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.

Essentializing race?

PBS is running a program this month called “Faces of America” (link), hosted by distinguished African-American Studies professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.  The program focuses on a handful of celebrity guests, a genetic profile for each, and then a variety of “surprising” discoveries about the genealogies of various of the guests.

What I found surprising and jarring in viewing Episode 3 is the degree of essentialism about race the script seems to presuppose.  Gates’s script seems to suggest that one’s racial or ethnic identity is a function of one’s genotype and one’s ancestral (though unknown) history.  At one point Professor Gates has a discussion with Kristi Yamaguchi, the Japanese figure skater.  Pointing out that her genetic profile indicates descent from a particular genetic group that originated in far northern Asia some hundred thousand years ago, he makes a joke to the effect that perhaps her skating talent is a reflection of her ancestry in an extremely cold climate.  It’s a joke, of course; but it is a telling one.  It conveys the idea that genes make the person; that one’s biological ancestry constitutes one’s race or ancestry and one’s current characteristics.

What is surprising about this biological essentialism is the fact that most scholars who think deeply about race have decisively concluded that race is not a biological category but a cultural one.  A person’s race is socially constructed, deriving from the cultural communities in which he/she was formed and not primarily from his/her genotype or biological ancestry.  Population geneticists find that there is as much genetic variation within a “racial” group as across racial groups; which seems to imply directly that the race of each group is not determined by the genetic profile of the group.  Instead, racial or ethnic identity is created by the cultural environment in which one forms his/her most basic psychological dispositions.

The American Anthropological Association has had good reason to think deeply and critically about the concept of “race.”  In 1998 the AAA released a careful statement on race.  Here are a few specific claims included in the statement:

In the United States both scholars and the general public have been conditioned to viewing human races as natural and separate divisions within the human species based on visible physical differences. With the vast expansion of scientific knowledge in this century, however, it has become clear that human populations are not unambiguous, clearly demarcated, biologically distinct groups. Evidence from the analysis of genetics (e.g., DNA) indicates that most physical variation, about 94%, lies within so-called racial groups. Conventional geographic “racial” groupings differ from one another only in about 6% of their genes. This means that there is greater variation within “racial” groups than between them. In neighboring populations there is much overlapping of genes and their phenotypic (physical) expressions. Throughout history whenever different groups have come into contact, they have interbred. The continued sharing of genetic materials has maintained all of humankind as a single species. 

At the end of the 20th century, we now understand that human cultural behavior is learned, conditioned into infants beginning at birth, and always subject to modification. No human is born with a built-in culture or language. Our temperaments, dispositions, and personalities, regardless of genetic propensities, are developed within sets of meanings and values that we call “culture.” Studies of infant and early childhood learning and behavior attest to the reality of our cultures in forming who we are.

It is a basic tenet of anthropological knowledge that all normal human beings have the capacity to learn any cultural behavior. The American experience with immigrants from hundreds of different language and cultural backgrounds who have acquired some version of American culture traits and behavior is the clearest evidence of this fact. Moreover, people of all physical variations have learned different cultural behaviors and continue to do so as modern transportation moves millions of immigrants around the world. 

So fundamentally, my reaction to the “Faces of America” script is that it seriously misrepresents the social reality of race and ethnicity, implying that identity follows from biology.  Now, of course Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is perfectly well aware of this view of the status of the category of race; he is in fact one of the country’s leading thinkers on this subject.  So it is surprising that he would have permitted the simplistic version of the facts of race, ethnicity, and ancestry that the series conveys.

The most convincing voice I heard in the program was a statement by Ojibwe novelist Louise Erdrich who declined to undergo the genetic screening for the program.  Her explanation of her thinking, roughly, was that her Ojibwe identity was constituted by her experience of family and community, not by ancestry; and she preferred not to confuse that identity by conflating it with facts about her distant ancestors.

The point I am making here is not that the genetic techniques to which the program refers are scientifically invalid; I would be willing to assume that there is good science behind the inferences from one person’s genotype to conclusions about distant ancestry (including the gimmick of discovering that several of the guests have an ancestor in common).  But my point is that this doesn’t tell us anything at all of much interest about race or ethnicity; these are cultural constructs rather than biological facts.

Personally the conclusion I would rather come to goes along these lines: our genotypes matter very little to our current experience and social location.  The origins of our most distant ancestors is of some scientific interest but not much social significance.  If we take pride in being “Asian-American,” “Irish,” or “African-American,” it is because we have had specific social, family, and community experiences that lead us to identify with those groups and to give special importance in their struggles and achievements through history.  The child who was a foundling in New York in 1900 and was raised in an Irish-Catholic family is no less Irish and no less Catholic if it turns out her father was an Italian anarchist and her mother was a Swedish Protestant.  It is the particular communities into which we have socialized that constitute our identities, and I think that extends to racial and ethnic identities.  Of course, some readers may think that this perspective also leads to somewhat paradoxical conclusions — for example, the foundling who is “Irish” without a bit of Celtic ancestry, or that one could be Native American without any tribal ancestry.

