Friday, March 15, 2013

Never Was a Cornflake Girl: Thomas Bender, Community, and Identity

I wrote this essay for a seminar on community at SUNY Albany in 1996. As someone interested in the social and cultural construction of reality I have long been interested in community, identity, and the social and cultural construction of community and identity. As someone interested in social movements like Mormonism and Quakerism I have long been interested in how identity construction and community construction are at the heart of the construction of social movements. At the heart of social movements, of course, is a cultural and ideological core. This paper interrogates most of these long term theoretical concerns of mine.

Thomas Bender's Community and Social Change offers us social and cultural theory fleshed out with history. More than anything else Bender’s book takes to task the tendency in social science theories of community to read the famous gemeinschaft/gesellschaft distinction of the influential German theorist Ferdinand Tonnies in geographical and evolutionary terms.

For Bender, it was the influential University of Chicago sociologist Louis Wirth who popularised the notion that face-to-face rural communities (gemeinschaft) were declining in the face of the growth of urban industrial societies (gesellschaft). For Wirth, and others who followed his lead, urbanism, operationalised in terms of demographic variables, specifically, increasing population, increasing population density, and increasing heterogeneity, undermined traditional communal ways, and gave birth to new urban lifeways, new lifeways that replaced these earlier primary forms of social interaction with secondary social contacts, weakened kinship bonds, and undermined the traditional bases of social solidarity.

Bender takes exception to Wirth’s geographical and evolutionary conception of the community/society binary. Instead he argues that Tonnies conception of gemeinschaft and gesellschaft was both geographic-evolutionary and, the aspect which Wirth ignores, behavioural, He argues that it is this behavioural aspect of the community/society split that allows us look at community and society historically rather than evolutionarily.

Bender explores American community history from colonisation to the twentieth century to foreground how important this behavioural understanding of community and society is. According to Bender it was in the late eighteenth century that America experienced a bifurcation in lifestyles. After the ratification of the Constitution two different lifeways, local lifeways arose in the United States, one local in form and grounded in face-to-face interaction and characterised by “consensus”, and another, national in form and characterized by conflict and the idea of majority rules.

There is something to be said for Bender's volleys against the geographic-evolutionary conception of the community/society binary popularized by Wirth. Bender’s attacks on theories of community like those of Wirth, approaches which are grounded in unilinear assumptions, assumptions which posit the straight line movement from gemeinshaft to gesellschaft, from traditional to modern communities, from rural to urban forms, assumptions which continue to impact the contemporary intellectual and academic mind.

Bender is not the first theorist to raise questions about unilinear models of the evolution of community and society which posits that community had been replaced by society, that face-to-face interactions had been replaced by secondary ones. Unilnear models in general, unilnear models which were prominent not only in community theory but in the understanding of the evolution of humans and human life in general, came under serious attack in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s in the writings of Franz Boaz and Julian Steward and by the 1960s had lost its dominant place in anthropological theory. So, to some extent, Bender provides us with yet another example of someone critiquing a social science paradigm that had already gone out of style by the time he criticised it.

Timing apart Bender does offer a systematic account of the problems with the geographical-evolutionary model of community and proffers a behavioural model in its place. But what he doesn’t offer us is an exploration of that historical, social, and cultural phenomena that manufactures community, identity and its social, cultural, and historical construction.

In recent years anthropologists have begun to focus a significant amount of attention on the nature of identity construction. Cultural Anthropologist John Comaroff, for instance, distinguishes between two major identity forms, the totemic and the ethnic. Comoroff sees the former as an identity structured on the belief in a common ancestral origin, in a common ancestry traced to some animal or plant in the natural environment. Totemic identity structures, claims Comaroff, are less likely to demonise the others whom they mark themselves off against than is that other form of identity type Comaroff delineates, ethnic identity structures. Ethnic identity structures, like totemic, are grounded in ideologies of common ancestry. They are generally geographical in nature, tied to soil, and they are often biological in form, tied to blood. Ethnic identities are generally grounded in a distinction between "us" and "them", with the "them" oftentimes characterised in very negative almost demonic terms.

While Comoroff's distinction is very interesting and helpful it does not go far enough. Identity can be defined in a variety of ways, biologically, economically, politically, geographically, ideologically, culturally, ecologically, religiously, historically, and so on. In the modern West with its complex social and cultural formations, for instance, identity can even be defined in terms of all of these above simultaneously. From 8am to 5pm on weekdays we may define ourselves as an employee of Wal-Mart. From 10am to 10:05am on Election Day we may define ourselves in terms of ones political party. From 11am to 3pm on Sunday we may define ourselves as a devout ward going Mormon. In the first few weeks after an attack on our nation we may define ourselves as a patriotic lets respond to the attack citizen of the United States. If we are a student at the University of Utah we may define ourself as a "Ute" and mark ourself off against that evil "Cougar" other of BYU to our south. When with parents we may define ourselves in biological terms, as a daughter of the Demerest family. When trying to get into Harvard we may attempt to define ourselves in minority categories that have been constructed in the nation in which we live. Clearly, identity and thus community, which is built on the broad shoulders of identity, are very complex phenomena and require further systematic study. And it is certainly far more than just a behaviour. It is a culture and a complex of meanings.

One last criticism of Bender's work, like many classic works in early American religious history, works which often place Puritans at the centre of their narrative tales--yet another unilinear academic tale--Bender place New Englanders and their communities in the very centre of his analysis. He asserts that the similarities between New England, the Middle Colonies, the Chesapeake, and the South were more significant than their differences. Even he has to admit that the differences were significant as well, however, particularly when he deals with the differences between the American North and the American South. Nevertheless, he asserts that the back country areas of the South were as locally oriented as the New England colonies and states. But the question remains whether they were locally oriented in the same way? Bender really does need to develop a cultural notion of community in addition to his behavioural notion for if he did he might see that the behavioural similarities are no less important than the cultural variations.

Thomas Bender, Community and Social Change (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1978)
John Comaroff, "Of Totemisn and Ethnicity: Consciousness, Practise, and the Signs of Inequality"; unpublished paper in possession of the author
Julian Steward, Evolution and Ecology: Essays on Social Transformation (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978)
Julian Steward, Theory of Cultural Change: The Methodology of Multilinear Evolution (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990)

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