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The socialising role of community

Following from this afternoon’s post about John Dewey, I wanted to share this extract from later in Democracy and Education about the socialising role played by communities. He explains how the groups to which an individual belongs inevitably exercises an influence over them, by virtue of that belonging. I understanding him to be saying these are educative in the sense that they provide an environment which solicits certain responses by virtue of collaborating as part of a more or less shared existence:

Each such group exercises a formative influence on the active dispositions of its members. A clique, a club, a gang, a Fagin’s household of thieves, the prisoners in a jail, provide educative environments for those who enter into their collective or conjoint activities, as truly as a church, a labor union, a business partnership, or a political party. Each of them is a mode of associated or community life, quite as much as is a family, a town, or a state. There are also communities whose members have little or no direct contact with one another, like the guild of artists, the republic of letters, the members of the professional learned class scattered over the face of the earth. For they have aims in common, and the activity of each member is directly modified by knowledge of what others are doing.

Loc 364, Democracy and Education

He explains how “the diversity of groups was largely a geographical matter” in pre-modern societies, with “comparative homogenous” ways of life to be found within particular territories. I’m not sure how plausible this is but I think it could be creatively read in terms of regions rather than nations. He argues that the “development of commerce, transportation, intercommunication, and emigration” generates “a combination of different groups with different traditional customs” (loc 364). He suggests that school has an important role to play under such circumstances through “the function also of coordinating within the disposition of each individual the diverse influences of the various social environments into which he enters” (loc 378). His point is about the challenge of what Archer calls normative dissensus (being confronted with differing normative expectations) and the reflexive challenge which it generates:

One code prevails in the family; another, on the street; a third, in the workshop or store; a fourth, in the religious association. As a person passes from one of the environments to another, he is subjected to antagonistic pulls, and is in danger of being split into a being having different standards of judgment and emotion for different occasions. This danger imposes upon the school a steadying and integrating office.

I’m really interested in the theory of reflexivity implied here which I haven’t yet come to in the book. Archer’s point is that normative dissensus is increasingly likely to be found within situations, as opposed to being something encountered between situations. It would be interesting to read Dewey in light of this suggestion, particularly with a view to applying is framework of analysis to a contemporary world in which social platforms are ubiquitous. However Dewey seems to frame the normative requirements of group membership in terms of conformity in a way I find implausible. From loc 589:

unless an individual acts in the way current in his group, he is literally out of it. He can associate with others on intimate and equal terms only by behaving in the way in which they behave. The pressure that comes from the fact that one is let into the group action by acting in one way and shut out by acting in another way is unremitting.

Surely things will tend to be more open than this? There are limit cases for particular groups and limit cases across groups but there’s also normative heterogeneity which can be found within any group. It might be suppressed or evaded in a variety of ways but I’m certain it’s there. This means that the normative borders of groups are fuzzier than Dewey suggests i.e. a matter of performing adherence rather than behavioural conformity. I guess a lot depends on what he means by “intimate and equal terms” as this could be explicated in a way that accepts my critique but postulates deep rather than shallow membership of a group.

Categories: Becoming Who We Are

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