Comparative life satisfaction


We tend to think of the past century as being a time of great progress when it comes to the quality of life — for ordinary people as well as the privileged. Advances in science, technology, and medicine have made life more secure, predictable, productive, educated, and healthy. But in what specific ways is ordinary life happier or more satisfying for ordinary people in 2000 compared to their counterparts in 1900 or 1800 — or the time of Socrates, for that matter?

There are a couple of things that are pretty obvious. Nutrition is one place to start: the mass population of France, Canada, or the United States is not subject to periodic hunger, malnutrition, or famine. This is painfully not true for many poor parts of the world — Sudan, Ethiopia, and Bangladesh, for example. But for the countries of the affluent world, the OECD countries, hunger has been largely conquered for most citizens.

Second, major advances in health preservation and the treatment of illness have taken place. We know how to prevent cholera, and we know how to treat staph infections with antibiotics. Terrible diseases such as polio have been eradicated, and we have effective treatments for some kinds of previously incurable cancers. So the basic health status of people in the affluent twenty-first century world is substantially better than that of previous centuries — with obvious consequences for our ability to find satisfaction in life activities.

These advances in food security and public health provision have resulted in a major enhancement to quality of life — life expectancy in France, Germany, or Costa Rica has increased sharply. And many of the factors underlying much of this improvement are not high-tech, but rather take the form of things like improvement of urban sanitation and relatively low-cost treatment (antibiotics for children’s ear infections, for example).

So living longer and more healthily is certainly an advantage in our quality of life relative to conditions one or two centuries ago.

Improvements in labor productivity in agriculture and manufacturing have resulted in another kind of enhancement of modern quality of life. It is no longer necessary for a large percentage of humanity to perform endless and exhausting labor in order to feed the rest of us. And because of new technologies and high labor productivity, almost everyone has access to goods that extend the enjoyment of life and our creative talents. Personal computing and communications, access to the world’s knowledge and culture through the Internet, and ability to travel widely all represent opportunities that even the most privileged could not match one or two centuries ago.

But the question of life satisfaction doesn’t reduce to an inventory of the gadgets we can use. Beyond the minimum required for sustaining a healthy human body, the question of satisfaction comes down to the issue of what we do with the tools and resources available to us and the quality of our human relationships. How do we organize our lives in such a way as to succeed in achieving goals that really matter?

Amartya Sen’s economic theory of “capabilities and realizations” supports a pretty good answer to these questions about life satisfaction (Development as Freedom). Each person has a bundle of talents and capabilities. These talents can be marshalled into a meaningful life plan. And the satisfying life is one where the person has singled out some important values and goals and has used his/her talents to achieve these goals. (This general idea underlies J. S. Mill’s theory of happiness as well in Utilitarianism.)

By this standard, it’s not so clear that life in the twenty-first century is inherently more satisfying than that in the eighteenth or the second centuries. When basic needs were satisfied — nutrition, shelter, health — the opportunities for realizing one’s talents in meaningful effort were no less extensive than they are today. This is true for the creative classes — obviously. The creative product of J. S. Mill’s or Victor Hugo’s generation was no less substantial or satisfying than our own. But perhaps it is true across the board. The farmer-gardener who shapes his/her land over the course of a lifetime has created something of great personal value and satisfaction. The mason or smith may have taken more pride and satisfaction in his life’s work than does the software programmer or airline flight attendant. The parent who succeeded in nurturing a family in 1800 County Cork may have found the satisfactions as great or greater than parents in Boston or Seattle today.  (Richard Sennett explores some of these satisfactions in The Craftsman.)

So we might say that the chief unmistakable improvement in quality of life in the past century is in the basics — secure nutrition, improved health, and decent education during the course of a human life. And the challenge of the present is to make something meaningful and sustaining of the resources we are given.

What is a diasporic community?


There are many diaspora populations in the world: the African diaspora, with populations in the Caribbean, North and South America, and Europe; the Chinese diaspora, from Indonesia and Malaysia to Cuba and the United States and Canada; the Jewish diaspora, from eastern Europe and Spain across all of Europe, to South Africa and North America with historical enclaves in India and China; and so on for numerous national and cultural groups. In some instances these groups maintain a strong sense of collective identity in spite of the physical and social distances that separate various sub-populations, and in some instances the strands of identity have attenuated significantly.

The fact of diaspora is a deeply interesting one, in that it provides a kind of “natural experiment” on the subject of the persistence and plasticity of culture. It is possible to observe the variations and modifications of culture as they occur over time and geography in diasporic populations.

The question I’d like to raise here is whether a diasporic population, an archipelago of separated groups of common national or cultural origin, can be said to constitute a community. Or does a population require a greater intimacy, a deeper social reality of face-to-face contact, in order to constitute a community? And is it possible that the unavoidable distancing and separation created by diaspora inevitably leads to the fragmentation of community?

