Tag Archives: Durkheim

Playing Around

Grandson Kaydon Playing Around (by Sarah Moffett)

Grandson Kaydon Playing Around (by Sarah Moffett)

In today’s scandal-ridden environment, one might think that the title of my blog refers to the recent tales of our politicians’ sexual machinations, which reporters and bloggers have so voraciously been fleshing out (no pun intended). In fact, the inspiration was wholly otherwise. 

It so happened that this adorable picture of my youngest grandson, Kaydon, arrived just as I was reading Johan Huizinga‘s Homo Ludens (1971). In this book, Huizinga makes the case that play is not a reflection of culture, but rather culture is the outcome of play. As evidence, he points out that all animals play, even though no one teaches them the rules of the game: to the contrary, the rules–that is to say cultures–evolve in the course of the play.

Playing elephant calves

Playing elephant calves

An interesting argument–but for me, the picture of Kaydon, with the spoon affixed with oatmeal to the end of his nose, was more telling. I could imagine his mother Sarah laughing at the silliness of it all, which made me wonder, what is this game? Don’t all children play it? How was it invented? As well, who in this situation is making up the rules–Kaydon or his mother? Don’t you suspect it was both?

I had to wonder, where did this game come from; who is making up these rules?

It wasn’t much later that my grandson Ben tramped through the woods to our porch, clenching a water pistol in his fist, and looking suspiciously all around. What’s up, I asked? “Nothing much,” he said. “We are playing Cops and Robbers.” Having fun, I continued? Oh, it’s okay, he said. The problem is that Brody is breaking the rules. He’s supposed to be a Cop, but he is playing on the Robbers’ team. Hm, I thought–what rules? Where did they come from–culture? Which comes first, the culture or the game? The truth be told, they must emerge, co-evolving together.

Light reading.  The lightest of them....(courtesy jamwithsand)

Light reading. The lightest of them....(courtesy jamwithsand)

As one might deduce from the content of my blog, as well as the previous one, I continue to play around with my colleague Garrison Le Masters trying to find a good way to relate standards to play and virtual worlds. For my part, it requires testing the waters of cultural studies, reading outside my field, and translating an entirely new vocabulary into something that I am familiar with. So far Garrison and I seem to be converging around some of Durkheim’s ideas: For Garrison, it’s the notion of wholeness, integration, what he calls the sacred. For me, its quite similar. I am drawn to the concept of emergent holism–the outcome of symbolic interaction (R. Keith Sawyer)

For now, we are still thinking it through–book by book. In the meantime, thank goodness that I have my grandchildren to help me sort out what play is really all about! .

The Self and Society

For me growing up, SOCIETY was not an abstraction: it was very real. I didn’t need to read Durkheim to understand social facts. My mother was a constant reminder. The purpose of life, she said, was to leave Society better than one finds it. And, to me, coming from her, that was a Fact!

The purpose of life, she said, was to leave Society better than one finds it. And, to me, coming from her, that was a Fact! 

No wonder, then, that–in deciding the direction of my future studies–I was drawn to the social sciences. By sampling these disciplines, I hoped to discover my true place in the world. The result? I found economics especially reassuring because, according to economists, individuals and outcomes were clearly defined and predictable. Nonetheless, I kept asking myself, where in all of this is the social order? On the other hand, my sociology courses–taught in the tradition of Talcott Parsons–were all about social order. However, the emphasis on continuity and consensus came at the expense of individual agency and the possibility for radical upheaval–a real disadvantage, given the revolutionary changes that occurred throughout the late sixties and early seventies, in which I enthusiastically took part.

A Sixties Collage

A Sixties Collage

Political science seemed to me, at the time, to be the ideal discipline–the most holistic and relevant to events occuring around me. Not only did political science focus on individuals, groups, and institutions; it also characterized and sought to explain the conflict among them. Alas, however, the failure of academic political scientists to correctly interpret the War in VietNam, and to develop appropriate strategies to cope with it, precipitated the discipline’s tumultuous retreat behind the seemingly safe bastions of methodological individualism, manageable, reductionist questions, and strict quantitative analysis. Fortunately, for me, I ended up at the The Office of Technology Assessment, where addressing real-world problems took precedence over disciplinary disagreements.

In the years that followed, I discovered that finding the real me was by no means a matter of identifying the right theory. But neither was my identity a biological or sociological given. To the contrary, as I now know as a result of years of life’s experience, I am emergent: my being is constantly evolving in the context of my life experiences and interactions with others–marriage, motherhood, friendship, work and play.

To the contrary, as I now know as a result of years of life experience, “I” am emergent: my being is constantly evolving in the context of my life experiences and interactions with others. 

Imagine, then, what pleasure I had this summer reading R. Keith Sawyers book, Social Emergence: Societies as Complex Systems. In his book, Sawyer not only rescues Durkheim from his critics; he also provides a theoretical basis for the way that I now think about myself in relationship to society. Tracing Durkheim’s concept of social facts back to the notion of emergentism Sawyer contends that Durkheim has been misinterpreted by those who viewed his work through the lens of Talcott Parsons’ value integration. Sawyer argues, instead, that Durkheim, as well as Comte, conceived of ‘society’ and the ‘individual’ in a complex, emergent relationship–the product of continuous interaction and reaction.

My mother’s emphasis on social facts can also be viewed in emergent, experiential terms. In her early thirties during the Depression, and her early forties, during the Second World War, my mother must have learned that the survival of SOCIETY had a lot to do with cooperative behavior, as well as sacrificing the individual for the sake of the whole.