Sociological studies expose their areas of inquiry as under a huge searchlight. There is an absence of shading, but this only makes the image presented by systematic research seem more complete; compared with it, the social novel or literary essay offers merely a smudge of emotionally charged individual instances. Literature reincarnates Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina—The Kinsey Report passes all restless wives through its turnstile. Having perused a “study,” the reader is likely to conclude that while literary works have their use in exploring individual oddities or for entertainment, if one really wants to know about his human environment, about Puerto Ricans in New York, suburbanite Jews, bohemians, agricultural villagers, Madison Avenue exurbanites, in fact, about anybody (since none escapes category), he had better get a hand from the social scientist.
The literary man himself often reacts to a social study with dismayed admiration. So many excellent details—how can a writer as a single person keep up with the revelations of teams of specialists? Perhaps, sociology means the end of the novel, at least, of a certain kind of novel. Perhaps the writer ought to follow on the heels of the sociologist and attempt to make his contribution in terms of manner of presentation.
The author’s chagrin, however, is short lived. Soon he observes that though the study has lighted up a few unnoticed corners there is much in it that he knew all along. And not only he—indeed, he finds, the study mainly consists of commonplaces. A novel written on this level of discovery would be dismissed as a bore. What takes people in about the scientists is the grand display they make of the machinery by which their petty findings are dredged up—explanations in technical language of how the data was collected and how much of it, how different factors were weighted, what safeguards were built against distorted interpretation, etc. Actually, instead of a portrait of society, one gets a view of the sociologist’s workshop with some charts on the wall. The matter contained in these charts could be quickly summarized, but the sociologist keeps redistributing his meager information into different percentages and statistical tables. In sum, most works in sociology are neither readable nor even meant to be read. Whatever they have to communicate comes out best in journalistic digests—who, for instance, went through the whole of The Kinsey Report or of Stouffer’s The American Soldier?
Arguments such as these, Professor Lewis Coser has recently contended, are used by literary men in an effort to retain for themselves “the domain of cultural criticism and social commentary which has been [their] almost exclusive preserve.” It is a case of a monopoly threatened by another power—and the writers’ mockery of the bad rhetoric of the sociologists, of their superficiality, of their research paraphernalia is but a weapon against the superior industriousness of the newcomers. Instead of welcoming the researchers who have come to clean up the wild growth of social impressionism, the literary men keep firing at them as invading barbarians who must be kept from landing.
If all that the writers have found to object to in sociology is its jargon, its techniques, and its self-imposed limitations, it seems to me Professor Coser has a point. It is a case of an older calling saying to a newer one, “Your professionalism is showing.” To produce platitudes with much clanking is the way of all the intellectual trades, including that of writing. Each occupation develops a lingo of its own by which its members recognize one another and protect themselves against outsiders; coming too late for the Latin of priests and physicians, or the sign language of physicists and musicians, the social scientists have been compelled to compose a terminology through spoiling ordinary words. This they have succeeded in doing within a comparatively short time, thus enabling themselves to obscure their statements at will, like old hands of the vestry or consultation room, wherever a danger spot needed to be covered up or a research project kept going in a circle. It is difficult, however, to see how contemporary literary critics can protest if others avail themselves of the advantages of thickened rhetoric. Nor has current poetry or fiction shown any large will to break out of the kind of writing that keeps literary practice at a happy distance from reality. If jargon and tricks of the trade are the issue, it should be noted in favor of the sociologists that very little worth saying has ever been said in the common language of man. Aquinas and Hegel wrote in jargon, and our period is not the first in history in which each of the arts has found its proudest creations to be fully comprehensible only to its practitioners.