I’m led to this question by a current reading of Tai Lands and Thailand: Community and the State in Southeast Asia, a major new contribution to southeast Asian studies edited by Andrew Walker. The authors and contributors are working with an innovative concept of “modern community”, deliberately challenging the idea of traditional communities organized around stable peasant villages. And they consider a specific version of this question: do the groups scattered across nations in Southeast Asia that are bound together by a Tai language and a set of overlapping practices and values, constitute a modern community? The book warrants a careful reading, and I will return to it more specifically in a later post. But here let’s look at the broader question: can a physically separated set of populations constitute a genuine community?

It won’t do to attempt to reduce this question to pure semantics — “it depends on what we mean by community”. Instead, we need to understand the question in a way that makes substantive sense of the ways in which human groups are constituted over time and space. But to make it a substantive and theoretically interesting question we have to specify a few characteristics that we think communities must possess. And this requires some conceptual work that goes beyond ordinary language analysis and stretches into the realm of theory construction. So consider these features of social groups that might be considered crucial for community: a degree of shared collective identity; a degree of shared values, histories, and meanings; an orientation by members towards others as belonging to a valued social group; a degree of communication and interaction among members of the group; and a preparedness to engage in some degree of collective action in support of the group’s interests. We can think of examples of social groups that possess some of these characteristics but not others, and in some cases we’re inclined to deny that these groups are “communities.” So what about diasporic populations?

It is clear that a separated population may certainly possess some of the qualities that paradigm cases of communities exhibit. Separated populations may maintain traditions, beliefs, and practices that extend backward in time to their origin. They may possess memories and myths that serve as a foundation for identifying them as a specific group. They may retain a strong sense of cultural identity with the group, both in the home location and throughout the world.

Moreover, in the context of modern forms of communication and the internet, it is possible for separated populations to maintain significant interaction with members of other sub-populations throughout the world. Indian sub-populations in Michigan, Germany, and Argentina can have significant real-time contact with each other through web pages, Facebook, or Twitter, and these mechanisms can create real interpersonal relationships across space. This is a significant difference in the situation of diaspora in the twenty-first century relative to the nineteenth century: we might hypothesize that there is the possibility of greater cultural unity across a diasporic group today than was the case a century ago.

It is also possible that a diasporic population will display “creolization” — the incorporation of new cultural elements into the mix of its practices, values, and meanings. This is suggested in the photo above; one imagines that Caribo-Chinese culture is a mix that would seem foreign in Canton. And this raises the possibility of a significant degree of cultural “drift” — with the result that isolated sub-populations no longer speak the same cultural language. This would seem to cut against the idea of community.

Finally, we can ask whether the motivational ideas mentioned above can persist in a diasporic community. Will members of the Chinese communities in Cuba or Canada retain a high degree of solidarity with their counterparts in China? Will they be willing to support the struggles that are presented to various of the Chinese groups across the world — repression of Buddhism in China during certain periods, racism against Chinese workers in other countries, ethnic violence against Chinese businessmen in yet other settings? Accepting the point that there are substantial elements of Chinese culture and history that persist in the various Chinese communities around the world — is this a sufficient basis to generate the willingness to mobilize that core communities possess? To what extent do diasporic populations support the kinds of integrative mechanisms that are needed in order to sustain solidarity across a dispersed group? And what can we say about those mechanisms of solidarity in the circumstances of diaspora?

These questions require careful theoretical and ethnographic work. But I’m inclined to agree with the perspective that Andrew Walker, Nicholas Farrelly, and other contributers to Tai Lands and Thailand put forward: the intertwining mechanisms of popular culture, personal mobility, communications technology, and a reservoir of values and histories that many modern identity groups retain, give a positive basis for thinking that diasporic community is possible in the globalizing world of the twenty-first century.

Marx’s theory of political behavior


Marxism is concerned with the politics of class: the success or failure of working class organizational efforts, the occurrence of collective action in defense of class interests, the logic of working class electoral politics, and the occurrence of revolution. Marx attempted to analyze and explain a variety of political phenomena–e.g., the forms that working class political action took in 1848 in France, the reasons for Napoleon III’s overwhelming electoral victory in 1849, and the efforts by organizations of the English working class to achieve the Ten Hours Bill. What assumptions underlie Marx’s analysis of the political behavior of class? I would say that his theory comes down to three elements: a theory of individual means-end rationality, a theory of ideology, and a theory of class consciousness.

I believe, surprisingly, that there is much in common between Marxism and the rational-choice model of political behavior. (So does Adam Przeworski; Capitalism and Social Democracy.) The rational-choice approach postulates that individuals’ political behavior is a calculated attempt to further a given set of individual interests–income, security, prestige, office, etc. One might suppose that such an approach is unavoidably bourgeois, depending upon the materialistic egoism characteristic of market society. However, I maintain that Marx’s theory of political behavior, like his theory of capitalist economic behavior, is ultimately grounded in a theory of individual rationality. Roughly, Marx’s fundamental postulate of political analysis is that:

Agents as members of classes behave in ways calculated to advance their perceived material interests; these interests are perceived as class interests (i.e., interests shared with other members of the class); and class organizations and features of class consciousness permit classes to overcome implicit conflicts of interest between private interest and class interest.

Second, Marx’s theory of political behavior incorporates the concept of ideology. Ideologies, or “false consciousness”, are systems of ideas that affect the worker’s political behavior by instilling false beliefs and self-defeating values in the worker. An ideology may instill a set of values or preferences that propel individual behavior in ways that are contrary to the individual’s objective material interests. Further, ideologies modify purposive individual action by instilling a set of false beliefs about the causal properties of the social world and about how existing arrangements affect one’s objective interests. Rational individuals, operating under the grip of an ideology, will undertake actions that are contrary to their objective material interests, but are fully rational given the false beliefs they hold about the social world they inhabit and their mistaken assumptions about their real interests and values. An ideology is an effective instrument, then, in shaping political behavior within a class system; it induces members of exploited classes to refrain from political action directed at overthrowing the class system. And this is indeed Marx’s use of the concept; an ideology functions as an instrument of class conflict, permitting a dominant class to manipulate the political behavior of subordinate classes. It is an important task to try to identify the institutions and mechanisms through which an ideology is conveyed to a population.

A third important component of Marx’s theory of political behavior is his concept of class consciousness. The term refers to a set of motivations, beliefs, values, and the like, that are specific and distinctive for a given class (peasantry, proletariat, petty bourgeoisie). Marx holds that these motivational factors serve to bind together the members of a class and to facilitate their collective activities. Class consciousness takes the form of such motives as loyalty to other members of one’s class, solidarity with partners in a political struggle, and commitment to a future social order in which the interests of one’s class are better served. Marx describes such a complex of psychological properties, and their social foundation in The Eighteenth Brumaire.

“A whole superstructure of different and specifically formed feelings, illusions, modes of thought and views of life arises on the basis of the different forms of property, of the social conditions of existence. The whole class creates and forms these out of its material foundations and the corresponding social relations. The single individual, who derives these feelings, etc. through tradition and upbringing, may well imagine that they form the real determinants and the starting-point of his activity.” David Fernbach, ed., Surveys from Exile. Political Writings Volume II., pp. 173-74.

A class is supposed to develop its own conscious identity of itself as a class. Insofar as a group of people who constitute a structurally defined class fails to acquire such attitudes, Marx denies that the group is a class in the full sense at all (a class-for-itself as well as -in-itself). Marx does not provide an extensive analysis of the process through which class consciousness emerges, even within capitalism, but he suggests that it takes form through a historical process of class struggle. As workers or peasants come to identify their shared interests and as they gain experience working together to defend their shared interests, they develop concrete ties within their political groups which provide motivational resources for future collective action. Here again, we need to have a sociology of the institutions that contribute to the formation of this feature of social psychology — perhaps along the lines of the analysis offered by E. P. Thompson in Making of the English Working Class (link).

A central function of class consciousness in Marx’s political theory is to explain the moral capacity of members of exploited classes to join in prolonged, risky struggles in defense of their material interests. The concept of class consciousness thus functions as a bridge between individual interests and collective interests in classical Marxist analysis of political behavior. It gives workers effective motivation to undertake actions and strategies that favor their group interests, and it gives them motivational resources allowing them to persist in these strategies even in the face of risk and deprivation (i.e., in circumstances where the collective strategy imposes costs on the individual’s interests). This treatment of class consciousness shows a sensitivity to the point that political behavior is often driven by a set of motives that are richer than a narrow calculus of self-interest. Ralph Miliband’s work illustrates this point; State in a Capitalist Society: An Analysis of the Western System of Power.

Here, then, we have an austere model of political behavior that can legitimately be attributed to Marx: Members of groups form beliefs about their material interests, and they act intelligently to further those interests. Members of groups form beliefs about their social world that are sometimes seriously misleading about how the social world works (ideologies). And members of groups sometimes gain a social psychology of solidarity and loyalty that gives them a degree of capacity to act as a group (class consciousness). The eventual behavior of an economic group is the aggregate result of the group’s perceptions of its interests, its mental map of how the social world works, and the resources of solidarity that it possesses. It is a materialist theory; it is an agent-centered theory; and it is a theory that invites serious investigation of the processes through which the social psychology of a group are formed.

See prior postings on class, power, and mobilization: link, link, link. An important finding of much discussion of political mobilization since Marx’s time is that a purely economic and materialist account of political motivation leaves out a great deal of contemporary political behavior — for example, ethnic mobilization, identity politics, and political protest (Teheran today).

