Buffy the existentialist vampire slayer

Here is a hard question. Can the creators of television shows and other kinds of pop culture be understood sometimes to pose fundamental and important questions about human life and morality? We probably all believe that great novelists are able to confront and explore hard human moral predicaments and life contradictions — often in ways that are more penetrating than the most astute philosophical writings on these subjects. Dostoyevsky in Crime and Punishment, Gustave Flaubert in Madame Bovary, James Baldwin in The Fire Next Time, Alice Walker in The Color Purple — all of these writers have complex moral imaginations and they confront and question some of the profound issues of real human lives. Can the same be said of the creators of television series? Is there an existential or moral side to Hill Street Blues or Grey’s Anatomy? And what about Buffy the Vampire Slayer?

I suppose the conventional answer is that there is a sharp and uncrossable line between great literature and popular television culture — the former can be profound and insightful, whereas the latter is unavoidably shallow and empty, from a philosophical or moral point of view. Shakespeare was great in ways in which Steven Bochco could never attain. And yet this seems not to be so clearly the case as one might imagine. Many viewers of The Wire, for example, have felt that the series has some very important sociological insights about race and urban life in America today, and David Simon is credited for a genuine artistic achievement in the five seasons of the show (link). 

This brings me to Buffy. At first glance the series looks like pure adolescent fodder, with a dollop of horror show stirred into the mix. The show is the creation of Joss Whedon, who has earned a great deal of praise for his creativity and also some harsh criticism for his style and behavior with the cast in production.

The concept of the show is fairly simple. Buffy is a high school sophomore in California, a new arrival after her expulsion from another school for unexplained absences. As it turns out, her absences and other forms of weird behavior all stem from the fact that she is a “slayer” — the unique young woman of her generation who is specifically ready to confront and slay the vampires and other demons that most of the normal world fails to see. The series rolls out a handful of high school kids as main characters, as well as a growing roster of horrible and long-lived demons and vampires just seeking a way to overturn the dominion of humans on earth. The high school side of the story is roughly as engaging (or unengaging) as Community, another television series about young people who are students at a community college — pure sitcom. But the secret world of demons and vampires that makes up the dramatic thrust of the plot of Buffy is complex and involving. And this fictional world is involving because of the issues of evil, freedom, personal identity, responsibility, and “soul” that it raises. (Here is an appreciation of the show in Vox by a pair of talented television critics; link.)

Two characters in particular carry a great deal of the moral and existential weight of the series — Angel and Spike. Both are vampires who have managed to regain their souls, while retaining their memories of their horrible actions as soulless vampires over a thousand years. Each of them has committed terrible acts against humans, without conscience. Having regained their “souls”, they are able to reflect on these acts in the past, and to reflect on their personal responsibility or culpability for these past actions.

These are philosophical issues; if only there were a philosophical tradition within which they might be discussed. It turns out that there is such a discourse. The Whedon Studies Association was formed a few years ago by a number of individuals with a serious interest in Whedon’s corpus, and it has attracted a number of very interesting discussions and commentaries on Buffy. One contribution that I find especially valuable is an article written by Dean Kowalski, a philosophy professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, titled “Visions of the Soul: Looking Back on Buffy and Angel” (link). Kowalski approaches the topic in a rigorous philosophical way: What is the soul? What different interpretations of “soul” have been offered in explication of Whedon’s fictional universe? How do these theories help to shed light on the moral situation of the various characters in the drama? Kowalski considers an ontological theory of the soul — “the soul is a thing that a person possesses; when he or she is infected by a demon he loses his soul and becomes a vampire”. And he considers an existential theory — “the soul is a metaphor for our capacity for moral choice”. A vampire regains his soul when he or she chooses to act in a deliberate and free way. A vampire is a soulless monster; but he or she or it can become good by exercising a capacity for choosing to act in a morally good way; she can regain her soul. Kowalski quotes Scott McLaren, an early contributor to the Whedon Studies Association:

Scott McLaren acknowledges that “soul-talk” on Buffy and Angel can be interpreted metaphorically. He writes, “The soul can also be defined existentially: Angel resists temptation not simply because he ‘has’ a soul… but rather because, existentially, he makes a deliberate moral choice” (McLaren 13). McLaren further claims that “soul-talk” is also “an existential metaphor for a particular moral orientation” (13). Thus, the soul as metaphor can apply to any one ethically significant choice or a concerted effort to continue making similar choices. Due to the emphasis upon altering one’s own existence via the choices one makes, let us call this the existentialist interpretation of the soul. 134

Like a good literary critic, Kowalski and the other authors he discusses make substantial use of the details of the dialogue and plot to provide evidence for their claims; and like a good philosopher, Kowalski engages in careful conceptual analysis and analytical probing to attempt to gain clarity about difficult moral questions. It is therefore a little difficult to identify Kowalski’s own genre. His article is a careful philosophical essay on freedom, identity, and the concept of the soul; and it is also a detailed analysis of the thought-world involved in a seven-season drama about supernatural creatures who do massive evil. This may be confusing; but it is also very stimulating and challenging, in exactly the way that a philosophy essay ought to be. It is good philosophy on a non-orthodox topic.

So what about Buffy? Does the series over its seven seasons have “literary or philosophical” value? Here is a very interesting quote about Buffy the Vampire Slayer from Emily Nussbaum in the New Yorker (quoted in the Vox article linked above):

[1999] was a year when I was not yet a professional TV critic, just a woman, standing in front of a television show, begging everyone to love it. Every week, I watched The Sopranos and Buffy the Vampire Slayer; I was an avid fan of both, convinced that [Sopranos creator] David Chase and [Buffy creator] Joss Whedon were turning television into something radical and groundbreaking, the former by deconstructing the mob genre (as well as capitalism and psychotherapy), the latter by forging a mythic, feminist-inflected meld of horror, comedy, and teen drama.

What this implies to me is that there is no clear line between those genres that provide real insights and those that do not — Madame Bovary on one side of the line, The Young and the Restless on the other. Rather, talented creators take up their tools in many locations and in many genres, and it is possible to find substantive, important discussions of large human questions across a very broad range of cultural products. And along the way, it is possible that some of the toughest moral questions that we face may find some degree of clarification as a result of the dramatic and creative work done by people like David Simon and Joss Whedon.

One reason I find the hidden world of Buffy the Vampire Slayer of interest is the unexpected convergence it seems to create with the allegory I wrote in the blog a few months ago (link) — without any knowledge of Buffy. In that entry I imagined a thousand-year-old man attempting to uncover and come to terms with the sometimes awful things he had done in earlier centuries — which sounds a lot like the situation of Angel in the series. And my reason for writing the allegory was to consider whether there is a serious insight we can learn from this imaginary story that helps us make sense of the evils of the twentieth century — certainly one of the toughest moral questions we can pose for ourselves. But in a way, it seems as though Joss Whedon has something equally ambitious in mind as well for his teen-oriented horror show.

Orwell’s study of mentality and culture

George Orwell wrote a great deal of literary criticism, book reviews, and intellectual commentary, almost always with a down-to-earth plain speaking that entirely rejected the lofty English conventions of academic writing. (Here is a fairly comprehensive Kindle collection of his essays, A Collection of Essays.) What I find interesting about Orwell’s literary commentaries is their honesty, seriousness, and nuance. They are completely fascinating to read. Orwell really wants to get to the bottom of this point or that, whether it concerns Tolstoy, Dickens, Kipling, or Henry Miller. Orwell was extremely broadly read, both in English literature and European literature more generally. And he has specific, thoughtful reactions to all of it. Moreover, his opinions are non-doctrinaire. Although Orwell brings his own orientation about the social realities of England and Europe and he is always aware of the social conditions of workers and farmers that are often unnoticed in literature, he rejects entirely the cant of English Marxist theory and vocabulary. 

