Issues of ethics in philosophy of history

Most writings in the philosophy of history have focused on issues of epistemology, method, and explanation. But our history as human beings is thoroughly invested with moral significance, and the philosophy of history needs to reflect on the moral issues raised by historical experience. Historians themselves have moral responsibilities; but perhaps more compellingly, all of us have responsibilities as participants in history to honestly confront our own pasts and the historical events that have influenced us, and acknowledge the often morally repugnant circumstances that this honesty will reveal.The professional responsibilities of historians have occupied much of the discussion of history and ethics within philosophy in the past few years. Here is Brian Fay’s description of the topic in the special issue of History and Theory devoted to these concerns (Fay 2004):

In proposing the topic for this Theme Issue the editors of History and Theory wished to revisit afresh a question that has periodically been urgent to those who think and care about the discipline of history, namely, the relationship between historians, the practice of history, and questions of ethics. Put succinctly: do historians as historians have an ethical responsibility, and if so to whom? Are there ethical commitments that historians have whether they like it or not? Are there ways that historians can either insulate themselves from ethical commitments (insofar as these commitments infect historical research and render it unable to function as it should), or re-conceive these commitments so as to practice history better and to understand the nature of their endeavor more accurately?

The special issue is worth reading as a whole; each article adds something to the question, in what ways does the practice of history create obligations or responsibilities for the historian? Perhaps the most striking and original of the contributions to the History and Theory volume is the contribution by Andrus Pork, “History, Lying, and Moral Responsibility” (link). Pork’s perspective is especially interesting because he was Estonian and intimately familiar with Soviet lies. Pork opens his essay in a very striking way:

Scholars’ moral responsibility for truth, for the objective content of the results of their investigations, is a somewhat neglected problem in Western English-speaking critical philosophy of history. Nor has this problem found much theoretical attention in Soviet philosophy of history. At the same time the process of reassessing and rewriting Soviet history in the light of glasnost has helped to reveal the magnitude of distortions, lies, and half-truths in Soviet historiography over a number of years. The process of rediscovering what actually happened in the past has made history (at least for the time being) a very fashionable subject in Soviet intellectual life, and has also raised painful moral questions for many older historians who now face tough moral accusations by their colleagues, the general public, and perhaps by their own conscience. (321)

Crucial to Pork’s moral framework is his conviction that historians must accept the idea that there are “approximately true representations” of events and circumstances in the past. He acknowledges that an account is never complete, it is always selective, but it may also be false; and it is the historian’s job to try to ensure that the statements and descriptions that he or she brings forward are approximately true and are appropriately supported by relevant evidence. Fundamentally, Pork defends a commonsense conception of historical truth: ” I think that it is morally wrong to suggest that it is never possible to show objectively that some historical accounts are closer to truth than others” (326). Pork’s central concern in this short essay is the topic of lying about the past. Pork distinguishes between “direct lies” (falsification of facts about the past) and “blank pages” (deliberate omission of important details in a historical account), and suggests that the latter are the more insidious for the field of historical representation. He refers, for example, to Soviet historiography about Soviet behavior in the 1930s: “Many other important historical facts that now surface (like the stories about massacres of thousands of people in 1937 and in the following years near Minsk in Byelorussia) were simply absent from history books of that [Stalinist] period.” Pork offers a more detailed and extensive example of Stalinist historiography based on the annexation of Estonia to the USSR in 1940. Stalinist histories that refer to this case use a combination of direct lies and “blank pages” to completely misrepresent and obscure the facts of Soviet coercion of Estonia. For example: “The existence of the secret protocol to the Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty was usually not explicitly denied; rather it was simply not mentioned” (325). 

So it is a moral responsibility of the historian to refrain from omitting salient facts from her account. We might take this point a bit further and argue that historians have a positive obligation to deliberately and actively seek out those aspects of the past for research that are the most morally troublesome—for example, the origins and experience of slavery during the eighteenth century in the American South, or the role of the Gulag in the Soviet Union in the twentieth century. We may reasonably fault the historian of the American South in the nineteenth century who confines her investigation to the economics of the cotton sector but ignores slavery, or the historian of the USSR who studies the institutions of engineering research in the 1950s while ignoring the fact of forced labor camps. Historians have an obligation to squarely confront the hard truths of their subject matter. There are many ways to twist the truth, and leaving out crucial parts of the story is as much of a deception as misrepresenting the facts directly. This is what Pork refers to as “blank page” deception. “For example, if the important fact of who started the war is omitted from the historical account, but detailed descriptions of some particular battles are given (as is the case with many Soviet accounts of the 1939-1940 Soviet-Finnish war), then we clearly have a morally blameworthy selection of facts” (328).

The thread of honesty and truthfulness runs through all of these ethical issues. Tony Judt (1992) argues that a people or nation at a point in time have a collective responsibility to face the facts of its own history honestly and without mythology. Judt’s points can be distilled into a few key ideas. Knowledge of the past matters in the present; being truthful about the past is a key responsibility for all of us. Standing in the way of honest recognition is the fact that oppressors and tyrants are invariably interested in concealing their culpability, while “innocent citizens” are likewise inclined to minimize their own involvement in the crimes of their governments. The result is “myth-making”, according to Judt. The history of the twentieth century has shown itself to be especially prone to myth-making, whether about resistance to Nazi occupation or refusal to collaborate with Soviet-installed regimes in Poland or Czechoslovakia. Judt (1992) argues that a very pervasive process of myth-making and forgetting has been a deep part of the narrative-making in post-war Europe. But, Judt argues, bad myths give rise eventually to bad collective behavior—more conflict, more tyranny, more violence. So the work of honest history is crucial to humanity’s ability to achieve a better future. Judt expresses throughout his work a credo of truth-telling about the past: we have a weighty obligation to discover, represent, and understand the circumstances of our past, even when those facts are deeply unpalatable. Myth-making about the past is not only bad history and bad politics, it is morally deficient. (A more extensive treatment of Judt’s argument is provided in an earlier post; link.)

Consider the normative and value challenges created by the need for the historian to confront and honestly present the very repugnant features of the past. Anna Wylegala takes on this kind of project in her recent article “Managing the difficult past: Ukrainian collective memory and public debates on history” (link). Here is the abstract of her article:

This article analyzes the status of difficult historic events in Ukrainian collective memory. Difficult elements of collective memory are defined as those which divide society on basic matters, such as identity and national cohesion, and events which are being actively forgotten because of the role of Ukrainians as perpetrators. Three such issues were analyzed: World War II and the role of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), the Holocaust, and the ethnic purge of Poles in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia in 1943-1945. Utilizing data from quantitative and qualitative studies, the author showcases the significance of these issues for contemporary Ukrainian identity and Ukraine’s relations with its neighbors. In particular, the evaluation of World War II and the role of the UPA in Ukrainian history polarizes Ukrainian society to a great degree. At the same time, this element of national history is used to construct a common, anti-Russian identity. The difficulty of relating to the memory of the Holocaust and the ethnic purge in Volhynia is of a different character. These events are problematic for Ukrainian collective memory because they demand a painful settling of accounts with the past. At present, only Ukrainian elites are willing to work on these subjects, and only to a limited degree, while the common consciousness either denies or ignores them altogether.

