21 Jun 2013

Slides from talk on "Context-dependency and the development of social institutions"

Presented at the 1st "Constructed Complexities" workshop on "Institutions as social constructs and social construction through institutions", at the University of Surrey, 21st July 2013. (http://constructedcomplexities.wordpress.com/workshops/workshop-1/)

Slides at:


It is well established that many aspects of human cognition are context-dependent, including: memory, preferences, language, perception, reasoning and emotion.  What seems to occur is that the kind of situation is recognised and information stored with respect to that.  This means that when faced with a similar situation, beliefs, expectations, habits, defaults, norms, procedures etc. that are relevant to the context can be brought to bear.  I will call this mental correlate of the kind of situation the “context”. Thus the mental context frames conscious thinking by preferentially providing the relevant information making learning and reasoning practical, as well as allowing relatively “crisp” and logical thought within this frame.  This is the “context heuristic” that seems to have been built into us by the process of evolution.
This recognition seems to occur in a rich, fuzzy and largely unconscious manner, which means that it can be hard to give distinct identities and talk about these contexts.  It can thus be problematic to talk about “the” context in many cases, and indeed one cannot assume that different people are thinking about the same situation as (effectively) the same context from a third party perspective.  Indeed one of the powerful aspects of the context heuristic is that it allows us flip between mental contexts allowing us to thing about a situation or problem from different contextual frames.  Due to our facility at automatically identifying context and the indefinable way it is recognised it is hard for people to retrieve what is or signals a context (in contrast to what is relevant when recognised). However, they do seem to be sensitive to when they have the wrong context.
Thus learning is not just a matter of recording beliefs, expectations, habits, defaults, norms, procedures etc. but also a matter of learning to recognise the kinds of situation to organise their remembrance.  A large part of our world is humanly constructed, or common (e.g. shared human emotions or a shared environment).  Our classification of these kinds of situation is thus heavily coordinated among people of the same society – we learn to recognise situations in effectively the same way and hence remember the relevant beliefs, expectations, habits, defaults, norms, procedures etc. for the same kinds of situation.  A shared body of knowledge (in its wisest sense) that constitutes a culture does not only include the foreground beliefs, norms etc. but also how the world is divided into kinds of situation.  Some of these contexts will have universal roots, such as the emotion of fear or being hungry, and thus might be approximately the same across cultures (without transmission), others will be specific to cultures. 
The power of the context heuristic comes from the ability it gives us to socially coordinate.  It allows for contexts to be socially co-developed and the beliefs, expectations, habits, defaults, norms, procedures etc. that are associated with these.  Thus different kinds and bases for coordination can be developed for different kinds of situation and be appropriate to that situation.  Indeed over time such shared contexts can become deeply entrenched. If a kind of situation is readily recognisable then it is more likely that specific norms, protocols, signals, infrastructure etc. is developed to facilitate coordination in that kind of situation.  However, equally if specific norms, protocols, signals, infrastructure are developed for a kind of situation then the more recognisable it becomes.  In this way a kind of situation is instituted.  Courts, social parties, lectures, and board meetings are examples of such. The institutionalisation of social contexts not only ensures its consistent recognition and treatment by members of a society but also allows for it to be reified with a specific label so that it can be reasoned about.  Thus institutionalisation is usually a process originating in shared context but which makes its recognition explicit, thus allowing for it to be talked about and debated.
The ability to coordinate in specific ways for different kinds of situation has obvious evolutionary advantage for homo sapiens.  This is coherent with the “Social Intelligence Hypothesis” (SIH) that suggests that the evolutionary advantage of our intelligence is not our general problem solving ability but the social abilities it allows.  The ability to coordinate in groups, and develop a culture of knowledge, coordination and techniques that enables a group to inhabit an ecological niche allows homo sapiens to inhabit a wide range of niches (and not just one like most species).  Examples include even extreme environments such as the Kalahari Desert and the Artic Tundra.  Being spread over a number of very different niches gives homo sapiens a considerable resistance to unpredictable catastrophes that wipe out particular niches.  This resilience to the species (not the particular groups which might well be very susceptible to such disasters) gives a very distinct evolutionary advantage. The ability to reliably co-recognise the same context as others and hence apply the same beliefs, expectations, habits, defaults, norms, procedures etc. as others is a strongly social ability.
The institutionalisation of context will not be restricted to a mental alignment, but often also involve a considerable development of physical, educational and legal infrastructure.  For example to facilitate the institution of a lecture, we have built special rooms, equipment and software in addition to long training to familiarise children to the institution.  In other words much social signalling and entrenchment is via stimergic means – changing the environment to flag and facilitate the institution.  It is by no means restricted to purely mental structures: norms, beliefs, habits etc. but is marked by other changes.  Thus, once established, many institutions will not be limited to the coordinated mental constructs of the society’s members, but marked out in the environment.  Such traces might well be distinguishable by a future archaeologist – even one not familiar with our culture – just as the statues of Easter Island are recognisable now.
Where does that leave the nature of such institutions from an epistemological view?   Firstly note that a truth being context-dependent is not necessarily the same as it being relative – if a context is reliably co-recognisable then any knowledge specific to that context can be checked by an independent person (first by recognising the correct context then seeing if the knowledge holds therein).  Secondly that, although institutions might originate in ineffable contexts it may become institutionalised in a way that leaves considerable traces in the environment, and thus its existence goes beyond being a purely social construct (although its origin remains so).  Thirdly, although the form of any particular institution might be specific to a particular culture and socially determined, the roots of institutions in general might be deeply rooted in our shared biological evolution.

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