Representation versus mutual responsibility

For Weber, the division between these terms exists in all social relationships previously discussed:  (46-47)

  • Representation is where the action of certain members can be attributed to all others
  • Mutual responsibility is where the action of each participant can be imputed to all others

There are many different degrees of these types of relationships.  They may apply in all aspects of the social relationship, or may apply only in certain situations.  People may be able to represent others in a certain context for a limited period of time or indefinitely, and in a limited geographical area or anywhere.  The ability to represent may come from any of the bases of legitimacy previously discussed (traditional, affectual, etc.).

We can see many forms of this in intentional communities.  At Twin Oaks, managers are responsible for particular areas of the community.  The Vehicle Use Manger can make decisions that affect everything ranging from vehicle maintenance to who gets to use vehicles when.  Like any official position, their ability to make decisions on behalf of everyone ends at a certain point, which can often seem arbitrary.  For example, even though they are vehicles by definition, this person has virtually no say in any aspect of the tractors, which fall under the Farm Manager’s area.  The main point for this section though is to understand that when the manager makes a decision about something in their legitimate area of operation, they are making a decision on behalf of the entire community.  When the Vehicle Use Manager decides to purchase a new vehicle, it would be accurate to say that Twin Oaks has decided to purchase a new vehicle.  That person is empowered in this context to take an action that is attributable to the whole community.

Mutual responsibility can be most easily understood in contexts of identity based on membership.  For example, if a member of the community were to do something like rob a local bank, this would have a serious negative effect on the community and all of its members as a whole.  Legally of course, only that one person would be held responsible, unless there was some sort of concrete tie to the community.  But even though that person was in no way empowered or sanctioned by the organization to do that action, the community as a whole will, regardless of legal process, likely be perceived by other people in the county as that group of people who are organizing robbery and other such actions.  The action of this one person can be perceived to be the actions of the whole.

Consensus based decision making systems are interesting under this division, because they reverse the normal balance of representation versus mutual responsibility as found in most organizations in dominant culture.  In most organizations, there are only a few people who have the ability to represent the organization as a whole (and, relatedly, these people are often chosen by non-democratic means).  By contrast, most aspects of consensus systems are based on mutual responsibility.  The group itself is based on the idea of everyone having an equal say in deciding on a course of action, and the actions that one takes is supposed to represent the group as a whole.  There are still levels of representation where working groups are formed or tasks are delegated to specific individuals, but these are often temporary or rotating positions, and can be changed by the group itself.  An example of this in many of the activist groups I was involved with in DC was the media spokesperson.  We wanted to try to get our message out to the media as clearly as possible, and news programs have a very particular format where at best you will get a clip of one person saying something for 10 seconds, so having one person authorized to speak on behalf of the group as a whole was essential in trying to meet the goal of having the main part of our message effectively communicated.  This was not without significant controversy in different groups, with people often complaining that one person was always dealing with the media, or wasn’t effectively communicating the decided upon message.  Those complaints are telling though, since they show that the point in choosing one person in particular to speak with the media was to effectively represent the group, as opposed to all members being able to do so.  The complaints were often that the person wasn’t effectively doing this.  (Other complaints were about the entire strategy in general, and I am more sympathetic to those, but that’s beyond the point of this post.)


~ by Ethan Tupelo on 02014.09.20.

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