Understanding Southeast Asia


Themes and issues from Southeast Asia crop up fairly frequently in UnderstandingSociety. Red shirt demonstrations in Thailand, ethnic conflict in Malaysia, corruption and repression in Burma — I think these are some of the more interesting social developments underway in the world today. And the resources needed for non-experts (like myself) to get a preliminary but factual understanding of these developments are now readily available on the web — blogs, international newspapers, twitter, and google provide a truly unprecedented ability for any of us to gain insight into distant social processes. (A recent widget on the iPhone and iPod Touch is a case in point: the World Newspapers application gives the user easy access to almost 4,000 newspapers in 100 countries.)

One blog that I’ve come to appreciate quite a bit on subjects having to do with Southeast Asia is the New Mandala, based at Australian National University. Andrew Walker is one of its founders and frequent contributors, and he and several other New Mandala contributors have recently published what promises to be a very interesting book. The book is titled Tai Lands and Thailand: Community and the State in Southeast Asia, and its focus can best be described in the contributors’ own words. Here are the opening paragraphs of a chapter on the orientation the contributors have taken on studying “Thai” identity:

This book provides a new approach to the study of community in the Tai world of mainland Southeast Asia.

Much of the current ethnographic work in the Tai world is constrained by a conceptual framework that associates community with tradition, locality and subsistence economy. This traditional community is commonly portrayed as being undermined by the modern forces of state incorporation, market penetration, globalisation and population mobility.

In this volume, we take a very different view. We challenge the widely held view that community is a traditional social form that is undermined by modernity. Using case studies from Thailand, Laos, Burma and China, we explore the active creation of ‘modern community’ in contexts of economic and political transformation. Our aim is to liberate community from its stereotypical association with traditional village solidarity and to demonstrate that communal sentiments of belonging retain their salience in the modern world of occupational mobility, globalised consumerism and national development.

Our focus is on the Tai world, made up of the various peoples who speak Tai languages. The largest groups are the Thai of Thailand, the Lao of Laos, the Shan of Burma and the Dai of southern China. Of course, each of these categories is problematic; they are all the modern products of historical circumstance rather than being natural or self-evident ethnic groups. There are certainly linguistic and cultural similarities that justify the shared label ‘Tai’ but this must be treated as a preliminary delineation of a field of interest without rushing to assumptions about a common identity or a sense of shared history. Indeed, our primary goal is to critically examine contemporary notions of belonging in this Tai world.

This is a highly engaging and innovative approach to the intellectual challenge of understanding the culture, history, and current trajectory of a large part of the peoples of Southeast Asia. The contributors capture some of the best current thinking about the fluidity and plasticity of cultural identities and the complicated ways in which cultures and modern social forces interact. Particularly pressing for historians and area specialists is the challenge of taking adequate account of language, culture, local community, extended networks, and varied political and economic interests when we try to make sense of a large population dispersed over a macro-region.

Take “red shirts” and “yellow shirts”. These are two constituencies in contemporary Thailand. In the past two years there have been massive popular movements corresponding to each of them, leading to major demonstrations and challenges to the government. They are often characterized in terms of differences in social class and economic sector: rural, poor, disempowered, versus urban, affluent, and privileged. This characterization is one that political scientists and economists would be comfortable with; it locates the two groups in terms of their interests and their location within the relations of wealth and power that exist in contemporary Thailand. But it’s at least worth posing the question: does this “interest”-based definition of contemporary politics in Thailand leave out something crucial, in the general zone of culture and identity? And are there possible cultural differences between the groups that are potentially relevant to political behavior and mobilization? Is there an ethnography of the red shirt movement and its followers yet?

Or take the issue of refugees, displaced persons, and migrant workers. There are flows of people across the borders of Burma and Thailand; Burma and Bangladesh; Thailand and Malaysia; and even from Burma to Cambodia. (For that matter, there is a significant population of Thai “guest workers” in Tel Aviv and other parts of the Middle East and Gulf.) How do differences in culture and identity play into the situation of these displaced people when they find themselves in the foreign country?

So research along the lines of Tai Lands and Thailand is highly valuable. It is likely to give us some new conceptual tropes in terms of which to understand these large social realities — modern community, provisional identities, and a multi-threaded understanding of the social worlds of Southeast Asia. And I think it demonstrates another important truth as well: there is always room for fresh thinking when it comes to trying to make sense of the social world.

(See an earlier posting introducing a spatial representation of the UnderstandingSociety twitter feed on Southeast Asia. Here is a direct link to the google map for this effort.)

Conflict as an empirical-practical study


Conflict and peace studies have been a part of academic research since at least the 1970s. Many universities have created major research centers devoted to the study of the causes of conflict and possible pathways of conflict resolution. In some cases the focus of study is on particular zones of inter- and intra-state conflict: recurring civil conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa; the Middle East; Northern Ireland; Hindu-Muslim conflict in South Asia; or US-Soviet conflict during the Cold War. And in other cases the focus is less regionally specific and more concerned about identifying root causes and remedies for social conflict.

