American Political Cultures

American Political Cultures

American Political Cultures

American Political Cultures

Synopsis

This work challenges the thesis first formulated by de Tocqueville and later systematically developed by Louis Hartz, that American political culture is characterized by a consensus on liberal capitalist values. Ranging over three hundred years of history and drawing upon the seminal work anthropologist Mary Douglas, Richard Ellis demonstrates that American history is best understood as a contest between five rival political cultures: egalitarian community, competitive individualism, hierarchical collectivism, atomized fatalism, and autonomous hermitude.

Excerpt

David Riesman once described a historian as "a person whose job it is to destroy the other fellow's generalization." Much the same could be said of anthropologists, who often seem to enjoy nothing more than invoking their anthropologists' veto: not in my tribe.Little wonder, then, that many historians have affirmed their affinity with anthropology.

The work of one anthropologist has proven particularly congenial to the antitheoretical bias of historians: Clifford Geertz and his method of "thick description." Historians have used Geertz selectively, largely ignoring the early Geertz, who, taking a cue from his teacher, Talcott Parsons, forcefully criticized the anthropologists' practice of "spiteful ethnography," while embracing the later Geertz, who argues that "the shapes of knowledge are always ineluctably local, indivisible from their instruments and their encasements." Geertz's writings have provided historians with a justification for their natural inclination to retreat from theory to interpretation, from the general to the particular, from determinism to indeterminacy, from science to art.Embracing Geertz has, in short, allowed historians to legitimize what many of them have always preferred doing, namely, to avoid explicit typologies and theorizing.

That Geertz has been adopted as the "patron saint" of American cultural historians tells us a great deal about why, as one historian laments, "there is no satisfactory grand synthesis holding together specialized studies of this-and-that and little effort to see if one exists." For "thick description" provides, at best, a general orientation or approach; if we are to synthesize existing knowledge about American cultures into a coherent whole, what is needed is a theory or categorization of cultures. One can agree with Geertz on the need to understand human behavior as "symbolic action" or to interpret culture as "socially established structures of meaning" and yet still be no further along in specifying types of structures of meaning and the social relations that support those meanings.If it is not to be an empty slogan, interpretation of meaning must offer a theory or categorization of meanings that tells us what types of meanings (or symbols, narratives, discourses, or conversations) go with what types of contexts or communities.

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