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The Structure of Social Space

To understand the relations between society and self, to make sense of our experience as sentient and moral beings, we need to develop knowledge which doesn't at present exist. The division of labour in the intellectual marketplace has resulted in a profound and pervasive disarticulation of knowledge. For example, sociologists know little of what psychologists are doing, and neither group is likely to be familiar with the work of moral philosophers. Even if they were (and in those rare instances when they are) the various forms of specialized ‘knowledge’ are not constructed to fit together at all easily. Academia has become a competitive industry, not a body of men and women seeking to understand the place of humanity in the world.

Social injustice and inequality are intimately linked to personal pain and unhappiness, but there is no academic discipline centrally concerned to investigate and explain the relations between them. Such work takes place only incidentally and on the margins.

Although, thankfully, it is coming at last to be recognized in the social and life sciences that a separation of mind from body is not one that can validly be maintained, a similarly unhelpful separation of self from society is still very much in evidence. The very fact that sociology and psychology are set up as separate disciplines, splitting what is in fact an indissoluble whole (i.e. the social and the personal), means that even the student who strives for integration is stuck at the very foundation of his or her thinking with the assumptions derived from one end of an artificial dichotomy.

There is a further, logical, difficulty at the heart of our efforts to understand ourselves, and that is that, in order to do so, we cannot get outside ourselves. We can do a lot better with inanimate matter and with biological systems less complex than ourselves precisely because in the process of investigating them we do not (so much) have to take into account our own essential nature. We can look at them from the outside. When thinking about ourselves, however, we are caught up in covert purposes and motivations which are so much a part of ourselves that we cannot possibly be objective about them. In the context of our thinking about ourselves, there is no outside. Even so, perhaps we could get quite a bit further than we have.

Conventional psychology

Psychology, for example, seems almost wilfully blind not only to the significance of its own existence (in maintaining an individualism which is of the first importance to the preservation of the current social order), but also to some of the most glaringly obvious factors in human motivation (e.g., the operation of interest).

I do not mean that psychology should not exist, but its potential value, from a clinical perspective at least, lies less in its exclusive focus on individuals than in its ability to illuminate subjectivity: what it feels like to be a person in the world (and why). It is in any case a pretty strange sort of individual that emerges from the typical introductory psychology text – a disjointed collection of mechanisms (perception, sensation, emotion, cognition, etc.) which somehow manage to combine to generate ‘behaviour’ which is, in the final analysis, willed, rational and apparently entirely detached from the kinds of preoccupation (about money and power) which in fact, whether or not we like to admit it, so dominate our daily lives.

Although psychology attempts to preserve its ‘scientific’ status by seeming to stand outside the object of its study so that the latter’s ‘behaviour’ can be predicted and controlled, it nevertheless, tacitly or otherwise, ends up with a perspective on the person as a rational agent who looks out at the world from the self as centre, processes ‘stimuli’ and ‘decides’ what to do.

This kind of view fits in, of course, pretty well with our everyday understanding of ourselves and how we function, and no doubt helps thereby to preserve the appeal of ‘official’ psychology. One of the more obvious features of the vast bulk of the ‘findings’ of ‘scientific’ psychology is that they accord closely with common sense. This is of course not necessarily a fault, and could I suppose be taken as an indication that things are not going too far wrong. However, it seems to me more likely that this somewhat tedious confirmation of received wisdom is a reflection of a set of assumptions which underlie the views of us all – psychologists both lay and professional.

For when we come to thinking about ourselves, our ‘psychologies’ and our relations with each other, we are governed by some very basic prejudices which, though in part very much culturally and socially determined (and, as we shall see, mercilessly exploited by power) are also very nearly inescapably imposed upon us by our nature as creatures embodied in time and space.

View from the self as centre

Each one of us occupies, in the grander scheme of things, an infinitesimal space for an infinitesimal length of time, and yet, for us as individuals, this is all the space and all the time we have and so figures subjectively as hugely significant.

