Youth studies

One of the smaller sub-fields within sociology is “youth studies.” This strikes me as an intriguing area of research, and it seems as though the possible questions for inquiry here have only begun to be tapped. Youth issues have come up in earlier posts, including disaffected youth (link), engaged youth (link), and the problem of knowing how young people think (link).

To begin, why is the category of “youth” an interesting one? Youths are important because they eventually become adults and full participants in all aspects of social life. We would like to understand better what the forces are that influence the psychological and cultural development of young people. It also seems clear that young people of numerous countries embody a shifting set of styles, tastes, vocabularies, and values that are distinct from those of their elders. We would like to understand the pathways of influence through which these styles and values are proliferated. But the youth population is important in its own right. The social movements of Arab Spring were propelled by significant youth movements and activists. The civil rights movement and the anti-war movement on the United States each had major or even preponderant participation by mobilized youth. So the generation of people in their teens and twenties can have major political significance.

Who are the “youth” whom we want to better understand? Is youth a historically constructed category? “Youth” refers to people who are young adults, perhaps from the ages of 15 to 25. These people occupy an interesting position in the life cycle; they are not children, and they are not fully developed adults. Their personalities and characters are still malleable; they can further develop in one direction or another. One teenager latches on to his street pals and slides in the direction of petty crime; another gets very involved in her mosque and pursues higher education. Why are there such large differences within a given cohort? Some researchers use the concept of adolescence as a way of characterizing youth culture. “Youth” is the period of development of young people that falls between adolescence and adulthood. So the development experience is important to understand, and the characteristics of behavior that young people display are crucial.

What is “youth culture”? Marlis Buchmann is one of the contributors to current studies in this area, and his The Script of Life in Modern Society: Entry into Adulthood in a Changing World represents his thinking in an orderly way. He attempts to summarize the main theoretical ideas of the field in his survey article in the International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences (link). Here is how Buchmann defines youth culture:

Youth culture refers to the cultural practice of members of this age group by which they express their identities and demonstrate their sense of belonging to a particular group of young people. The formation of youth culture thus implies boundary drawing. (16660)

Here Buchmann focuses on the forces that create one or more forms of youth culture and style, and he gives most weight to the approach taken by researchers at the Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham, where youth culture is channelized by the class position of the young people who live it.

For the CCCS scholars, youth appeared to offer a special vantage point from which to consider the more general dislocation and fragmentation of the British working class as the structure of Britain’s system of production, labor force, income distribution, and lifestyles was transformed over the course of the post-World War II period. (16658)

This approach doesn’t pay a lot of attention to what one might expect to be the most basic question: what are the pathways through which individual adolescents are formed and developed into one form of youth culture or another? What are the microfoundations of youth culture?

With regard to youth especially, cultural practices such as music, dancing, movies, visual arts (e.g., comics), particular sports (e.g., skateboarding), and fashion (e.g., clothing and hairstyles) are preferred means of expressing a distinct way of life that is recognized by others as a sign and signal of a particular identity and group membership. (16663)

According to the particular needs of social representation, young people may assemble and reassemble stylistic elements of various origins in ever new ways to form distinct styles of juvenile cultural practice. (16663)

Buchmann isn’t very explicit when it comes to characterizing what a youth culture consists of. Is it a set of values — anti-establishment, anarchist, anti-war, suspicious of adults? Is it an ensemble of tastes and styles — punk rockers, skateboards, sideways caps? Is it a complex of motivations and behavioral traits?

One point that Buchmann emphasizes and that resonates with me is the idea that there is a proliferation of youth cultures, not a single or small number of class-defined cultures. There is a substantial element of path dependency in the evolution of a culture within a population, and youth cultures in a place and time evolve dynamically.

Buchmann also highlights the importance of generation or cohort in the formation of youth culture. The experiences of a particular generation of young people have a profound influence on the directions and characteristics of the cultures they create.

It is interesting to learn that James Coleman was one of the contributors to one strand of youth studies. His 1961 The Adolescent Society: The Social Life of the Teenager and its Impact on Education is an interesting treatment of the topics of development and culture. He takes age segregation created by compulsory schooling as a key determinant of the emergence of a separate youth culture in the modern world. 

I find this topic intriguing for two reasons. First, it sheds some light on the dynamic processes through which individuals and cohorts shape their identities. And second, it promises to shed light on important social topics, from disaffection to mobilization.

Sociology in time: cohorts

What difference does it make to a person’s personality, values, agency, or interpretive schemes that she was born in 1950 rather than 1930 or 1970?  How does a person’s place in time and in a stream of historical events influence the formation of his or her consciousness?  (I’ve raised some of these questions in prior posts, here and here.)

If we thought of people as being pretty much uniform in their motivations and understandings of the world, then we wouldn’t be particularly interested in the micro-circumstances that defined the developmental environment of a cohort; these circumstances would have been expected to lead to pretty much the same kinds of actors.  We don’t think it is useful to analyze ants or cattle into age cohorts.

If, on the other hand, we think that a person’s political and social identity, the ways in which she values a range of social and personal outcomes, the ways in which she organizes her thinking about the world — if we think that these basic features of cognition, valuation, and motivation are significantly influenced by the environment in which development and maturation take place, then we are forced to consider the importance of cohorts.

The ideas of the “Great Generation” the “Children of the Depression,” or the “Sixties Generation” have a certain amount of resonance for us. We think of the typical members of these cohorts as having fairly important features of personality, memory, and motivation that are different from members of other cohorts.  Americans born in the 1920s were thrown into social environments that were very different from those of people born twenty years earlier or later.  And their political consciousness and behavior seem to reflect these differences.

But here is the difficult question raised by these considerations: how should sociologists attempt to incorporate the possibility of cohort differences in behavior and outlook?  Here is one possible way of conceptualizing cohort differences with respect to a personality characteristic — let’s say “propensity to trust leaders.”  Suppose we have conducted a survey that operationalizes this characteristic so that the trust propensity of each individual can be measured.  We might postulate that every individual has some degree of trust, but that different cohort groups have different mean values and different distributions around the mean.

The graph below represents four hypothetical cohorts: purple, blue, green, red.  Blue, green, and red cohorts have the same mean value for trust (normalized to 0).  But they differ in terms of the degree of variation there is within the cohort with respect to this feature.  The red cohort is tightly scattered around the mean, whereas the blue cohort is very widely distributed.  The “average” red individual has the same degree of trust as the average blue individual; but there is a much wider range of the blues than the reds.  Members of the purple cohort show a fundamentally different behavior.  They have a significantly lower level of trust, with a mean of -2.  And the degree of distribution around the mean is moderate for the purple cohort — not as tight as the reds, not as broad as the blues.  Finally, it should be noted that there are reds, greens, and blues who are as untrusting as some purples, and there are some purples who are more trusting than some reds, greens, and blues.  In other words, the distributions overlap.

If we were confronted with data like these, our next question would be causal and historical: what were the circumstances of development in which the generation of people in the purple cohort took shape that caused them to be less trusting than other cohorts?  And what circumstances led the blue cohort to have such a wide distribution of variation in comparison to the green and red cohorts?

Now let’s put some dates on the curves.  Suppose that the purple cohort is the baby-boom generation — people born between 1945 and 1954.  Red is the “Greatest Generation”, born between 1915 and 1924.  And blue is the “me-generation”, born between 1955 and 1964.  We might speculate that growing up in the sixties, with a highly divisive war in Vietnam underway, a government that suffered a serious credibility gap, and a youth culture that preached the slogan, “trust no one over 30!”, would have led to a political psychology that was less inclined to trust government than generations born earlier or later.  So the Purple cohort has a low level of trust as a group.  The social necessity of sticking together as a country, fighting a major world war, and working our way out of the Great Depression, might explain the high degree of unanimity of trust found in the Red cohort.  And the Blue generation is all over the map, ranging from a significant number of people with extremely low trust to an equal group of extremely high trust.  We might imagine that the circumstances of maturation and development following the wild and crazy sixties imposed little structure on this feature of political identity, resulting in a very wide distribution of levels of trust.

It is also important to consider some of the factors that vary across time that might have important influences on the development of different cohorts.  Circumstances like war, famine, or economic crisis represent one family of influences that are often markedly different across age cohorts.  Ideologies and value systems also change from decade to decade.  The turn to a more conservative kind of Christianity in the United States in the 1990s certainly influenced a significant number of young people coming of age during those decades, and the value system of nationalism and patriotism of the 1940s and 1950s influenced the young people of those decades.  Third, institutions change significantly over time as well. Schools change, the operations and culture of the military change, and the internal workings of religious institutions change.  So the institutions in which children and young adults gain their perspectives, motives, and allegiances are often significantly different from one decade to another.  And presumably, all these factors are involved in the formation of the consciousness and identity of the young people who experience them.  Difference in settings (events, ideologies, institutions) lead to differences in psychology across cohorts.

Andrew Abbott raised some of these questions in his presidential address to the Social Science History Association in 2004 (link).  The title he chose is illuminating — “The Historicality of Individuals”.  And the central point here could be put in the same terms: it is important for us to attempt to understand processes of social and historical change, through the shifting characteristics of the age-specific populations that make these processes up. The historicality of individuals adds up to the sociological importance of cohorts.

Civic engagement and formative institutions

A disposition towards civic engagement and community service seems to be a very fundamental component of social psychology that differs significantly across cohorts and populations.  But the frequency of this motivation across the population is also surely a key component of the health of social order.  One would hypothesize that this is an aspect of individual motivation and identity that determines the level at which a community will succeed in accomplishing its most critical tasks such as poverty alleviation, remedies for poor schools, or addressing homelessness.  If a city has a significant level of high-poverty schools, with associated low levels of student academic success in the early grades, surely it is helpful when a significant number of adults and young people experience a desire to help address the problem through mentoring and tutoring programs.

But the question of how this component of social psychology works is a complex one.  What are the influences in daily life through which children and young people acquire this sensibility?  What are the value systems and institutional arrangements that encourage or discourage a disposition towards civic engagement?  What kinds of experiences increase (or reduce) an individual’s motivation to be involved in community service?  (Here is an earlier posting on this question.)

Doug McAdam and Cynthia Brandt have addressed part of this question through a study of young people who have been involved with Teach for America (NYT story).  Their article, “Assessing the Effects of Voluntary Youth Service: The Case of Teach for America,” appeared in Social Forces this month.  Here is how the authors describe their project:

We use survey data from all accepted applicants to Teach for America (TFA) between 1993-98 to assess the longer-term effect of youth service on participants’ current civic attitudes and behaviors.

Their survey includes individuals who were accepted into Teach for America in the relevant years.  They break the population into three groups: graduates, drop-outs, and non-matriculants.  Their central findings are these:

  • “The graduates seem to have emerged from their TFA experience with an enhanced attitudinal commitment to service and civic life.” 
  • “Bottom line: relative to their age peers, our subjects participate at very high levels in all the forms of civic/political participation we examine.”
  • “The graduates lag significantly behind one or both of the other groups in their current levels of participation in “civic activity,” “institutional politics” and “social movements.””
  • “On all seven dimensions of civic life—service, civic activity, institutional politics, social movements, voting, charitable giving and pro-social employment—the graduates lag significantly behind one or both comparison groups.”

These are surprising findings.  The TFA population as a whole shows a higher level of civic engagement than the general population.  But within the TFA population, the graduates lag.  This seems to cast doubt on one of the central claims for community service: that the experience leads young people to develop characteristics that make them more engaged in the future.

McAdam and Brandt offer a few hypotheses about how we might explain these findings: burnout, delay in transition to career, a feeling of “having done my part,” a sense of disillusionment with service; and the possibility that non-matriculants may have had other experiences that are even more conducive to lifetime civic engagement.

Here is their summary conclusion:

What, in the end, are we prepared to say about the significantly lower levels of current service on the part of matriculants relative to non-matriculants?  Temporary exhaustion on the part of recent graduates (and drop-outs) appears to be a part of the story.  But so too are negative reactions to TFA and, for many, the isolating nature of the teaching experience.  Whatever the mix of these (and unmeasured) explanatory factors, the stark fact remains: far from increasing subsequent civic involvement, the TFA experience appears, for some, to depress current service participation.