Causes of large social conflict are widely varied: for example, disagreements about access to resources, including water; disagreements about the use of religious sites; direct military competition to secure hegemony in various regions; disagreements about physical borders between states; and the list can be extended. We can also speculate that there is a “social psychology” associated with conflict — both as a cause and as an effect. Social conditions that create fear, uncertainty, or suspicion of other social groups are surely relevant to the occurrence and duration of social conflict. In turn, an extended period of conflict and violence among groups within a population further undermines the potential basis for future trust and cooperation among members of these groups. And we can likewise explore the dynamics of the processes of political entrepreneurship through which some leaders seek to mobilize support around divisive identities and issues.

It is apparent that the study of conflict inherently requires an interdisciplinary approach. It has sometimes seemed to tilt towards international relations theory, with its calculus of political interest and rational strategy. But the insights of anthropologists, sociologists, geographers, social psychologists, political scientists, and area specialists are all relevant to the key problems: arriving at applicable (and testable) theories of the causes of conflict in a variety of circumstances, and arriving at strategies for reducing the sources of conflict and defining pathways from “conflictual” to “non-conflictual”. We need to have fairly concrete sociological and ethnographic understanding of the structures and mentalities that are associated with extended periods of social conflict, if we are to understand the mechanisms that create, sustain, or inhibit these conflicts.

Resolution of inter-state conflict (warfare) seems to be a special case, and in many ways an easier case, than resolution of intra-state or intra-regional conflict. Answering the question, “Why do inter-state wars occur?” is likely to be quite different from answering the question, “Why does inter-group violence occur along ethnic or religious lines?” Finding ways of establishing enduring co-existence between Hindus and Muslims in India; finding ways of stabilizing relations between Protestant and Catholic communities and populations in Northern Ireland; resolving the causes of ethnic conflict and violence in Kenya or Rwanda; or creating a basis for peaceful co-habitation among Palestinian and Jewish communities in Jerusalem — each of these challenges seems different and more difficult than solving the Cold War or managing inter-state nuclear competition.

What are the sources of this additional level of difficulty? There seem to be several reasons for this greater intractability. First is the fact that these conflicts involve mass populations that are only subject to minimal degrees of organizational or state control. So it is often difficult to resolve these sorts of conflicts through negotiations among a few powerful parties; instead, alleviating the causes of conflict needs to be pursued on a more disaggregated level. Second, the dialectic of action and reaction, affront and retaliation, seems to take on a life of its own that makes inter-group conflict and violence very difficult to damp down. One incident leads to several, with a spreading radius of conflict.

So are there some basic hypotheses about reducing conflict that might be applied to a situation of conflict within a population in a specific region — whether among religious groups, ethnic identities, or other grounds of division? Here are a couple of thoughts.

  • First, remove the material causes of inter-personal and inter-group conflict — unfair rules, practices of discrimination, limited access to resources such as schools or clean water, or barriers on mobility.
  • Second, find ways of addressing past hatreds in the current generation. Somehow work towards establishing an openness to sharing of the region peacefully that doesn’t currently exist.
  • Third, work vigorously to establish new pathways of opportunity for disadvantaged populations: schools, health, property ownership.
  • Fourth, undertake a serious and goal-directed program of legislation and policy to correct past injustices.
  • Fifth, pay close attention to the details of the issues that divide groups — geography, claims on property, grievances about unequal opportunities — and be prepared to address them in detail.
  • Sixth, encourage the formation of organizations in civil society that see both sides, and that will work towards reducing objective and subjective causes of hatred and conflict.

These recommendations seem to amount to one basic point, almost Biblical in its simplicity: peace requires justice. So if we want to establish a peaceful regional or global society, we need to work very consistently and patiently towards establishing the conditions of just and equitable life circumstances for all people affected. Put the point the other way around, and you have a general hypothesis about the causes of conflict: pervasive, sustained injustice breeds violence and conflict.

But here is the hard question: is there any evidence that measures like these will work? Can a population get past its old sources of bitterness and hatred? Are there practical strategies that India, Ireland, or Israel can pursue that will methodically reduce the volatility of intra-population conflict? What kinds of empirical studies are available to help evaluate the efficacy of these various measures? Are there studies within social psychology on religious, racial, or identity politics that shed light on conflict and its resolution? These are the kinds of questions that we most need the disciplines of peace and conflict studies to address.

The sociology of class


According to the traditional definition, a class is defined in relation to the broad structure of the property system. A group of people belong to the same class when they occupy the same position within the property system governing labor, physical assets, and perhaps intangible assets such as knowledge or money. This is a structural definition of the concept of class. In nineteenth-century France we might have classified the population into land owners, capital owners, wage laborers, artisans, professionals (accountants, architects), intellectuals, government officials, civil service workers, small merchants, smallholding farmers, tenant farmers, landless workers, and lumpenproletariat. And these groups can be roughly triangulated according to their ownership of three major elements: labor power, valuable skills and knowledge, and economic assets (land, property, wealth).

