I do believe that I’ve had some success in creating a formula that helps make sense of things — and it’s a democratic, open formula that allows each person to be their own social scientist in understanding and making sense of the human reality
Experiencing History in the 21st Century: You’re In the Omelet
Congratulations — we’ve made it deep into the world of the 21st Century of the Christian Era. You are a part of a human population that keeps growing in numbers, and you are also a part of a human population that keeps growing, as far as we can tell, in complexity: new subcultures, new political movements, new wrinkles in the old existing complexities.
And perhaps like the man who never realized he was already speaking in prose, you may not always be conscious of how your every moment, your every choice, contributes to the creation of what we call History — The Story of People, and What Happened to Them. You, your life, is a part of History, now and then and every moment forward.
It’s all very hard to keep up with at times, and I’ve tried to define myself as a historian — one who keeps up with it, and tries to make sense of it for you — even though I’ve never gone, academically in the field of History, past my own college degree.
I’ve had a busy normal life, mostly working as a self-employed businessperson, I’ve enjoyed enough failures and disappointments of my own incredibly high standards that I can admit I’m not the best at keeping up with it all. I am a news junkie and have been since 1958, and I’ve essentially made a living as an adult by being a (hard-working) know-it-all, so I do have pretty good idea, I hope, of the major trends, yet I’ll admit that a lot of the details have passed in and out of my brainspace, never to return. You can and will find me wrong on a detail of history if you let me start lecturing on any of my favorite themes without doing any research first.
Nevertheless, I do believe that I’ve had some success in creating a formula that helps make sense of things — and it’s a democratic, open formula that allows each person — each person like you! — to be their own social scientist in understanding and making sense of the human reality we find ourselves enmeshed in. If you and other folks like it, this formula could even be the beginning of the Democratic Revolution of the Social Sciences. If you can take a few minutes, I’d like to try tell you about it.
History As If People Matter
I have never taken the view that some people seem to have, that History is only about “big things:” wars and governments and civilizations and other big human constructions that often seem beyond being influenced by any of us “ordinary people.”
I have always been curious about every person I meet, it can be a problem. If I get at all involved I want to know all of their thoughts and opinions and how they were formed. In writing about History, I have argued that History needs to take account of everything: every thought and action of every person, that’s what human History is, and that’s what we need to know from History, as well.
You may notice there aren’t many links in my writing. I’ve been thinking my own thoughts for a long time, and I’m not reacting to any current comments on the web
I have written about how History needs to take account of every human being that has ever lived, even the half of historic humanity that is represented by newborns dying in infancy — they did have an effect on the people who lived. Now of course there’s no data existing now anywhere on 99.99+% of all those historical people, so all we can do is make educated guesses from the evidence that has survived, yet as we go into the 21st Century and it becomes theoretically possible to make records of, and get data on, all the people in the world — for real! — the History we will need to have will be the History that is prepared to meet that challenge.
Each and every one of us is experiencing, and indeed influencing and creating, the History of the 21st Century right now. Every thought we have, every choice we make, every action we take, all must be part of the History of the 21st Century. And if as seems likely, humanity passes through several difficult types of choices in the decades to come, our every thought and action will be part of creating those huge, global developments and outcomes.
I grew up in a time that defined itself by a “Cold War” between great states and overwhelming ideologies, I was very conscious of what was often described as a “global struggle” between capitalism and communism as a child, and as a teenager I purposely collected strange ideologies of all sorts; my mom was a “serial believer” in at least a half-a-dozen psychological or spiritual movements in Southern California from the early 60’s to the early ’70’s.
As a college student getting my honors degree from a decent school in the early 70’s, I was very conscious of the competing claims of “The Most Important Thing” in human behavior: was it Freud or some other in psychology, there was the Marxist claim of the supremacy of economic behavior (and then all the other economic ideologies), don’t ignore Weber with sociology or the anthropologists, maybe it was political organization or military innovation and what about the religions?
That consciousness of competing ideologies is the context that my presentation today grows out of — combined with my own difficult lessons in really hearing the concerns of other people that I encountered, and overcoming my own incredibly ignorant youthful self-centeredness. If I’m presenting a re-definition of the social sciences, it’s not because I think I’m smarter or better informed than anyone else. I have come to understand my own limitations, if I have a good understanding of a subject it doesn’t mean that I’m very smart, it’s actually because I’m a bit dense, and I’ve had to go over the subject and over it and over it and see it raise itself again as issue with new circumstances and sticking points in many different instances in my life.
I will be proposing a re-definition of the social sciences, the study of human beings in their societies, because I have been living with it and developing it for over thirty years now, it’s worked very well for me and it’s time to share it more widely. I do believe these ideas may help the intelligent, well-meaning people get better results in a world that too often seems to favor the un-intelligent, ill-meaning people, and that this re-definition of the social sciences could become the beginnings of a Democratic Revolution of the Social Sciences for the 21st Century.