His analysis of Tolstoy’s surprising polemic against the literary value of Shakespeare as a playwright (“Lear, Tolstoy, and the Fool”) is a good example of Orwell’s literary imagination. He takes Tolstoy’s claims seriously, tries to give a credible interpretation of them, and refutes Tolstoy’s central biases against Shakespeare. Likewise, his extensive treatment of Charles Dickens is enthralling — Orwell finds that Dickens has almost no acquaintance with ordinary laborers in spite of his sympathy for the poor, and that his desire to improve society turns almost entirely upon an exhortation to the rich to be more kind rather than a demand for structural change in society. And his treatment of Kipling — an author usually dismissed as a pure jingoistic cheerleader for British colonialism — is quite nuanced.

[Kipling] identified himself with the ruling power and not with the opposition. In a gifted writer this seems to us strange and even disgusting, but it did have the advantage of giving Kipling a certain grip on reality. The ruling power is always faced with the question, ‘In such and such circumstances, what would you DO?’, whereas the opposition is not obliged to take responsibility or make any real decisions. Where it is a permanent and pensioned opposition, as in England, the quality of its thought deteriorates accordingly. Moreover, anyone who starts out with a pessimistic, reactionary view of life tends to be justified by events, for Utopia never arrives and ‘the gods of the copybook headings’, as Kipling himself put it, always return. Kipling sold out to the British governing class, not financially but emotionally. This warped his political judgement, for the British ruling class were not what he imagined, and it led him into abysses of folly and snobbery, but he gained a corresponding advantage from having at least tried to imagine what action and responsibility are like. It is a great thing in his favour that he is not witty, not ‘daring’, has no wish to ÉPATER LES BOURGEOIS. He dealt largely in platitudes, and since we live in a world of platitudes, much of what he said sticks. Even his worst follies seem less shallow and less irritating than the ‘enlightened’ utterances of the same period, such as Wilde’s epigrams or the collection of cracker-mottoes at the end of MAN AND SUPERMAN.

Literary criticism is one thing; but Orwell has another goal in discussing the published word that has nothing to do with literary values. Rather, in his treatment of popular literature — penny novels, boys’ magazines, murder mysteries, even poetry — Orwell is interested in discovering something important about the mental worldview of a particular generation. In particular, he is especially interested in the generation of young English men of his own age, born in 1900 or so, living through the Great War, and plunged into World War II, fascism, and totalitarianism. He tries to form a connection between the content, style, and social assumptions of a body of “boy’s stories”, for example, and the effects these assumptions and styles are likely to have had on the mental frameworks of the boys of a specific generation. He provides a fairly detailed content analysis of these stories and their presentation in the pulp magazines of the period.

Orwell is quite explicit in believing that the earliest influences on the development of a child — books, stories, comics, postcards — have a profound effect on their adult sensibilities and imagination. In “Why I Write” he puts it this way:

I do not think one can assess a writer’s motives without knowing something of his early development. His subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in–at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own–but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape.

Take the interesting example of A. E. Housman’s Shropshire Lad.

Among people who were adolescent in the years 1910-25, Housman had an influence which was enormous and is now not at all easy to understand. In 1920, when I was about seventeen, I probably knew the whole of the SHROPSHIRE LAD by heart. I wonder how much impression the SHROPSHIRE LAD makes at this moment on a boy of the same age and more or less the same cast of mind? No doubt he has heard of it and even glanced into it; it might strike him as cheaply clever–probably that would be about all. Yet these are the poems that I and my contemporaries used to recite to ourselves, over and over, in a kind of ecstasy, just as earlier generations had recited Meredith’s ‘Love in a Valley’, Swinburne’s ‘Garden of Proserpine’ etc., etc. 

It just tinkles. But it did not seem to tinkle in 1920. Why does the bubble always burst? To answer that question one has to take account of the EXTERNAL conditions that make certain writers popular at certain times. Housman’s poems had not attracted much notice when they were first published. What was there in them that appealed so deeply to a single generation, the generation born round about 1900? (“Inside the Whale”, 1940)

Or in other words, what can we learn about the mentality of boys and adolescents around the time of the Great War from the resonance and importance of the poetry of Housman for them? Here are the makings of a theory:

But Housman would not have appealed so deeply to the people who were young in 1920 if it had not been for another strain in him, and that was his blasphemous, antinomian, ‘cynical’ strain. The fight that always occurs between the generations was exceptionally bitter at the end of the Great War; this was partly due to the war itself, and partly it was an indirect result of the Russian Revolution, but an intellectual struggle was in any case due at about that date. Owing probably to the ease and security of life in England, which even the war hardly disturbed, many people whose ideas were formed in the eighties or earlier had carried them quite unmodified into the nineteen-twenties. Meanwhile, so far as the younger generation was concerned, the official beliefs were dissolving like sand-castles. The slump in religious belief, for instance, was spectacular. (“Inside the Whale”, 1940)

Now consider an even more interesting influence of words on boys: the adventure stories published for decades in pulp magazines in England (“Boys’ Weeklies”, 1940). Orwell writes of the news shops where these magazines were sold:

Probably the contents of these shops is the best available indication of what the mass of the English people really feels and thinks. Certainly nothing half so revealing exists in documentary form. Best-seller novels, for instance, tell one a great deal, but the novel is aimed almost exclusively at people above the £4-a-week level. (Orwell, George. A Collection of Essays. Kindle Edition)

This is Orwell’s distinctive insight: the popular literature for boys implicitly records the features of a mentality at a time and place. More exactly, these publications (pulp magazines) both reflect the mental worlds of young boys and shape those mental frameworks; and, in Orwell’s view, the shaping of values and social assumptions is quite purposeful on the part of the bourgeois publishers who stand behind these magazines. In order to uncover that mental worldview, Orwell provides an analysis of the whole group of magazines that fill this niche:

Falling strictly within this class there are at present ten papers, the GEM, MAGNET, MODERN BOY, TRIUMPH and CHAMPION, all owned by the Amalgamated Press, and the WIZARD, ROVER, SKIPPER, HOTSPUR and ADVENTURE, all owned by D. C. Thomson & Co. … 

Each of them carries every week a fifteen–or twenty-thousand-word school story, complete in itself, but usually more or less connected with the story of the week before. The Gem in addition to its school story carries one or more adventure serial. Otherwise the two papers are so much alike that they can be treated as one, though the MAGNET has always been the better known of the two, probably because it possesses a really first-rate character in the fat boy. Billy Bunter. 

The stories are stories of what purports to be public-school life, and the schools (Greyfriars in the MAGNET and St Jim’s in the GEM) are represented as ancient and fashionable foundations of the type of Eton or Winchester. All the leading characters are fourth-form boys aged fourteen or fifteen, older or younger boys only appearing in very minor parts. Like Sexton Blake and Nelson Lee, these boys continue week after week and year after year, never growing any older. Very occasionally a new boy arrives or a minor character drops out, but in at any rate the last twenty-five years the personnel has barely altered. All the principal characters in both papers–Bob Cherry, Tom Merry, Harry Wharton, Johnny Bull, Billy Bunter and the rest of them–were at Greyfriars or St Jim’s long before the Great War, exactly the same age as at present, having much the same kind of adventures and talking almost exactly the same dialect. And not only the characters but the whole atmosphere of both Gem and Magnet has been preserved unchanged, partly by means of very elaborate stylization.

