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.


Methodological nationalism

Are there logical divisions within the global whole of social interactions and systems that permit us to focus on a limited, bounded social reality?  Is there a stable level of social aggregation that might provide an answer to the “units of analysis” question in the social sciences?  This is a question that has recurred several times in prior postings — on regions (link), on levels of analysis (link), and on world systems (link). Here I’ll focus on the nation-state as one such system of demarcation.

We can start with a very compelling recent critique of current definitions of the social sciences.  Andreas Wimmer and Nina Glick Schiller offer an intriguing analysis of social science conceptual schemes in “Methodological nationalism and beyond: nation-state building, migration and the social sciences” (link). (Wimmer’s Nationalist Exclusion and Ethnic Conflict: Shadows of Modernity is also of great interest.) The core idea is the notion that the social sciences have tended to conceptualize social phenomena around the boundaries of the nation-state.  And, these authors contend, this assumption creates a set of blinders for the social sciences that makes it difficult to capture some crucially important forms of social interaction and structure.

Wimmer and Schiller characterize the idea of methodological nationalism in three forms:

The epistemic structures and programmes of mainstream social sciences have been closely attached to, and shaped by, the experience of modern nation-state formation….  The social sciences were captured by the apparent naturalness and givenness of a world divided into societies along the lines of nation-states….  Because they were structured according to nation-state principles, these became so routinely assumed and ‘banal’, that they vanished from sight altogether. (303-4)

A second variant, typical of more empirically oriented social science practices, is taking national discourses, agendas, loyalties and histories for granted, without problematizing themor making them an object of an analysis in its own right.  Instead, nationally bounded societies are taken to be the naturally given entities to study. (304)

Let us  now address a third and last variant of methodological nationalism: the territorialization of social science imaginary and the reduction of the analytical focus to the boundaries of the nation-state. (307)

The three variants of methodological nationalism … are thus ignorance, naturalization, and territorial limitation. (308)

Their view is a complex one. They think that the social sciences have been trapped behind a kind of conceptual blindness, according to which the concepts of nation and state structure our perception of social reality but disappear as objects of critical inquiry. Second, they argue that there were real processes of nation and state building that created this blindness — from nineteenth century nation building to twentieth century colonialism. And third, they suggest that the framework of MN itself contributed to the concrete shaping of the history of nation and state building. So it is a three-way relationship between knowledge and the social world.

“Nationalism” has several different connotations.  First, it implies that peoples fall into “nations,” and that “nations” are somewhat inevitable and compact social realities.  France is a nation.  But closer examination reveals that France is a social-historical construct, not a uniform or natural social whole. (Here is a discussion of Emmanuel Todd’s version of this argument; link).  Alsatians, Bretons, and Basques are part of the French nation; and yet they are communities with distinct identities, histories, and affinities.  So forging France as a nation was a political effort, and it is an unfinished project.

Second, nationalism refers to movements based on mobilization of political identities.  Hindu nationalists have sought power in India through the BJP on the basis of a constructed, mobilized (and in various ways fictional) Hindu identity.  The struggle over the Babri Mosque, and the political use to which this symbol was put in BJP mobilization, illustrates this point.  But “nationalist politics” also possess a social reality; it is all too evident that even fictive “national identities” can be powerful sources of political motivation.  So nationalist politics in the twentieth century were a key part of many historical processes.  (Michael Mann’s The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing illustrates this point.)  And, of course, there may be multiple national identities within a given region; so the “nation” consists of multiple “nationalist” groups.  Ben Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism provides an extensive development of the political and constructed nature of ethnic and national identities.

What about the other pole of the “nation-state” conjunction — the state?  Here the idea is that the state is the seat of sovereign authority; the origin and enforcement of legal institutions; and the holder of a monopoly of coercive power in a region.  A state does not inevitably correspond to a nation; so when we hyphenate the conjunction we make a further substantive assumption — that nations grow into states, and that states cultivate national identities.

The fundamental criticism that Wimmer and Schiller express — the fundamental defect of methodological nationalism — is that it limits the ability of social scientists and historians to perceive processes that are above or below the level of the nation-state.  Trans-national processes (they offer migration as an example) and sub-national processes (we might refer to the kinds of violent mobilization studied by Mann in the Dark Side of Democracy) are either invisible or unimportant, from the point of view of methodological nationalism.  So the methodology occludes social phenomena that are actually of great importance to understanding the contemporary world.  Here is how they suggest going beyond methodological nationalism in the field of migration studies:

Going beyond methodological nationalism in the study of current migration thus may require more than a focus on transnational communities instead of the nation and its immigrants.  In order to escape the magnetism of established methodologies, ways of defining the object of analysis and algorithms for generating questions, we may have to develop (or rediscover?) analytical tools and concepts not coloured by the self-evidence of a world ordered into nation-states.  This is what we perceive, together with many other current observers of the social sciences, as the major task lying ahead of us.  We are certainly not able to offer such a set of analytical tools here. (323-24)

Wimmer and Schiller seem to point in a direction that we find in Saskia Sassen’s work as well: the idea that it is necessary for the social sciences to invent a new vocabulary that does a better job of capturing the idea of the interconnectedness of social activity and social systems (for example, in A Sociology of Globalization; link).  The old metaphors of “levels” of social life organized on an ascending spatial basis doesn’t seem to work well today when we try to deal with topics like global cities, diasporic communities, or transnational protest movements. And each of these critiques makes a convincing case that these non-national phenomena are influential all the way down into the “national” orders singled out by traditional classification schemes.

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.

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