Distance and Collectivities

As we have seen, not just the self is constituted by roles, but so, though in a different way, are collectivities. The division between proximate and distant roles accordingly has implications for collectivities as well. Specifically, this division maps onto a traditional distinction in social theory between two kinds of collectivity, community and organization.12 The mapping depends on the observation that like all roles, collective roles can be enacted with proximity or distance. Moreover, when the collective role is a composite of a functional aspect and an affiliation, these two elements may be enacted at a different distance. In terms of my earlier example, I may identify with my role as law professor, while keeping my affiliation with Berkeley Law at a distance. This disparity in distances is related to the fact that the functional side of the role of professor, consisting of such tasks as research and teaching, can be performed without great disruption while its holder moves between different universities. One’s attachment to any particular university may thus be contingent and tentative, consistently with a full identification with one’s role as professor. Not so in the case of a parent. Here both the affiliation with the family and the functional role of, say, raising children are widely regarded as proximate.[1] Though different combinations of proximity and distance in the enactment of collective roles is thus possible, when it comes to the classification of collectivities, the affiliation dominates, and yields the division just mentioned: communities are the formal union of proximate affiliation roles, whereas organizations are the formal union of distant affiliation roles.

The telephone operator is a member of an organization, AT&T in my example, simply in the sense, and by virtue of the fact, that he holds a detached role in that collectivity. For this reason, he in principle must be paid (or otherwise impelled) if he is to perform the role’s requirements. But don’t those who do the paying (or impelling) have to do so willfully, out of identification with their roles, and thus exemplify a communal type of participation in AT&T? The answer is negative. It is not really necessary for anyone at AT&T, including those who see to it that the operator performs his tasks, to identify with their roles. The organization may consist entirely of detached roles, all of which depend on some external source of motivation. The same point can be made in terms of the collectivity’s normative orientation, what I have called its mission. To say that an affiliation is proximate, or that a collective role calls for identification, is to say that the role-bearers, the members of the collectivity, are expected to endorse the collectivity’s mission and treat it as their own (or, what comes to the same thing, that the collectivity is defined in terms of a certain normative orientation that is understood to be shared by its members). When affiliations are distant, by contrast, no endorsement by the members of the unifying mission is expected or assumed. In the polar limiting cases, the community’s normative orientation is held by all its members; that of the organization, by none of them.

The idea of a collectivity dedicated to the realization of a mission to which none of the members subscribe may look puzzling, but in fact it is a byproduct, or perhaps even just a redescription, of one aspect of a familiar and pervasive phenomenon: our dependence on others to provide for the objects and practices in which we are interested, and thus on a division of labor. When we allude to this phenomenon in the vocabulary of roles, we simply point out that the objectives and values associated with some proximate roles, objectives and values that reflect the bearers’ interests and desires, need not be matched by corresponding proximate roles dedicated to satisfying these interests and desires: for example, some people’s interest in listening to opera, and so in occupying the proximate role of “opera buff,” need not be matched by others’ willingness to sing, and so be “opera singers”; and the desire to drive cars need not match the desire to manufacture them.13 Markets and organizations are the two main devices to close this gap. There is accordingly nothing particularly mysterious about an organization whose members all perform their roles in response to external inducements without subscribing to the objectives their concerted efforts are designed to serve.

As I have already mentioned, role-distance can change over time, and relatedly, the location of a collectivity on the community/organiza- tion spectrum may change too. The different distance one can maintain in the case of collective roles toward the affiliation and the functional aspect may contribute to such change. For example, we can imagine, and to some degree observe, a decline in the ideal of the family concomitant with a continued affirmation of a deep personal involvement with the role of parent that has been traditionally associated with the family. People may still enact the parental role in a proximate fashion but within a collectivity that is more organizational in nature, lacking the significance to the members’ identity that affiliation with a traditional family is ideally supposed to have. We can also imagine a scenario that is the symmetrical opposite of this case: it involves a community, whose members thus identify with their affiliation, but one in which the functional roles of some or even all members are distant. There is a tension in such a case between the proximity of the affiliation role and the distant functional roles: members’ identification with the community may fail to supply sufficient impetus for an adequate performance of their functional roles. The result may be increased resort by the community to external pressures and inducements to prompt the desired role behavior. Such measures, however, may alienate the members from the community, eventually transforming the community into an organization.

  • [1] In saying this I don’t mean to make a substantive pitch for any particular attitude towardparenthood or the family. That parenthood is “widely regarded” in this way is only significantfor expository purposes.
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