What does she mean by “difficult”? I would paraphrase her meaning as unsavory, repugnant, and inconsonant with one’s identity as a “decent” people. “It is associated with certain events which refuse to simply become part of history and instead trouble contemporaries, demanding attention and provoking strong emotions.” These are events that “demand a painful settling of accounts with the past”. This is exactly the kind of issue that Tony Judt addresses in “The Past is Another Country: Myth and Memory in Postwar Europe”. And Wylegala makes a compelling case for the idea that Ukrainians must come to grips with this past if they are to move forward as a more just society.

It is indeed the case, then, that the search for historical understanding forces us to consider moral issues. These issues have to do with the moral value of fidelity to truth. But more fundamentally, they have to do with issues about collective identity and integrity. We want to know who we are; and that means knowing honestly what we have done, and attempting to understand these moments of collective cruelty and immorality. This means, in turn, that the philosophy of history must confront these issues.

(A recent post offered a more indirect way of articulating related ideas about history, memory, and moral identity (link). There I formulated an allegory about a forgetful but long-lived individual who wants to make sense of earlier episodes in his life. Perhaps if Max von Sydow were still around it could be the basis of a short existentialist film! Here are two scenes from Ingmar Bergman’s allegory about life’s meaning and death, Seventh Seal (clipclip).)

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.


Making of a black intellectual

Becoming an intellectual in any society is a chancy thing, and this is especially true for young people coming from backgrounds of disadvantage and discrimination. What were the influences that gave the child and young adult the curiosity and other intellectual qualities that led him or her to seek out new knowledge and new questions throughout high school and college? What factors helped to produce some of the specific qualities of mind that became the particular inquiring intellect of the adult? How did Orwell become Orwell, or W.E.B. DuBois become DuBois?

Several recent autobiographies are worth reading for anyone interested in knowing more about what it’s like to develop as a black man in America into a serious intellectual in adulthood. One is by Phil Richards, an emeritus professor of English at Colgate University. His autobiography An Integrated Boyhood: Coming of Age in White Cleveland is a powerful account of one man’s journey from inner city Cleveland to Yale University. And it sheds a great deal of light on the very specific chemistry of personality, stimulation, social contacts, family, and schooling that led Richards to becoming a smart, original, and rigorous intellectual.

Richards grew up in in Cleveland in the 1950s, attended Yale university as an undergraduate, and received his PhD in English literature from the University of Chicago. He became a professor of English at a top-rank liberal arts university, and An Integrated Childhood is an eloquent and honest description of his journey. He became a profoundly insightful and original thinker about very traditional topics in western culture and English and American literature. And he has challenged many of the assumptions that have become dogma within the field of African-American studies. I have had many long conversations with Phil over the past twenty-five years, and have never failed to be impressed at his insights into literature, culture, and the intricacies of today’s politics. His recent book Black Heart: The Moral Life of Recent African American Letters gives a good impression of the breath and depth of his thought.

Richards’ autobiography is personal, honest, and insightful. He writes in detail about the working class home and family in which he grew up — a mother who sought to create a cultured environment for the family, a father who worked hard and reflected carefully about the racialized society around them in Cleveland, and other relatives who presented a different side of black life. The picture that emerges is quite different from many stereotypes of life in African-American working class families in the 1950s that are often presented to us, both positive and negative. Here is an evocative passage where he describes the values system of his parents as they made their lives in Cleveland:

Before I ever heard the word, I knew that my parents were integrationists. They were what Malcolm X would later derisively call “integration-mad Negroes.” Struck by the recent triumphs of Jackie Robinson, Ralph Bunche, and Brown v. Board of Education, they imagined the imminent appearance of a cultivated, racially integrated middle-class life in Cleveland. These utopian hopes could not have been more mistaken. The possibility of a racially integrated existence had disappeared long ago with the cultivated, mulatto, elite culture that had existed during the first half of the nineteenth century. These black middle-class tradesmen, artisans, funeral directors, barbers, and entrepreneurs had lived relatively harmoniously with Cleveland whites before the turn of the century…. (6)

But by the 1950s, Richards writes, those options had all but disappeared. 

Particularly important in Richards’ childhood environment was the opposition established between the values and aspirations of his immediate family and the values and lifestyles of black Cleveland more broadly. Classical music rather than hip hop, saving rather than conspicuous consumption, and temperance rather than a free-and-easy relationship to alcohol and drugs — these were important markers in Richards’ family life. And his mother’s fortuitous circumstance of having found work as a pre-school teacher in the Park Synagogue in Cleveland gave the young Richards access to a cosmopolitan experience of Cleveland’s social world — anti-war activists, leftists, and white liberal supporters of the Civil Rights movement and their children.

The family’s involvement in the black church was a formative influence for Richards — but once again, in ways that defy stereotypes. Their involvement in Antioch Baptist Church in Cleveland embodied many of the cultural and social tensions that their existence in various neighborhoods of Cleveland presented. Here is a particularly penetrating observation by Richards the adult about his experience of the church as a child. He is commenting on the practice of the church that the congregation would hum spontaneously during the communion service. The minister objected to this practice, but it continued.

My parents disapproved of this humming also, and neither ever joined in it. At the dinner table, they could be very adamant about this; they had come to the North, they said, to find nothing but the moaning of black people. From where I sat, however, self-pitying moans were a more than appropriate response to the experience of black people in Cleveland. On the No. 48 bus going to French class in the summer, I had on Fridays seen the black maids coming home from their weekly stints with their white employers on Van Aken, on South Park, and from points east. On those days, they carried large brown shopping bags from the suburban supermarket, Heinens, filled with leftover food and their employers’ cast-off dresses and skirts. No matter who these black women had been in the South, they were now servants in Cleveland. It occurred to me then that the post-Communion music expressed wordlessly everything they could never say to their employers in the mansions of Shaker Heights. The deepest truth about Cleveland that I was learning from my family was that Cleveland’s racial truths could never be openly discussed, at least not in public by people like me. If being black, however, meant that one carried a wordless secret truth, then I would willingly be black. Why, I wondered a little angrily, did my parents not hum? (57)

The young man’s experience of Yale was no less ambiguous in the clash it represented between existing privileged elites, rising white suburban families, and newly present families of color from the various urban areas of the Northeast. 

My parents, who were still shaken by the riots in Cleveland that summer, were anxious about coming to the Yale campus, and my father had wondered whether he should put on a sport coat. He was surprised to see large crowds of casual, mild-mannered parents, many in T-shirts, carrying their children’s clothes in cardboard grocery store boxes to the dormitories. Surrounded by large old buildings, the Old Campus was what I imagined the Cleveland Heights High parking lot might look on a fall Saturday afternoon during a football game…. My classmates came to Yale rather like a group of local champions arriving at an all-state swimming meet. Yet the world that greeted them was not the world of merit but the world of privileged entitlement. (103)

And it occurred to me for the first time that for all the social baggage of my lower-middle-class background, I was free of the particular status-related anxieties borne by the truly middle- and upper-middle-class blacks educated in largely black environments. It was an oft-repeated joke in my household that, compared to our relations who were doctors, lawyers, and college administrators, we had no status. (107)

The search for a black identity was, it seemed to me, a distinctly middle-class search for those who must have the autonomy required for survival in a competitive liberal social order that devalued attachments of kinship, social status, religious affiliation, and (ironically) ethnicity. (113)

Richards’s book is interesting at many levels. Richards has an exceptional voice in his ability to put the reader into the life and mind of the smart, awkward, sometimes angry adolescent of the fifteen-year-old boy he was. He is a deeply reflective thinker on the nuances of the many strands of black culture and intellectual life that were in play in America in the 1950s and 1960s. And he seems to have real insight into the lives and experiences of the adults around him — what they cared about, why they behaved as they did. His account of the complicated persons who were his parents is particularly astute. 

The book also does a remarkable job of explicating some of the ways that Richards’ most controversial ideas may have evolved from his own experience — his mistrust of the political left, his doubts about the validity of many of the dogmas of ethnic studies, and his affirmation of the value of intellectual engagement with the broad horizons of Western and non-Western culture. When we speak of a need for more diversity within universities, this is one of the dimensions often overlooked: the need for welcoming diverse viewpoints on the significance of race, gender, and class in ways that perhaps offend the prevailing liberal orthodoxies.

*  *  *

A useful collection on the social environment of black intellectuals in the social sciences is Jonathan Holloway and Keppel’s Black Scholars on the Line: Race, Social Science, and American Thought in the Twentieth Century. The introduction to the volume can be found here. Here is a brief description of their central perspective in the volume:

Brown was but one chapter in a larger historical narrative that must be better understood. Between the generation after slavery and the generation after the Second World War, black scholars played important roles in the founding, elaboration, and refinement of American social science. The groundbreaking work that black attorneys and social scientists—many of whom were trained and worked at historically black colleges and universities—pursued in Brownwas but one part of this larger development. We honor the scholarship that was related to Brown by reprinting social psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s most ambitious discussions of their research on racial attitudes. However, as our first obligation in this project is to place this well-known intellectual priority within a larger context, we showcase other black scholars’ work on different topics: migration and its effects, the structure of the black family, the disparate impact of race on economic opportunity, the relationship of cultural production and projection to debates over cultural assimilation, and so forth. (2)

It is evident that there is still much to be learned about the intellectual history of black America.

Hip hop, the boardroom, and the street

What are some of the factors that influence the ideas, values, and models of life of young inner-city African-American men today? There are the everyday conditions of life in the neighborhoods of segregated American cities, which Elijah Anderson considers in Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City (link). But there is also the increasingly violent and misogynist output of hip hop music and video. It is apparent that the images, values, and modes of behavior presented in hip hop music and videos find their way back onto the street and into the lives of young black men and women. Hip hop doesn’t simply mirror the street — it helps to create the street. So the content and identities portrayed in the music makes a difference.

Byron Hurt’s very interesting 2006 PBS documentary on violence and sexism in hip hop music and videos, Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, addresses these issues. (The video is posted at the top.) Hurt does a great job of reading the role that violence and misogyny play in hip hop lyrics and videos. “Why are so many rappers preoccupied with violence and gunplay” (6:30). The basic idea that he puts forward is that this major aspect of hip hop culture is a commercial exploitation of a cartoonish version of masculinity—hard, tough, unafraid, ready to kill, ready to exploit and sexualize women. (Hurt calls it “hyper-masculinity”.) The representation of women in much of this music is hyper-sexualized and brutalizing. And there is a recurring theme of homophobia and homophobic slurs.

Hurt asks penetrating questions about the relationship between the street, the music industry, and youth culture. The documentary takes on a powerful strand of popular culture and the pop culture industry that creates it and undertakes to piece together an interpretation of the meanings this system of lyrics and images has. Hurt wants to know how this medium influences the young men and women who follow it. But he also asks how the content of the medium itself is shaped by the profit imperatives of the music industry. And it becomes clear that this is a complicated mix of commercial interests and some young men’s distorted ideas of masculinity.

This is real social criticism, in the Frankfurt School sense. The documentary raises a crucial question: Why is it that the music industry gives the lucrative contracts to the most violent, misogynist, and degrading rappers? And why has it been increasingly difficult for more radical and critical rappers to get contracts and distribution in the past fifteen years? A young rapper offers a striking theory: it is preferable for white America to have hip hop music glorifying violence and sex in the hood than the messages of anti-racism and class-sensitized anger that are found in Public Enemy.

And in fact there is a segment of hip hop that has a very different orientation — political rather than violent, expressing strong messages about economic and racial justice, and largely immune from the homophobia and misogyny of mainstream rap. Artists like Public Enemy, Poor Righteous Teachers, the Coup, the X ClanKRS-ONE, and Digable Planets fall in this category, and The Roots is a more contemporary version. (Thanks, Ahmad!) But here is the key point: this stream of work doesn’t often result in the giant contracts and public acclaim of the other stream, and with a few exceptions the music and videos don’t make it into the mainstream. (Yes, Public Enemy is an exception.)

Hurt asks several other key questions in the video: Why is it that black men are aiming their violence against each other, and overlooking the forces that create the degradation of inner city neighborhoods in the first place? And why is it so hard to find a positive message in hip hop lyrics? One of the on-screen voices places the responsibility squarely on the profit interests of the music industry: “Media and the corporations are defining what hip hop is.” Here is how one of the young rappers puts the point on camera:

That’s nice but nobody wanna hear that right now … They don’t wanna hear that right now … [Narrator: Who’s they?] The industry … they don’t wanna hear that right now. They don’t give us deals when we speak righteously or things of that nature. (40:00)

And this perception is born out by Carmen Ashurst-Watson, former DefJam president: “The time when we switched to gangster music was the same time when the majors bought up all the labels, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence…. The music became less and less conscious” (43:30).

Imani Perry’s Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop is a very thoughtful reflection on hip hop. She is an advocate for hip hop as a cultural expression. But she also feels that it risks being poisoned by the commercial interests of the industry. She writes:

The combination of democracy (“speak your piece”) and meritocracy (“be the best MC”) that exists in hip hop is threatened at every turn. The manipulations of capital, media, and record company distribution, the ruthless promotion of some acts to the disadvantage of often musically superior ones, the commodification of black female bodies, and the grotesque marketing of racist images of black male violence threaten to completely overwhelm the public face of hip hop. (Reunion)

This is a complex set of issues, with causation going in many directions. The commercial interests of the major music companies drive the content of the videos and recordings; the content of the music influences the behavior and practice of young men and women in the neighborhoods; events in the street reflect back into the content of hip hop art; and realities in the neighborhoods are determined by the larger structures of power and race in our society. It is possible to see the formative power of popular culture on behavior; the media on popular culture; the business of music on the content of popular culture; the extreme behaviors that seem to result on the street; and the ideological forces that permeate all of this.

