In the Sociology of Gender textbook I am (very slowly) writing, I spend a chapter discussing the idea of institutions. I define the term as “persistent patterns of social interaction aimed at meeting the needs of a society that can’t easily be met by individuals alone.” These needs include educating the next generation, providing health care, ensuring safety, and enabling efficient transportation. These things are done better and more efficiently if we all chip in and put together a system.
What is interesting about institutions from a sociological perspective is that, once they’re in place, it is essentially impossible to opt out. You can choose not to buy a car, for example, but the government is still going to spend your tax dollars on highway infrastructure. You can amass as much medical knowledge and experience as you like, but you’ll still be a criminal if you practice medicine without a licence. You can believe the government is corrupt and stay home on voting day, but Congress is still going to pass legislation to which you will be held accountable.
You get the picture.
In any case, I thought of this when I came across the striking photography of Eric Valli. Valli seems to specialize in capturing the lives of people living very close to the earth. In one series, he follows a group of individuals who have decided to live “off the grid.” That is, they’ve “unplugged” from the social institutions that sustain us. The first image I came across was this one:
Clearly this is no joke. And, yet, as I scrolled through additional photographs, I couldn’t help to notice how many trappings of the rest of the world were part and parcel of their lives (canoes, coats, oil lamps, cooking and eating utensils, halters, firearms, hot sauce, etc).
As I write in the book:
You can go “off the grid” to avoid capitalism, find an isolated spot in some wilderness, cut down some trees, build a hut, and live off of roots and berries. Then again, where did you get the axe? Will you bring a book on poisonous mushrooms? Even the bare-handed, bunny-catching woodsman hermit will buy a few things to get along and, in any case, he can’t help but draw on knowledge that he acquired through institutions like schools, families, publishing, and the mass media. After all, how did he know where to find the forest?
I’m not questioning, at all, whether or not these people are off the grid. They certainly appear to be. But it is interesting to notice how much of the grid is still a part of their lives.Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.