Here are the main conclusions that Orwell reaches:

Of course no one in his senses would want to turn the so-called penny dreadful into a realistic novel or a Socialist tract. An adventure story must of its nature be more or less remote from real life. But, as I have tried to make clear, the unreality of the WIZARD and the GEM is not so artless as it looks. These papers exist because of a specialized demand, because boys at certain ages find it necessary to read about Martians, death-rays, grizzly bears and gangsters. They get what they are looking for, but they get it wrapped up in the illusions which their future employers think suitable for them. To what extent people draw their ideas from fiction is disputable. Personally I believe that most people are influenced far more than they would care to admit by novels, serial stories, films and so forth, and that from this point of view the worst books are often the most important, because they are usually the ones that are read earliest in life. It is probable that many people who would consider themselves extremely sophisticated and ‘advanced’ are actually carrying through life an imaginative background which they acquired in childhood from (for instance) Sapper and Ian Hay. …

If that is so, the boys’ twopenny weeklies are of the deepest importance. Here is the stuff that is read somewhere between the ages of twelve and eighteen by a very large proportion, perhaps an actual majority, of English boys, including many who will never read anything else except newspapers; and along with it they are absorbing a set of beliefs which would be regarded as hopelessly out of date in the Central Office of the Conservative Party. All the better because it is done indirectly, there is being pumped into them the conviction that the major problems of our time do not exist, that there is nothing wrong with LAISSEZ-FAIRE capitalism, that foreigners are un-important comics and that the British Empire is a sort of charity-concern which will last for ever. Considering who owns these papers, it is difficult to believe that this is un-intentional.

Orwell finds that there is a specific social worldview, an ideology, permeating these stories, and that this worldview serves to frame the social and political perceptions of boys as they enter adulthood. Further, he believes that the ideological content is deliberate: 

ALL fiction from the novels in the mushroom libraries downwards is censored in the interests of the ruling class. And boys’ fiction above all, the blood-and-thunder stuff which nearly every boy devours at some time or other, is sodden in the worst illusions of 1910. The fact is only unimportant if one believes that what is read in childhood leaves no impression behind. Lord Camrose and his colleagues evidently believe nothing of the kind, and, after all, Lord Camrose ought to know.

The worldview that is embedded in these stories is one grounded in snobbism, the natural superiority of the wealthy, the inevitability of rich and poor (and winners and losers in society), and the permanence of the current social order. What is unlikely to emerge from such stories is — rebelliousness, resistance, and rejection of oppression.

And yet — all of those mental characteristics of rebelliousness and resistance did emerge among some children, soon to be adults, in the 1930s in England — including in Orwell himself. So at the most, we must regard this “worldview-shaping” power of children’s books and stories as being a partial thing, just one of many influences that eventually shape and constrain the imagination and perception of the adult. How would Orwell explain his own escape from the mental constraints of this ideological framework, into the independent-minded socialism that guided his actions for the rest of his life? From the autobiographical essay (“Such, such were the joys”, 1947),  published posthumously, the thread of an explanation is visible: “I was always an outsider, I conformed externally but never within myself.” He describes his own development in these words in “Why I Write”:

I was the middle child of three, but there was a gap of five years on either side, and I barely saw my father before I was eight. For this and other reasons I was somewhat lonely, and I soon developed disagreeable mannerisms which made me unpopular throughout my schooldays. I had the lonely child’s habit of making up stories and holding conversations with imaginary persons, and I think from the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued. I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts, and I felt that this created a sort of private world in which I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life.

Isolated, undervalued, lonely; independent, critical, socialist, committed to acting as I think best. The clue seems to be that independence of mind is nurtured by a certain degree of “outsiderness”. 

Here is something akin to a manifesto from the same essay:

The Spanish war and other events in 1936-37 turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, AGAINST totalitarianism and FOR democratic socialism, as I understand it. It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects. Everyone writes of them in one guise or another. It is simply a question of which side one takes and what approach one follows.

It is striking to reflect that the United States in the 1930s does not seem to have produced its own version of George Orwell — leftist, independent, honest, anti-totalitarian, and non-ideological. There were Communist intellectuals; but I cannot think of the kind of independent-minded social critic in the United States whose work might be thought to be as original and penetrating as that of Orwell. Why is that? Was there a particular niche for non-conformist intellectuals like Orwell in England that was lacking in the United States in the 1930s? And did that culture persist into the 1950s and beyond? How close to the Orwell example of social criticism does Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath come (both the novel (1939) and  the film (1940))? Are Michael Harrington, Howard Zinn, Murray Levin, or Noam Chomsky analogous intellectuals on the left?

Brass on anti-Muslim violence in India

The occurrence of anti-Muslim violence, arson, and murder in New Delhi last month is sometimes looked at a simply an unpredictable episode provoked by protest against the citizenship legislation enacted by the BJP and Prime Minister Modi. (See Jeffrey Gettleman and Maria Abi-Habib’s New York Times article for a thoughtful and detailed account of the riots in New Delhi; link.) However, Paul Brass demonstrated several decades ago in The Production of Hindu-Muslim Violence in Contemporary India, that riots and violent episodes like this have a much deeper explanation in Indian politics. His view is that the political ideology of Hindutva (Hindu nationalism) is used by BJP and other extremist parties to advance its own political fortunes. This ideology (and the political program it is designed to support) is a prime cause of continuing violence by Hindu extremists against Muslims and other non-Hindu minorities in India.

Brass asks a handful of crucial and fundamental questions: Do riots serve a function in Indian politics? What are the political interests that are served by intensifying mistrust, fear, and hatred of Muslims by ordinary Hindu workers, farmers, and shopkeepers? How does a framework of divisive discourse contribute to inter-group hatred and conflict? “I intend to show also that a hegemonic discourse exists in Indian society, which I call the communal discourse, which provides a framework for explaining riotous violence.” (24). Throughout Brass keeps the actors in mind — including leaders, organizers, and participants: “It is one of the principal arguments of this book that we cannot understand what happens in riots until we examine in detail the multiplicity of roles and persons involved in them”. (29) Here are the central themes of the book:

The whole political order in post-Independence north India and many, if not most of its leading as well as local actors—more markedly so since the death of Nehru—have become implicated in the persistence of Hindu-Muslim riots. These riots have had concrete benefits for particular political organizations as well as larger political uses. (6)

The maintenance of communal tensions, accompanied from time to time by lethal rioting at specific sites, is essential for the maintenance of militant Hindu nationalism, but also has uses for other political parties, organizations, and even the state and central governments. (9)

Brass documents his interpretation through meticulous empirical research, including a review of the demographic and political history of regions of India, a careful timeline of anti-Muslim riots and pogroms since Independence, and extensive interviews with participants, officials, and onlookers in one particularly important city, Aligarh, in Uttar Pradesh (northern India). Brass gives substantial attention to the discourse chosen by Hindu nationalist parties and leaders, and he argues that violent attacks are deliberately encouraged and planned.

Most commonly, the rhetoric is laced with words that encourage its members not to put up any longer with the attacks of the other but to retaliate against their aggression. There are also specific forms of action that are designed to provoke the other community into aggressive action, which is then met with a stronger retaliatory response. (24)

Brass asks the fundamental question:

What interests are served and what power relations are maintained as a consequence of the wide acceptance of the reality of popular communal antagonisms and the inevitability of communal violence? (11)

(We can ask the same question about the rise of nationalist and racist discourse in the United States in the past fifteen years: what interests are served by according legitimacy to the language of white supremacy and racism in our politics?)