(Here is an interesting piece by Solomon Comissiong that analyzes the music industry and the fate of progressive rappers.)

What is a European?


One of the great achievements of the establishment of the European Union was the beginnings of a broader transnational identity from Spain to Finland — or so it seemed for a decade or so. But is this even a coherent idea? Is it credible to imagine that the citizens of Spain, Greece, Latvia, France, and Finland would come to see themselves as fellow “Europeans” rather than Spaniards, Greeks, Latvians, Frenchmen and women, and Finns? What would be the content of such a pan-European identity? How would it come about?

One of the theorists who believed that a pan-European identity was possible was Karl Marx. His view was partial but emphatically trans-national: he believed that international working men and women could come to have a shared class identity that transcended national boundaries. But the mobilization of working class men and women into the armies of Britain, France, Italy, Germany, and Russia in 1914 provided a harsh reality check on that notion, at least in the historical circumstances of the early twentieth century. It appeared that nation and patriotic feelings trumped class and international solidarity. (Here is a very interesting collection edited by Marcello Musto, The International Workingmen’s Association, that provides some of the founding documents and later discussions of Marx’s version of internationalism.)

Willem Maas has given thought to this topic. Maas is the author of Creating European Citizens and Democratic Citizenship and the Free Movement of People. Maas’s work focuses on an emerging consensus about rights and citizenship that transcends the various national cultures of the continent.

Since the end of the Second World War, an extensive set of supranational rights has been created in Europe. These rights extend entitlements, impose obligations, and have increasingly been designated with a term traditionally reserved for the relationship between individuals and states: citizenship. (Creating European Citizens, vii)

One part of this very interesting analysis is the notion that people develop their political affinities through the concrete work of building institutions and legislation. So the simple fact that the European Parliament convenes in Strasbourg is itself a potential pathway to a growing collective identity around the civic values articulated within that institution. The establishment and enforcement of civic rights for individuals qua citizens of Europe — including crucially the right of free movement from one country to another — created a basis for civic bonds that could play a much larger role in precipitating a European collective identity. And the creation of transnational educational institutions — the Erasmus project in particular — has perhaps laid a basis for a more full movement of people and ideas across the face of Europe (link).

An Ur-text on social identities is Ben Anderson’s notion of “imagined communities” (Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Revised Edition). According to Anderson, national identities are made, not discovered; social and collective identities are social constructs. In order to understand the collective identities of “Basques”, “socialists,” or “Tennesseans”, we need to identify the mechanisms and pathways through which common political ideas and cultural images are adopted by a group of people. Emmanuel Todd and others describe such a process for the case of France (linklink). And it is not incredible to imagine a social-cultural process through which a thread of “European-ness” could come to play an important role across all these national settings.

At the same time, it is striking to take note of the very great diversity that exists in local cultures and identities across the map of Europe, in terms of values, moral frameworks, personality characteristics, and social perceptions. This is true across countries; but it is also true within countries, with substantial regional, religious, and class differentiation within each country. So it is challenging to speak of a “Spanish identity” without asking, “Which region of Spain? What social class? What ethnic or national minority?” And even more challenging is the idea that there is an emerging “super-identity” that may serve to unify the political consciousness and values of the people of the continent.

What might constitute the core elements of a pan-European identity? We might think of shared beliefs and values; we might think of ideologies and political movements; and we might think of key elements of culture that transcend national boundaries. But it is clear that there is enough diversity across the face of Europe to make substantial convergence around any of these large axes very likely. Are Europeans more sympathetic to the plight of the poor? Some are — but some are not. Are Europeans more progressive and liberal than North Americans? The resurgence of the right in Europe makes this dubious as well. Are Europeans more tolerant and accepting of others? The rise of anti-immigrant parties and movements in almost every European country makes that idea dubious as well.

Several of these considerations suggest that there are institutional and legal changes underway in Europe through the institutions of the European Union that may slowly permit a greater cultural and political integration of the people of the continent. Perhaps the very idea of “Europe” may come to play a larger role in the more specific identities that people have in the various countries of Europe — as the idea of “Canada” serves to bring together the people of British Columbia and Nova Scotia, and the idea of “France” unifies Bretons, Alsatians, and Provençals. But it is also clear that there are cultural and political forces working against European integration that are powerful as well. So the future of the “European” in place of the Briton, the German, or the Spaniard is still in doubt.

(See an earlier discussion of an exchange of views between John Rawls and Philippe van Parijs on the topic of a European identity; link. See also this discussion of Andreas Wimmer’s theory of methodological nationalism; link.)

Character and history




Source: Gilles Mora and Beverly Brannan, FSA: The American Vision; photos by Dorothea Lange

We often think that some historical periods have deep effects on the personalities and character of individuals who came of age and lived adult life during those periods. This implies that specific cohorts of people may have distinctive personality features that differ from people of other generations, distinctive features of character. This seems to be the thrust of the idea of the “greatest generation”, the Depression generation, and the Sixties Generation. The experiences of World War II, the Great Depression, and the protests of the 1960s had profound effects on the expectations and habits of action of many of the people who lived through these experiences, as we see from conversations with survivors of those times and the literature it produced. And, we might say, the people who came of age through those periods were very different in their most fundamental psychological makeup from those of other periods.

This is a common way of speaking; but it has major consequences for how we think about “human nature” and human psychology. Universalists like Vico held that there was one fundamental human nature, and all historical circumstances do is alter some of the beliefs and habits of action that people possess (Vico: The First New Science).  Historicists have believed since Herder, by contrast, that the human self was fundamentally historically conditioned and created; different historical circumstances make different kinds of actors (Another Philosophy of History and Selected Political Writings).  And to accept the language of “generation X” or “generation Y” is to tilt towards the historicist position.

There are a couple of questions that arise quickly when we think about the possibility of historically created generational differences of character and personality. One has to do with the mechanism of influence: how would the fact of growing up in the Great Depression or serving in the Pacific in World War II have an effect on the actor at the level of perception, expectation, and habit? A second important question has to do with the pervasiveness and consistency of the effects we are considering. And a third question is internal to the person — what features of experience, consciousness, and agency are thought to be affected by historical experiences?

So what mechanisms might create the generational effect on character? Take the Great Depression in the United States in the 1930s. Most families experienced serious, prolonged economic hardship — loss of jobs, loss of savings, loss of homes, and sometimes the breakup of families.  This was most intense for people on the margin — the sharecroppers in Oklahoma who took to the road during the Dust Bowl in Dorothea Lange’s wonderful photographs above, for example. But it was true for working families, service providers, and street car drivers as well. This is one level of the experience. A second level is the generalized stress and sense of crisis that was conveyed everywhere one looked — newspapers, radio, the sight of Hoovervilles on the outskirts of cities. So even if a particular family hadn’t yet been touched by unemployment or bank collapse, there was the pervasive sense that nothing was secure. And it seems credible enough that these pervasive existential characteristics of a given decade or two would have important consequences for the consciousness and agency of the individuals who lived through them.

So we might speculate that the trauma of a family’s sudden impoverishment, and the general stress of prolonged fear of impoverishment even if the shoe never dropped, had a powerful effect on the children and young people who lived through those times. Perhaps it made them more risk-averse; maybe it made them less trusting of authority and institutions; perhaps it made them more prone to depression and addiction; perhaps it made them more understanding of outlaws like John Dillinger and the Shelton Boys (link).

But speculating isn’t nearly as useful as empirical research. Are there research threads in personality psychology and social psychology that would shed light on this kind of question? There certainly is research on the personality effects of trauma (linklinklink). Other researchers have studied children who lived through conditions of war in the Middle East (linklink). However, each of these areas of research focuses on an aspect of a traumatic person’s early history that is more extreme than those that were characteristic for most individuals at most times in history. So is there evidence that less dramatic features of social context can nonetheless create widely spread features of personality and character? I’m not aware of anyone who has attempted to probe this psychological question through interviews with Dust Bowl survivors or people who grew up poor in Chicago or New York in the 1930s; but it would be an enormously interesting effort.

The second big question mentioned above is the issue of pervasiveness and consistency. It is apparent that people will be exposed to different experiences within any of these historical periods. And people will be differentially influenced by the experiences they have. So even if there is a generational effect, it will be distributed across the cohort in a range of intensities. And this implies that we should really be framing our question in terms of a distribution of personality and character traits over a diverse population, rather than looking for a single typical profile.  The reality might be that the median level of risk aversiveness might be higher for the generation of the Great Depression than the Sixties Generation — even though there were risk-takers and risk-avoiders in both populations.

The third question is interesting as well — what features of the conscious, feeling, thinking actor do we imagine historical experience to have shaped?  This issue was raised in an earlier post about theories of the actor — what are the components of the actor’s mentality (link)?  We might think of a long list of mental characteristics that are potentially malleable: ways of making decisions, habits of action and reaction, mental models about how the world works, a toolbox of heuristic strategies for coping with challenges, a set of expectations about how various social settings are likely to work out, some ideas about how other people are likely to behave, memories about past scenarios that worked out well or badly.  All of these features are potentially malleable through the process of development, and taken together, they constitute a ver broad and deep set of personal characteristics. So if we concluded that virtually all of these dimensions are potentially shaped by historical experiences, then we seem to have come very close to the Herder position on historicism: the individual is a historically situated and historically constituted being all the way down.

Here are a few earlier posts on cohorts and generations in history; linklinklink. The photos are taken from the beautiful book curated by Gilles Mora and Beverly Brannan presenting many of the photos created during the Farm Security Administration project in the 1930s and 1940s.

Social embeddedness

To what extent do individuals choose their courses of action largely on the basis of a calculation of costs and benefits? And to what extent, on the contrary, are their actions importantly driven by the normative assumptions they share with other individuals with whom they interact? Mark Granovetter formulated this foundational question for the social sciences in his important 1985 contribution to the American Journal of Sociology, “Economic Action and Social Structure: The Problem of Embeddedness” (link). He used the concept of embeddedness as a way of capturing the idea that the actions individuals choose are importantly refracted by the social relations within which they function. This is a topic we’ve addressed frequently in prior posts under the topic of the social actor, and Granovetter’s contribution is an important one to consider as we try to further clarify the issues involved.

The large distinction at issue here is the contrast between rational actor models of the social world, in which the actor makes choices within a thin set of context-independent decision rules, and social actor models, in which the actor is largely driven by a context-defined set of scripts as he/she makes choices. The contrast is sometimes illustrated by contrasting neoclassical economic models of the market with substantivist models along the lines of Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, and it links to the debate in economic anthropology between formalists and substantivists. Here is how Granovetter puts the fundamental question:

How behavior and institutions are affected by social relations is one of the classic questions of social theory. (481)

He argues that neither of the polar positions are tenable.  The formalist approach errs in taking too a-social view of the actor:

Classical and neoclassical economics operates, in contrast, with an atomized, undersocialized conception of human action, continuing in the utilitarian tradition. … In classical and neoclassical economics, therefore, the fact that actors may have social relations with one another has been treated, if at all, as a frictional drag that impedes competitive markets. (483, 484)

But the extreme alternative isn’t appealing either:

More recent comments by economists on “social influences” construe these as processes in which actors acquire customs, habits, or norms that are followed mechanically and automatically, irrespective of their bearing on rational choice. (485)

So action doesn’t reduce to abstract optimizing rationality, and it doesn’t reduce to inflexible cultural or normative scripts either. Instead, Granovetter proposes an approach to this topic that reframes the issue around a more fluid and relational conception of the actor. Like the pragmatist theories of the actor discussed in earlier posts (AbbottGrossJoas), he explores the idea that the actor’s choices emerge from a flow of interactions and shifting relations with others. The actor is not an atomized agent, but rather a participant in a flow of actions and interactions.

At the same time, Granovetter insists that this approach does not deny purposiveness and agency to the actor. The actor reacts and responds to the social relations surrounding him or her; but actions are constructed and refracted through the consciousness, beliefs, and purposes of the individual. 

The idea of embeddedness is crucial for Granovetter’s argument; but it isn’t explicitly defined in this piece.  The idea of an “embedded” individual is contrasted to the idea of an atomized actor; this implies that the individual’s choices and actions are generated, in part anyway, by the actions and expected behavior of other actors.  It is a relational concept; the embedded actor exists in a set of relationships with other actors whose choices affect his or her own choices as well.  And this in turn implies that the choices actors make are not wholly determined by facts internal to their spheres of individual deliberation and beliefs; instead, actions are importantly influenced by the observed and expected behavior of others.

Their attempts at purposive action are instead embedded in concrete, ongoing systems of social relations. (487)

Some of Granovetter’s discussion crystallizes around the social reality of trust within a system of economic actors. Trust is an inherently relational social category; it depends upon the past and present actions and interactions within a group of actors, on the basis of which the actors choose courses of action that depend on expectations about the future cooperative actions of the other actors. Trust for Granovetter is therefore a feature of social relations and social networks:

The embeddedness argument stresses instead the role of concrete personal relations and structures (or “networks”) of such relations in generating trust and discouraging malfeasance. (490)

And trust is relevant to cooperation in all its variants — benevolent and malicious as well. As Granovetter points out, a conspiracy to defraud a business requires a group of trusting confederates. So it is an important sociological question to investigate how those bonds of trust among thieves are created and sustained.

This line of thought, and the theory of the actor that it suggests, is an important contribution to how we can understand social behavior in a wide range of contexts. The key premise is that individuals choose their actions in consideration of the likely choices of others, and this means that their concrete social relations are critical to their actions. How frequently do a set of actors interact? Has there been a history of successful cooperation among these actors in the past? Are there rivalries among the actors that might work to reduce trust? These are all situational and historical facts about the location and social relations of the individual. And they imply that very similar individuals, confronting very similar circumstances of choice, may arrive at very different patterns of social action dependent on their histories of interaction with each other. 