But here is another striking conclusion based on their data: the gap evidenced in the civic engagement of the graduates is entirely explained by the 15% of graduates whose experience with TFA left them dissatisfied.  The 85% who were satisfied with the program demonstrate the same levels of civic engagement as the drop-outs and non-matriculants.  “It is the 15 percent of the graduates who have a retrospectively negative view of their TFA experience who account for the service/civic “gap” between graduates and the other two subject groups.”  This suggests that a program for community service needs to work hard to assure that the expectations of its volunteers are met.

McAdam and Brandt go out of their way to indicate that their research should not be understood as a foundation of criticism of TFA or of programs of civic engagement more broadly.  Rather, their goal is to find ways of assessing causal claims that are made on behalf of programs of youth engagement and community service.  In order to influence attitudes and behavior, we need to have evidence-based analysis of how a variety of relevant institutions actually work.  This kind of survey research is one such instrument of assessment.

The largest national service program in the US today is AmeriCorps (including CityYear).  Here is a link to an ongoing study of AmeriCorps members and their levels of civic engagement following their period of service.  McAdam and Brandt summarize the most recent findings of the AmeriCorps study:

The 2008 results are representative of the findings from the study as a whole.  While AmeriCorps members differ from those in the comparison group on some attitudinal items, behavioral effects are few and far between.  The two groups—AmeriCorps and comparison—were compared on fourteen measures of civic participation, including voting, charitable giving, and volunteer service.  They differed on only four, with one of the differences favoring members of the comparison groups.  In short, the modal behavioral effect appears negligible.

The survey research that McAdam-Brandt have done is one interesting and important way of trying to gauge the impact of a certain kind of institution on a feature of social psychology.  It is intriguing to wonder whether other tools might also shed light on the transformative and developmental processes that occur within the experience of intensive community service.  For example, how does the experience of working together in a racially and socially mixed group affect the social understandings and motivations of the young people who are involved?  How does the experience of spending a summer in a public health clinic in Chiapas influence the college students who participate?  Are there qualitative methodologies available that would shed more light on these concrete mechanisms of identity formation?  Would a study based on interviews and focus groups provide some insight into the processes of change that young people undergo in an AmeriCorps placement, a CityYear team, or an intense two months in a poor community in Mexico?

Suppose a researcher carried out a focus-group study on a group of CityYear corps members from September to April, and suppose the research provided evidence suggesting that Corps members had acquired specific competences of inter-community understanding.  Suppose interviews and focus group videos show that white corps members had demonstrated a growing ability to understand the situations and worldviews of their black or brown fellow corps members, and vice versa.  This would be evidence for judging that the CityYear environment leads to social-psychological development in the area of inter-cultural and inter-racial competence.  The young people who have undergone these experiences have become more attuned to racism, racial disadvantage, and the nuances of difference that exist in the perceptions of white, black, and brown young people.  They have increased their skill and confidence in interacting with a wider range of people.  And, presumably, they will live their adult lives with greater commitment to inter-group dialogue and struggle to reduce the inequalities associated with race in our country.  How might this set of facts relate to the framing of a longitudinal survey of CityYear alumni?

Essentially we would reason along these lines.  If the changes and developmental mechanisms that were documented in the qualitative study are real and durable, then there should also be differences in the attitudes and behaviors of CityYear alumni five, ten, and fifteen years later.  So a survey of alumni, along with an appropriately defined control group, should demonstrate significant differences in attitude and behavior.  And if there are no such differences, then we would be pushed towards concluding either that the developmental changes identified in the qualitative study were spurious, or they were indurable.  So there is a close logical relationship between the hypotheses suggested  by the qualitative study (about processes and effects of social development) and the longitudinal study (about the attitudes and behaviors of a population at later moments in time).

This is important work if we are interested in helping young people acquire the attitudes, values, and practices that will make them good citizens and caring members of communities.  And ultimately, it is a question that can be usefully investigated using a variety of tools of social and behavioral research.

How the calendar matters

It is interesting to consider how the timing of a routine social event can have a major effect on outcomes. Malcolm Gladwell observes that the most talented Canadian hockey players in the NHL are disproportionately likely to have birthdays in the months of January or February in his recent book, Outliers: The Story of Success. Observers of the current US presidential election may speculate that, if the financial crisis of September had occurred in May, the outcome of the election might have been different. The generation of Americans born around 1915 are much like those born around 1945 — except for the searing experience their generation had of the great depression.