Brass rejects the common view that riots in India are “spontaneous” or “responsive to provocation”; instead, he argues that communal Hindu-nationalist riots are systemic and strategic. Violence derives from a discourse of Hindu-Muslim hostility and the legitimization of violence. Given this view that riots and anti-Muslim violence are deliberate political acts in India, Brass offers an analysis of what goes into “making of a riot”. He argues that there are three analytically separable phases: preparation / rehearsal; activation / enactment; and explanation / interpretation (15). This view amounts to an interpretation of the politics of Hindu nationalism as an “institutionalized riot system” (15).

When one examines the actual dynamics of riots, one discovers that there are active, knowing subjects and organizations at work engaged in a continuous tending of the fires of communal divisions and animosities, who exercise by a combination of subtle means and confrontational tactics a form of control over the incidence and timing of riots.” (31)

This deliberate provocation of violence was evident in the riots in Gujarat in 2002, according to Dexter Filkins in a brilliant piece of journalism on these issues in the New Yorker (link):

The most sinister aspect of the riots was that they appeared to have been largely planned and directed by the R.S.S. Teams of men, armed with clubs, guns, and swords, fanned out across the state’s Muslim enclaves, often carrying voter rolls and other official documents that led them to Muslim homes and shops.

Especially important in the question of civil strife and ethnic conflict in any country is the behavior and effectiveness of the police. Do the police work in an even-handed way to suppress violent acts and protect all parties neutrally? And does the justice system investigate and punish the perpetrators of violence? In India the track record is very poor, including in the riots in the early 1990s in Mumbai and in 2002 in Gujarat. Brass writes:

The government of India and the state governments do virtually nothing after a riot to prosecute and convict persons suspected of promoting or participating in riots. Occasionally, but less frequently in recent years, commissions of inquiry are appointed. If the final reports are not too damaging to the government of the day or to the political supporters of that government in the Hindu or Muslim communities, the report may be published More often than not, there is a significant delay before publication. Some reports are never made public. (65)

This pattern was repeated in Delhi during the most recent period of anti-Muslim pogrom. The police stand by while Hindutva thugs attack Muslims, burn homes and shops, and murder the innocent. Conversely, when the police function as representatives of the whole of civil society rather than supporters of a party, they are able to damp down inter-religious killing quickly (as Brass documents in his examination of the period of relative peace in Aligarh between 1978-80 to 1988-90).

Brass is especially rigorous in his development of the case for the deliberate and strategic nature of anti-Muslim bigotry within the politics of Hindu nationalism and its current government. But other experts agree. For example, Ashutosh Varshney described the dynamics of religious conflict in India in very similar terms to those offered by Brass (link):

Organized civic networks, when intercommunal, not only do a better job of withstanding the exogenous communal shocks—like partitions, civil wars, and desecration of holy places; they also constrain local politicians in their strategic behavior. Politicians who seek to polarize Hindu and Muslims for the sake of electoral advantage can tear at the fabric of everyday engagement through the organized might of criminals and gangs. All violent cities in the project showed evidence of a nexus of politicians and criminals. Organized gangs readily disturbed neighborhood peace, often causing migration from communally heterogeneous to communally homogenous neighborhoods, as people moved away in search of physical safety. Without the involvement of organized gangs, large-scale rioting and tens and hundreds of killings are most unlikely, and without the protection afforded by politicians, such criminals cannot escape the clutches of law. Brass has rightly called this arrangement an institutionalized riot system. (378)

Varshney treats these issues in greater detail in his 2002 book, Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India.

The greatest impetus to the political use of the politics of hate and the program of Hindu nationalism was the campaign to destroy the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, UP, in 1992. For an informative and factual account of the Babri Mosque episode and its role within the current phase of Hindu nationalism in India, see Abdul Majid, “The Babri Mosque and Hindu Extremists Movements”; link.

How to think about social identities

What is involved in having a national or racial or sexual identity? What do we mean when we say that a person has a Canadian or a Haitian identity? How can we best think about the mental frameworks and models that serve as lenses through which people understand themselves and their places in history?

Most basically, an identity is a set of beliefs and stories about one’s home and one’s people. These ideas often involve answers to questions like these: Who am I? What groups do I belong to? How did my group get to the current situation? Where did we come from? And perhaps, who are my enemies? So an identity often involves a narrative, a creation story, or perhaps a remembrance of a long chain of disasters and crimes. Identity and collective memory are intertwined; monuments, icons, and flags help to set the way points in the history of a people and the collective emotions that this group experiences.

Identities are interwoven with narratives and folk histories. They have to do with the stories we tell each other about who we are; how our histories brought us to this place; and what large events shaped us as a “people”. And, as Benedict Anderson so eloquently demonstrated in Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, these stories are more often than not fictions of various kinds, promulgated by individuals and groups who have an interest in shaping collective consciousness in one way or another.

Identities are also often closely linked with performances of various kinds — holidays, commemorations, funerals and weddings, marches and demonstrations. It is not surprising that historians like Michael Kammen (Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture) give great attention to monuments and celebrations; these are the tangible items that contribute to the formation of an identity as an American, a Black Panther, a Serb, or a Holocaust survivor.

There is an interesting corollary question: are there requirements of consistency that appear to govern the contents of a national or racial identity? If a person’s identity involves adherence to the idea of gender equality, does this imply that the person will also value racial equality? If a person values loyalty to his friends, will he or she also be likely to value promise-keeping or truth-telling to strangers?

We might expect consistency among the elements of an identity if we assumed that individuals are reflective agents, weighing and comparing the various components of their identity against each other. This kind of mental process might be expected to lead individuals to notice a similarity between “equality between men and women” and “equality between Christians and Muslims”, and might adjust his bigoted beliefs about Muslims in order to make them more compatible with his beliefs about gender equality. If, on the other hand, we think of individuals as unreflective and dogmatic, then there may be less ground for expecting a gradual adjustment of beliefs into a more consistent whole. On that scenario, the components of a person’s identity are more similar to the likes and aversions of the palate than the considered judgments of morality.

Finally, it is also clear — as the theorists of intersectionality have demonstrated (for example, Patricia Hill Collins; link) — that most of us possess multiple identities at the same time. We are Irish, European, lesbian, working class, anti-fascist, and Green, all at the same time. And the imperatives of the several identities we wear are often different in the political actions that they call for. Here again the question of consistency arises: how are we to reconcile these different calls to action? Is there an underlying consistency of values, or are the orienting values of one’s anti-fascism largely independent from one’s commitments to a pro-environmentalist agenda?

It is clear that various kinds of identities are highly relevant to politics and collective action. Appeals to identity solidarities have powerful effects on mobilization and political activization. But given that identities are not primeval, it is also clear that identities are themselves the subject of political struggle. Leaders, activists, and organizations have powerful interests in shaping the content and focus of the identities that are realized in the groups and individuals around them.

 

Social consciousness and critical realism

Critical realism proposes an approach to the social world that pays particular attention to objective and material features of the social realm — property relations, impersonal institutional arrangements, supra-individual social structures. Between structure and agent, CR seems most often to lean towards structures rather than consciously feeling and thinking agents. And so one might doubt whether CR has anything useful to offer when it comes to studying the subjective side of social life.

Take for example the idea of a social identity. A social identity seems inherently subjective. It is the bundle of ideas and frameworks through which one places himself or herself in the social world, the framework through which a person conceptualizes his/her relations with others, and an ensemble of the motivations and commitments that lead to important forms of social and political action. All of this sounds subjective in the technical sense — a part of the subjective and personal experience of a single individual. It is part of consciousness, not the material world.

So it is reasonable to ask whether there is anything in a social identity that is available for investigation through the lens of critical realism.

