Historicizing social action

Khmer rouge soldier

It is self evident that people are influenced by the historical circumstances in which they are raised and live. People are historicized as actors. The hard question is, how deep does that influence go?

When we consider the mental features that are invoked within the process of interpreting and acting within the world, there is certainly a range of capacities and functions at work, and there are some important differences of level that exist among these. Some of these features are more superficial than others. Take beliefs. If a person is raised in a culture in a cold climate he or she will have more beliefs having to do with snow than counterparts at the equator. A person raised in a highly racialized society will have different beliefs about other people than one raised in a more racially tolerant society. Likewise the norms of interpersonal behavior differ across settings; here too it appears that this mental feature is a fairly superficial one. Beliefs and norms seem particularly close to the surface when it comes to the features of the actor that respond to social and cultural context. Are there historical effects that go deeper into the actor — effects that show up as differences in basic ways of thinking and acting?

Values may be a little deeper, given that they have to do with the goals that people have in their actions and plans. One person sets a high value on the wellbeing of his or her family; another is primarily interested in material and financial success for himself or herself. Expectations and habits seem even deeper in the sense that they are only semi-conscious; they are features of the social cognition mechanism that generally work at a level that is invisible to the individual.

And what about character? We might think of a person’s character as the most enduring features of action and reaction; character has to do with the most fundamental aspects of the personality when it comes to making life choices. One person displays loyalty; another displays a commitment to the idea of fairness; and a third shows a basic lack of trust of others. These are differences in character. This seems like the most basic or fundamental of the mental attributes that influence interpretation and action. But like other features of practical cognition considered here, this attribute too seems historically malleable.

If this informal hierarchy of the furniture of the actor seems at all plausible, then we have essentially postulated an onion-like ordering of features of practical cognition (the thought processes and heuristics through which an individual processes his/her current situation and the actions that may seem appropriate). Here is a diagram that captures this rough hierarchy:

 Screenshot 2014 12 06 15 27 35

And the problem of historicized mentality comes down to this: how far down the onion does the effect of cultural and social context extend?

There is an analogy to this question in Chomsky’s linguistics. The superficial part of grammar is the specific set of rules that apply to one’s local language — French, Swahili, or Cajun. This feature of linguistic performance is plainly context-dependent. But Chomsky maintained that this superficial plasticity exists on top of a universal underlying grammar capacity that every human being possesses from birth. The universal grammar — essentially the capacity to learn and execute the rules of the language one hears around oneself as a child — is a constant and is not affected by context.

If we were Chomskian about action and behavior, we might take the view that there is a constant human nature at the center of the onion, which allows for the formation of the more superficial kinds of differences in action that we acquire through experience of particular times and places. And we might attempt to reconstruct this fundamental set of capacities by trying to answer the question, “What capacities must a human being have in order to acquire character, habits, expectations, values, norms, and beliefs?”.

Presumably this is a legitimate question, since there are non-human organisms that lack the ability to form some of these features. But what that implies to me is that it is possible to push the inquiry below the level of the features of human action that we have identified to this point, and that at some point we should expect to arrive at a situation of neurocognitive invariance.

But here is the crucial point: it appears to me that all the capacities identified on the diagram are themselves socially and culturally malleable. Historical circumstances certainly affect the beliefs and norms that an adult has within those circumstances; but they also affect the habits and character of the individual as well. And this means that human mentality is deeply historicized. Very fundamental features of the ways that we understand and react to the world are shaped by the cultures, institutions, and extended historical experiences that we undergo as children and adults. And this is true of the features of character that we bring to life’s decisions as much as the beliefs and values we have acquired through earlier experiences.

The image of the Khmer Rouge cadre above poses quite a number of relevant questions, and most pressing is this one: How was this generation of Cambodian young people shaped such that they were amenable to the murderous emotions, compliance, and actions illustrated in the photo?

Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: