Epochs and the social actor

It was suggested in an earlier post that important aspects of an individual’s mental furniture are influenced by the concrete historical and social circumstances in which he or she is raised (link). Let’s try to get a little more specific about this idea. How does historical context influence the behavior of the individuals who come to adulthood during its scope?

There are several kinds of practical cognitive features that seem to be historically conditioned. By “practical cognition” I mean the processes through which actors conceptualize their social environments, make sense of the activities going on around them, process their own desires and goals, and set out with a plan or strategy of action.

I can think of at least four largely independent features of social and practical cognition that seem to be importantly dependent on the social and historical context in which the individual develops from childhood to adulthood: social frameworks of interpretation; social norms; practices and habits; and enduring features of character. Let’s look at each of these in turn.

Framework of assumptions about the social world. We generally apprehend the social interactions that take place around us through stylized interpretive frameworks or models that we apply to the encounters we observe.  This seems to be particularly true when it comes to interpreting social interactions that involve power, gender, race, or ethnic identities. An observed social interaction between several actors does not bear its meaning on its sleeve; it is necessary for observers to tell themselves some kind of story about what the actions and interactions mean. And often enough those stories are couched in terms of a variety of stereotypes based on a small number of cues in the interaction.

Social norms of behavior. When individuals consider their routine choices in ordinary life, they are influenced by a range of norms and values that guide and constrain their actions.

Practices and habits. A key insight from pragmatist theory of action is the observation that much action is not deliberative and reasoned, but is rather the result of the application of one or more pertinent practices and habits. When a professor is challenged about a grade on a paper, he or she often slips into a routine set of answers. When a prosecutor approaches a defense witness he or she has a stock set of tactics and techniques for undermining the credibility of the witness. And when a politician faces a heckler, he or she likewise turns to familiar responses that have been fine-tuned in other similar circumstances.

Enduring features of character and personality.  One person is decisive, while another vacillates. One person has courage, while another is blocked by fear. One person has a strong sense of loyalty, while another is willing to jettison relationships when interests shift. In each case, the features of behavior and action that are described here seem to derive from enduring features of the individual’s mental world, not simply opportunistic adjustments to circumstances. Decisiveness, loyalty, and courage are virtues of character that some people possess in great measure and others do not.

Two things seem evident as we work our way through this list.

First, it is logical to infer that differences across these dimensions of practical cognition results in differences in behavior. The individual who perceives the social world in terms of gender or racial inferiority will behave differently from the person whose basic framework highlights human equality. People who have internalized the norm, “treat people fairly,” will act differently in an industrial strike than those who have not internalized this norm. The person who has internalized a set of practices that involve quick tit-for-tat response to perceived affront will behave differently from one whose practices and habits involve forbearance. And a person whose character includes a strong dose of decisiveness is likely to behave differently in a crisis from one who has difficulty deciding about what tie to wear in the morning.

Second, each of these features of social cognitive seem to be strongly shaped by the social experiences and social epistemology of the period. The assumptions we make about other people — the social frameworks we use for making sense of the world — are clearly learned through social experiences in our early years. A person immersed in an anti-Semitic or homophobic culture is likely enough to have fairly specific stereotypes in mind (frameworks) when trying to understand developments in the world he or she encounters. This is true for the social norms that we have internalized as well. The habits of interaction and response that we currently possess are surely the learned consequences of the interactions we have had with other people in the past, in a range of circumstances. And the habits of courage, truthfulness, and loyalty that we have embodied in our system of action and thought are likewise the learned consequences of important experiences in our early years.

These points highlight the importance of the individual’s experiences in childhood and adolescence in a variety of contexts: family, school, neighborhood, juvenile detention center, literature, television, or church or mosque. But history comes into this story at this point: there are some events that are sufficiently dramatic and pervasive that we can make a case for holding that they have a seismic influence on the processes of socialization through which the actor takes shape. Sometimes history presents its generation with a single decisive blast — Hiroshima or September 11. And sometimes the historical factor is prolonged and extended — the deprivations of the Great Leap Forward for rural Chinese people, the terror created in Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge. And in each type of case, it seems credible that the mentality of the people of an epoch are influenced by these historical events and circumstances in very fundamental ways — ways that give them distinctive modes of action and reaction.

Take the experience of coming to maturity in the Jim Crow South, as either a white man or a black woman. The Jim Crow South embodied a very specific set of ideas and norms about race and gender that were enforced, often with violence, when they were violated. Jim Crow society offered men and women, black and white, a bundle of modes of behavior for how to act in stylized circumstances. These are practices and habits. And surely some very distinctive features of personality and character emerged from the Jim Crow South as well, in both black and white southerners, and both women and men in the region.

So it seems reasonable to suggest that historical settings do have the power to affect the nature of social agency within their scope. Epochs create and shape actors within them.

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