The answer, however, seems to be fairly clear. Ideas and mental frameworks have social antecedents and causal influences. Individuals take shape through concrete social development that is conducted through stable social arrangements and institutions. Consciousness has material foundations. And therefore, it is perfectly appropriate to pursue a realist materialist investigation of social consciousness. This was in fact one important focus of the Annales school of historiography.

This is particularly evident in the example of a social identity. No one is born with a Presbyterian or a Sufi religious identity. Instead, children, adolescents, and young adults acquire their religious and moral ideas through interaction with other individuals, and many of those interactions are determined by enduring social structures and institutional arrangements. So it is a valid subject of research to attempt to uncover the pathways of interaction and influence through which individuals come to have the ideas and values they currently have. This is a perfectly objective topic for social research.

But equally, the particular configuration of beliefs and values possessed by a given individual and a community of individuals is an objective fact as well, and it is amenable to empirical investigation. The research currently being done on the subcultures of right wing extremism illustrates this point precisely. It is an interesting and important fact to uncover (if it is a fact) that the ideologies and symbols of hate that seem to motivate right wing youth are commonly associated with patriarchal views of gender as well.

So ideas and identities are objective in at least two senses, and are therefore amenable to treatment from a realist perspective. They have objective social determinants that can be rigorously investigated; and they have a particular grammar and semiotics that need to be rigorously investigated as well. Both kinds of inquiry are amenable to realist interpretation: we can be realist about the mechanisms through which a given body of social beliefs and values are promulgated through a population, and we can be realist about the particular content of those belief systems themselves.

Ironically, this position seems to converge in an unexpected way with two streams of classical social theory. This approach to social consciousness resonates with some of the holistic ideas that Durkheim brought to his interpretation of religion and morality. But likewise it brings to mind Marx’s views of the determinants of social consciousness through objective material circumstances. We don’t generally think of Marx and Durkheim as having much in common. But on the topic of the material reality of ideas and their origins in material features of social life, they seem to agree.

These considerations seem to lead to a strong conclusion: critical realism can be as insightful in its treatment of objective social structures as it is in study of “subjective” features of social consciousness and identities.

Sociology of life expectations

Each individual has a distinctive personality and orienting set of values. It is intriguing to wonder how these features take shape in the individual’s development through the experiences of childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. But we can also ask whether there are patterns of mentality and orienting values across many or most individuals in a cohort. Are there commonalities in the definition of a good life across a cohort? Is there such a thing as the millennial generation or the sixties generation, in possession of distinctive and broadly shared sets of values, frameworks, and dispositions?

These are questions that sociologists have attempted to probe using a range of tools of inquiry. It is possible to use survey methodology to observe shifts in attitudes over time, thereby pinpointing some important cohort differences. But qualitative tools seem the most appropriate for this question, and in fact sociologists have conducted extensive interviews with a selected group of individuals from the indicated group, and have used qualitative methods to analyze and understand the results.

A very interesting example of this kind of research is Jennifer Silva’s Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty. Silva is interested in studying the other half of the millennial generation — the unemployed and underemployed young people, mostly working class, whom the past fifteen years have treated harshly. What she finds in this segment of the cohort born in the late 1970s and early 1980s is an insecure and precarious set of life circumstances, and new modes of transition to adulthood that don’t look very much like the standard progress of family formation, career progress, and rising affluence that was perhaps characteristic of this same social segment in the 1950s.

Here is how Silva frames the problem she wants to better understand:

What, then, does it mean to “grow up” today? Even just a few decades ago, the transition to adulthood would not have been experienced as a time of confusion, anxiety, or uncertainty. In 1960, the vast majority of women married before they turned twenty-one and had their first child before twenty-three. By thirty, most men and women had moved out of their parents’ homes, completed school, gotten married, and begun having children. Completing these steps was understood as normal and natural, the only path to a complete and respectable adult life: indeed, half of American women at this time believed that people who did not get married were “selfish and peculiar,” and a full 85 percent agreed that women and men should get married and have children (Furstenberg et al. 2004). (6)

Silva is interested in exploring in detail the making of “working class life adulthood” in the early twenty-first century. And her findings are somewhat bleak:

Experiences of powerlessness, confusion, and betrayal within the labor market, institutions such as education and the government, and the family teach young working-class men and women that they are completely alone, responsible for their own fates and dependent on outside help only at their peril. They are learning the hard way that being an adult means trusting no one but yourself. (9)

At its core, this emerging working-class adult self is characterized by low expectations of work, wariness toward romantic commitment, widespread distrust of social institutions, profound isolation from others, and an overriding focus on their emotions and psychic health. Rather than turn to politics to address the obstacles standing in the way of a secure adult life, the majority of the men and women I interviewed crafted deeply personal coming of age stories, grounding their adult identities in recovering from their painful pasts—whether addictions, childhood abuse, family trauma, or abandonment—and forging an emancipated, transformed, and adult self. (10)

Key to Silva’s interpretation is the importance and coherence of the meanings that young people create for themselves — the narratives through which they make sense of the unfolding of their lives and where they are going. She locates the context and origins of these self-stories in the structural circumstances of the American economy of the 1990s; but her real interest is in finding the recurring themes in the stories and descriptions these young people tell about themselves and their lives.

For Silva, the bleakness of this generation of young working class adults has structural causes: economic stagnation, dissolution of safety nets, loss of decent industrial-sector jobs and the rise of insecure service-sector jobs, and neoliberalism as a guiding social philosophy that systematically turns its back on under-class young people. It is sobering that her research is based on interviews carried out in a few cities in the United States, but the findings seem valid for many countries in western Europe as well (Britain, Germany, France). And this in turn may have relevance for the rise of populism in many countries as well. 

What is most worrisome about Silva’s account is the very limited opportunities for social progress that it implies. As progressives we would like to imagine our democracy has the potential of evolving towards greater social dignity and opportunity for all segments of society. But what Silva describes is unpromising for this hopeful scenario. The avenues of higher education, skills-intensive work, and better life circumstances seem unlikely as a progressive end of this story. And the Sprawl of the grim anti-utopian novels of William Gibson (NeuromancerCount Zero) seem to fit the world Silva describes better than the usual American optimism about the inevitability of progress. Significantly, the young people whom Silva interviews have very little interest in engagement in politics and supporting candidates who are committed to real change; they do not really believe in the possibility of change.

It is worth noticing the parallel in findings and methodology between Silva’s work on young working class men and women and Al Young’s studies of inner city black men (The Minds of Marginalized Black Men: Making Sense of Mobility, Opportunity, and Future Life Chances). Both fall within the scope of cultural sociology. Both proceed on the basis of extensive interviews with 50-100 subjects, both make use of valuable tools of qualitative analysis to make sense of the interviews, and both arrive at important new understandings of the mentalities of these groups of young Americans.

(Here is a prior post on cultural sociology and its efforts to “get inside the frame” (link); and here is a post on “disaffected youth” that touches on some of these themes in a different way; link.)

Karl Polanyi as a critical realist?

In The Power of Market Fundamentalism: Karl Polanyi’s Critique Fred Block and Peggy
Somers focus on a phrase that Karl Polanyi uses in The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, the idea of treating society as “real”. They address this issue in the final chapter of the book. (This is in the context, it should be noted, of their conclusion that Polanyi was fundamentally a “failed prophet” — the transformation that he expected in the next fifty years of market society following World War II has not in fact materialized.) What does this idea refer to in Polanyi’s thinking?

