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Individual autonomy and social structure Essay

In “Individual Autonomy and Social Structure”, Dorothy Lee discusses how in today’s society, it is “difficult to implement human dignity in the everyday details of living.” (pg.5, Lee) However, Lee discusses how by analysing different cultures and how they deal with similar situations, it is possible to come up with a solution for this society.

The key social problem Lee addresses is the conflict between personal autonomy and the social structure. Personal autonomy is the ability one person has to determine their own actions and path. However, in the American social structure that Lee describes, American society believes that “the implication of personal autonomy may lead to lawlessness and chaos” (Lee).

This would disrupt the Western social structure that is already in place, however, Lee points to many examples in the text, one of them being the Wintu Indians that show that structure makes autonomy possible and groups of autonomy make social structure. Lee refers to the Wintu Indians language, specifically the way the Wintu Indians speak to each other and refer to each other. In her research, Lee notices that the Wintu Indians way of referring to family members does not put them at a higher or lower level, but rather an equal level, which signifies respect. For example, if someone has a sister, they would not say “I have a sister”, instead, they would say “I am sistered”.

Lee also notes that this respect is shown towards everyone. The Wintu Indians do not “permit” each other to do things, rather, when a child asks “Can I?”, they are not asking permission, but they are asking if it is a good idea. The way the Wintu Indians speak to each other shows that they are all in fact on the same level with each other. No one is above another – there is no hierarchy. The way they speak also shows that each individual is given the same respect, a child and an adult, a father and son, even a member of the village and the chief, are all respected the same. This is important as respect for a personal individual is the key for harmonization.

In this chapter, Lee has shown that “law and limits and personal autonomy can coexist effectively” (Lee) by drawing examples from other cultures and their social structure. The key solution Lee


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