Popular culture aesthetes to the contrary, criticism of sociology must go beyond taunts regarding literary style; where a genuine exposure of social fact occurs—i.e., where the study acts as criticism—its heaviness of manner should not be held against it, any more than the stuttering of Moses against his tablets. In my opinion, as noted elsewhere, sociological writings have in the past thirty years contained a more faithful reflection of facts disturbing to the American consciousness than the sum of our novels or plays—compare, for instance, Dollard’s Caste and Class in a Southern Town with fictional apologies for the South. Still, as C. Wright Mills suggests, sociology is a kind of imagination and must submit to investigation of its language, its assumptions, its moods.
Maurice R. Stein’s The Eclipse of Community1 takes the literary bull by the horns. It proposes that community sociology shall acquire the finesse of literature and the breadth of history and philosophy. Yet it is a book by a professional sociologist, on the profession and for the profession—it departs neither from the vocabulary (“kin statuses,” “compensatory rewards,” “heterogeneous population aggregates”) nor the methodological concerns of the community studies. Thus it raises the question whether community sociology can think and speak on the larger scale of affairs and values, or whether Stein has supplied an insider’s exposé of its inherent weaknesses.
The very word “community” lands us in deep thoughts concerning the human environment of individuals and what each owes to the many. Despite its title, however, Stein’s book puts off speculation to the end—we begin with actual American cities, towns, and neighborhoods, those that have been the most carefully examined. Summarizing the outstanding studies of the past forty years—such as Park’s investigations of Chicago, Louis Wirth’s The Ghetto, the Lynds’ Middletown, Lloyd Warner’s Yankee City, Stouffer’s The American Soldier, Seeley, Sim, and Loosely’s Crestwood Heights, and Vidich and Bensman’s Small Town in Mass Society—The Eclipse of Community presents fascinating data on American life from the 20’s to the present. To sociologists, one assumes, this information is old stuff, but laymen should be grateful for the chance to get the gist of the surveys, while avoiding the wear and tear of the studies themselves.
The Eclipse, however, is by no means a mere digest or popularization. Its feature is Stein’s linkage of the studies together into a kind of history of the nation’s changing ways, and his attempt to derive from them a conception of trends and values in America today. On the professional plane, by this “interpretation of American studies,” Stein hopes to rescue them from the “limbo” into which they fall as cross-sections of transient modes of social life by treating them as evidence supporting a theory of social development.
It seems to me that in his primary aim of joining the studies to one another meaningfully Stein has succeeded. A survey of a mill town in the depression reveals the working of processes which reappear in more developed phases twenty years later in a plush suburb. The processes are those observed by Marx, Durkheim, Weber, Simmel, Mannheim: urbanization, industrialization, bureaucratization. Of course, the reason Stein can find them in communities separated in time, place, and social character is that each American community and sub-community is part of the nation as a whole and is subject to what is happening in it; so that the blocking off of any section for study is an arbitrary procedure to begin with—perhaps no community should have been analyzed except as a microcosm (as was done in Small Town in Mass Society). In any case, Stein has been able to reconnect the studies with one another putting together what the profession set asunder.
The effect of urbanization, industrialization, and bureaucratization is to disorganize community life and to reconstitute it on a different cultural plane. Similar developments could be observed in Tuscany or Cambodia—the Chicago variation in the 20’s was as follows: “. . . with the process of growth of the city the invasion of residential communities by business and industry causes a disintegration of the community as a unit of social control. This disorganization is intensified by the influx of foreign national and racial groups whose old cultural and social controls break down in the new . . . situation in the city. . . . Delinquent and criminal patterns arise and are transmitted socially just as any other cultural and social pattern is transmitted.”
Stein’s review of the studies of sub-communities (ghettos, gangs, rooming-house districts) shows how they have been leveled over the years and re-formed along a common pattern, thus laying the ground for present day cultural conformity. Together with the integration of immigrant cultures has come the weakening of bohemian centers of resistance, as their life styles have been absorbed into conventional society under the prodding of the novelty-seeking mass media. All this is very instructive about phenomena of daily life: e.g., the appearance of gefilte fish and matzos in countryside supermarkets represents the integration of immigrants; abstract art in synagogues spells middle-class absorption of bohemia.
