A Review: Agency in Human Action Social Processes and Transactions

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The readings cited in this  review are Agency in Human Action Social Processes and Transactions a Chapter in Phillip Salzman’s book, Understanding Culture: An Introduction to Anthropological Theory. Also, a excerpt from Pierre Bordieu entitled Legitimate Language.

“[P]atterns of social form can be explained if we assume that they are the cumulative results of a number of separate choice and decisions  made by people acting vis-à-vis one another.  In other words…the patterns are generated through processes of interaction and in their form reflect the constraints and incentive under which people act.” (qtd in Salzman , 41)

As this quote explain processual theory, founded by Frederik Barth, holds that social processes can be strategically manipulated to alter normative rules, the set of institutional standards and regulations that dictates appropriate behavior. Personally processual theory is dynamic, comprehensive, and pragmatic compared to structionalist, functionalist, and materialist approaches which are all reductionist in their own right. Even though there are some that would also argue that processual theory is reductionist in its own right, I would have to disagree with them on their reasons. Processual theory unlike other social theories in anthropology acknowledges that people act upon their own volition and agency to better themselves, even within societal roles established by a society.  Barth refers to this tendency as a generative model “a aggregate of people exercising choice while influenced by certain constraints and incentives.” Barth mentions convincing examples to support his theory such as the Pan untouchables strategically working towards being considered clean by the upper cast, the Bassieri people strategic management of their herd.

  The other reading by Bordieu is perplexing. It seems the gist of what Bordieu is getting at is the importance of overcoming the binary subjectivity—objectivity created by language. For Bourdieu each individual occupies a position in a multidimensional social space; he or she is not defined only by social class membership, but by every single kind of capital he or she can articulate through social relations. That capital includes the value of social networks, which Bourdieu can be used to produce or reproduce inequality. Pierre Bourdieu’s work stresses social class maintenance especially the ruling and intellectual classes, who preserve their social privileges across generations despite the falsehood that contemporary post-industrial society asserts equal opportunity and social mobility, achieved through formal education.

We can see the maintenance of social classes in Pan culture mentioned by Brath, despite the untouchables achievement of formal education though they no longer can be formally excluded from social affairs the upper caste Brath concedes “change is facilitated by obfuscation and the avoidance of battles over general principles. While at the normative level the status of Pans had not changes, at the pragmatic level it had.” (Salzman 47-8). Similarly, with the coffee and wine examples found in the supplemental readings people of higher standards are able to influence people of lower standing, thus maintaining their class distinction even though their tastes are clearly subjective. I must say that I have personal qualms with the arguments presented in the supplemental readings as much of the logic and evidence presented is somewhat faulty. Rather than pick these faults apart, it’s of greater important to acknowledge the fact that both reading overall have salient points and reaffirm concepts emphasized by Bordieu.


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