In the end, Polanyi is asking us to accept that we live in complex societies, the essence of which is the interdependence of persons and institutions. No person or action or institution is autonomous; every institutional movement or seemingly personal action will have consequences, often unknown, for people close and far…. A new public philosophy must be build from this foundational commitment to the reality of a complex and interdependent society. (227) 

To see the world as it is in reality, not as we might like it to be in the logic of economic thought, is for Polanyi the only way to fashion public and social policies on moral and ethical foundations. (228)

Block and Somers are insistent that “free market ideology” is very far from “realistic”. The arrangements of a “free market” are by no means self-reinforcing; they require powerful institutions to stabilize them. And markets require powerful states — governmental action — to preserve their existential prerequisites. So free market ideology and economic liberalism are not realistic from a sociological point of view.

So what is the “reality of society”, in Polanyi’s meaning? For Block and Somers, Polanyi’s realism is directly related to his distinction between formalism and substantivism. Formalists look at the social world as a pure market environment in which rational egoists seek to maximize utility, and neo-classical economics is the science of this realm. But Polanyi believes this is a fiction, and that real human beings are always embedded in concrete social, cultural, and ideational relations with each other. This is the “substantivist” view of the social world. When Polanyi refers to the “real” social world he is referring to this substantive, concrete set of relations. And it is the work of social scientists, historians, and ethnographers to map out the details of these relations in a particular social historical setting.

So the vision of the pure marketplace is a fantasy or a utopia, according to Polanyi. The real social world is constituted by normative and material relations between real human beings.

One feature of this substantive reality, in Polanyi’s view, is recognition of the unavoidable interdependence of human beings in all social settings. Once again, reality is poised in contrast to fantasy — now the fantasy of the wholly independent autonomous economic individual. Rather, real individuals are embedded in concrete social relations with each other that constrain and guide their actions.

So reality for Polanyi stands in direct opposition to the abstract social theory of economic liberalism, or what Block and Somers call “market fundamentalism”.

Peggy Somers is an advocate of critical realism for sociology (link). Is Polanyi any kind of critical realist, on this interpretation of what he means by “real society”? There are certain affinities, to be sure. Like Bhaskar, he affirms that the social world possesses real structures and relations, and that these structures wield influence on individuals and outcomes. In Bhaskar’s terms, they possess causal powers. And, like Bhaskar, he gives credence to some of Marx’s basic social categories.

But there are contrasts as well. His theory is not at all philosophical or ontological — in fact, Bhaskar might describe it as empiricist, given Polanyi’s view that the real properties of the social world are amenable to direct empirical investigation. (That is my own view as well.) Perhaps the strongest affinity with critical realism is Polanyi’s conviction that a realistic understanding of the social world brings with it a definite normative stance and program for progress — realism and human emancipation.

Here is an important statement of Polanyi’s views of social change:

Nowhere has liberal philosophy failed so conspicuously as in its understanding of the problem of change. Fired by an emotional faith in spontaneity, the common-sense attitude toward change was discarded in favor of a mystical readiness to accept the social consequences of economic improvement, whatever they might be. The elementary truths of political science and statecraft were first discredited then forgotten. It should need no elaboration that a process of undirected change, the pace of which is deemed too fast, should be slowed down, if possible, so as to safeguard the welfare of the community. Such household truths of traditional statesmanship, often merely reflecting the teachings of a social philosophy inherited from the ancients, were in the nineteenth century erased from the thoughts of the educated by the corrosive of a crude utilitarianism combined with an uncritical reliance on the alleged self-healing virtues of unconscious growth. (35)

This passage clearly advocates taking change in hand and shaping it to the needs of ordinary people, not simply accepting the fatalism of economic necessity. And this perhaps has relevance for today’s hot debates over globalization, from Bernie to Donald to Brexit. Here is Polanyi’s treatment of the enclosure acts:

Enclosures have appropriately been called a revolution of the rich against the poor. The lords and nobles were upsetting the social order, breaking down ancient law and custom, sometimes by means of violence, often by pressure and intimidation. They were literally robbing the poor of their share in the common, tearing down the houses which, by the hitherto unbreakable force of custom, the poor had long regarded as theirs and their heirs’. The fabric of society was being disrupted; desolate villages and the ruins of human dwellings testified to the fierceness with which the revolution raged, endangering the defences of the country, wasting its towns, decimating its population, turning its overburdened soil into dust, harassing its people and turning them from decent husbandmen into a mob of beggars and thieves. Though this happened only in patches, the black spots threatened to melt into a uniform catastrophe. The King and his Council, the Chancellors, and the Bishops were defending the welfare of the community and, indeed, the human and natural substance of society against this scourge. With hardly any intermittence, for a century and a half—from the 1490s, at the latest, to the 1640s they struggled against depopulation. Lord Protector Somerset lost his life at the hands of the counterrevolution which wiped the enclosure laws from the statute book and established the dictatorship of the grazier lords, after Kett’s Rebellion was defeated with several thousand peasants slaughtered in the process. Somerset was accused, and not without truth, of having given encouragement to the rebellious peasants by his denunciation of enclosures. (37)

Polanyi’s realism has substantial implications for social policy and reform. If interdependence and reciprocity are real and permanent features of the social world, if a pure self-regulating market society is a plain fiction, then some programs for social change make a lot more sense than others. Social democracy, in particular, appears to be an almost unavoidable choice. (Or rather, the old opposition of “socialism or barbarism” seems like an unavoidable historical necessity. This is the thrust of Polanyi’s anti-fascism.

It is interesting to recall that the brother of Karl Polanyi, Michael, was an anti-empiricist philosopher of science. Michael Polanyi’s book Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy amounted to a sustained critique of simple empiricist theories of social knowledge (link).

Ethics as culture

Gabriel Abend has recently published The Moral Background: An Inquiry into the History of Business Ethics, a remarkable book on what seems initially to be a small subject — a history of the academic field of business ethics. I say “seems”, because in Abend’s hands this topic turns out to be a superb subject for the emerging field of the sociology of culture. (I should explain that the subject might seem small to a philosopher, because the discipline of business ethics is low-prestige within philosophy and is generally regarded as too applied to count as “serious” philosophical ethics. For Abend, however, it is an important subject precisely because it is “applied” and because the activity to which it pertains is highly consequential in the contemporary world and the world of nineteenth century capitalism as well.)

Michele Lamont is often cited as the person who gave new impetus to the sociology of culture in the past decade (e.g. in Money, Morals, and Manners: The Culture of the French and the American Upper-Middle Classlink, link). (Lamont is one of the editors of the Princeton series in which this book appears). Lamont has given new energy to the study of how cultural values structure ordinary life in a variety of settings, and also has provided some powerful examples of how to approach this problem empirically. And Abend brings such great detail of focus to his investigation that his study sets a new standard for what is required in a study of public culture. One of the intellectual antecedents of Abend’s approach is the micro-sociology of Erving Goffman. Like Goffman, Abend is interested in tracing the public manifestations of a cultural epoch — not the subjective experience that may underly it.

What Abend wants to understand is the actual history of the field of business ethics. He isn’t trying to discover the patterns of behavior that are found among businessmen, or the ethical ideas they embrace. Rather, he wants to tease out the material and ideological content expressed by professional “business ethicists”, largely found in schools of business. What has been the public expert discourse on business ethics over the past century, and what framing assumptions about the ethical field does this discourse presuppose?