To the individual the decline of sub-communities brings depersonalization and psychic decomposition. In their ghettos the foreign born of fifty years ago, though doomed to “marginality,” had three-dimensional personalities; let out into the world, their grandchildren suffer from “diffusion.” At the same time, identities based on the crafts and trades have been dissolved by mass production, which has also undermined the traditional “status systems.” Bureaucratic management of work, consumption, education, has led to sameness in all activities and to a reliance on experts in the most private sectors of personal and family life.
In its larger aspects the community story thus becomes the familiar one of the steady dimming of folk culture and of personality and spirit under changes wrought by industrial civilization—and one is not surprised to find Stein invoking Hannah Arendt, Karl Jaspers, Martin Buber, and Erich Kahler as “contemporary philosophers whose work has important bearing on the theory of communities.” Through an overlapping of German crisis-philosophy and American community studies, Stein presents “alienation” in terms of daily detail.
How has this combination of sociology and culture-theory been accomplished? Perhaps the answer is that Stein’s “existentialists” are looking back to the ritual society for the measure of man and that the sociologists (at least those who are not content with mere counting for the sake of market research or voting predictions) are doing the same thing. “One can hardly appoint oneself a social philosopher,” writes Stein; then, after acknowledging his debt to the above-named humanists, adds disarmingly, “Following established sociological practice, my philosophical position was smuggled into Part III, loosely disguised as chapters on anthropology and psychoanalysis.” The philosophy of cultural eclipse can be palmed off as a value-scheme derived from anthropology only to the extent that both share a nostaliga for the “organic” community and instinctual behavior specifically. Arendt et al have little use for primitivist or psychoanalytical concepts.
Apart from nostalgia, I can see no reason for judging modern community life by the bio-social standards of folk culturists or by socio-psychiatric standards of neo-Freudian theoreticians. Stein draws from Erik Erikson a synthesis of anthropological and psychoanalytic values: “Looking forward, the individual should be able to see a series of later phases of adulthood each with its own demands and rewards. The human life cycle is a social as well as a biological fact. Only the most gifted and courageous are able to carve out their own. Unless the groundwork for identity elaboration is laid in adolescence, the adult is condemned to permanent confusion. A community must then provide its members with, at the least, meaningful sexual and work identities if it is to ensure its own continuity as well as the psychic integrity of its members.”
These, apparently, are aims no one would quarrel with. But are they? “The individual should be able to see a series of later phases. . . .” Why should he? Dostoevsky made fun of the Germans because among them every “phase” of a son’s life was planned by the family from birth. But if the youth doesn’t know where he’s going, the adult will be “condemned to permanent confusion.” When, since his departure from Eden, has man escaped confusion in regard to his identity? Heroin takers tell us that the allure of the drug is that it annihilates questions or empties them of personal anguish. Ritual has an identical effect. It is because confusion is inherent in man that he is given to narcotics and conversion rites. But the anthropological philosopher wants him back in an organic Eden where the different “phases” of life are bridged so naturally no one is upset by them. In his paradise, “identity elaboration” is taken care of through the community groundwork and without individual crises or separatist intoxications or cults. There are people, however, who would rather risk confusion with its catharsis than find themselves consigned to a foreseen “series of later phases.”
With the “life cycle” no longer under social management, “only the most gifted and courageous are able to carve out their own.” Why not make it a “value,” then, as did Lautréamont and Nietzsche, that everyone shall become gifted and courageous? This seems more desirable than for a community to “provide its members with, at the least, meaningful sexual and work identities.” Developing my talents and courage puts the question of my identity up to me, where it belongs; while if the community “provides” my identity, it will, as in past societies, tend to be little more than a dog-tag in depth and belong more to my neighbors than to me.
