Sally Haslanger

On Being Part of a Social System: Coordination and Resistance


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Societies are complex systems that reproduce themselves: their hierarchies, their culture, their practices, and their structures.  Most, if not all, societies reproduce profound injustice.  How can the process of social reproduction be effectively disrupted and replaced so that better systems emerge?  In order to answer this question, I will begin by considering how agents are embedded in social systems and participate in their reproduction.  I will argue that once we see how both cognition and agency are shaped for the purposes of coordination, the philosophical strategy of promoting justice through argument and deliberation, i.e., the non-coercive appeal to reason, is not as promising as it might initially seem.  Although deliberative processes are useful to gain allies in the state, effective and legitimate social change requires that we employ tools of both disruptive and everyday activism to change the material and cultural conditions of agency.  Practices change when we do things differently, together.  Nothing is ever promised by community activism, but it is morally wrong to wait for the state and its elite allies to keep their promises.

Reading 1

Haslanger, S. (2018). What is a Social Practice? Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement,82, 231-247. doi:10.1017/S1358246118000085

Abstract: This paper provides an account of social practices that reveals how they are constitutive of social agency, enable coordination around things of value, and are a site for social intervention. The social world, on this account, does not begin when psychologically sophisticated individuals interact to share knowledge or make plans. Instead, culture shapes agents to interpret and respond both to each other and the physical world around us. Practices shape us as we shape them. This provides resources for understanding why social practices tend to be stable, but also reveals sites and opportunities for change. (Challenge social meanings! Intervene in the material conditions!)

Reading 2

Haslanger, S. (2021), Failures of Methodological Individualism: The Materiality of Social Systems. J Soc Philos.

Abstract: The aim of this paper is to argue that MI is inadequate because at least some social phenomena are best understood as systems, or parts of systems, that in- volve more than individuals and their attitudes. In particular, I will argue that there is an interdependence between the material, the cultural, and the psycholog- ical in social systems, and this interdependence is crucial for many forms of social explanation. Moreover, recognizing the interdependence between different parts of social systems is important for understanding social critique and the potential of social activism. An individualist social ontology places tremendous emphasis on the power of “collective intentionality” to constitute the social world. But our powers are limited by material conditions, the complexity and fragmentation of societies, our embodiment, our ignorance, and the accidental bad effects of good intentions (not to mention the bad intentions). To understand societies, we must take all this into account. Understanding the multiple factors—material, cultural, historical, psychological—affecting our terms of coordination is necessary for critique, and for our efforts to promote social justice. My hope is to provide a framework within which we can better understand and critique the social world.

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