Vol. 7, No. 2, May 2006

Social Character and Social Order

by Paul Lachelier
University of Wisconsin-Madison

The Problem 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:

One 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 1969: 200)

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.

What does 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.

The Matter of Habit

Almost twenty 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 [of habit].

There is 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)

Twenty years 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).

There would 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 (1978: 21-2),

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 marginal case.

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.

Character: Definition and Significance

Like habit (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 and orders.

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.

The Trouble with "Negotiated" Order

This concept 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,

I 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)

Hence, even 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 (1969),

A 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)

There is, 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.

There are 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.

Consumer Characters and the Production of Capitalism

It's probably 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,

If 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)

Behind that 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.

Ensuring 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.

Along the 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.

Why study 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 social order.


1) Pierre 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" (1984: 376).

2) Rational 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 action.

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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