the social body

The ways we pursue social change are conditioned by our conception of the nature of society. If we understand society as a Hobbesian “war of all against all”, approaches to change acquire a corresponding orientation. If society is understood as a free-market arena of competition, approaches to change acquire a slightly different, but related, orientation. If society is understood as an interdependent social body, approaches to change acquire a radically different orientation.

The concept of the “social body” dates back many centuries in both western and eastern thought. Variations of the concept are found in both Greek and Chinese philosophy. They can be found in the self-descriptive narratives of many indigenous cultures, as well as in the writings of many contemporary thinkers.

Historically, the concept of the social body has sometimes been invoked in superficial and oppressive ways that perpetuate hierarchies of power and domination. In such cases, the emphasis on unity, or social harmony, comes at the expense of an emphasis on justice and equity. This is one of the reasons that some European thinkers began to reject the social body metaphor and favor social contest metaphors in the enlightenment era. In their turn toward institutionalized contests of power, however, they gave birth to new systems of oppression and domination.

The contests of power that now characterize virtually every western social institution tend to favor those who enter the contests with the most power. These contests are also indifferent to our increasing social and ecological interdependence. Thus they have yielded widespread social inequity and conflict, combined with ruinous ecological impacts.

When social contest metaphors inform strategies of social change, those strategies play right into the dominant contests of power. Hence the paradox of protest in a culture of contest. The struggle for justice will not be “won” by prevailing in a contest of power. It will be won by constructing a new social order that reconciles the principles of unity and interdependence with the principles of justice and equity.

Agency and change require struggle, but not in the form of a contest for power. The real struggle is to transcend the contest of power.  The radical struggle is to reconcile the principles of unity and justice within an increasingly interdependent social body.

Hilary Harper 5

2 Comments»

  Oak wrote @

I find myself trying so hard to balance unity and justice in my own approach to conflicts, challenges or just plain interacting with the diverse peoples that I have the bounty of interacting with. Even my own understanding of application of the beginning steps of “social body” approaches with many groups of people is colored by the massive current in a different direction regarding words like social action, reciprocation, accountability, and so on.

When interacting with someone who is trained and nurtured in a corporate setting who is in a position of higher rank in a hierarchy, for instance, their approach to administering and measuring the growth of an initiative, the effectiveness of its workings, the independence of each person working to achieve goals and how they all work together…How might one approach these conditions and effect meaningful change within that environment?

  Flo wrote @

Work with the willing. Start with commonality.


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