Our greatest intimacy is with the bodily sensations that mediate our relations with the world around us: because we feel, physically, what is going on, we have a sense of ‘interiority’ which seems to be just about the most indubitable indication of what is happening to us. We feel we know what is going on in our own ‘minds’ with an especially privileged certainty, while we can only make educated guesses about what goes on in the minds of others. The physical experience of doing things – experience which is absolutely unavoidable – convinces us that, most of the time, doing things means assessing options and taking decisions. We seem to be given an indisputable knowledge of wishes and intentions which are entirely private to ourselves, and our greatest guarantee of the truth of someone else’s wishes and intentions seems to be to induce them to give a truthful account of them from their own inner experience.

Our understanding and assessment of the world around us is mediated socially by the people and things we come into direct, bodily contact with. The language we speak we learn from those who speak to us, and we speak (extraordinarily precisely) with their cadences and their accent. Our experience of social power is transmitted by those with whom we have daily contact – first families, then educators, then employers. On the whole, the nearer people and things are to us the more significance we are likely to accord to their effect upon us (inevitably, for example, children experience their parents as enormously powerful). At the same time we are of course surrounded by a complex apparatus conveying information and controlling meaning; the extent to which we are able to gain a critical purchase on this apparatus will determine our understanding of our world. In all these spheres we are encircled by an horizon beyond which the world is a mystery.

From the perspective of time also we occupy a life-span which gives us a sense of the ‘length’ of history. The elderly live in an era which, for their grandchildren already beyond the reach of fashion, becomes a realm merely of nostalgia. The Norman Conquest seems to most of us in Britain (who know about it at all) to belong deep in the mists of the past – and yet there are still families living on estates seized then, and it takes only 13 seventy-year-olds, living back-to-back, to get there.

We live, then, at the centre of a world of ‘proximal space-time’.

This world is deeply, perhaps even by now indelibly, established in modern culture. Only rarely from within our social and cultural institutions - as rarely, for example, in literature as in the law - is there a glimmer of acknowledgement that we are not, at least ideally, the originators of our own conduct and masters of our own fate. The whole tendency of Western ways of thought has been increasingly to see the individual as autonomous.

Just as it was difficult for mediaeval men and women to shake off the conviction – so powerfully endorsed by their own senses – that the earth was at the centre of the universe, so does it appear self-evident to us that it is our experience as individuals embodied in time and space which yields us our most reliable knowledge of how we and others tick. It is my belief that we are as profoundly misled by the perspective from self-as-centre as our ancestors were by their geocentric view of the universe1. I hope in the rest of these pages to show in more detail how, and with what consequences, we fall into error in our understanding of ourselves. Before that I want to sketch the basics of a possible alternative view.

An alternative perspective

Global society constitutes a system of inexpressible complexity. It is like a huge central nervous system in which ‘social neurons’ (i.e. people) interact with each other via an infinity of interconnecting and overlapping subsystems. The fundamental dynamic of the system is power, that is the ability of a social group or individual to influence others in accordance with its/his/her interests. Interest is thus the principal, and most effective, means through which power is transmitted.

Here, already, is the starkest possible contrast with our conventional psychology: what animates us is not rational appraisal and considered choice of action, but the push and pull of social power as it manipulates our interest. It is not argument and demonstration of truth which move us to action but the impress of influences of which we may be entirely unaware.

Reason, then, is a tool of power, not a power in itself. Just like moral right, rational right is not of itself compelling and, when it is in nobody's interest to regard it, will be disregarded. Those who - like Thomas Paine for example - seem successful advocates of Reason in its purest form, may fail even themselves to see that it is in fact not reason alone that makes their words persuasive, but the causes (interests) to which reason becomes attached. No doubt Mein Kampf was as persuasive to those already sold on its premises as The Rights of Man was to 18th century revolutionaries in America and France. This does not mean, to those who value reason, that Paine's writing is not worth infinitely more than Hitler's; it means simply, and sadly, that Reason alone is impotent. What really matters is power itself.

