Thatcher was right, there’s no such thing as society – but that doesn’t mean abandoning individuals to their fate

Will Haydock has written a stimulating post about culture, individualism and alcohol policy. He asks whether there is any point discussing drinking ‘cultures’ in an individualistic neoliberal political environment. He spends a bit of time reflecting on the notorious Margaret Thatcher remark that exemplifies this sentiment, the claim that “There is no such thing as society”. Haydock rightly notes that “This plain statement was actually very sensibly qualified by the observation that there are individuals and families”.

In my view, the claim that ‘there is no such thing as society’ actually involves two mutually reinforcing arguments – one normative, the other sociological. The normative claim is that there is no value in ‘society’ per se, independent of benefits or burdens to the individuals that make up that society. I actually don’t think this is an especially controversial argument – most of the things that we care about, we care about because of their effects on individuals. The sort of people who think that we should preserve traditional activities or languages because these are valuable even if nobody wants to maintain them might reasonably disagree, but even so they are not Thatcher’s main target. What she is warning against is the use of ‘society’ as an abstraction to obscure the impact of an action on the people that make up society. In the context of the original quote, her point is that ‘society’ does not pay for unemployment benefits, individual taxpayers do.

This normative individualism naturally leads to sociological individualism, as Haydock identifies. If you think that individuals are what we should normatively care about, it is natural to insist that social phenomena should be explained in terms of individuals. If society does not hold any moral value, what is the point of investigating it?

Yet I think it is wrong to take this sociological individualism too far, and insist that we should throw out the terms ‘society’ or ‘culture’ altogether. Far better, I would suggest, is to take Thatcher’s individualism as a challenge. If you believe that social or cultural phenomena are important, then you have to tell us how these phenomena relate to the individuals that comprise a society – the unit that we really care about. You can chase social explanations, but you mustn’t lose sight of the individual.

This is especially relevant to alcohol policy, where there is a tendency towards dichotomy between those who see alcohol problems as the result of individual characteristics, such as parenting styles and personal responsibility, and those who see them as a function of social structural forces, such as availability and marketing. Thatcher’s challenge to this second group is to explain how these forces operate at an individual level.

I’m sure there are people who do this well in alcohol research, but I’ve just been reading an excellent example of the sort of argument I have in mind with respect to diet: Bee Wilson’s brilliant book, First Bite. The book makes the argument that rather than being innate or genetic, a large proportion of our food tastes and habits are learned. The book is rooted in evidence, but it’s great strength is the way that it uses narrative to personalise big impersonal forces. Rather than implying that the sort of people who are swayed by advertising and social pressures are dupes or brainwashed, Wilson’s book demonstrates how she herself and all the rest of us are subject to the same forces, using relatable examples to show how universal these effects are.

It’s easy to see the benefits of such an approach in relation to alcohol. It seems obvious to me that my drinking choices are the result of numerous social and psychological influences – such as social pressure, habit, location – that mean I am not an ideal rational consumer, but which do not involve being cynically manipulated by the alcohol industry. But I think many people see alcohol consumption in terms of these two poles, and need reflection to see that is not their actual experience.

Of course, this issue is not just limited to alcohol consumption – in principle, it affects how we should view any preference or choice. For example, I take it that feminist consciousness raising groups, where women reflected on their individual experiences of systemic oppression were about the same thing. For example, these groups might decompose the social pressure to wear high heels, and relate this to the more abstract theory of feminism. The underlying principle is the same – to develop a normative response to social forces, we need to understand them on an individual level.

One comment

  1. […] book that mentioned in a previous post. A brilliantly readable account of how preferences are formed and can be changed – specifically […]

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