It seems that this theory of the actor would be amenable to empirical investigation.  The methodologies of experimental economics could be adapted to study of the relational intelligence that Granovetter describes here. Recent works by Ernst Fehr and Klaus Schmidt explore related empirical questions about decision making in the context of problems involving fairness and reciprocity (Foundations of Human Sociality: Economic Experiments and Ethnographic Evidence from Fifteen Small-Scale Societies and “The Economics of Fairness, Reciprocity and Altruism – Experimental Evidence and New Theories”; link).

(These topics have come up in earlier discussions here. Here is a post on Chuck Tilly’s treatment of trust networks; link. Amartya Sen’s discussion of “rational fools” is relevant as well, as is his account of the role that commitments play in action (link). It seems likely that Granovetter would argue that Sen’s solution is still too formalist, in that it attempts to internalize he social relations component into the actor’s calculations. This is true of the “identity economics” approach as well; (link).)

Akerlof and Kranton on identity economics

George Akerlof and Rachel Kranton have collaborated for over ten years on a simple idea: is it possible to introduce the concept of social identity into the formal mechanics of mainstream economics? Can “identity” complement “interest” in the calculation of rational individual behavior? Their ideas were developed in several important articles: “Economics and Identity” (link), “Identity and the Economics of Organizations” (link), and “Identity and Schooling” (link).  These earlier articles are all available on the Internet.  Much of their thinking is pulled together in a recent book, Identity Economics: How Our Identities Shape Our Work, Wages, and Well-Being.

So what is their theory of identity and rational behavior?  “Economics and Identity” (2000) is a good place to begin. Akerlof and Kranton argue that there are common social phenomena that are not well explained by the assumption of narrow economic rationality, but that are more amenable to treatment with a theory of individual choice that incorporates the factor of social identity. They include “ethnic and racial conflict, discrimination, intractable labor disputes, and separatist politics” as examples of social behavior that “invite an identity-based analysis” (716).

Here is how they incorporate the behavioral mechanism of identity into an actor model, using the example of gender identity:

Everyone in the population is assigned a gender category, as either a ‘‘man’’ or a ‘‘woman.’’ Following the behavioral prescriptions for one’s gender affirms one’s self image, or identity, as a ‘‘man’’ or as a ‘‘woman.’’ Violating the prescriptions evokes anxiety and discomfort in oneself and in others. Gender identity, then, changes the ‘‘payoffs’’ from different actions. (716-717)

In other words, they incorporate identity into the rational-actor model by hypothesizing that one’s identity alters one’s utility function or preferences:

In the next section we propose a general utility function that incorporates identity as a motivation for behavior. (717)

And here is the utility function they produce (719):

We propose the following utility function:

(1) Uj = Uj(aj,a_ j,Ij).

Utility depends on j’s identity or self-image Ij, as well as on the usual vectors of j’s actions, aj, and others’ actions, a_j. Since aj and a_j determine j’s consumption of goods and services, these arguments andUj(·) are sufficient to capture the standard economics of own actions and externalities.

Following our discussion above, we propose the following representation of Ij:

(2) Ij = Ij(aj,a_j;cj,epsilonj,P).

A person j’s identity Ij depends, first of all, on j’s assigned social categories cj. The social status of a category is given by the function Ij(·), and a person assigned a category with higher social status may enjoy an enhanced self-image. Identity further depends on the extent to which j’s own given characteristics j match the ideal of j’s assigned category, indicated by the prescriptions P. Finally, identity depends on the extent to which j’s own and others’ actions correspond to prescribed behavior indicated by P. We call increases or decreases in utility that derive from Ij, gains or losses in identity.

What this comes down to, in my reading, is the idea that one’s “identity” creates a new set of payoffs for some actions, depending on whether the action confirms and enhances one’s identity fulfillment or whether it decreases one’s identity fulfillment. If I am a Welsh miner and strongly subscribe to the idealizations associated with miners — then I will take utility in the actions that express solidarity and thereby buttress my status as a good miner, even when the self-regarding utilities of the action would dictate anti-solidarity.  Crudely, identity-consonance is a plus utility, while identity-dissonance is a minus utility, and actors balance first-order utilities and identity-consonance utilities in their ultimate choice of action. So this construction doesn’t deviate from standard rational choice reasoning much, if at all. Rather, it extends the cost-benefit calculation to include a new category of effect that the agent is hypothesized to value or disvalue–consistency / inconsistency with self concept.

This is a pretty limited conception of how identities work.  A more adequate treatment of identity as a substantive feature of social psychology ought to pay attention to a number of dimensions of practical rationality that are not included in this analysis.  (i) Cognitive frameworks. Individuals with a specific identity may have distinctive ways of conceptualizing and experiencing the world.  These differences may affect behavior through mechanisms that are quite distinct from calculation of costs and benefits. (ii) Normative motivations. It is possible that people make decisions on the basis of their normative commitments, and that this process is to some degree independent from calculations of costs and benefits.  Moreover, it is possible that different groups have significantly different normative commitments. In this case individuals from different “identities” may behave significantly differently when confronted with apparently similar situations of choice. (iii) Group affinities / identifications. It is possible that there is a social psychology of “solidarity” that has its own dynamic and behavioral consequences; and that this affective or motivational system has different characteristics in different groups. (iv) Emotional frameworks. It is possible that individuals absorb behaviorally important systems of emotions and feelings through their development within a specific cultural group; and it is possible that differences across groups lead to different patterns of behavior in common scenarios of action and choice.

So I think that Akerlof and Kranton are right to think that the theory of action associated with narrow economic rationality doesn’t do justice to ordinary decision making in a range of important cases.  They are right as well in thinking that the social psychology of identities and normative commitments is relevant to behavior in ways that cannot be pushed aside as “extra-rational.” But I don’t find their solution based on incorporating identity “utilities” into a larger utility function to be an adequate way of incorporating these broader considerations for action into a theory of the rational actor.

(It is worth observing that the descriptions offered by Akerlof and Kranton of the prescriptions surrounding gender identity are quite jarring: for example, “the ideal woman is female, thin, and should always wear a dress”. Here is another set of gender stereotypes that they weave into their exposition:

Female trial lawyer, male nurse, woman Marine—all conjure contradictions. Why? Because trial lawyers are viewed as masculine, nurses as feminine, and a Marine as the ultimate man. People in these occupations but of the opposite sex often have ambiguous feelings about their work. In terms of our utility function, an individual’s actions do not correspond to gender prescriptions of behavior. (721-22)

These assumptions aren’t crucial to their argument, but they are difficult to overlook.  It is hard to read these expository paragraphs without thinking that Akerlof and Kranton have built some very basic negative stereotypes into their description of gender identities. So it’s worth noting how a very good gender theorist might react to these descriptions.  Here is a very good, nuanced analysis by Elizabeth Cole and Alyssa Zucker on “Black and White Women’s Perspectives on Femininity” that does a much more adequate job of describing gendered identities (link).)

Abbott on mechanisms

Peter Hedstrom and Richard Swedberg’s Social Mechanisms: An Analytical Approach to Social Theory (1998) announced to the world the power of social mechanisms as a foundation for social explanations. It was based on a conference on this approach in Stockholm in 1996, and the volume includes contributions by outstanding authorities such as Thomas Schelling, Jon Elster, Aage Sorensen, and Arthur Stinchcombe (among others).