In her mordantly compelling Lugano Report2, Susan George vividly draws attention to the inadequacy of rational argument as a means of influencing people. In starting to consider alternatives to the potentially disastrous practices of global capitalism, she writes:-

This section has to start on a personal note because frankly, power relations being what they are, I feel at once moralistic and silly proposing alternatives. More times than I care to count I have attended events ending with a rousing declaration about what ‘should’ or ‘must’ occur. So many well-meaning efforts so totally neglect the crucial dimension of power that I try to avoid them now unless I think I can introduce an element of realism that might otherwise be absent.

…because I am constantly being asked ‘what to do’, I begin with some negative suggestions. The first is not to be trapped by the ‘should’, the ‘must’ and the ‘forehead-slapping school’. Assuming that any change, because it would contribute to justice, equity and peace, need only to be explained to be adopted is the saddest and most irritating kind of naivety. Many good, otherwise intelligent people seem to believe that once powerful individuals and institutions have actually understood the gravity of the crisis (any crisis) and the urgent need for its remedy, they will smack their brows, admit they have been wrong all along and, in a flash of revelation, instantly redirect their behaviour by 180 degrees.

While ignorance and stupidity must be given their due, most things come out the way they do because the powerful want them to come out that way.


Power is generated within and through social institutions. The institutions of power operate independently of particular individuals and at varying distances from them, affecting them via almost unimaginably complex lines of influence that travel through individuals as well as through other institutions. A highly simplified diagram (from The Origins of Unhappiness3) suggests the basic structure through which power operates:

The impress of power

The further away from the individual person a particular social institution is, the more powerful it is likely to be and the more individuals it will affect. For example, the machinery of global capitalism has enormous effects on vast numbers of people in the world who are themselves in no position to be able to see into its operation. Fig. 2 attempts to give an impression of the pervasiveness of distal influence. Individual citizens have virtually no way of resisting the powers which bear down upon them - their only hope is to act in solidarity with others.

The impress of distal power

Apparently paradoxically,the nearer to the (average) individual an institution is, the less its total power is likely to be, though, owing to the distortion of his or her perspective, it will be experienced by that individual as more powerful. For example, as might be the case with employers, we tend in every day life to attribute considerable power to those whose ‘decisions’ most nearly affect us. However, it is rarely, if ever, that an employer ‘makes a decision’ in the sense of spontaneously exercising free will over us; it is far more likely to be the case that the employer’s ‘decisions’ are conditioned by economic events which operate at such a distance from us (as well as the employer) that we cannot even discern their basic properties.

A number of interesting consequences follow from the notion of 'power horizon'. One is the new meaning it gives to the concept of the 'Unconscious'. Unconsciousness ceases to be, as it is in Freudian theory, a property of individuals, and becomes an external, social phenomenon: we are unconscious of what we cannot know or have been prevented from knowing. At the most proximal level, parents may conceal aspects of the(ir) world from children, or exercise their power to forbid access to activities or information they deem unsuitable for their children, or indeed threatening to themselves. At more distal levels, we are nearly all unconscious of the origin and manner of transmission of powers which affect our lives in all kinds of crucial and intimate ways, not because of our own stupidity or wilfulness, but because they lie beyond the zone our gaze can penetrate.


A further consequence of our limited power horizons is, as already implied, the opportunities which are opened up for the more or less deliberate exploitation of our perspective. The globalization of the 'free market' is one obvious area where the ruthless malpractices of Business can be shifted beyond the horizon of those most able to object. Opposition to abuses of power in 'developed' democracies can be dealt with by media manipulation and appeasement while the most brutal exploitation of labour, etc., is shifted to places likely neither to fall readily under the eye nor to engage the feelings of the general public. What goes on in Burma, Brazil, Indonesia or Singapore is, for example, relatively easily maintained as a matter of indifference to the vast majority of voters in Britain. (It is true, of course, that readers of the broadsheets - often now sneeringly referred to as 'high-minded' - and viewers of televison's intellectual safety-valves, Channel 4 and BBC2, may be to some extent apprised of what goes on further afield. But, as one BBC political commentator elegantly put it 'the trouble is, it's a tabloid world' in which it matters little what goes into high minds.)