The book scrutinizes the content of business ethicists’ understandings and prescriptions — taking into account their context, the audiences they were addressed to, and the cultural repertoires they drew upon. … Much like sociologists and anthropologists of science, I am interested in the tools, devices, technologies, methods, and tactics business ethicists came up with and avail themselves of. Manuals of proper behavior, success manuals, pamphlets, biographies, obituaries, typologies, illustrations, and codes of ethics are not neutral, interchangeable containers of information. They are social things, with particular causal histories and social functions, and whose particular modes of operation, modes of existence, and materiality must be analyzed as well. (11)

He correctly observes that there are three levels of ethics that can be considered from a sociological point of view:

First, there is the level of behavior or practices. … Second, there is the level of people’s moral judgments in the least, and societies’ and social groups’ moral norms and institutions. … In this book I introduce a third level, which up to now has not been recognized as a distant object inquiry: the moral background. (17)

His interest throughout the book is with the third level, the moral background. This refers, essentially, to the frameworks, concepts, and principles of reasoning that people have in mind when they think ethically or normatively.

Moral background elements do not belong to the level or realm of first-order morality. Rather, they facilitate, support, or enable first-order moral claims, norms, actions, practices, and institutions. (53)

Moral background includes six kinds of topics, according to Abend:

  1. Kinds of reasons or grounds that support first order morality
  2. Conceptual repertoires
  3. what can be morally evaluated
  4. what counts is proper moral methods in arguments
  5. whether first order morality is assumed to be objective
  6. metaphysical conceptions about what there is and what these things are like. (18)

He compares the moral background with the meta-scientific beliefs that scientists bring to the study of nature or society.

What is it that members of a scientific community share, exactly? For one, they likely share many social and demographic characteristics. That helps account sociologically for their having become members of that community in the first place. More important, they have common epistemological and ontological intuitions, dispositions, or assumptions. They agree on how you go about answering a scientific question, and what kind of evidence and how much of it you need to corroborate a hypothesis. (28)

This focus is particularly interesting to me because it provides additional leverage on the problem of offering a vocabulary for the background conceptual resources that are a necessary part of all social cognition. As has been noted several times in earlier posts, there is an important body of conceptual and factual presuppositions that human beings unavoidably use when they try to make sense of the world around them. And the framework itself is only rarely available for inspection. So it is a valuable contribution when sociologists like Abend, Gross, or Lamont are able to pinpoint the content and structure of such systems of tacit cognitive framework in action.
The discussion of conceptual repertoires is particularly detailed and helpful. Abend defines conceptual repertoires as “the set of concepts that are available to any given group or society, in a given time and place” (37). He makes the valid and important point that conceptual schemes are culturally specific and historically variable; “this repertoire enables and constrains their thought and speech, their laws and institutions, and, importantly, the actions they may undertake” (37). He offers as examples of moral concepts ideas like these: “dignity, decency, integrity, piety, responsibility, tolerance, moderation, fanaticism, extremism, despotism, chauvinism, rudeness, …” (38), and makes the correct point that ideas like these show up in some cultural and historical settings and not in others. So the realities that can be “seen” and experienced by historically situated people depend on the schemes or repertoires they have available to them in those settings. (The topic of conceptual schemes has come up frequently here. Here are a few earlier discussions; linklink, link.)

Abend finds two thematic sets of beliefs and concepts that largely serve to characterize most approaches to business ethics, which he refers to as “standards of practice” and “the Christian merchant.” The first approach works on the assumption that ethical standards like honesty are good for business, all things considered, and that the function of business ethics writings and teaching is to help business people come to see that their interests dictate that they should conform, even when there are strong incentives to do otherwise. The second principle argues that there are higher moral standards that govern behavior, and that prudent adherence to rules of honesty does not get to the heart of business ethics. Broadly speaking the first approach is scientific and consesquentialist (JS Mill), while the second is theological and deontological (Kant). (In Kant’s memorable phrase, “tell the truth though the world should perish.”)

Abend demonstrates that the field of business ethics is substantially older than it is usually thought to be, extending back at least a century. To demonstrate this point he makes interesting use of Google’s Ngram tool (link), a research tool based on Google’s massive collection of scanned books, and finds that the phrase “business ethics” begins to take off around 1900, passing “commercial morality” in 1912 and “business morality” in 1917. All the other phrases go into a sustained decline in books from 1920 forward, while “business ethics” takes off.

The Moral Background is a major contribution to the emerging field of cultural sociology. Especially important among the virtues of Abend’s research is his ability to work through a huge body of historical material from the subject — the founding of various business schools, speeches by public officials about business scandals, the utterances of pro-business organizations like chambers of commerce, newspaper cartoons about business scandals, philosophical writings about ethical theory — and to find meaning in these disparate sources that point back to the “moral backgrounds” from which they emanate. This is a truly gigantic task of intellectual integration, and Abend’s book sets a high bar for future studies of the cultural meaning of intellectual, practical, and normative social realities.

The status of women in India

 

Sociologists are often interested in making sense of processes of change that radiate along the axes of the great tectonics of social life, including class, race, and gender. These features of social life are particularly fundamental because they denote powerful determinants of opportunity, life-course, and personal outcomes for all of us. The positions into which individuals are born within the property system have great influence on the ways their lives unfold. The social filigree of race and ethnicity, and the ways in which these categories are socially constructed and projected, likewise creates determinative pathways of development and action for individuals in many social settings. And the social freight of gender and family creates opportunities and obstacles, expectations and stereotypes, for boys and girls, women and men. There are other large dimensions of social embeddedness that might be brought forward as well — religion, culture, normative communities, power and authority, for example. But class, race, and gender are especially profound. And each has given rise to movements of emancipation in reaction to the oppressions that they represent for specific groups in society.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen and Anne Waldrop have assembled an excellent volume on the status of women in contemporary India in their recent book Women, Gender, and Everyday Social Transformation in India. The collection brings together contributors who approach the topic using the tools of ethnographic research to better understand the everyday realities of experience of women in India today. The volume focuses on three large areas of life in contemporary India — technology and work, political institutions, and feminist activism. There is a valuable effort to attempt to understand the current upsurge of public violence and rape against women in terms of the social changes that are occurring in these areas.

The editors introduce the focus of the volume in these words:

The pace of socioeconomic transformation in India over the past two and a half decades has been formidable. In this volume we are concerned with examining how these transformations have played out at the level of everyday life to influence the lives of Indian women, and gender relations more broadly.”

Readers of Understanding Society will find the volume especially interesting because it approaches the realities of gender, class, and caste in a micro- and meso-level way, looking at specific individuals and groups of women within the concrete social relations within which they find themselves. A rich understanding of the socially constituted realities of “agency” and “structure” plays an important role in the approaches these investigators bring to their research. 

People can never act outside of the multiplicity of social relations in which they are enmeshed; … the exercise of individual agency aiming for change is thus always conditioned, and human agency is both enabled and limited by those social structures within which change is sought. (7)

Several chapters are especially interesting.

Kenneth Nielsen’s contribution on the Singur movement in West Bengal against the proposed Tata factory favored by the ruling CP/M government of the state is very interesting. He illustrates how the status rise of a caste group (Chasi Kaibartta in transition to Mahishya) also reflected a fairly deliberate effort to redefine and control the role of women. “Notably, the Mahishya caste movement for higher status entailed an appropriation of upper-caste norms and values including the Hindu elite male concern for harnessing female sexuality” (207). This account suggests a Bourdieu-like struggle within a “field”, making strategic adjustments so as to gain advantage over time. Intra- and inter-caste struggles played out into a redefinition of the nature and role of women in village society. Nielsen’s central interest is the micro-processes through which women in these villages made the transition from their traditional roles to the role of part-time activist. This is a familiar question from social movements research. (Here is a causal diagram representing the recruitment process taken from Doug McAdam, “Beyond Structural Analysis” (link).)

