allows sociologists to consider the moral ambivalence of human behaviour as well as its creative effects on social change. In addition to these more global and theoretical concerns, there is also a tradition of the ethnographic study of institutions that constrain, or from some points of view determine, the behaviour of specific social groups. Chief among these are Erving Goffman's studies of total institutions—for example the mental hospital (Goffman, 1961).
In a more recent synthesis, Richard Scott (2008) argues:
Institutions are comprised of regulative, normative and cultural-cognitive elements, that, together with associated activities and resources, provide stability and meaning to social life.

Further reading:

Scott, W.R. (2008). Institutions and Organisations. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage

This is a brief introduction to institution (bilingual meant for my college students)

Saturday 5 November 2011


Table of Contents


Michel Foucault, born Paul-Michel Foucault (15 October 1926 – 25 June 1984), was a French philosopher, social theorist and historian of ideas. He held a chair at the prestigious Collège de France with the title "History of Systems of Thought," and also taught at the University at Buffalo and the University of California, Berkeley.
In his methodological work Archaeology of knowledge, Foucault begins by questioning the various categories that are commonly used to organise written material, namely the author, the ‘work’ and the book. These categories might appear to be obvious, but on closer examination, this is far from being the case. For instance, are novels, a mathematical text book, or a road map all the same kind of object? Can we simply lump together texts which have been published by an author under his own name, under a pseudonym, or his collected works published after his death, his laundry lists or his insane jottings after he has gone completely mad? By drawing attention to these kinds of uncertainties and the fluidity of categorisation, Foucault aims to demonstrate that the categories we take for granted could quite well be replaced by others based on different organisational principles and assumptions.

Mental illness and psychology (1954):

In this book, Foucault examines how it is that madness comes to be defined as an illness. He argues that organic pathology and mental pathology form two separate orders and the attempt to reduce them to the same thing poses a number of significant problems. He briefly examines the social functioning of madness in non-Western societies, and offers a historical account from the Middle Ages to the present of the Western view of madness. He also addresses the relation between madness and truth in Western history. The characterisation of madness as ‘mental illness’ is a phenomenon, he says, that dates only from the nineteenth century. In many ways Mental Illness and Psychology provides a very useful potted summary of Foucault’s much longer and more elaborate work on madness published in 1961.
Madness and civilisation:
Foucault examines the ways in which a certain experience of the limits of human experience – namely madness – has been given cultural form from the thirteenth century to the beginning of the nineteenth century in European history.

Key issue:

He deals with the economic, institutional, medical, philosophical, ethical, political, literary and artistic practices which have helped define madness as a cultural and social category and also as an object of knowledge and science.
Foucault argues that during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, madness formed a kind of general conduit for what he terms the ‘tragic experience’ (MC: 31) – namely an awareness of death, truth, other realms and the general fragility of ordinary everyday life. People who were mad were as a consequence granted a kind of grudging respect.
However, this was to change in the seventeenth century with what Foucault terms the ‘Great Confinement’, a movement across Europe which saw the establishment of institutions which locked up people who were deemed to be ‘unreasonable’. This not only included mad people, but the unemployed, single mothers, defrocked priests, failed suicides, heretics, prostitutes, debauchees – in short anyone who was deemed to be socially unproductive or disruptive.
Foucault nominates 1656, the date of the decree which founded the Hôpital Général in Paris, as a symbolic landmark date to indicate this general movement of confinement. He then traces the gradual separation of mad people from other ‘unreasonable’ populations and the final emergence of madness as an object of science towards the end of the eighteenth century. By this stage, madness is no longer a voice reminding all people of the frailty of human existence, but is the silent object of medical science shut away and invisible in institutions. No longer madness, but mental illness. In Foucault’s account, if the avowed aim of psychiatrists and others was to render the treatment of mad people more humane, in removing the physical chains, they merely substituted the far more insidious chains of science and moral training.
Like many of Foucault’s other writings on literature in the 1960s, it is more notable for its poetic rather than its explanatory value. The same themes emerge in The Birth of the Clinic (BC) and if this book on the whole lacks the gothic attractions of Madness and Civilisation, opting for a more restrained approach (notwithstanding a few notable literary outbursts), it has also become a standard text in the history of medicine.

Key issue:

The Birth of the Clinic traces the origins of modern clinical medicine in France at the end of the eighteenth century during the period 1769–1825. Traditional histories of medicine have argued that at this time dubious medical practices based on superstition, magic and a blind reliance on ancient texts were replaced by an enlightened empirical science based on the observation of the real world and data to hand. Foucault, however, provides a different account. What changed, he says, was both how illness and how the doctor were defined and how these two terms were related. It was not that the new doctor suddenly saw what had been invisible to those blinded by superstition and an over reliance on ancient texts, rather, the new doctor started looking in a different way at a differently constructed object of scientific knowledge, namely illness.
If, in Madness and Civilization, Foucault focuses primarily on the changes in the way a particular object (madness) is historically constructed, in The Birth of the Clinic, he also focuses in addition on the way knowers (that is doctors) are constructed. He traces this transformation by examining medical theories and practices as well as political, institutional and social changes in Revolutionary France.
In parallel to his examination of the formation of medical knowledge, Foucault also looks at the political, social and institutional changes which occurred at the same time. It is important to emphasise that in Foucault’s analysis it is not a question of one set of changes ‘influencing’ or ‘causing’ others, but of a complex series of interactions which allow the production of possible objects of knowledge. For example, although institutional and funding structures might favour the development of a particular type of research, these structures in themselves do not determine the eventual research findings. The political and economic situation in France at the end of the eighteenth century produced a radical change in the general social and political status of medicine. From being ‘“The dry and sorry analysis of millions of infirmities” the dubious negation of the negative’ (BC: 34) medicine became linked to the positive political task of establishing a population and a nation State, healthy and productive in mind, body and behaviour. These were themes that Foucault was to develop at length in his work during the 1970s.
Illness is a disorder, a dangerous limit to everyday orderly existence. Science attempts to deal with this disorder by making illness and those who are ill the object of orderly categories of knowledge. Foucault had earlier described an identical process in relation to madness which became the foundation of a new science of psychiatry which also sought to reduce the dangers such limit-experiences represented.
The key term that commentators and researchers have retained from The Birth of the Clinic is ‘the gaze’, a notion that resonates with Foucault’s later popular idea of a society centred around surveillance. In clinical medicine, knowledge was ordered around visible structures. Illnesses displayed themselves in concrete physical symptoms that could be observed and read by doctors who had been taught how to read them. ‘The gaze’ at the end of the eighteenth century was aimed at revealing what had hitherto remained hidden and unseen not only in the physical body but also in the social and political body. Visibility could dissipate both disease and political and social tyranny.
It emerges in a time when French structuralism is full fledged developed theoretical paradigm and this work is hailed by the media as a major contribution to that theory. Being one of the most difficult books by him, it deals with the history and pre-history of the modern disciplines of linguistics, biology and economics from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century, with a concluding chapter on the human sciences which include history, sociology, psychoanalysis and ethnology. Foucault was to say later that the book was aimed at a specialist audience of historians of science and scientists (1974e: 524. Cf. 1980e: 267, 270) and there is no doubt that it is hard going for non-specialists – but it was not his specialist findings that made the book famous.

The key issue:

Using historical analysis, he launched a full-scale attack on established post-war philosophies namely humanism, Marxism, phenomenology, existentialism and scientific rationalism. He caused a media storm by declaring that ‘man was dead’ and that Marxism was a mere storm in a children’s paddling pool (OT: 262). As a further aggravation, in the later foreword to the English edition, Foucault heaped scorn on those ‘half-witted “commentators”’ in France who had tried to explain his outrageous critiques of so many ideological icons as one of the hallmarks of ‘structuralism’ (OT: xiv).
In more specific terms, Foucault focuses on the historical transformations affecting three areas of knowledge which up until the end of the eighteenth century were described as general grammar, the analysis of wealth and natural history. He argues that in 19th century these areas were crystallised in philology, political economy and biology. These very diverse areas were organised in very similar ways at the same points in history, and also underwent major reorganisations at roughly the same points in history. Foucault argues that until the end of the sixteenth century in Europe, it was the notion of resemblance that structured knowledge. So, in medicine for instance, if a plant (such as aconite) looked like an eye then this was a sign that it was good for diseases of the eye, just as walnuts which looked like brains were good for head wounds and the brain (OT: 27). All of nature was one huge book which could be read and interpreted by those who knew how to decipher the signs and marks God had left in nature. The scriptures and the books left by Antiquity were on an equal footing with the Book of Nature (OT: 33–4). This structure of knowledge which required people to seek out signs and resemblances and then to interpret them, was replaced by a different system in the seventeenth century which ordered things into tables and compared and measured them against each other. Identity and difference, rather than resemblance, became the way of relating different objects to each other.
If the Renaissance had seen the whole world as a kind of primary language which needed to be made to speak through the secondary languages of commentary and exegesis, the Classical Age which followed it, did away with this ‘massive and intriguing existence of language’ (OT: 79). Hence, argues Foucault, language is no longer a secondary commentary on a primary text, instead it becomes discourse, a way of speaking, arranging and presenting representations of the world in a logical order.
Another shift occurred at the beginning of the nineteenth century and history became the new principle of ordering knowledge, and ‘science’ started to come into its own. Foucault’s discussion of this new configuration is difficult and complex. Knowledge was organised on the principle of stripping away the history that hid its true origins. At the centre of this knowledge was the essence or nature of ‘man’ which could gradually be uncovered by science. The problem with this, Foucault says, is that the idea of a human nature or essence is a metaphysical one – a belief – yet at the same time it has been set up as the object of empirical knowledge – a fact. Foucault argues that because the human sciences rest on this shaky foundation, they are fundamentally flawed in their approach to knowledge. He maintains that another break in knowledge is occurring in the contemporary era and the essence of man as the centre and foundation of all knowledge is dissolving.
After Order of things Foucault produces his archaeology which is a must read for people interested in historiography and method. Foucault describes traditional ways of organising ‘discourse’ such as the work, the author, the great man, the unifying universal subject, cause and effect, and influence, and then systematically takes these categories apart and proposes alternative methods of organisation. He also advocates a principle of discontinuity, by which he means that difference at every level in history should always be drawn attention to, not explained away.
In 1970, upon appointed as a Chair to College de France, Foucault delivered his inaugural lecture, known as Order of Discourse, published in 1971. This short work is usually recognised as the text that marks the transition between Foucault’s works on ‘discourse’ and those on ‘power’. Once again, it is a methodological work and continues Foucault’s attack on traditional ways of writing history. It deals with the way discourse is controlled, limited and defined by exercises of power and draws attention to the way boundaries between the true and the false are erected within this context. The idea of a link between knowledge and power (or various political, economic and institutional arrangements) had always been a theme in Foucault’s work even if it is not overtly stated, but this text marks his first extended use of the word power.
His next major work Discipline and Punish (DP) draws indirectly on his experience in this domain and famously opens with a lurid account of the torture and execution of the regicide Damiens in 1757.

Key issue:

This is followed by a far more sedate description of a prison timetable in 1838. Foucault’s point is that in the intervening period, spectacular corporal punishment disappeared to be replaced by new forms of punishment in the shape of imprisonment and the deprivation of liberty. Traditionally, historians have argued that this change occurred because people and society had become more humane and ‘civilized’. Foucault rejects this kind of explanation and suggests instead that the old methods of punishment had simply become inefficient. Too many wrongdoer were escaping the arm of the law and public executions were no longer acting as a salutary warning to the rest of the populace. Instead public executions were actually inciting people to crime and public disorder, providing the occasion for riots, and all sorts of other minor crimes such as pick-pocketing.
Foucault argues that prison was chosen as the preferred method of punishment in Western Europe, not because it was the most effective means of punishment, but rather because it fitted in best with the emergence of what he describes as a ‘disciplinary society’. By this, he means a certain way of acting upon and training the body and behaviour so that the individuals who make up populations could be easily controlled. This training was enforced and practised through a number of institutions, many of which appeared at the same time as the prison – namely schools, military training institutions, factories, hospitals and so on. The smooth functioning and enforcement of this ‘disciplinary society’ was guaranteed by a system of social surveillance. Foucault uses Jeremy Bentham’s model prison, the Panopticon, to serve as a metaphor for the way this system of surveillance operated and continues to operate within the social body.
Foucault’s book appeared on the scene in the context of severe unrest in prisons in a number of countries, and also amidst intense theoretical discussion focussing on both power and the body – it made a key contribution to these debates. If the book concludes its history in 1840 with the official opening of the model prison camp of Mettray in France, it was read as a damning indictment of the contemporary social order. As Foucault said himself five years after its publication: ‘the research ends in the 1830s. Yet … readers, critics or not, saw it as a description of contemporary society as a society of confinement’ (1980e: 243–4 mod.).