Another way of putting the point is to ask: where does the individual gain his/her income — from the sale of labor time, from the sale or rent of physical assets, or from the sale or rent of expertise? Workers derive their income from the sale of their labor time; capitalists, financiers, and landlords derive their income from their ownership of physical and financial resources, and professionals, experts, and intellectuals derive their income from their possession of scarce expert knowledge and skills. (That’s Pierre-Joseph Proudhon pictured above by Courbet, an intellectual in artisanal garb.)

So we might capture nineteenth-century French social reality from this point of view along these lines:

Of course, things can be classified according to any principle we might offer. So the value of a particular classification must be justified in terms of the explanatory or causal work that it does. The explanatory thrust of the theory of class goes along the lines of a sociological hypothesis: people who have a similar location within a system of property relations will also develop other important similarities: similarities of thought, values, style, behavior, and politics, for example. And so Marx believed that structurally-defined classes of people were likely to further develop a similar class consciousness — a similar framework of thought in terms of which they understand the social forces around them; and he expected that classes of people would come to share a signature framework of political motivation — a set of ideas, interpretations, and values that would motivate them to engage in collective action together.

This is where the substantive sociology of class comes in; in order to provide credibility for this set of expectations about class consciousness and political motivation, we need to have some ideas about the concrete sociological mechanisms that might plausibly lead from “common position in the property relations” to “common forms of consciousness and political motivation.” And here there are quite a few things that can be said — both by Marx in the 1850s and contemporary observers in the 2000s. First, a common position in the property relations often implies a number of concrete similarities of experience across individuals — common features of the workplace, common neighborhoods in cities, common experiences in the system of schooling that is in place. These kinds of shared social positions suggest two things: first, a common process of shaping through which perceptions and motivations develop in each individual; and second, a common reality that individuals who experience these environments are likely to be able to perceive. It is highly plausible that a group of men and women who have spent their lives in a nineteenth century textile factory while living in a concentrated workers’ slum, will have developed a similar consciousness and social style from the discipline and work processes of the factory and their shared social associations in their neighborhoods.

So miners in Wales or northern Michigan are exposed to similar work environments; similar firms and styles of management; and similar life outcomes that might be expected to create a “miner’s consciousness” and a miner’s political mentality. Smallholding wine growers across the landscape of nineteenth century France are exposed to similar natural, social, and economic circumstances that are likely to shape the development of their personalities and worldviews, that are in turn likely to create an ideal-typical “wine grower” who fairly accurately represents the worldview and behavior of wine growers.

Second, there is a fact that is more apparent today than it was to nineteenth-century sociological observers, that has to do with what we now understand about social networks and social capital. Common locations of work and residence make it highly likely that occupational groups (miners, architects, professors) will fall within sharply distinguished sets of social networks, and they will have access to different combinations of social capital (civic organizations, religious groups, secret societies). And the consciousness and political behavior of an individual is surely influenced in very profound ways by each of these social categories — networks and social capital. So the fact of similarities in these respects is likely to give rise to similarities in consciousness and action as well.

And, of course, there is the fact of the social reality of exploitation in each of these circumstances: miners and wine growers are subject to coercive social relations that succeed in separating them from a substantial portion of the fruits of their labors. Coal miners will identify the profit-driven mine owners as the source of their exploitation and wine growers may identify the wine jobbers who buy their product cheaply and sell it dearly in the cities as the source of their exploitation. But each group comes to recognize the social reality of the property relations through which their productive labor is “expropriated” by other powerful forces. Recognition of the fact of exploitation is a key component of the process of the formation of class consciousness.

So it seems plausible to suppose that there are identifiable social mechanisms through which occupational groups come to have shared worldviews and similar political behaviors. But the theory of class asserts more than this; it asserts that wage laborers in many occupations will come to recognize themselves as fundamentally similar to workers in other occupations. The theory of class postulates a sociology of “escalation” of class identity, from the particular occupation, work group, and neighborhood to the larger (and more abstract) class that encompasses many occupations and work groups in widely separated locations. So, it is postulated, fast food workers, auto workers, and air traffic controllers will come to identify together, not simply as a set of occupational groups, but as an extended group of “persons who are forced to sell their labor to capital in order to satisfy life needs.” And, further, the theory postulates that it will be possible for a strong form of group solidarity to emerge across this fairly heterogeneous and physically separated set of occupational groups.

It isn’t entirely clear what the sociological mechanisms are supposed to be that facilitate this escalation of class identity, however. Classical Marxism depends heavily on the idea of a party and a group of activists who do the “class education” that leads workers from a narrowly parochial view of their situation to one that encompasses the common situation of wage labor. But this depends on a fairly sizable historical coincidence — the emergence of a militant and disciplined class-based party. And it is very hard to see how non-planned forms of sociological change might lead to this escalation — hard to see, that is, how air traffic controllers, McDonalds workers, and steel workers might spontaneously come to regard each other as belonging to a single class subject to exploitation by another abstractly defined class.

