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Reflections on the Role of Institutions in Socialization

By Samuel Richter '20, Staff Writer

· Samuel Richter

Over Thanksgiving break, my neighbors had to cut a tree down in their yard, and, because the tree sat slightly outside of their picket fence, the tree cutting service had to park its truck in our driveway. For this reason, though the tree was not our own, my father and our landlord had to get involved in its removal. In total, my family, my neighbors, the tree service, and our landlord were all involved in this one business transaction. If it were a government project, undoubtedly there would be accusations of inefficiency and waste. Why did so many people have to be involved in the process, and, despite seeming so overly bureaucratic, why did the tree removal pose no great inconvenience? I argue because this social interaction was mediated through an institution.

In this way, an everyday event like this one carries with it deep political and social implications. It suggests that social interactions rely heavily on their institutional context. On the day of the tree removal, our neighbor came to our door to introduce himself and remind us that our driveway would need to be used; we have lived in that house for four years. Without the business transaction between us, my dad and his neighbor had no reason to know each other and socialize, and there is no reason to doubt that they would have continued to live anonymously next to each other had it not been for the transaction. And yet, there was no sort of animosity between the two. My dad said our neighbor seemed like a good enough guy. It was merely because, without some sort of institution, the two had no reason to talk before.

My dad and his neighbor are not alone in needing an institution to motivate their social interaction. Would some social interactions exist without institutional mediation (for example, would a dangerous criminal really agree to an interview with an investigative journalist if it was not mediated by a major news outlet)? How often do we strike up conversations with random

strangers, unless within the proper institutional context (say, on the first day of class, or at the right kind of bar)? Why do we become distressed when socialization takes place outside of our readily accepted institutional frameworks (e.g. when a homeless man screams aloud, or when a nonuniformed stranger knocks on the door)? All of these rhetorical questions reveal that institutional contexts motivate and provide meaning to our social interactions.

 

This idea is nothing new, nor particularly surprising, considering that the field of sociology is dedicated to examining how context defines and influences social behaviors. However, when our own mundane social interactions are analyzed according to these ideas, suddenly we recognize that our social lives, in all capacities, depend on the political and economic context in which we find ourselves. Whether we are socializing with our coworkers at our jobs, with sales associates in a shop, or even with our neighbors about a tree removal, our social interactions are often predicated on some sort of transaction. Even our most personal relationships depend on institutions. We acquire our childhood friends through our participation in institutions like school and rec sports. Even our conception of family is mediated through institutions like marriage, parenthood, etc. In this way, when we think through the implications of a fundamental truth of the social sciences, we are confronted with the uncomfortable truth that we depend on institutions to form our relationships.

 

This, in turn, raises all kinds of questions about free-will and our agency. If our relationships are largely defined by the institutions we live under (and indeed are often born into), it becomes hard to distinguish what choices we really have in our social relations. In other words, because we exert very little control over the institutions we live under, and these same institutions mediate our social interactions, then we must conclude that we exert very little control over which social relations we have. Say, for instance, you wish to make new friends. How would you proceed? Maybe you get closer to coworkers or fellow students. Maybe you reach out to people over social media. Maybe you start talking to people in your community. In any case, chances are you do not make new friends by striking up a conversation with random people on the street. Rather, you lean on the institutions you participate in, which means you lean on something that you have very little control over. Thus, social agency seems fairly limited.

 

Some may argue that we exert some influence over the institutions we live under, and, for this reason, it is not fair to say that our social agency is limited. In a democracy like the United States, our freedom allows us to control our own lives, and our vote allows us to control our government. For this reason, some may argue, institutions are not as all-powerful as I make them out to be.

Perhaps there is some merit to this line of reasoning, but it must be admitted that, even in the United States, there are many institutions that we belong to that we cannot control, chief among them is being an American citizen. Indeed, your status as an American citizen largely depends on whether you were born in this country or not. Additionally, as a child, your education and hometown depend on where your parents choose to live, not you. As an adult, your employment and salary determine where you live, and these things are determined, in turn, by what companies are hiring. All of this is to say, we largely do not choose the institutions we belong to. Furthermore, if we wish to say that we can change these institutions, we also have to admit that social change is driven by social relations. In other words, the changing of our institutions depends on social interaction that are defined by those same institutions. For this reason, even in a free nation like the United States, our social interactions are mediated by institutions, and for this reason our social agency must be limited.

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