It is also worth noting how the limited reach of our personal memories through time hugely facilitates the recycling of fashion and the maintenance of obsolescence, the disruption of on-going organized resistance (e.g. the demise of unionism, whose ideological origins are by now totally obscure to most people), and the ability to veil in a fog of oblivion the savage iniquities upon which much of our social structure is founded (the manner in which those who robbed and murdered their way to property and wealth have managed since to clothe themselves in the regalia of honour, virtue and distinction, is a matter for unceasing wonder).

Each of us is thus surrounded by a spatio-temporal 'power horizon' beyond which it is impossible to 'see'. The radius of this horizon will of course differ between individuals according to the availability to them of power. In a general sense, the better educated and well connected will have 'longer' power horizons compared to less advantaged people. Despite obvious benefits of class, however, the majority of us probably find ourselves in boats more similar than different - hence the ability of higher-order power to manipulate entire populations in terms of their understanding of how the world works.

The extent to which an individual can be said to ‘have’ power will depend upon the availability to him or her of power within the system, i.e. how much power is transmitted through him or her from outside sources. (I have tried to outline out what this model signifies for the experience of psychological distress in Fundamentals of an Environmental Approach to Distress.) Fig. 1 gives the impression that power flows only in one direction - from the more to the less powerful. This is of course somewhat misleading: it is possible both for proximal to influence distal institutions and for individuals to act back onto their environment. It is however the case that the flow of influence in this 'reverse' direction is strictly limited in scope and distance.

An individual can in this way be defined as an embodied locus in social space through which power flows. People are thus held in place within the social environment by the influences which structure it, and their freedom to change position or influence people and events is strictly limited by the availability of power within the sub-systems in which they are located. In fact, no significant amount power is available to the individual beyond that which is afforded by the social environment.

Influences in social space

Some of the complexity of social space is conveyed in fig. 3.   A (rather stereotypically conceived!) family floats in social space, the direction of influence between its members and some proximal systems shown by the arrows and its relative strength by their thickness. Rather as if each of the smaller spheres were like a neuron or system of neurons in a nervous system, the ‘electrical impulse’ of conduction is power and the ‘neurotransmitter’ is interest. But the diagram leaves out infinitely more than it can illumine. Quite apart from the different ways in which power can engage or coerce interest, it is impossible to convey the way it flows through the system. Power does not originate within the individuals, nor within the institutions shown (e.g. work, school), but is generated much more distally within and between socio-economic and cultural systems whose all-pervasive influence defies intricate analysis4.

By defining the individual as a locus in social space without any significant intrinsic power of his or her own, I suspect I will be felt by many to be making a travesty of our idea of what it is to be human, and to be attempting wantonly to destroy precious notions of freedom and dignity.

I do acknowledge that the project I am engaged in is in some ways reductive, but I would also claim that it is a reductionism with a difference. Scientistic programmes in psychology in the past have, knowingly or not, always sought to place the scientist him or herself beyond the reductive notions applied to the object of study (i.e., people). It was for the behaviourist to discover and apply the 'laws of behaviour' and for the rest of humanity to be predicted and controlled by them. Psychoanalysis, in pronouncing judgement on the contents of our 'unconscious minds', takes up its 'scientific' position with insupportable arrogance.

What I am proposing is rather different: a set of concepts that take account of and to an extent explain the anomalies and difficulties of our conventional psychology but that also accommodate and elaborate rather than undermine our sense of ourselves as social agents. I am, it is true, actively seeking disillusion, but from illusions which in fact serve to enslave rather than sustain us.

In the following page I will try to clarify some of the issues in a little more detail.

1. This is of course not a view which I have simply invented for myself out of nowhere. An excellent academic account of the social origin of self may be found in Ian Burkitt's Social Selves. Sage, 1991.
2. George, Susan. 1999. The Lugano Report. Pluto Press.
3. Smail, David. 1999. The Origins of Unhappiness. Constable.
4. For a website packed with information about the scientific understanding of complex systems, try

This page last revised 5/11/00



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The structure of social space

The experience of self

The technology of profit
   1 Make-believe
   2 Outside-in
   3 Inside-out


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