Social Formation

Social Formation is the generic term we use for any social group in which a set of representations, events, and actions are shared and the meanings of terms temporarily stabilized. “Discourses”, “institutions”, “societies”, and much of what humanists often mean when they talk about “culture” is, for us, a matter of formations.

Since formations include any form of social structure with shared representations and meanings, we are also assuming that layers of formations will typically be nested within each other. The smallest possible formation is a dyad (e.g. two friends, partners, family members, conspirators), sharing experiences and meanings that will not immediately be understood by outsiders. Small formations like these will typically exist within larger formations, such as local communities, workplaces, and subcultures. These, moreover, may have complicated relationships to bigger and more abstract formations, like national and ethnic identities, religions, and ideologies. Moreover, any social subsystem is a formation. Thus, academic disciplines (physics, anthropology, psychiatry), professions (medicine, law, accounting), and economic and political institutions (stock markets, banks, courts, parliaments, governments) are formations as well. Individuals will typically partake in a large number of formations, and switch between these with little trouble. The processes by which individuals partake in, are excluded from, and switch between formations is typically studied by sociology and anthropology.

The building block approach is interested in formations due to their role in the production of complex cultural concepts and as patterns of practice enabling a selective cultivation of shared cognitive building blocks. It is in formations that CCCs take on specific meanings. It is the multiplicity of formations using the same terms with different meanings (both in terms of denotation and connotation) that make these concepts so complex. Consider, for example, the concept “religion”. Institutions that call themselves “religion” will typically have specific views of what constitutes one, inspired by their own theology. Christians might say that religions are about faith, God, and how to live a moral life. Scholars who partake in the global disciplinary formation of religious studies might define religion as “belief in spirits”, “beliefs and practices related to sacred things”, “experiences of the holy”, “a system of symbols pointing to a trans-empirical reality”, or a preoccupation with “ultimate concerns”. Indeed, religious studies consists of a multitude of “schools” (formations within formations) clustering around these and numerous other definitions of what “religion” is or how it ought to be defined. Other social subsystems, such as parliaments and courts, might operate with yet other definitions that allow them to regulate what is and what is not “religion” for the purpose of governance.

The study of formations also has another place in the building block approach. In addition to studying how formations construct and temporarily stabilize CCCs, the building block approach is also interested in how CCCs might, in some cases, mobilize and bind formations together. For example, a particular school of thought within religious studies might coalesce around a specific way of defining the term “religion”, and inspire episodes of boundary-work with competitors in print (e.g., Durkheimian functionalists vs. Eliadian phenomenologists on “the sacred”; discourse theorists vs. CSR scholars on the notion of “superhuman agents”). In some instances, such as when a nation state decides on tax-exemption for “religious” groups, or a research team studies a community as a “religion”, different formations are brought into direct conflict. Discursive resources may then be marshaled in the attempt to extend one’s own version of the CCC to another formation, or to criticize the other formation’s understanding of the CCC as insufficient. These plays of power, discourse, and identity are well known from deconstructionist analysis of the concept of “religion”. In the framework of the building block approach, those types of analyses are understood in terms of formations and CCCs, and form an essential part of step one in the reverse engineering process.


By Egil Asprem & Ann Taves (2016). License: CC BY-SA 3.0.

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