Who’s In and Who’s Out of Institutions (and the immigrants between)


The British social anthropologist Mary Douglas had this to say about institutions:

Inside a religious body you get sects and hierarchies, inside an information network you get bazaars and cathedrals, it is the same, call them what you like. They survive by pointing the finger of blame at each other.

That about sums it up, doesn’t it?

Douglas is most famous for her theory of dirt: She claimed that human groups form solidarity by what we consider disgusting. For example, if your group considers eating sheep’s eyes disgusting, you’re unlikely to become very intimate with the group next door that considers sheep’s eyes a delicacy.

Douglas claims that human groups, or “institutions,” allow those inside the institution to point fingers at those outside the institution. As we stand inside and point fingers, we develop group cohesion: there’s an inside and an outside.

But, it doesn’t stop there.

Douglas thought that first we off-load responsibility for our actions onto an institution, then we begin to allow the institution to think for us. As a matter of fact, Douglas believed that our institutions operate exactly opposite from the way we generally think they do: we think institutions make small, rote decisions for us; but, actually, we allow institutions to do the big thinking for us, and we stick to the small stuff (–you know, such as consuming too many calories and avoiding exercise. Stuff like that.)

Because . . . it’s not easy bearing personal responsibility for the things that institutions such as government do. Yet, if we intend to lead an examined life, we must look in the mirror and ask ourselves what benefits we get from those things we off-load onto institutions.

Let’s think about government . . . oh, say, the United States government: bad immigration policy; institutionalized racism; millions of working poor; gun “freedom” that kills thousands per year, and poorly regulated industry, to name a few problems. Now, ask yourself, What benefits do I get by being in that group?

It’s disturbing.

It’s disturbing because Dr. Douglas is not saying, human beings form institutions and then wag their fingers at outsiders when they aren’t thinking about it or when we get lazy or when we fail to change wrongs. She isn’t saying those other people do that. She’s saying that’s what ALL institutions do. It’s disturbing because a basic fact of human nature is that we form groups, then we lose any ability to act morally concerning those things we have given away to an institution. Then we benefit from the immoral actions.

Now, you can say, “Oh, well, she’s just a crazy leftist feminist postmodernist, so, you know how THEY are!”

Or we can say, “hmm, that’s interesting! How can we use that human propensity both to better understand institutions that we don’t like, and those we do?

How can we use that idea to create institutions that encourage the sort of human action that we see as positive, rather than the sort that we see as negative?

I know you’re already way ahead of me on this . . . ideally, Unitarian Universalist congregations are places where people are not only encouraged, but required to question assumptions. Places where we encourage finger-pointing at systemic injustices, not at the people who may or may not be perpetrating the injustices, for whatever reasons . . .

If we look at Mary Douglas’s ideas from this perspective, they aren’t quite as crazy. Or quite as ivory tower!

Take, for example, immigration.

Consider for a moment that, as nations go, Mexico is not a a poor one. As nations go, the average Mexican is somewhere in the mid-range of income and social well-being for human beings on the planet. It isn’t that Mexico is poor, by international standards, but rather that the income disparity between Mexicans and North Americans is large–as a matter of fact, the disparity is the largest of any two bordering nations on earth.

That goes a long way toward explaining why people might consider crossing a border. To me, anyway, it’s hard to point my finger at a group of people trying to do that.

How have we–and let’s listen to Mary Douglas and include all of us–how have WE—the institution called the USA–responded to the immigration issue? Rather than facilitating the flow of people back and forth across the border, we have tried to stop the flow–we are still following that policy.

Now, I’m old enough to remember when the border was porous. People came here for summer work, then went back to Mexico–they went back home–for the winter. People can’t do that anymore. Because we have spent billions of dollars to stop them. They’re stuck here.

What would you do, if you found yourself stuck in a foreign country, no way out?

First you would go to the embassy, right?

Then you would start calling on your support network . . . family and friends.

Then you would get out your credit cards . . . see if throwing money around might help . . .

What if your loved ones were across the border?

How long would it take before you just took off walking . . . ?

I have a challenge for you: listen to Mary Douglas and get outside your comfort zone. Call yourself on one of your prejudices . . . . Call your own bluff on one of the “institutions” where you sit comfortably and point fingers from . . .