To judge the quality of life in it, a community needs to be seen in the perspective of other communities. But to turn to anthropology for values is to run the risk of utopianism, both of the scientific and the poetic variety. The danger is especially acute among those figures in American anthropology whose small town or European folk sentiments have mingled with a lapsed Marxism in a fantasy of total social communion. Stein is much taken by theories stemming from a vision of the “mystical participation” of primitive consciousness in which the split between mind and feeling is unknown. On this score he leans heavily on Paul Radin: “Primitive social order as conceived by Radin rests on a dramatic synthesis in which everyday life is transformed and saturated with meaning. Individuality depends on the capacity to participate imaginatively in the experiences and satisfactions of the whole community.” I cannot conceive what makes the primitive synthesis “dramatic,” but it is certain that an individuality that depends on joining in the “experiences and satisfactions” of all is not the individuality of anyone we think of as an individual. It would seem to exclude the idea of discovery or change; on the other hand, the demand for “imaginative participation” in the affairs of the whole community sounds exactly like the notion of “the people’s artist” in socialist-realist aesthetics.
Retaining the total community of anthropology, Stein tries to give it a modern personalist inflection; his position, he concludes, “rests upon the assumption that human communities exist to provide their members with full opportunities for personal development through social experimentation.” Here Stein is trying to slide verbally over a contradiction of enormous magnitude. Once again the community is presented as a “provider,” rather than as the focus of shifting needs and struggles. At the same time, the community is conceived as an ideal testing ground for individuals, which is to fly into the possibility-world of the laboratory and of vanguard art. Were everyone to engage in “social experimentation,” the present “eclipsed” community would seem as timelessly ordered as an African village in high noon.
Personal development or “self-realization” is, of course, a grand aim; but if you judge the actual common life by how this aim is being advanced, man will be found to fail, as he does when judged by any ideal, say that of the soldier or the saint. Worse still, self-realization, if conceived as a community goal, will contribute to make man fail, as the community apparatus, seeking to articulate the individual’s life toward its concept of maturation, augments his anxiety and rigidity. In aboriginal societies, Stein reminds us, “ritual dramas bind together the phases of life to assure growth,” thus helping “the individual confront his own destiny.” Perhaps. Yet what is the destiny of primitive man but to be the vehicle of abstract “phases”? and why speak of confronting where there is no disturbing consciousness of self?
The sense of civilized man’s failure accounts for the despondent tone of many of the community studies, their persistent intimation of moral and intellectual grayness in the lives being observed. Explicit condemnation is ruled out by the scientific pretense of “objectivity”; nor, wearing his neutral mask, does the sociologist cite any code or comparison which justifies putting the Indian sign on his human subject. Yet his descriptions consistently build proof of a worn-out and futile existence. “The intimacy of primary relations,” wails Crestwood Heights, “can be punctured easily: the flow of after-dinner conversations will often be broken clearly and sharply at nine by a vigilant host who has scheduled a television viewing as part of the hospitality of the evening; a chattering group of students will be divided neatly into two halves by an ongoing bus (four minutes late), half boarding the vehicle, the remainder continuing on foot; family dinner is interrupted by long-distance phone calls for father.”
Together with this owlish clucking comes a conviction of fatality—things will go on getting more and more this way, and there’s nothing that can be done about it. It is to Stein’s credit that he calls attention to this fatalism in the community studies and that he connects it with the “objective” approach: “This picture is at least partly an artifact of the distance between the observer and the community.” Exactly. For how can improvement be expected if the owlish critic keeps his own will out of the picture and concentrates on what is trapped in his research apparatus?
Recognizing the concealed indignation in much of community sociology, Stein seeks ways of bringing it to the surface without violating the requirements of objectivity. In this connection, keen perception leads him to raise the question of literary style. “It is surprising that so little attention has been paid to the crucial role played by reportorial style, since it is at least as important as the more frequently noticed style for conducting the field work.” Stein commends the Lynds for their straight-faced irony “through which they report what the people of Muncie are experiencing, while simultaneously critically commenting on that experience.” In another place,2 I have noted the resort to the dead-pan by Riesman and William H. Whyte, Jr.
