Oh Noes.

I may or may not have just written my first sociology filk. More on this developing story later.

In completely unrelated news, does it ever strike you as weird that the party of values is also the party of market liberalism? What in sociology appears as a never-ending debate (e.g. rational-choice vs. culture, etc.) to the Republicans somehow becomes a single framework for interpreting the world. The Misanthropologist Kelan and I were just talking about the RNC (see here for his take) and how what they say just doesn’t make sense to us, as if all of the presuppositions in our worldviews were simply different. What’s scary is that for a large chunk of Americans, including most Democrats, many of their presuppositions (about, say, the nature of the individual) are much closer to McCain’s or Bush’s than to my own. This is frightening. Anyway, to me it seems like there is a big gulf between values and responsibility, duty, national pride, and community on one hand, and market liberalism on the other. Apparently, others do not much see this conflict.

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7 Comments

  1. Adam

     /  September 21, 2008

    “for a large chunk of Americans, including most Democrats, many of their presuppositions (about, say, the nature of the individual) are much closer to McCain’s or Bush’s than to my own.”

    I’m interested to hear more about these presuppositions you have. I was surprised that you included “most Democrats”.

  2. I think most Democrats are still quite liberal, in the old sense of that word. They believe, as we are all taught to believe, in the individual as a sacred, natural category. Hobbes and Locke have won (if not in full, as they contradicted each other, at least in this). We think of society as being composed of individuals who have some sort of greater level of real-ness.
    I don’t, and I think sociology can’t function if it doesn’t hold that “the individual is not ontologically prior to the social.” Or, as Marx put it: “just as society itself produces man as man, so is society produced by him.” (From the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844).
    It’s very hard to convince someone steeped in this tradition of thinking of the individual as both pre-existing and sacred that arguments about social structure (say in determining life chances) are important, indeed probably much more important than arguments that appeal to genetics (which have had much more success lately).

  3. Adam

     /  September 22, 2008

    [someone steeped in this tradition of thinking of the individual as both pre-existing and sacred that arguments about social structure (say in determining life chances) are important]

    But if that were true would we have had the FDR’s New Deal? Truman’s Fair Deal, LBJ’s Great Society? In all those initiatives policy wonks, lawyers, and social scientists believed they could effect society though social structure and they created new (and massive) government structures accordingly.

    [I think sociology can’t function if it doesn’t hold that “the individual is not ontologically prior to the social.” ]

    Given that they reciprocally create each other, how could one (be it the individual or the social) ever be prior to the other?

    [We think of society as being composed of individuals who have some sort of greater level of real-ness. I don’t]

    If modern (western) society is constructed upon Individuality, which you posit, then doesn’t it follow that Individuality WILL have a greater level of real-ness for people in the society? And won’t all the structures they create be influenced by the greater level of real-ness the people accord to Individuality? If a society holds to the real-ness of Individuality, and one doesn’t take that seriously, can one really understand the society?

    I’m reminded of Stuart Clark’s book Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe (Oxford, 1997). It is easy for moderns to condemn bygone people for superstitious and non-scientific reasoning. But Clark argues such criticism is largely beside the point. The aim, instead, should be to understand the internal logic, coherence, and rationality of their thought-world.

    The importance of Individuality is historically contingent. As recently as colonial America it did not exist. But it does exist now and shouldn’t we who study people take seriously their thought-world which includes Individuality?

    In any case, having read Marx, Geertz, Berger & Luckmann, Giddens, and others — I’m on board with the social. Still, I’m sensitive to placing theory over and above the lived experience of the people we study. I’m such a historian. 😉

  4. I’m becoming more of a historian, but you caught me here with my political activist hat on. As a budding historical sociologist of ideas, I’m right on board with you. I’m fascinated by the rise of individualism/the idea of the individual. And without individualism, you could not have sociology, which is very much a reaction against it. So, I’m with you that individuality will matter more now – *as an idea* – than it could have hundreds of years ago (when it was not on its own an idea). That does not mean, however, that we are all free of the constraints of social structure because we think we are free of them. But our belief that we should be free of them – that social structures are either non-existent or always constraining on individual liberty – leads us to favor certain actions over others.

    I would need to study up on the New Deal and the other reforms mentioned here more (and will be, at least w.r.t. FDR, over the next few years), but I am not yet willing to call them anti-individualist. Clearly, they reflected a less rigid view of what that meant. Or, maybe another way of putting it, is that individualism is used in a lot of arguments, some of which seem to be or more less consistent with its basic tenets. Even FDR framed his reforms in terms of individuals (I’m thinking of the four freedoms here) no? Long story short, in my academic work I’m trying to understand the rise of the autonomous individual and what that does to how we work, in my politic ‘moment’ I am unhappy with the perceived consequences.

    Also, RE: Soc, I agree with this statement you made completely: “Given that they reciprocally create each other, how could one (be it the individual or the social) ever be prior to the other?” It could not. But some social scientists – e.g. most economists, many political scientists, and some rational chocie-y Sociologists – believe that the individual comes first and that society is nothing more than an aggregate of individuals, perhaps with a few ’emergent’ properties not easily explicable in terms of the properties of individuals (but even that is a somewhat heterodox view in certain circles, many Rat Choicers hold that all explanations must have ‘microfoundations’ at the level of individuals else they are invalid or insufficient). So, I’m not down with that. I am not claiming the primacy of the social, I am claiming that the two are not separable, that the individual does not precede the social and the social does not precede the individual (which, arguably, Durkheim believed. I’ll get back to you on that.).

  5. Adam

     /  September 22, 2008

    I’m amused by (and I love) how similarly our academic thinking is developing. Though from different starting disciplines: I’d probably call myself a sociological historian of ideas. I know that probably doesn’t surprise you given our theory talks over the years. Anyway, I agree with pretty much everything you wrote.

    Re FDR et. al., I agree that New Dealers were not anti-individualist. Indeed, your use of that term helped me zero in on what you were getting at.

    In contrast to modern sentiments we have John Winthrop’s sermon on the Arabella in 1629-30: “In such cases as this, the care of the public must oversway all private respects, by which, not only conscience, but mere civil policy, doth bind us. For it is a true rule that particular estates cannot subsist in the ruin of the public . . . . we must be knit together in this work as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection; we must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities for the supply of others’ necessities; we must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together: always having before our eyes the commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace, the Lord will be our God and delight to dwell among us, as His own people, and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways.”

    Of course all that community love stuff only applied to right-thinking and right-acting Puritans. They had no tolerance for difference because difference would upset community harmony.

    “political activist hat on”

    I rarely (never?) put a political activist hat on but I share your unhappiness with the “perceived consequences” of modernity’s radical individualism — corrosive it is.

    “trying to understand the rise of the autonomous individual and what that does to how we work”

    Yes!

    I’m sure you already have tons to read but please please please put these on your list and don’t forget them:

    * C.B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke (Oxford, 1962).

    * Joyce Appleby, Economic Thought and Ideology in Seventeenth-Century England (Princeton, 1978). [I’ve already mentioned this one to you.]

    * Joyce Appleby, Capitalism and a New Social Order: The Republican Vision of the 1790s (New York, 1984). [This is partly a response to Lance Banning’s Jeffersonian Persuasion: Evolution of a Party Ideology (Ithaca, NY, 1978) and Drew McCoy’s Elusive Republic: Political Economy in Jeffersonian America (Chapel Hill, 1980) and partly an extension of her Economic Thought and Ideology.]