The Significance of Social Structure
Can you imagine what it’s like to be absent from your normal social routines? Consider the plight of the miners stuck in a Chilean mine. At the time of this writing, they are in the second month of a projected three to four month waiting period to be rescued from the collapsed mine.
Apparently the miners have set up routines and roles to help keep them mentally healthy (as much as possible given the circumstances). Each has a specific role to play and tasks to complete to keep them all fed and their “living” space clean.
These people, trapped in a confined space with remote hopes of immediate rescue, bring to mind many parallel situations. The recent TV show Lost is one – although they were not underground and were able to move freely and let the sun regulate their days. And of course that the story was fictional.
Michel Siffre started his cave isolation experiments in 1962, spending two months underground at a time. Ten years later he spent six months in a Texas cave, although it is unclear if he was alone or had company. Veronique Le Guen spent 111 days alone in an underground cave in France in 1988. She documented the experience of extreme isolation from the sun and from society. Le Guen and Siffre’s experiences have added to the field of “human chronobiology,” knowledge of how humans cope with isolation from time cues and other elements.
Siffre approached his time underground as scientific research and thus had systematic plans on what to do and how to structure his approach and experiences. Although her cave experience supposedly was prompted by scientific aims, it doesn’t seem that she had much structure to guide her during those 111 days. Le Guen committed suicide in 1990, only two years after her isolation experiences.
Social structure, including roles and norms, emerges from human interaction. Even in isolation, we can create some structure to mimic the presence of society. In fact, by creating roles and norms, we are not just mimicking society, we are creating it!
In the movie, Castaway, the Tom Hanks character creates Wilson, the volleyball companion so that he can have some “human” interaction in the efforts to retain and protect his sanity as he continues to live on his island.
At our campus, we have a one-unit class in which students spend two days simulating a society. We play the game SIMSOC, invented by sociologist William Gamson. The game demonstrates that when a group of people get together, structure emerges. While there is a book that lays out the rules of the game, not all (but most) students read it. This nicely mirrors society in which some people find out the rules while others navigate through their lives without knowing how to get things done. At the end of the game, students have a really good sense of how society emerges from – and is different from – human interaction.
The miners in Chile have a few more months to wait before they are rescued and can emerge from their underground micro-society. Their stories, along with those of disaster survivors, astronauts, submariners, and severely neglected children are fascinating accounts of how humans can be ripped away from society but sometimes manage to recreate societal elements. They provide a basis for better understanding how humans create society and how society, in turn, makes us fully human.