The trouble with this type of irony is that the critical comments introduced by it are at once both superficial and opaque. It enumerates the routines and platitudes of the social group under observation and induces scorn of an existence limited to these mean experiences. In doing this, it intimates that the sociologist and his readers live quite differently and have in common an understanding of a higher way of life. As Stein points out, “There is an irresistible tendency for the reader of community study to assume an all-knowing attitude toward the community he is reading about.” In short, the irony of sociology is that of a coterie, a system of double meanings similar to that of addicts or homosexuals—Whyte complained that this irony too often went over people’s heads. The strongest motive of this non-committal style is self-protection, similar to the “neutral” face of delinquents caught with the goods (after all, studying one’s neighbors is a species of spying or peeping). It is cute of Stein to approve of the sociologist’s “smuggling” in his values, but the adequacy of these values is by no means guaranteed by the fact that his objectivity is a fake.
The oldest form of the social study is comedy. Granted that Marx, like other theoreticians of society, gave thought to the structures of pre-historic communities, his sense of the human situation owed more to Shakespeare, Cervantes, Rabelais, Diderot, Balzac. Anthropology searches for Man in aboriginal settlements; literature has been knocking around with men and women for three thousand years. If the comedian, from Aristophanes to Joyce, does not solve sociology’s problem of “the participant observer,” he does demonstrate his objectivity by capturing behavior in its most intimate aspects yet in its widest typicality. Comic irony sets whole cultures side by side in a multiple exposure (e.g., Don Quixote, Ulysses), causing valuation to spring out of the recital of facts alone, in contrast to the hidden editorializing of tongue-in-cheek ideologists.
It is the absence of comic perspective, characteristic of moral reformers and Utopians, that turns many community reports into records of sour failure. To return to Crestwood, that suburban haven of the well-to-do and sophisticated: in their will to conform and have their children conform, in their patronage of tutors in manners and of witch doctors and alchemists, in their putting social success before enjoyment of life and human feelings, in their anxious counting of signs of age and fear of the contempt and indifference it will bring, these husbands and matrons resemble the pillars of society of all ages. For our sociologists, however, they suffer horrors that seem brand new—the account of them even sounds like news. “For both sexes,” observes Crestwood Heights, “despite diets, cosmetics and facial surgery, age creeps on. [O rage! o désespoir! o vieillesse ennemie!] A critical period for the male, as it certainly is for the female, is the ‘change of life.’ Surrounded by more secrecy than is puberty, except when it is the subject of not too gentle joking, this period threatens, sobers, frightens. The crisis surrounding menopause is, however, more serious with the female, while the next general crisis, which comes at retirement is almost exclusively a problem for the male.”
As we look through the telescope, Stein interprets for us: “It is important to notice what is happening here. The human life cycle has been leveled by a cultural system which ignores the values that can be found in various ages.”
So it is our system, not old age, that brings this sadness—I can think of other things that are wrong with the system. But isn’t it true that people were also “ignoring the values” of old age in the days of Aesop, the Old Testament, Louis XIV? Advantages “can be found” in dying, but it is for philosophers to find them. However, as the title of Paul Radin’s study suggests, primitive man is a philosopher and solves that problem too, and without the strain of reflection.
In Crestwood, “male careers have a terrible inevitability with performance peaks usually being reached in the late thirties only to taper off in the fifties and with virtual obsolescence arriving at an ever-earlier age.” If the suburban male had a sense of reality, he’d reach for the cyanide before he grew up. He is still here only because he deludes himself; and it takes a comedian with a zest for the life behind play-acting and deception to delight in these delusions. In his brief predictable span, the Crestwood paterfamilias has yielded to all kinds of foolishness: he has been puffed up at his success, admired himself for his philanthropy, been distracted by triumphs at the office and in the club car, by glances passed between himself and Mrs. X. Poor fellow, he cannot keep his inevitable defeat as steadily in mind as can the sociological master of the facts—yet isn’t his shortness of memory also a fact and worthy of study? If his wife didn’t pester him so about his diet, he could have been painted by Chaucer or Franz Hals (though not by Niebuhr). Is he to blame that the search for scientific generality should have thrown him instead under the poky eye of the community-study team?
