Individual and the Social : Words and Sonnet or Free Verse

Dr T Deepamanjuri Devi *

Which one is more important - individual or society? Or which comes first - individual or society ? This “chicken first or egg first” puzzle has been tried by many to explain and justify their positions in different ways. Social Contractualists believe that humans basically are in need of society for which they enter into a ‘contract’ by using their ‘natural logic’.

These Contractualists -Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean Jacques Rousseau-believed that man used to live in the state of nature where there were uncertainties everywhere. Individuals willingly sacrificed some of their rights and liberties for an organised society where each felt certain of a safe and secured life.

A contract was entered into for the purpose which gave birth to the State as the agent that could enforce a moral society. While many doubted the existence of such contractual existence of society or the State, the theory gained significant popularity among social thinkers who tried to explain the relationships between individual and society, and the State as an instrument of moral authority making collective life possible.

Sometimes, this emphasis on collectivism has been construed of encouraging the mediocre, thereby discouraging individual excellence. Ayn Rand and her novel Fountainhead (1943) bears witness to this dislike for the collective where individualism is worshiped over collectivism. The Protagonist, Howard Roark stands all alone but proud to be himself, giving a damn to what society would say or react to his actions.

Ellsworth Toohey, the Antagonist, is a Socialist (of all people!), the evil personified who believes in popularizing collectivism and celebrating altruism. Ayn Rand’s hero is an intransigent young architect whose strong will and lack of altruistic feelings is celebrated by the author as the highest value deserving the highest place.

While the writer was strongly criticised for her extreme treatment of characters and their viewpoints, Howard Roark, the character, remains one of the finest characters of any novel whom millions admire for his strong will and confidence, and also for clarity of purpose in life and of life itself. Ayn Rand, who was also the founder of ‘Objectivism’ (a political party), was arguably also someone who did not like Socialism.

In real everyday world, it is also not unusual to find individuals who feel strangled by the strict dos and don’ts of the society. They may also turn out to be the harshest critics of society. They often complain that they are not able to express freely their whole views, including deviant ones, to the public in general.

When they do so, they have to bear the repercussions and which, sometimes, make them famous in the process, precisely because there are members who are curious to hear him out at least. This also shows the invisibility, unpredictability and ambiguity of society. What we think a homogeneous ‘Social’ hides its heterogeneous propensity which comes up in support of such situation of free expression of opinions.

There is always a room for dissent from a minority in the Social which may be drubbed and outcast by the majority, sometimes violently, depending on what type of Social that is. Is this story not a familiar one in this part of the world called Manipur ?

Coming back to the science of society, our own (one of the) founding father (s) of Sociology - none other than Karl Marx himself was never comfortable with Sociologists. When a journalist addressed him as a Sociologist, his reaction was, “Please don’t call me a Sociologist!”

While it remains to solve the puzzle as to why Marx hated Sociology, it is clear that he also gave priority to the society over the individual. The common and the collective were very important for him. Does it mean that Marx did not acknowledge the importance of the individual? I don’t think so.

For Marx, human nature resides in the ensemble of the social relations. The particular form these relationships take depends on the nature of the material mode of production prevalent during a historical period of time.

For Emile Durkheim, what we worship as God in religious belief systems is nothing but society itself. Society is the God. He arrived at this conclusion in an interesting (as always with Durkheim) manner by pointing out to us that even a normal familiar object can become ‘extraordinary’ once it bears the symbol of the totem of a clan.

In other words, the special feeling of rejuvenation and exaltation one feels in the company of one’s fellow beings, as in a religious ceremony or ritual, results from the presence of the sacred. For him, it is very much an essential quality of social facts (the subject matter of Sociology) to function as source of constraints to individual actions. Externality is also an essential characteristic of social facts.

Our beliefs, ideas, values, etc. get externalised to constitute institutions. Society has an existence of its own, independent of the constituting members and hence, Durkheim claims society can be a proper object of enquiry.

Society is a separable reality for this Sociologist and the same, according to him, exerts powerful force on human individuals. Society, for him was irreducible to its composing parts. Although society exists at the level of the subconscious, it is autonomous and transcends being merely a collection of isolated individuals.

For another founding father of Sociology, Max Weber, subjective understanding was very important. Verstehen or understanding the meaning of action from the actor’s own point of view is suggested as the technique to be adopted for sociological enquiry. Social actions are treated as the focus of attention for sociological enquiries.

These social actions are the behaviours or actions of individuals, or actors in the presence of other individuals or actors. Concrete causes of actions are taken as discernible for causal interpretations. This dimension of sociological analysis put forward by Weber paved the way for symbolic understanding and Interpretative Sociology which acknowledged the significance of individuals-as actors in the presence of other actors.

This presence of others is necessary for any action to be treated as social. Thus the social and the individual are bound together to each other to be meaningful.

Symbols that we externalised according to Symbolic Interactionists, are again internalised through socialisation, and these processes of externalisation and internalisation happen continuously - charging and recharging the social fabric from generations to generations through the actions of the participating members. So individuals are both agents as well as products of the social.

This dual nature of both the individual and the social structure has been clearly explained by Anthony Giddens in his Structuration theory. Lord Giddens, also the advisor to the British Prime Minister, helped the Labour Party come into existence. He was concerned about modernity.

There is mutual dependency between structure and agency. Looking from this angle, the social and the individual can never be two separate entities which stand against each other. In fact, the two are inseparable-each derives its meaning of existence only in relation to the other, like the two sides of a coin.

Professor Andre Beteille, the renowned Sociologist, once asked me casually, while I was at the Delhi School of Economics, where he was the Professor, “Deepa, do you think society is against individuals?” “No, Sir!”, was my immediate answer. He looked completely satisfied with the shortest answer I ever gave to such a serious question.

Prof. Betielle is one of the founding fathers of Sociology in India who believed that a combination of Sociology and Social Anthropology can be fruitful for the discipline of Sociology. Being the first one to introduce caste, class, status studies of stratification into Sociology, his approach was accepted in the West, not without a pinch of salt.

Again, unlike his teacher MN Srinivas who bent more towards a structural functionalist perspective, Prof Beteille believes in the Weberian interpretative approach and the comparative method Weber extensively used in his analysis. He believes that the Marxist utopian way of understanding the relationship between individual and State/society should be replaced by a Weberian way of looking at society with an eye of interpretative understanding.

Why should individuals be treated as opposed to the State/society? Why cannot the individual be at par with the State/society? This is exactly what Prof. Beteille has tried all his life - to bring the individual at par with the State/society, not to treat one against the other or below or above the other.

The above discussions have touched upon some basic questions. Is individual a puppet or master of society (or vise versa)? Is society a Shakespearean sonnet ? If society were a Shakespearean sonnet, an individual had to follow the strict rules of how he acted with three quatrains and one couplet, with rhyming pattern of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG, and each line constituted by something called iambic pentameter (having ten syllables).

The individual had to exercise his creativity within these parameters, not outside it. Does this sound pathetic ? Or, is society like a free verse ? If society were free verse, an individual could exercise his creativity without any limit given the fluidity of the set up. What would happen if individual escaped from society under this free verse format, like a space ship flying beyond the gravity ?

Is not it so liberating ? Or is society neither ? Or are individuals and society like a braid ? We cannot arrive at a finality of our understanding. Because, it is individual. It is society. It is Social Science. It is Sociology. It is not being but becoming.

* Dr T Deepamanjuri Devi wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer teaches Sociology in the Department of Sociology, Manipur University.
She can be reached at rita_takhel(AT)yahoo(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on June 09 2024.

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