The lesson to be drawn here might seem to be the obvious and trivial one — context matters in human affairs. Because youth hockey leagues define the age of a player based on his age on December 31, the January children have a major advantage in size and physical development over the November children. And this advantage creates a small headstart that amplifies over time. The fact that the financial crisis of 2008 created a major disadvantage for the McCain ticket less than 60 days ahead of the election made it very difficult for the candidate to recover in the polls. The cohort experience of poverty and insecurity made the 1920 generation much more risk averse than the 1950 generation. So context and the timing of contextual events matters.

But perhaps the importance of the calendar goes deeper than this. In an earlier posting I discussed Victor Lieberman’s discovery of an unexpected synchronicity of political change at the far ends of Eurasia, over the course of a millenium. We tried to understand this pattern in terms of hypothetical social mechanisms that might have produced these parallels. But what is striking about the example is not simply the fact that there must have been underlying causal mechanisms; it is that the result is a weakly synchronized system of events — that is, a system of events with a regular temporal association — that might never have been noticed.

What this suggests to me is that the social sciences can profitably give more attention to the temporal features of social phenomena — the simultaneous experiences a group of people would have had in virtue of being part of the same age cohort, the temporal parallels that might exist between the rise of a mass ideology and the sales of particular books, the accidents of simultaneity that have major repercussions decades later. Causal analysis implicitly imposes a temporal structure on events (causes precede effects). But often the research goal is to strip away the particular timing and temporal context, and to treat causal structures purely abstractly. And this means deliberately taking causal pairs out of their particular temporal contexts and comparing them with temporally disconnected alternative examples.

Andrew Abbott takes up some aspects of these issues in “Conceptions of Time and Events in Social Science Methods” in Time Matters: On Theory and Method. And William Sewell’s critique of some forms of causal reasoning in comparative historical sociology in “Three Temporalities” in Logics of History: Social Theory and Social Transformation is highly relevant as well.

Components of one’s "social identity"

A social identity is a complex thing. It involves the ways in which one characterizes oneself, the affinities one has with other people, the ways one has learned to behave in stereotyped social settings, the things one values in oneself and in the world, and the norms that one recognizes or accepts governing everyday behavior. And it profoundly affects the ways we behave and respond to the world.

So a social identity invokes a number of different areas of psychological competence: knowledge, motivation, perception, memory, personality, and emotion, to name a few. And yet one’s social identity seems to stand a bit apart from any of these psychological concepts singly. Cognitive psychology focuses on some aspects of this mix; social psychology and personality psychology focuses on other aspects; but there is no area of psychology that attempts to capture all of “social identity” as a psychological real process or structure.

Moreover, a social identity is embodied in an individual; and yet it is produced by the experiences we have in relations to other individuals and groups. A social identity can be said to be a feature of a group or a community as much as it is a feature of particular individuals within a given community. And this fact is causally important: we can’t explain the individual’s identity without reference to the sustained and fairly consistent features of the group with respect to its social identity. So a social identity has an aspect of “social-ness” that cautions us against a narrowly psychological interpretation of the concept.

We might single out a number of aspects of a social identity as a psychologically real construct, embodied in a particular person through a particular body of experience and a specific location within a community:

  • an epistemic frame in terms of which I understand the social world
  • an element of my psycho-cognitive-emotional apparatus
  • a model of how to behave in certain common social settings
  • a self-ascription defining the features of action and comportment that are most defining of “me” in the world
  • a self-valorization of the things that are most worthwhile to me
  • an account of who I’m related to and similar to; who my affinity groups are
  • a map expressing my location within a particular extended community

In addition, it is important to recognize the feature of “intersectionality” that characterizes social identities: the ways in which one’s identity involves a crossing of different grounds of identity and affinity. (University of Michigan social psychologist Elizabeth Cole has published a useful recent article called “Coalitions as a Model for Intersectionality: From Practice to Theory” in Sex Roles; here is a link. I also found the Wikipedia article on intersectionality to be valuable.)

Identities aren’t “pure” expressions of one particular feature of one’s location in the social world; instead, features of sexual identity, geographical identity, class identity, racial and ethnic identity, professional identity, and cohort identity all play a role in constituting one’s overall identity. This means that it is important to give concrete attention to the multiple forms of social influence and immersion through which a given individual comes to embody a complex social identity; we need to look to the microfoundations of identity formation. (See more on this approach here.)

And this point about intersectionality also raises the likelihood of internal conflict. One’s identity as an Asian American may be in some conflict with features of identity derived from one’s location within the hip-hop generation or one’s professional status as a junior member of an accounting firm. And the modes of behavior implicated by one strand may be at odds with those created by the other strands.

Innovative efforts to provide fresh approaches to the study of social identities are emerging in several fields. Paula Moya and Michael Hames-Garcia’s Reclaiming Identity: Realist Theory and the Predicament of Postmodernism is an introduction to a genuinely innovative approach to the study of identities that attempts to bring literary criticism, race and gender studies, and social theory into one extended discussion.

China’s many revolutions

It is worth reflecting a bit on how absolutely tumultuous China’s history has been since the Communist Revolution in 1949. The Great Leap Forward and consequent famine — 1958-60, in excess of 20 million famine deaths. The Cultural Revolution — 1966-1976, in excess of 1.5 million deaths by violence, many times that number of maimed and ruined lives. The Democracy movement and Tiananmen Square and its dramatic suppression — 1989, unknown thousands of victims. And since the early 1980s, economic reforms, rapid growth, and a substantial degree of social transformation.

If you consider these events in terms of age cohorts, the historical experience of almost every generation has been a traumatic one. Chinese men and women born in 1930 were teenagers during the Revolution and experienced famine, chaos, civil violence, and economic reform in the remainder of their lives. The generation born in 1950 experienced the GLF famine as children, they were the teen-aged militants in middle school who formed the Red Guards, they experienced years of rustication in the countryside in the 1970s, they returned to universities after the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, they participated in or observed the tumult of Tiananmen Square as they approached their forties, and they participated in China’s economic reforms in their forties and fifties. This is my own age cohort in the United States, and I am just amazed to consider the rapidity and depth of history this generation has lived through.

The children of the 1950 generation were born in 1970. These children largely escaped the violence of the Cultural Revolution. Tiananmen Square was a reality for them in their teens. Their generation has been at the center of the dynamism of entrepreneurial China, with broadened opportunities in education and business. They have some of the expertise and comfort with the Internet that allows them to bridge to the China if the twenty-first century. And their standard of living — for urban people anyway — is dramatically improved over that of the previous generation.

And of course the generation of 1990 is the youth generation of today. This is the generation that will set China’s course for the next half century, and it appears to be quite different from previous cohorts. In a conversation with four graduate students at Tsinghua University I gained a very vivid sense of the generational change that is occurring today. Three were born in 1980 and one was born five years later. I asked them about some of the values and cultural expectations of young Chinese people. The three older students laughed and said, “we don’t understand him at all! Even the music he likes makes no sense to us.”

These generations surely created vastly different mentalities for themselves — different ideas about politics, equality, morality, and social stability. The ideologies of each generation were shaped and burned by the super-heated political struggles through which they passed. And surely their thoughts about what China should become, what standards of fairness should be respected, and how they should live their lives, are very deeply affected by their generational experiences.


Is there such a thing as a “mentalité” of a people, group, or nation? Take these young people at an Iowa potluck supper, or the traders pictured below at the Chicago Board of Trade — is there a midwestern mentalité that they can be said to share? What factors might be comprised by such a concept? What forms of variation must we expect within a group sharing a mentalité? And what are the social mechanisms through which these hypothesized forms of shared experience and thought are conveyed?

First, what does the concept mean? Most basically, a mentalité is thought to be a shared way of looking at the world and reacting to happenings and actions by others, distinctive from other groups and reasonably similar across a specific group.

This characterization folds together a number of things: cognitive frames for understanding the world, values and norms around which one organizes one’s actions, and a repertoire of reactions and responses to scenarios in the world. And all of this comes together in the form of a signature form of consciousness and behavior. A mentalité shapes the individual’s experience of the world, and it provides a specific foundation for one’s choices and actions as events in one’s world unfold. And a mentalité is thought to be shared across a social group, so it is not simply a set of individual and idiosyncratic mental attitudes.

Historians of the Annales school (see an earlier posting) gave special attention to the task of reconstructing the mentalité of people and groups of the past. Durkheim’s ideas about the social world seem to be in the background in the focus offered by Marc Bloch or Jacques Le Goff on this aspect of history’s tapestry — though the Annales approach seems to be more psychological than Durkheim would have preferred. Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, for example, sought to capture the mentalité of the peasants of Montaillou in his book of that title, offering substantial commentary on their attitudes towards death, sex, and religion. Lawrence Stone writes of Le Roy Ladurie’s “sheer brilliance in the use of a unique document to reconstruct in fascinating detail a previously totally unknown world, the mental, emotional, sexual, and religious life of late thirteenth-century peasants in a remote Pyrennean village” (review in the New York Review of Books by Lawrence Stone of Le territoire de l’historien, The Territory of the Historian, and Carnival in Romans). And the sorts of features of “worldview” that are often invoked in describing a mentalité include superstition and magical beliefs. A fundamental clash of mentalités arises in the conjunction of traditional, magical thinking and modern, scientific thinking in the nineteenth century. (Relevant snippets from The Annales School: Critical Assessments can be found here.)

Several questions are pressing when we consider this concept. First, is the governing idea of underlying variation of worldviews across cultures and times valid in any non-superficial sense? Trivially, of course, we recognize that tastes and morés vary across places and cultures. This was one of Montesquieu’s insights. But is there a more fundamental way in which Scots experience the world differently from Basques or Yoruba? Or are the differences associated with tastes and manners simply an overlay that sits on top of a more fundamental human similarity? This question pushes us towards the debate between advocates of “human nature” against the “historicists,” according to whom the most basic features of human cognition and action are contingent and historically shaped.

Let’s go out on a limb here for the moment and postulate that even fairly deep aspects of cognition and behavior are historically and culturally variable. Deep aspects of “human nature” are plastic and subject to historical construction. This leaves it open that there may be elements of common human experience while postulating a deep-running plasticity as well. And this leaves it open, in turn, that there is a useful place in historical analysis for the idea of a mentalité.

Second, we need to reflect upon the ways in which adherence to a mentalité should be expected to vary across individuals, places, and cohorts. And, of course, we should expect variation, since every human attribute comes in a range across a population — and even more so for learned traits. So if we think that a mentalité comprises a cognitive framework, a value system, and a set of expectations about behavior — we should also expect that there will be a range of ways in which these items are instantiated in different people within the same group.

Third, we need to attempt to trace out some of the mechanisms through which a mentalité is reproduced and maintained across generations and places. We need an account of the microfoundations of mentalité, along the lines of an earlier posting on social practices. We’ve already sketched some of these mechanisms in prior postings. But the fundamental idea is that there is a range of institutions through which children and young people acquire mental skills and content, both formal and informal — schooling, religious education, family practices, and local traditions, for example. So for there to be a persistent mentalité for a population, there must be a reasonably consistent delivery system across the population that transmits this ensemble of items. And sociologists and historians need to be able to uncover some of the specifics of these institutions.

And, fundamentally, how would we confirm the notion that a population possesses a mentalité? How would we support a claim like this: “medieval villagers of the Vosges possessed a mentalité that distinguished them from their modern counterparts and their contemporaries in other regions”? There are several answers we might give: Robert Darnton used some of the tools of ethnography to get at the thoughts of the agents of the great cat massacre in 1740. Or we might imagine a contemporary sociologist using some of the many-country surveys of values (World Values Survey) as a basis for judging that French and Italian people in 1960 possessed significantly different moral frameworks with respect to certain subjects. Or we might rely on our own acquaintance with multicultural friends — perhaps certain Danish people and certain Nigerians — and simply remark internally, “How differently they seem to perceive and react to the world.”

Finally, we might at least consider the idea that the globalization of communication, transportation, and education has substantially reduced the variability of worldviews and cognitive frameworks, so that modern consciousness is much more uniform than medieval consciousness and thought.

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