Maybe it’s the institution called race. Maybe it’s the institution called social class. Perhaps it’s the institution called education. Perhaps you wag your finger at close-minded people.


Try reminding yourself this week that, as psychologist Steven Pinker puts it,

“Our minds are organs (like the lungs), not pipelines to the truth.”

Our minds are organs, not pipelines to the truth.

Try it. Actually realize that your brain is an evolved organ and has its limitations. And your brain is NOT an institution.

This week, call yourself on one of your prejudices. Call yourself on one of the things you get away with because of an institution you belong to. Step outside your comfort zone. Actually listen to someone who your prejudice tells you can’t have ANYTHING valuable to say.

Instead of pointing a finger and even wagging it a little, sit back and listen.

Try it.

How Do We Interact on the Cyber-Commons?
Religious Arguments: Where Are the Grownups?
Apocalypse: What Death Cults Really Want
The Transient, the Permanent, and the Stitching Horse: What Remains True in Religions
  • Woodstock Churchlady

    Maybe we surrender to institutions because we are just too worn out and burned out to do anything else. Maybe we are tired of being individually guilt tripped. Maybe we have just lost hope.

  • nanomanoman

    Not sure i get it. People adopt tribal prejudice? Sure. It’s a fair point.

    I think there are good reasons for being wary of immigration from a class perspective – if you’re from the working class it reduces your bargaining power.

    Middle class people are more relaxed because they are not threatened by immigration. It equals cheaper gardeners and tacos.

    In Europe these arguments are augmented by Islamic immigration – a foreign culture is added in to the mix, and one that doesn’t much want to integrate. It doesn’t come to England cos it loves English culture – it largely disrespects it – but it loves the money, the jobs and welfare.

    The Left likes immigration because it appeals to its universalist roots – it loathes “nationalism” despite nation states being the single most successful form of governance in history (an extension of the tribe, the cave).

    The Right should like it because it undermines workers power. However its torn because “conservative” thinking is wary of universalist ideologies which have also tended to encroach on the rights of the individual (Islam, Communism, etc).

    The immigrant like immigration because it gives him hope. But he is not a saint – he also needs to understand it means responsibilities. It means losing as well as gaining something.

  • Kevin Osborne

    One could say that everyone is an individual in a confusing place attempting to achieve a balance of perspective so contentment results. Often people create a box of personal understandings to facilitate this, and tend to stay inside that box.
    However being alone inside the box is boring. Groups that don’t challenge that personal box but provide motion in other ways are useful. You get to party and no one says your toenails are dirty.

  • Y. A. Warren

    You have offered a challenge to expand our thoughts outside the boxes of our several “tribes.” This is important, but we must not forget that we do need the safety of some kind of family or “tribe” in order to have a sense of well-being in an often dangerous and predatory world. We also need to limit our reach to what we can properly care for and defend.

    Each group operates within a set of agreed upon boundaries and rules. This frees up the energy that would often be used in fear and protection to serve others. Whatever threatens the harmony of the group must stand outside the group until they are willing to accept the rules of the group. Otherwise, anarchy ensues and humans devolve into frightened, predatory animals.

    Early in our childhood, we have a keen sense of fairness. This sense is usually scorned and snuffed out by authority figures. I see this as a major problem in human interactions. I have no use for inclusion in a family or tribe that doesn’t, at the very least, seek to treat each other fairly. Here is where I think the lessons taught by Jesus come into play. He gave prescriptions for treating each other fairly, which “Christian” religions seen to ignore.

    On the subject of immigration, my issue is fairness. The people who hire illegal immigrants are saving money at our expense. The lack of a living wage for these immigrants creates another generation of the working poor. They often create families which are also poor. The cost of including them into our social safety nets are passed on to all who pay taxes, not to The Government.”

    We taxpaying citizens ARE “The Government” and should have certain rights and privileges not extended to those who break our laws. We should not allow those who hire illegal immigrants to benefit from our tax system because they are also breaking our laws. The immigrants have children who should not be citizens protected by our country’s hard-earned rights and privileges simply because they are born on our soil.

    We are overtaxing all the social safety nets that belong to our “family” of those who live within the boundaries of our agreed upon rules. This is not fair to those who abide by the rules, live inside, and protect the family boundaries..