One person whom it does not include is Andrew Abbott. Abbott did indeed participate in the conference, but his contribution was not included in the volume when it appeared in 1998. The article did appear subsequently, however, in a special volume of Sociologica in 2007, with discussions by Delia Baldassarri, Gianluca Manzo, and Tommaso Vitale. (Here is a link to Abbott’s essay and to his reply to discussants.) And the whole debate is worth reading. Abbott’s piece is a serious challenge to the ontology of mechanisms. And each of the discussants in the Sociologica volume bring important criticisms and perspectives to the table.

Essentially Abbott takes issue with the mechanisms approach because it attempts to analyze the social world into fixed “atoms” of causal events (mechanisms and actors) rather than a more contextual ontology of relations and actions.

I shall consider the mechanisms movement from the viewpoint of a different theoretical tradition, one that focuses on the processual and relational character of social life and that traces its roots to pragmatism. (2)

By the relational view I mean the notion that the meaning of an action is comprehensible only when it is situated in social time and place. A fundamental assumption of the mechanism view as set out here is that the meaning of a certain activity is given in itself. By contrast, the relational view assumes that the meaning of an action arises from its relations to other actions – both temporally, as a successor and a forerunner in coherent sequences of social events, and structurally, as a vertex in a synchronic ensemble of actions. Beneath this lies a more profound assumption that actions, not actors, are the primitives of the social process. The substratum of social life is interaction, not biological individuals who act. (7)

Abbott agrees with the CM approach in its rejection of a positivist search for statistical regularities among social characteristics — what he refers to as the variables paradigm — but he isn’t persuaded by the ontology of mechanisms. He prefers actions to actors, and he prefers relationships linked to their contexts in time and place to portable mechanisms.

The most important part of Abbott’s article is his positive argument for the primacy of a relational approach and actions-in-context instead of unitary actors.  Much of this line of thought comes down to Abbott’s view that actors and agency are deeply socially constructed; so it doesn’t make sense to take the actor as a given who then deliberates about options.

Making interaction primitive makes it possible to give an account of the self.  By making the self be continuously recreated in the flow of interaction we bring it out of the realm of assumptions and into that of investigation.  At the same time, by making interaction primitive we allow for the endless interplay of cross-individual structural definitions of the flow of action, an interplay that is an evident fact in social life. (8)

For the relational account defines an act as a making of relations within a scene…. Social actors are cobbled together by actions that turn existing potential boundaries into actual ones. (9)

I am arguing the stronger point that the acting self is continuously remade in interaction and that the environment of possible endowments and contrasts–the environment of others and past experiences–provides the ground whence comes this remaking. (12)

Another central thrust of Abbott’s critique of the mechanism approach is that it is “reductionist” and depends on a rational-choice model of the actor. Essentially his line of argument is this: the mechanism approach requires microfoundations for macro-causal mechanisms; microfoundations presuppose rational actors; and therefore macro-facts are being reduced to facts about rational individuals. Each of these links is debatable, however, and in fact several of the discussants in the Sociologica volume question each of them. Essentially, many advocates of microfoundations (including me) insist on a richer theory of the actor than narrow economic rationality. And others — for example, Dave Elder-Vass — maintain that microfoundations don’t imply reductionism either. (He prefers the idea of supervenience; I prefer explanatory autonomy; link.)

Delia Baldassarri highlights this issue in her comment, when she talks about the strengths and weaknesses of methodological individualism:

This approach has been quite successful in explaining “macro-phenomena that are emergent effects of the interdependent but uncoordinated actions of many individuals” [Mayntz 2004, 250]. The same approach has been less effective, however, in accounting for dynamics of identity construction, interest formation, boundary definition and institutional change, and in general, for social processes where macro-level states cannot be considered as given. (2)

Gianluca Manzo’s comment is the most extensive of the three in the Sociologica volume.  His careful assessment leads him to conclude that Abbott overstates the incompatibility between “mechanisms” and “relations,” and overstates as well the degree to which the analytical sociology perspective is “reductionist”.  Manzo advocates for what he calls “complex methodological individualism”, and concludes that:

The “relational sociology” that Abbott defends is inconceivable without the “mechanismal sociology” (AS) he critiques.

One feature of Abbott’s article gives it its own particular relationality: he illustrates his meaning by describing a prolonged disagreement he had as a dean with the president of the University of Chicago over admissions recruitment strategies. His point, seemingly, is that the strategy chosen by the president presumes a rational-actor theory of college choice, and it further misunderstands the true priorities and considerations that motivate prospective UC students.

More important, we might phrase the difference by saying that the relational model is interested in how a student becomes a person who matriculates at the University of Chicago. (15)

The inference: if UC is to continue to recruit the edgy, intellectual and quirky undergraduates it has been famous for, it will need to have a more nuanced understanding of the whole process. Or in the context of mechanisms versus relations: it won’t do to think a marketing can pull the lever on a strategy (mechanism) and expect to get the desired result. Rather, we need a more contextualized and relational approach. There is no recipe of mechanisms — grounded, moreover, in a rational expectations theory — that will do the job. Instead, Abbott advises a relational, processual approach to college marketing: figure out the kinds of identities the desired segment of high school students are trying to make for themselves, and construct a series of experiences around that.

In many ways I find Abbott’s essay more original than several in the original Hedstrom-Swedberg volume. So it’s unfortunate that it wasn’t included. It could have influenced the subsequent discussions very fruitfully.

Readers will also be interested in a recent collection edited by Pierre Demeulenaere that serves as a valuable follow-on to the original Hedstrom-Swedberg volume, Analytical Sociology and Social Mechanisms. It includes a piece by a German philosopher and sociologist whose work on this subject I admire, Michel Schmid, as well as contributions from Dan Sperber, Raymond Bouton, Jon Elster, Robert Sampson, and others. Schmid’s Die Logik mechanismischer Erklarungen (2006) isn’t available in English, which is unfortunate. The causal mechanisms approach has been picked up internationally, including an interesting book on the subject by the Italian sociologist Filippo Barbera (Meccanismi Sociali; Elementi di sociologia analitica; 2004).


France as Theodore Zeldin saw it

Histories of France have been written from many points of view.  Emmanuel Todd’s The Making of Modern France: Ideology, Politics and Culture (1988), Eugen Weber’s Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914 (1976), and Robert Darnton’s Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France (1968) have all brought a distinctive perspective to their interpretations of France. Each provides an approach that minimizes the goals of traditional narrative and instead focuses on the problematics of identity and culture.

Theodore Zeldin’s writings on France are equally original and provocative (A History of French Passions 1848-1945: Volume I: Ambition, Love, and PoliticsFrance, 1848-1945: Politics and Anger). Like these other scholars, he is not an historian who focuses on a chronicle of events.  Instead, he wants to capture some threads of emotion, personality, and ordinary social life that begin to add up to something “French”.  Here is how he frames the project in the preface to the first volume, Ambition and Love (the second volume is titled Politics and Anger):

France 1848-1945 may be read in the same way as one would a series of novels, each of which tells the story of a family or a community from a different point of view.  Each chapter and each volume may be read independently. Each has its own surprises, for I aim to show that France was not what it seemed to be; each has its own constellation of heroes or anti-heroes, because I do not see France as dominated by one man, one class or one set of principles. Taken as a whole, however, these portrayals of the many faces of the French are designed to make it possible to judge anew, and less partially, the idiosyncracies, the poses and the torments of a nation that has always irritated its neighbours, even when it has won their admiration and sometimes indeed their affection. (vii)

Since I believe that behaviour is muddled and obscure, and cannot be presented truthfully as simply a search for some ideal, like glory, justice or liberty, and since I do not presume to be able to prove anything when it comes to discussing human motivation, I have not written a general national narrative, held together by a more or less plausible string of causes.  Instead, I have made the individual my starting-point, and have tried to show him beset by a multitude of pressures, internal as well as external.  I have grouped his struggles around six passions: ambition, love, anger, price, taste, and anxiety. (vii)

My method is to hold up a multitude of mirrors around the French, so that they may be seen simultaneously from different angles; and my other volumes pursue these themes into other recesses of their personalities. To adapt to the kaleidoscopic vision I offer, the reader must, of course, be willing to put aside temporarily the expectations that he has of history, in the same way as he must put aside his traditional expectations when looking at the paintings of the Impressionists or the Cubists. I hope the experience will modify his attitude to the French, and to the past, but also that it will tell him something he did not know about himself. (viii)

So it is the ordinary individual rather than the iconic powerful leader; and it is the emotional setting rather than the deliberative process, that most interest Zeldin. But Zeldin also thinks that this study leads to the discovery of important commonalities across the French — “the common beliefs, attitudes and values of Frenchmen, which often cut across ideological and class lines” (2).  So there is an historical point to writing about “the French” which will lead to different findings than “the British” or “the Germans.”  Careful study and interpretation permits the historian to tease out a “style” or “persona” that distinguishes various national groups.

Zeldin clarifies this goal in these words:

I do not mean by this that I am seeking to define the immutable French soul, mind, or character.  But this is something many people talked about and I have tried to investigate why they came to believe that there was such a thing. (3)

This goal runs squarely up against the historiography of difference that Emmanuel Todd advocates in considering the French; Todd’s view is that France was constituted through a very specific and intentional process of identity shaping (post), and that there was great diversity of thought and institution across the territory that became France.  But the two perspectives are not flatly contradictory; instead, Zeldin’s approach can be understood as a kind of historical ethnography, while Todd’s approach emphasizes processes and structures of nation formation.

Is this goal of discovering characteristic ways of thinking and feeling for a national population a credible one? I think it is, once we take a material and institutional view of the formation of personality.  The human being is socially constructed; this means that his/her psychology and mental and emotional frameworks are inflected by specific institutions and experiences.  And it is entirely believable that there might be enduring differences in the traditions and institutions through which English school boys and girls and French children absorb formative ideas about — family, morality, anger, comportment, and nation.

How does Zeldin turn this historiographic goal into a workable program of research?  One key strategy that he pursues is to identify a handful of central categories of actors in French society — doctors, notaries, the rich, bankers, industrialists, bureaucrats, peasants, workers — and to trace out the specifics of how these categories functioned in France.  How were doctors educated?  How were they compensated?  How did they compete for clients?  What level of prestige did they enjoy?  Zeldin believes that each of these social categories represents a distinctive matrix of characteristics, relative to the analogous social groups in other countries.  So by taking the measure of these great social groups, Zeldin believes that he is also able to delineate some of the distinctive elements of French attitudes and social relations.

And what about the most numerous group — the peasants?  How were they regarded in the nineteenth century?  Zeldin argues that peasants were essentially invisible to cultivated French society:

The peasants are not studied in Balzac’s universal portrait of French society. Though he called one of his novels Les Paysans and devoted several volumes ostensibly to painting scenes of rural life, Balzac could not describe the peasants, because he was full of contempt for them.  They were savages, like Fenimore Cooper’s Red Indians, and he was concerned with them only as subjects for his schemes to improve them. (131-32)

So contempt is one French attitude towards the peasant; another is the romanticized view that seems to trace back to Rousseau:

The romantics, the Catholic revivalists, the believers in a conservative and hierarchic order, all held him up as a model of a human unspoilt by progress.  George Sand wrote books about him or rather books about how she would have liked him to be, inaugurating a whole genre of rustic novels. … Napoleon III inaugurated his reign with an inquiry into popular poetry forgotten ‘because of a thoughtless contempt by our rather too worldly literature’. Folklore societies were formed. (133)

After surveying these elite attitudes towards peasants, Zeldin turns to an extended effort to decipher some of the social reality of the peasant in the nineteenth century.  And he finds that the stereotypes that French society applied to the peasant, from left to right, were unfounded.

These generalisations about the innate conservatism of the pesant need to be interpreted carefully in the context of French history.  The observance of traditional routines, agricultural and social, should not obscure the fact that conflict was part of those routines, and that the pressures involved in preserving them add up to a situation which is far from being one of stagnation. The peasants were neither satisfied nor contented. They were constantly trying to improve their lot, to enlarge their farms, to raise their status. Their world was torn by deep divisions, and by animosities both of interest and of pride. (135)

The sense of community depended also on the way the land was worked.  The common generalization that the peasants were innately individualistic and independent is another bourgeois myth.  It is important to remember that though individual peasant property had developed before the Revolution, ownership did not imply complete liberty to work the land as one pleased.  When the strips and plots were tiny, it was essential to co-operate in sowing and reaping. No man could reach his plot without going through those of his neighbours. (139)

Much of this material on the professions and the major social groups falls under the heading of “ambition” — competition and striving for one’s betterment.  This first volume ends with an extended discussion of “love” — the family and children.

The family, as organised in France in these years, had an effect on people’s lives as profound as any political regime or any economic force. It was a powerful institution which resisted change with remarkable vitality. (285)

But here again, Zeldin finds that the realities of nineteenth-century France contradicted the common stereotypes of marriage, family, and children.

Zeldin’s writing makes one think of a gifted interpreter of literature or art, more than of a traditional historian.  He is very sensitive to telltale nuances, and very creative in building an interpretation of the French based on a series of such insights.  In this regard it is “humanities-inspired history” rather than “social-science history.”  Zeldin appears to affirm this point in saying that his historical writing does not aspire to the “objectivity” and neutrality of the sciences:

Historical study is a personal experience, and the subjective elements in it deserve to be valued, when so many other branches of knowledge are becoming largely technical. To admit that historians solve their problems of colour and light, that they create their compositions for reasons which are ultimately subjective, because these seem to them to be coherent and true, is not to admit a fault, but to assert that each individual historian can express himself in his work. (7)

So Zeldin’s project is a broad one: to attempt to discern some of the important strands of mental and emotional framework through which historical French men and women thought and experienced their history.  It is a kind of personality psychology for a whole historical population.  And Zeldin affirms, as a literary critic would do as well, that there alternative tellings of this story.


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