As we have insinuated once or twice, community reports have comedy in them in any case, if from no other cause than their way of computing human activities as if they were wind velocities or traffic over a fish ladder. What is needed is to bring the comedy forward. For this, the first condition is that the professional “participant observer” shall be a participant in life before he participates in the community. This means that he shall be constantly aware that the joke is on him too—if not this joke then another one very much like it: for instance, if he has avoided the comedy of the small town with its protective disguises, he has been caught in the comedy of sociology with its disguises. Through his own life alone could he recognize the common situation of man as victim-critic of his actions and his environment, and thus achieve an objectivity that is not a ruse.
Like dreams, the myths of primitive peoples reflect the philosophies of their interpreters. If, as Stein wishes, sociology is to make use of dramatic concepts, it must be prepared to give itself to different values than can be deduced from aboriginal imagery. For example, in creating social types, comedy takes for granted, and turns into a source of pleasure, the “impoverished emotional life” which the primitive culturist reprehends as an effect of civilization’s abnormalities. While to anthropological imagining the community appears as the happy “dispenser of roles,” in drama all identities are false identities; individuals live in permanent peril of a tragic or comic exposure of their “true selves.” (Similarly, all bohemias are false bohemias; discarding a social costume only uncovers another social costume; Stein’s fear that real bohemias are disappearing simply pushes him into the comical proposition that our society may have “to plan for bohemias.”)
Above all, life for the dramatic thinker consists not in a “harmonious development of potentialities” but in enduring wounds—the returning hero is recognized by his scars; while social science cultivates a horror of blemishes and itself seeks the “success and happiness mask” which it delineates in the middle class.
What the sociological imagination can gain from drama is its image of the community as a theater of conflict. No form of thought is more deterministic than comedy and tragedy, where the plot controls the behavior of the characters as their destiny. Yet in drama the force against the individuals is not a system of impersonal processes but embodiments of those processes, not industrialization, organization, bureaucratization, but tycoons, gangsters, office-holders. The very meaning of the word “drama” implies that in every human encounter an action takes place through which the actors realize themselves as individuals. The metaphysics of the integrated community, however, chooses fantasy in place of action. “Given the conditions of rural surrender,” writes Stein of the inhabitants of Springdale, “perhaps the retention of a mythology that allows a minimum of collective self-esteem and justification is the only real alternative to social disintegration.” Viewed this way, “the conditions of surrender” are always present. Yet the drudgery of the American community is owing not to the influence upon it of historic forces but to the failure of its members to struggle with those forces—in plain terms, to the absence of political action.
For comedy there can be no “terrible inevitability,” since the exposure of the social imposture of itself works a change, through the purging of consciousness and the release of energy. With his anthropological bias, Stein cannot accept this radical effect of self-knowledge. “People need to believe in the value of the communities in which they live, the goals that they seek, and the satisfactions they receive. None of this would be possible if the true state of affairs was exposed; and it is ironic that exposure would not necessarily render the facts amenable to change.” In a word, Stein sees the Springdale folk as doomed and like the Grand Inquisitor settles for their consolation through illusion. Is this, as Dostoevsky thought, the inescapable conclusion of the scientific humanitarian? Must his objectivity end in the approval of mystification? That may be so, unless his understanding of Crestwoods and Springdales rests on the belief that if their inhabitants knew themselves as they are, they could give birth to a new community (or two or three), despite the limits set by the “socio-economic basis” or “urban dominance.”
1 Princeton University Press, 354 pp., $6.00.
2 The Tradition of the New, p. 276.