Monday, June 18, 2007

Bees and Bourdieu

Ants, Bees, and other social insects are interesting objects of study in and of themselves, but they can also be fascinating to anthropologists and other social scientists. It’s always a mistake to assume that models representing behavior of one species will straightforwardly model the behaviors of another, but comparing ourselves with other animal species can be interesting and illuminating through the discovery of similarities and differences.

Honeybees, like ourselves, live in complexly organized societies. But how much like our social organization and interactions are theirs? An interesting article at Science Daily, “Leaderless Honeybee Can Organize, Undergraduate Research Shows,” details the impressive work of an undergraduate scientist in biology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Andrew Pierce.

Pierce’s research focused on swarming and hive movement. It had previously been thought that hive movement was precipitated by the flight of the queen. Pierce’s observations indicate instead that the queen’s movement is itself prompted by the patterned responses of older bees to stimuli from the environment and interactions within the group, i.e. the highly coordinated action results from a concatenation of individual actions that themselves are not at all centrally coordinated or organized by any leadership.

This is a quotation from the news article: “Like humans, honeybees are remarkable for living in large organized groups where highly developed social behaviors coordinate the efforts of thousands of individuals to accomplish complex tasks -- manufacturing, community defense, environmental control and maintenance, food production, brood-rearing and education. Like human civilizations, bee societies follow organizational principles, such as following social rules (like human customs and laws) and division of labor. But here the similarity ends. Bees do not have large brains and are not capable of complex thought like humans. Though the bee colony is centered around the queen and her reproductive capabilities, findings by Schneider [the scientist whose lab Pierce worked in] and others indicates that she does not exactly "rule." Instead, the colony appears to be controlled by the anonymous consensus of the colony's workers.”

As the article points out, a key difference between bees and humans is that we are capable of conscious control of our actions, and that our societies are characterized by mechanisms for leadership and intentional coordination of activities. To me, though, the author of the article (if not also the researchers being reported on, though that’s unclear) seems to have a view of human society and action which overemphasizes consciously determined action and intentional coordination of behavior. Much of what we do, though, is more the result of patterned response, albeit where our responses and actions are largely the result of inculcation of cultural patterns through socialization rather than the genetic programming of honeybees.

In reading the descriptions of honeybees’ coordinated action in the absence of centralized or intentional leadership, I’m reminded of Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of habitus. Bourdieu wrote of habitus as follows (italics in the original text - Outline of a Theory of Practice):

“The structures constitutive of a particular type of environment (e.g. the material conditions of existence characteristic of a class condition) produce habitus, systems of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures, that is, as principles of the generation and structuring of practices and representations which can be objectively “regulated” and “regular” without in any way being the product of obedience to rules, objectively adapted to their goals without presupposing a conscious aiming at ends or an express mastery of the operations necessary to attain them and, being all this, collectively orchestrated without being the product of the orchestrating action of a conductor.”

This seems to me a decent description of much human and honeybee activity, with a difference being again the mechanism of inculcation of dispositions and the fact that while honeybee actions might always be coordinated without being the result of active leadership or conscious aiming at ends, some of time we’re not operating in the mode of habitus, out of habit, but very intentionally, and sometimes our patterned group actions are the “product of the orchestrating action of a conductor” (as at a symphony performance or the patterns of behavior resulting from governmental actions – even if much of what government does in practice is describable under the rubric of habitus).

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