Moreover, it is very apparent today that there are multiple axes around which collective identities can form. Kinship relations in southern China cut across structural class relations, and it is certainly possible that the Li clan will have a stronger sense of identity than the landless workers — even though the Li clan contains both landlords, peasant farmers, and landless workers. Religious affinities may be mobilized as a source of collective identity — again, with the likelihood of creating groups that cut across class lines.

So this line of thought suggests that there is a fairly large gap in the theory of class in even its application to the nineteenth-century case: the problem of how to explain the postulated escalation of consciousness from the particular work group and occupation to the more general category, “working class.”

This leaves for another posting the most important question: to what extent is the theory of class relevant to 21st-century society? To what extent can American political conflicts, perceptions, parties, and movements be explained on the basis of occupational and class identities? To what extent do the most important fissures in our society derive from economic conflicts that can be assimilated to the theory of class?

Components of one’s "social identity"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Literary tradition and social identity

Literary traditions are sometimes thought to have an underlying interconnectedness and coherence that makes them more than simply a group of works sharing geography or group. Irish poetry and drama, for example, extend over several centuries, involving writers with a range of voices and preoccupations; and yet it is often thought that they are distinctively “Irish.” How should we conceptualize this notion? And how does it relate to the concept of a social identity?

One might speculate that the continuity of a literary tradition derives from two social factors: first, that authors directly and indirectly respond to the writings of other authors in their tradition; and second, that writers express themes in their work that derive from a cultural tradition that they hold in common with other writers in this literary tradition. If, for example, there is a long oral tradition of popular songs and poetry that would have been a formative part of most Irish writers’ experience as children, then it would be understandable if the cadences and phrases of this oral tradition infused their literary writings. If there are historical moments in the history of the Irish people — Easter 1916, perhaps — that are focal points for cultural meanings and historical turning points for ordinary Irish people — then, once again, we might expect that themes surrounding these historical moments will recur in the production of Irish literature. And, of course, once a Goldsmith, Joyce, Yeats, or Heaney has created his poetry — this constitutes an exemplar within the literary tradition itself that influences other Irish writers.

So there are a couple of social mechanisms that we can cite as providing “microfoundations” for the production of a national literary tradition. However, there are dimensions of variation and dissent that make the idea of a coherent and guiding literary tradition more difficult to sustain. It is recognized within most literary traditions that there are different streams of influence, with diverging literary styles and presentations. It is also recognized at a point in time that some great writers offer a literature that is strikingly at odds with the tradition from which they emerge. And it must also be recognized that large literary traditions — the literature of India, American literature, Caribbean literature — represent the confluence of different voices and different cultural experiences. And often these voices are deeply at odds with each other and with the dominant social order — Jack London’s novels represent a very different perspective on the United States than those of Henry James.

Within the literature of the United States — what is often called “American literature” in US college English courses — we can find a diversity of influences at almost every level of scale: the New England novel, African-American songs and stories, women’s novels and journals, … And within each we can discern important variations with cross-cutting influences — the African-American voice of the deep south is evidently different from that of Chicago or Harlem or Los Angeles.

So we would certainly want to recognize that great writers are more than simply an expression of their literary or social tradition; rather, they find their voice and perspective through a dense interaction with culture, history, daily experience, race, gender, poetry, song, and dozens of other influences. And their products are often both innovative and “traditional”. The novels of James Baldwin capture and embody many aspects of African-American experience and literature; they in turn contribute to the meaning of African-American literature post-Baldwin; but in the end they transcend the framework of a fixed formula. Baldwin’s novels are original and particular — not simply an expression of “the African-American tradition.”

So from this point of view it seems that the idea of a literary tradition recedes from the metaphor of a compact, tightly bunched set of texts, to a meandering confluence of many cultural traditions and voices. This suggests that we need a metaphor that captures the diversity of voice and influence better than the idea of a river or stream.

This set of questions is relevant to the idea of a social identity as well. First is the obvious connection: if there is such a thing as “Irish social identity,” it is plausible that this identity plays into the production of Irish literature. But the points raised here about diversity of experience and the non-reducibility of one writer’s literature to a formula are also valid when we consider ascriptions of social identities. Rather than imagining that a person embodies the social identity of her own group, we should recognize that each person’s social identity is a complicated mix of influences and commitments. Rather than “Sally is catholic”, we might be better to observe that: “Sally is a mid-western Catholic with a feminist bent and a taste for punk music.”

This suggests to me that we encounter in both traditions and identities, a kind of social construct that in a sense disappears as we increase the resolution of study; through closer study we come to see the variations as much as the commonalities within a group of people or a group of texts. Does this imply that identities and traditions do not exist? It does not. Both function as real social causes and influences. But both need to be understood as fluid, heterogeneous compounds rather than as essential, abiding realities.

%d bloggers like this: