Social Institutions in Psychology and Culture

Human beings live in a “socially constructed” world, one filled with ideas, norms, and cultural institutions that don’t reduce to physical laws. For example, the boundaries between nations are not physical entities (or at least they don’t start out as physical entities). Instead, governments haggle about where the boundaries should be, and then mark the lines on maps and make laws about who can cross the borders, ultimately causing millions of people to act as if the borders were real things. National borders are thus normative or socially constructed entities, not objective ones. But how is it possible that made-up entities can have such dramatic impacts on our lives? In this seminar, we’ll examine the philosophy and psychology of social institutions, asking questions such as: How pervasive is the “as-if” stance in human life? If something (such as an international border) is a social construct, does that mean that it’s necessarily illegitimate or pernicious? What’s the difference between doing science (finding out about the objective world) and dealing with institutions (interacting with the normative world)? 

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