But Nielsen’s treatment is not theoretical; it is ethnographic, attempting to discover through interviews and participant-observation the concrete steps that occurred from household to street demonstration for some of these women.
 
Another interesting observation Nielsen offers concerns the question of “issue escalation”. It is often observed in the study of contentious politics that a movement around a specific issue often broadens its focus to include a more comprehensive set of issues. In this instance the natural progression would be from the specific issue of land confiscation to a broader concern for gender equity in rural society. But this escalation did not occur in the case of the West Bengal/Singur movement.
In contrast [to movements in Karnataka and Maharashtra], the Singur movement did not spawn reflections on the gendered nature of landownership and inheritance, even though inheritance patterns in Singur followed the broader West Bengal pattern where land is fragmented and customarily inherited through the line of male descendants. (215)

And Nielsen seems to have uncovered the root of an explanation for why this escalation did not occur: the involvement of women in the Singur movement was actually quite consistent with the patriarchal values governing women’s roles that were current in rural society in West Bengal. “The mobilization of women into the Singur movement was facilitated by the fact that it was successfully embedded in a gendered discourse and imagery in which Shantipara’s Mahishya women appeared as defenders of the common good of the family and the village” (215). (Kimberly Springer describes the complicated relationship between feminist activism and the US civil rights movement in Living for the Revolution: Black Feminist Organizations, 1968–1980.)

Turn now to another contribution that also focuses on West Bengal, Sirpa Tenhunen’s “Gender, Intersectionality and Smartphones in Rural West Bengal.” Tenhunen’s question is how this innovative communication technology affected the opportunities and agency of women in this region. (One thing I appreciate about the volume as a whole is the care that the researchers take to make it clear that their findings do not represent “India” as a whole.)

I argue that to understand how mobile phone use is shaped by and reshapes gender, it is necessary to explore how the physical properties of phones determine technical affordances — that is, the possibilities for action — according to the users’ gender, but also such parameters of identity as class and education. (33)

Tenhunen’s ethnography focuses on women’s use of the technology — the conversations they conduct in specific times and places. She had observed this village in 1999 (before the cell network had been built out), and again in 2005, 2007-08, 2010, and 2012-13. So her observations permitted her to have a perspective on the socially constructed ways in which adoption of telephony was carried out. One of her most basic observations is that the adoption of telephony initially followed caste lines (37), with upper castes adopting cell phones earlier than other caste groups. She also finds that cell phone ownership tended to be concentrated among male villagers in the early period, and that diffusion to women was often the consequence of marriage relationships. “Fathers and brothers gave phones to ensure that women could stay in touch after marriage” (37). And she finds that women’s calling patterns are different from male users in the village. Here is a table of calling patterns based on call diaries from 2008.

 

This is interesting material, and could be interpreted as a map of the patriarchal and domestic orbits of women and men in the village. Tenhunen argues that cell phones facilitated a broadening of social contacts that had favorable effects on gender opportunities for women in the village.

In rural India, the introduction of phones offered rural women a new, unobstrusive avenue to extend their contacts and space without moving out of their neighbourhood. Women’s increased contact with their natal village and female relatives in other villages forms part of the broader changes evident in the village’s gender relationships. The most pronounced of these changes are the increase in education for females, women becoming visible in formal politics, and a few high-caste women taking up white-collar jobs. (41-42)

What is particularly interesting about this research is the strength of the case Tenhunen establishes for the differential adoption and consequences of the new cellular technology. “Technology is gendered” — this is a slogan in the sociology of technology, but it is a simple and important reality in this study.

These are only two of the fifteen chapters of Women, Gender and Everyday Social Transformation in India (Anthem South Asian Studies). But every chapter is worth reading, and the book represents an important contribution to understanding the dynamics under way in India today for half of its population.

Character and personality

 

 
If we want to have a more adequate theory of the actor (link), we need to broaden our understanding of the factors and capacities that affect action.  The categories of personality and character are both relevant to the ways in which we understand how people behave in ordinary and extraordinary circumstances. So a theory of the actor ought to have a place for these concepts.

How are these concepts related? Both have to do with persistent features of behavior, but they seem to have somewhat distinct domains and have been approached by widely separated disciplines. In particular, character seems to be morally charged in ways that personality is not.

 
Here are some examples of characteristics that seem intuitively to fall into the two categories.
 

Personality
Character
Outgoing
Honest 
Sociable
Capable of carrying out commitments
Introverted
Slippery
Shy
Deceptive
Perfectionist
Manipulative
Careless
Courageous
Ambitious
Pays attention to principles
Short-sighted
Opportunistic
Agreeable
Kind
Secure / insecure
Cruel
Curious
Self-directed
 
 

Both sets of characteristics go beyond (or below) rational calculation and utility. (In fact, we might say that the purely rational individual lacks both personality and character; his/her actions are dictated by current estimates of costs and benefits of various lines of action.) Both personality and character have to do with features of behavior that are non-purposive to an important extent. They have to do with who the actor is, not so much with what he/she wants to accomplish. Rational calculation is sometimes at odds with some of these features — sometimes principles and commitments stand in the way of self interest, so character dictates a different course of action than prudence.

Personality falls within the domain of empirical psychology. There is a long tradition of research and theory in the area of personality psychology. Psychologists seem to favor to use the vocabulary of “personality traits” (Jerry Wiggins, “In Defense of Traits,” Handbook of Personality Psychology, edited by Robert Hogan et al). And a central goal of personality psychology has been to discover a taxonomy of personality types that allow classification of all normal human beings. Along with such a taxonomy, the discipline has sought to create measurement tools that permit application of the scheme to ordinary human subjects.

 
The study of character has tended to be a preoccupation of philosophers, who approach the question in a more theoretical and apriori way.  Philosophers extending back to the ancient Greeks have attempted to identify the features of a person’s inner life that enhance or diminish the person’s moral worthiness. Part of the moral connotation of features of character is captured in the linguistic fact that many of the features we attribute to character are virtues (or vices). We praise people who possess a number of virtues, and we criticize them if they lack these virtues (or possess the contrary vice). This field of study might be called “moral psychology,” but it has tended to be non-empirical. In the past two decades there has been a degree of convergence between the empirical study of behavior and the philosophical study of moral decision making, in the topic area of evolutionary moral theory (Moral Psychology: The Evolution of Morality: Adaptations and Innateness (Volume 1)Moral Psychology: The Cognitive Science of Morality: Intuition and Diversity (Volume 2)).  
 
There is academic and popular disagreement about the degree to which personality traits are acquired or innate.  Some argue, along the lines of the sociobiologists, that at least some features of social behavior are controlled by our evolutionary history. The underlying rationale for this hunch is the likelihood that personality traits have effects on reproductive success; individuals who have traits that allow them to be more successful in eliciting cooperation from others are more likely to reproduce successfully. (This is the underlying thought in Allan Gibbard’s Wise Choices, Apt Feelings: A Theory of Normative Judgment.) And others maintain that the individual is highly plastic at birth, so the developmental environment is the primary causal factor in the development of personality.

We might try to draw a distinction between personality and character along these lines. Personality has to do with the psychological “hardware” with which the individual is equipped. Just as a snappy Mustang has great acceleration and so-so gas mileage (determined by the organization of its component systems), some individuals have affable, agreeable interactions with other people (determined by the organization of their affective systems). Character has to do with moral capacities in embodied human beings: the ability to keep a promise, tell the truth, or stand resolute in the face of threat. Character has to do with the ways we conceive of ourselves and sculpt our actions to fit our expectations; personality has to do with reactive features of our psychological systems.

(Here is a very good essay on “Moral Character” by Marcia Homiak in the SEP; link.)