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Redefining the social link: from baboons to humans

Partners' Institution
Södertörn University
Strum, S. S. and Latour, B. (1987) ‘Redefining the social link: from baboons to humans’, Social Science Information, 26(4), pp. 783–802.
Thematic Area
Environmental studies
/doi/10.1177/053901887026004004 (accessed 10.15.21).
In the last decade, a wealth of data on human and non-human
societies contain a hidden challenge to existing ideas about the nature
of society and the social link. The ambiguities and discrepancies in
these data have completely swamped earlier attempts to define society
in simple terms. Are these incongruities and inconsistencies merely the
result of "practical difficulties" that will be eliminated with more data,
better methodology and better insulation of scientific endeavours from
ideology and amateurism? In this paper we will not take this conventional
position but rather offer a different way to approach the
What if the discrepancies are real and the frame of reference is
wrong? In order to explore the implications of such a shift in framework,
we will first consider alternative paradigms of society and then
take a specific case: the history of ideas about baboon society. Next
we will investigate the consequences of adopting a different meaning
of social for our ideas about the evolution of the social link. W e
conclude by suggesting the usefulness of our new framework in
resolving several existing problems in human and non-human
sociology including the evolution of"politics".
Relevance for Complex Systems Knowledge
This article is highly relevant to the discussion about interactions or links between elements in a social system. Other articles have pointed to the relational approach as significant for social system, where relations can be interpreted as links that changes the elements they are connecting. The nature of the links also may change when the elements changes.

The authors of this article are exploring what constitutes social links. The way they do this is particularly interesting to the study or framing of socio-ecological systems. They define social links as performative, that is the actors/elements of the system are active achievers of society, they are mutually and jointly constructing society. The performative approach moves away from looking for the social link in the relations to instead focus on how actors achieve the link. The actors thus have a set of skills to forge links, including negotiating, testing, assessing and manipulating. This means that the actors are not entering into a stable system, but negotiates what that system will be and monitor and tests the outcomes. They are striving to define the society and groups in which they exist, the resulting system and its boundaries.  Performing the social system in this way means that the actors are testing the availability and solidity of alliances without knowing which relationships will hold.

The article shows in what different ways this construction of social links are made in different life forms. What is specific to human societies and actors is that it gets more complicated when the ability to forge the social links is connected to material and symbolical assets. I human societies, especially in modern industrial societies, power, the ability to control others, is clearly linked to the control of material assets.

This provides some clues to how relations between humans in a system is also dependent on relations between humans and more-than-humans and to the symbolic world.

 As a whole the article provides much inspirations for how to deal with relations when framing systems.
Point of Strength
This article introduces more elaborated ways of thinking of relations in a system and how they are constructed. It introduces power relations, based on material and symbolic assets, which makes it easier to bridge between systems anlysis and political ecology.