7, No. 2, May 2006
Character and Social Order
of Social Order
How is social
order possible? In a footnote in his book, Relations in Public
(1971), Erving Goffman poses this basic sociological question
in an interesting way worth quoting at length. Goffman quotes
authors Jerry Avorn et al's book Up Against the Ivy Wall
(1969) in their description of Columbia University President Grayson
Kirk's reaction in 1968 upon entering his office after student
activists had occupied it for six days:
and a half hours after the President's suite had been cleared
of student demonstrators, Grayson Kirk stood in the center of
his private office looking at the blankets, cigarette butts, and
orange peels that covered his rug. Turning to A.M. Rosenthal of
the New York Times and several other reporters who had
come into the office with him he murmured, "My God, how could
human beings do a thing like this?"....Kirk's windows were criss-crossed
with tape and on one hung a large sign reading, "Join Us." His
lampshades were torn, his carpet was spotted, his furniture was
displaced and scratched....The everything-in-its-place décor
to which Kirk had grown accustomed was now in disarray--disarray
that was the result of the transformation of an office into the
living quarters of 150 students during the past six days. (Avorn
To this description,
Goffman responded: "The great sociological question, of course,
is not how could it be that human beings would do a thing like
this, but rather how is it that human beings do this sort of thing
so rarely. How come persons in authority have been so overwhelmingly
successful in conning those beneath them into keeping the hell
out of their offices?" (1971: 288).
Such a subversive
question can be thrilling to individualists who see society as
a foreign force imposed on individuals, and to sociologists who
see in sociology the keys to human emancipation. Yet there is
another way of seeing social order: less as a trickster's "con"
than as a lived character. This character-focused way of seeing
can involve a manipulating trickster, but it focuses on the individual
him or herself as an important source of social order, however
problematic that order. This approach is not intended to laud
or blame the individual for any given social order though. Indeed,
in some sense it has the reverse intention: to invigorate our
sociological sense that the reason it may be so difficult to throw
off the trickster's veil is that the veil is in us, not over us.
this have to do with consumption? One of my abiding sociological
interests has been in the relationship between democracy and capitalism,
less as formal institutions than as lived cultures, and as I see
them, as social orders which nurture distinct characters. It is
sometimes said that what animates us as people living in contemporary
capitalism is less our work than our consumption (without claiming
that the two are mutually exclusive). This article lays some groundwork
for the study of character as a force in social order, and as
a brief case study, in the reproduction of consumer capitalism.
But before we get to consumer characters and consumer capitalism,
I talk first about habit, character, and the problems with a "negotiated"
conception of social order.
years ago, University of Wisconsin sociologist Charles Camic noted
in an American Journal of Sociology article entitled "The
Matter of Habit":
Contemporary sociology has virtually dispensed with the concept
no article on habit in the International Encyclopedia of the
Social Sciences, no place for it in the recent indices of the
major sociological journals, no slot for it in the annual reviews
and the standard textbooks. What prevails instead ... is a model
of action that has alternatively been called purposive, rational,
voluntaristic, or decisional but will here be designated by
the less controverted term "reflective." (Camic 1986: 1040)
later, the situation does not seem to have changed much. Of course,
a handful of prominent sociological theorists have given habit
important place in their theorizing (1), but the eyes of most
American sociologists appear to be trained on emotion and rationality
rather than habit when considering action, judging from our journals
and ASA interest groups (2).
be little reason to contest this state of affairs, except that:
1) sociology does not by definition limit itself to studying reflective
action, 2) habit was once, as Camic (1986) indicates, a staple
concept in the vocabularies of many of our most revered sociologists
and social theorists, including Weber and Durkheim, and perhaps
most importantly, 3) habits remain staples of human action. To
this third point, Max Weber concurs in Economy & Society
In the great majority of cases actual action goes on in a state
of inarticulate half-consciousness or actual unconsciousness of
its subjective meaning. The actor is more likely to "be aware"
of it in a vague sense than he is to "know" what he is doing or
be explicitly self-conscious about it. In most cases his action
is governed by impulse or habit ... The ideal type of meaningful
action where the meaning is fully conscious and explicit is a
At its core,
habit has two defining characteristics: it is repeated and more
or less unreflected. This simple definition aside, the concept
of habit has been used to refer to a wide variety of things, from
the simplest personal ticks to more complex systems of dispositions--such
as Bourdieu's "habitus" (Bourdieu 1990: 53, Bourdieu & Wacquant
1992: 16)--that generate and sustain certain kinds of action or
behavior. It is toward this more complex conception of habit as
a generative disposition that I wish to focus on in this article
because it explains the simpler habits (dispositions generate
and sustain various habits of action), and because it constitutes
a key link between self and social order, and a key answer to
the problem of social order.
Definition and Significance
(Camic 1986), the concept of, and indeed even the word "character"
seems to have disappeared from the American sociological vocabulary
since the 1920s (Camic 2002). While some psychologists now study
"personality"--understood more as an aggregate of characteristics
rather than a general orientation or disposition--American sociologists
seem to have abandoned both concepts in favor, more recently,
of ideas such as symbolic boundaries (Lamont 1992, Gamson 1997),
or languages of motive (Wuthnow 1991). These and other more current
sociological concepts may turn sociologists away from studying
the self, or "character" (which I use interchangeably with "social
character") as a more or less enduring and unreflected complex
of internalized characteristics that group members' share that
dispose them to behaviors which reproduce and/or challenge society.
Such a concept invites inquiry into the more or less enduring
dispositions that groups may share, most of which probably cohere,
but some which conflict with the prevailing social order. A subaltern
group can, consciously or not, nurture a character that to varying
extents contradicts the prevailing social order. In addition,
this concept of character does not confine itself to class as
Bourdieu's habitus tends to; a person may have a particular, historically-situated
upper-middle class character, but also a distinct American character,
a male character, etc. Hence, any given person may have various
characters in reality intertwined and usually not in conflict,
yet analytically distinguishable. Lastly, while characters by
nature tend to endure, they are not static. Precisely because
characters are grounded in social groups and social orders, they
will tend to evolve in accordance with changes in those groups
Of more general
import for individualistic Americans, the concept of character
helps sociologists underscore that society lives within individuals
as much as individuals live in society, and hence helps challenge
the popular notion that the individual stands apart from society
(e.g., "I don't let society tell me what to think, I think for
myself"). Indeed, far from being in conflict as individualistic
Americans tend to assume, most of the time self and society cohere.
As sociologist Peter Berger puts it, "[M]ost of the time we ourselves
desire just that which society expects of us. We want to obey
the rules. We want the parts that society has assigned to us....Society
not only determines what we do but also what we are" (Berger 1963:
93). It is part of character's sociological appeal that it underscores
that what individuals consider so personal and unique--their very
self--is in fact in many ways so socially contingent. It is, still
further, part of character's sociological appeal that it can help
scholars reveal just how successful a social order can be in ensuring
its reproduction. The most successful, enduring social orders
are not so much feared, like George Orwell's "Big Brother" (1961).
They are also not necessarily wholly legitimate (Weber 1978: 31-33),
or loved, as in Tocqueville's "soft despotism," (1969: 690-695),
or Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" (1932, 1958). For instance,
the feelings of some if not most contemporary Americans toward
the U.S. Government, or the American economy is marked by ambivalence
more than unqualified faith or love. But our social orders mark
us to varying extents. Character is social order internalized.
Yet we may
not willfully, consciously follow the rules and roles of a social
order as Berger's above language of "want" suggests. We may just
follow the rules, notions and roles because we take them for granted,
because they are habits rather than rules, because they constitute
our very selves that we seldom if ever question. The fact that
character is internalized does not make it invisible to the careful
observer though character manifests itself in the observable habits
it generates, such as the structured ways people work, play, associate,
talk, desire, and aspire. Character does, however, tend to be
invisible, natural, and authentic to its practitioners. For these
reasons, and because character is a disposition--it inclines us
to certain actions, makes these action pathways easier because
they are habits--character tends to endure.
with "Negotiated" Order
of character challenges popular sociological conceptions of social
order as rational choices given structural incentives and disincentives,
or as ongoing "negotiations." Symbolic interactionist theorizing,
for instance, stresses the contingency of social action and social
order. As Joel Charon explains the interaction process in an introductory
text on symbolic interactionist theory,
act; you consider my act, and you act; I consider your act, and
I act; you consider my act and you act. This give-and-take process
is what is meant by interaction. The acts of each actor become
social objects that the other considers as he or she acts. We
never know what we will do next in our stream of action, in part
because it will depend on what the other does. (Charon 1992:
146; italics mine)
the most powerful and enduring social institutions--from the U.S.
government to McDonalds--are erected, maintained, reduced or destroyed
through this interpretive interaction. As Herbert Blumer explains
in his classic Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective & Method
network or an institution does not function automatically because
of some inner dynamics or system requirements; it functions because
people at dif- ferent points do something, and what they do is
a result of how they define the situation in which they are called
to act ..... Both the functioning and the fate of institutions
are set by this process of interpretation as it takes place among
the diverse sets of participants. (Blumer 1969: 19-20)
admittedly, a certain thrill in this kind of theorizing, especially
for those of us who wish to assert, at least theoretically, the
power of individuals and groups to change even the most massive
and/or deep-seated social structures. This thrill has not been
lost on a number of contemporary democratic theorists, including
Jurgen Habermas (1989) and Hans Joas (1996), who have employed
symbolic interactionist theorizing (especially George Herbert
Mead) and its philosophical antecedent pragmatism (e.g., Charles
Sanders Peirce, William James, John Dewey) to develop, respectively,
"communicative" and "creative" theories of democracy that stress
the ongoing and contingent meaning-making agency of actors. In
theory then, without ongoing, reflective interaction, democracy,
capitalism and indeed all social orders crumble.
at least three risks in such an understanding of social order
as ongoing "negotiation." First, as much as social orders do indeed
require varying extents of ongoing negotiation, such theorizing
can nurture the misguided impression that social institutions
are fragile, subject to reform or destruction if ever people choose
to re-interpret their meaning. Second, and accordingly, such theorizing
exaggerates the power of interpretation, as if indeed "the fate"
of institutions, local to global, recent and ancient alike, depended
on the "process of interpretation as it takes place among the
diverse sets of participants," to quote Herbert Blumer again (1969:
20). Third, such theorizing can make the reproduction of social
order seem exhausting rather than effortless. In contrast, the
concept of character outlined above can help us understand how
social orders endure as much by habit as by negotiation, incentive,
rule (normative or legal), or shared values.
Characters and the Production of Capitalism
safe to say that most social orders have an interest in reproducing
themselves, but arguably few if any social orders surpass modern
capitalism in the scale of its investment in reproduction and
growth. This, of course, has increasing consequences for the environment
and the quantity, content and distribution of wealth across the
globe, but it also has consequences for the self, for the evolving
kinds of social characters we as individuals can be. In an article
in a 2004 issue of our Consumer Studies Research Network newsletter
Consumers, Commodities and Consumption, Dan Cook writes,
you want to catch a glimpse of the gears of capitalism grinding
away in America today, you don't need to go to a factory or a
business office. Instead, observe a child and parent in a store.
That high-pitched whining you'll hear coming from the cereal aisle
is more than just the pleadings of a single kid bent on getting
a box of Fruit Loops into the shopping cart. It is the sound of
thousands of hours of market research, of an immense coordination
of people, ideas and resources, of decades of social and economic
change all rolled into a single, "Mommy, pleeease!" (2004: 1)
whine and all people, ideas, resources and change is also the
fundamental and enduring imperative of contemporary capitalism
to ensure that consumer demand meets if not exceeds supply so
as to keep those gears grinding. Moreover, while manufacturers
and advertisers may be the ones most concerned about demand, most
people in the world, elites and non-elites alike, who are dependent
on markets or governments (which depend on robust economic growth
for robust tax income) for their income, depend on the continued
growth in consumer demand. Advertisers now just as, if not more
often, connect products with ways of being, with consumer characters,
as they try to convince consumers of the rationality of a given
purchase based on quality, quantity, and price.
that all-important consumer demand has come to mean not only the
production of consumption, but the production of consumers, from
the child whining for Fruit Loops all the way to the senior dependent
on expensive pills and nursing homes.
way through the life cycle, in different constellations of location,
institution, class, race, ethnicity, gender, and other social
forces, sociologists may find a diversity of consumer characters.
There is the young, high-income urban professional who likes to
"work hard, and play hard," spending long days producing in the
office, and long weekend nights consuming in restaurants, clubs
and bars. There is the privileged twenty-something "princess,"
the apple of her high-income parents' eyes, with a passion for
high-end clothes shopping, and a $50,000 wedding date to prepare
for. There is also the "underprivileged" princess from a low-income
family who habitually flips through celebrity magazines, and does
her best to look good, even if that means deepening her credit
card debt to buy that faux Gucci handbag she "has to have." There
is the avid athlete, who spends hours scouring eBay and craigslist,
and communicating and meeting with sellers to add to his ever
expanding collection of tennis rackets and bicycles. These characters
are just some of the many I have come to know here in Boston,
and they represent not even the tip of the iceberg of consumer
characters out there in the wider world.
characters? There are many reasons. In the domain of consumer
studies, clearly, human beings are all consumers, but humans vary
greatly in the ways they practice consumption, and this basic
fact invites inquiry into the diversity of consumer characters
and their diverse consumption practices. The concept of character,
as outlined in this article, furthermore invites sociologists
to connect the personal and the public (Mills 1959), and particularly
to study how different consumer characters challenge or reproduce
capitalist social order to varying extents. Not all consumer characters
are equally productive for turning the gears of capitalism, and
some may slow or damage the gears. More generally, the study of
characters can, for instance, form part of a larger study of a
group, subculture, or community, or of the historical evolution
of selves. The study of contemporary characters can be used to
confirm, challenge, update or extend previous character studies
(Endnote 3). The study of characters can also enrich our understanding
of social orders, power, stratification, identity, and countless
other sociological subjects, large and small. In my own pursuit
of the tensions between democracy and capitalism, the Columbia
student activists with whom I began this essay, and the "work
hard, play hard" yuppies I encounter in Boston relate somehow,
two quite different characters from quite different social circumstances
with quite different implications for the prevailing American
Bourdieu and Anthony Giddens are two prominent examples. Bourdieu
develops his own class-focused concept of "habitus"--which he
more briefly defines as "systems of durable, transposable dispositions"
(1990: 53)--in several works, notably including Distinction
(1984), and The Logic of Practice (1990: 52-79). Giddens
discusses "routinization" in his own major theoretical contribution,
The Constitution of Society (1984: 60-4, 68-73, 111-3).
Giddens uses routinization to mean "the habitual, taken-for-granted
character of the vast bulk of the activities of day-to-day social
life; the prevalence of familiar styles and forms of conduct,
both supporting and supported by a sense of ontological security"
and emotional behavior each command their own ASA interest sections
--and rational behavior its own sociological journal, Rationality
and Society--while habit enjoys no such institutionalized
interest. Also indicative: a recent JSTOR search yields from twenty-nine
sociological journals only thirty-four titles, citations, or abstracts
containing the word "habit," only eleven of these appearing after
Camic's 1986 article, and only three are articles which focus
on habits at least secondarily; the rest of the eleven are reviews,
many of which are not about habit per se. The related word "routine"
fares somewhat better, with 125 uses of the word in the twenty-nine
sociological journals in JSTOR, though only thirty-seven of these
appear after 1986, and only thirteen of these thirty-seven appear
to be articles which specifically study routine action of some
kind. By contrast, 139 JSTOR sociology titles, citations or abstracts
contain the word "emotion" --ninety-six of which were published
after 1986--and 226 contain the word "rationality"--121 published
after 1986. Hence, by at least this one limited measure, sociological
interest in rational and 121 published after 1986. Hence, by at
least this one limited measure, sociological interest in rational
and emotional action is growing much more than interest in habitual
3) Has Max
Weber's ascetic Protestant (2002) survived in any places today,
and is not the contemporary capitalist character defined just
as much if not more by consumerist release as productive restraint?
Does David Riesman et al's "other-directed" character (1961) hold
in contemporary America? Are there other important strains of
individualistic character beyond the "utilitarian" and "expressive"
that Robert Bellah and his colleagues (1985) found?
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