Some Basic Postulates
So, it’s time to get some basic assumptions going, so we can have a scientific-type discussion.
First, yes there is an external reality that exists outside our perceptions of it.
Rocks are hard, heat burns, and freezing also kills mammals. We can define and reproduce a color “red” that is perceived commonly enough that it can become the worldwide basis for traffic signals. Yet our understanding and discussion of this basic reality is complicated by the knowledge that communication is difficult (even with a common language), that your perception of “red” might be very different than my perception of “red.”
So while there is an external reality, it is also true that all we can perceive of this reality is mediated by our individual brains, which are indeed locked inside our individual bony heads, and thus our brains can only communicate through the imperfect medium of language; at some fundamental level, I can never really know your deepest inner thoughts and feelings and you can never know mine. Yes, some articulate fiction and non-fiction writers and storytellers can communicate a feeling so that you “get it,” you feel you share that emotion, those circumstances; yet it’s precisely because such success in communication is rare, that such success is enjoyed by the audience and celebrated as an achievement of art by the storyteller.
Second, all available evidence indicates that the earth is very, very old, and that all sorts of life evolved over hundreds of millions of years before creatures that can considered humans pretty much like us appeared, probably sometime in the last 5 million years or so (and depending on how narrowly you define human, maybe only in last 50,000 or 100,000 years).
However, even if you’re one of the people who insist that some sort of Christian Biblical Creation occurred only 6000 years ago (or you have some other non-mainstream theory of the distant past), I am willing to give you a long-odds possibility that your views may be proved absolutely true some day. Yet even if that comes to pass, I want to tell you that the re-definitions of the social sciences I am about to present can still be useful in analyzing the behavior of human beings — right now, today and tomorrow.
When you’re dealing with the world of people … you’re deep in the doo-doo of uncertainty
Third, even in the realm of historical time, the last few thousand years for which we have stories and documents and strong archeological evidence, understanding human behavior can be an extremely difficult task. Understanding any underlying “structures” of group behavior, or any “motives” of individual behavior, is always very difficult and subject to large, huge, even immense amounts of uncertainty. There are always a multiplicity of possible factors in any interesting historical situation, even if there’s only one actor involved; multiple actors multiply the numbers of factors to consider. Societies and cultures are not always clear to themselves about “why” certain behaviors are rewarded and others are punished. At the more personal pole of the historical record, evidence and memories are subject to the fallacies revealed in social psychology experiments: memories can be influenced by what we expect to see or what we are told we have seen. People’s stories conflict, greatly, insurmountably; people tell lies about themselves and others. When you’re dealing with the world of people and why they think they did the things they did, or even whether they’ll admit to doing the things you know they did, you’re deep in the doo-doo of uncertainty: whose story to believe, whose evidence to trust?
I am a democrat in these matters, people are so stubborn you have to let each person be the ultimate judge of their own reality. (Yet of course if you’re involved in the situation, you can have your own clear conclusions about who’s truthful and who’s not.) The overall trends of reasonable conclusions add up over the idiosyncrasies of personal understanding (and personal misunderstandings), the science of the day is whatever it is because it reflects the evolution that brought it about. Sure, the consensus of the day can be mistaken or prejudiced, yet the process of arguing it out and changing the consensus is part of what make us human.
Understanding Human Behavior: Ron’s Omelet
The key to understanding human behavior is that there is no one science that explains human behavior. There are always at least four social sciences that contribute simultaneously to every single act of human behavior, and as you’ll see I re-define these sciences broadly. The four sciences that are at work in every human situation are the sciences of Psychology (the creation and distribution of personalities and personality structures), the science of Philosophy/Science/Religion (the creation and distribution of explanations, explanations of all types of what the world is and how it operates), the science of Politics (the creation and distribution of honor, rank, and status and the elaboration of these into tribal and governmental structures), and the science of Economics (the creation and distribution of systems of value and the creation and distribution of physical goods and services that express those values).
So do you get it? You’re in the Omelet, you’re part of History, your thoughts and actions create History at every moment. Your thoughts and actions are also the data for the four inter-related, overlapping and simultaneous social sciences that can help us get to a better understanding of the most important causes of your behavior, and everyone else’s behavior.
Part of the reason my theory of Human History uses the metaphor of an Omelet, is that it’s all mixed-up and often messy.
And for emphasis, let’s repeat that once again: You are part of History, your thoughts and actions create History at every moment, yesterday, today and tomorrow. Your thoughts and actions, and everyone else’s too, can also be usefully analyzed by the four inter-related, overlapping and simultaneously occurring four major social sciences of psychology, philosophy, politics and economics, as I have re-defined them.
Now, I certainly hope that you’re enjoying my presentation of these ideas, however, if that’s not the case, let’s step back and look at some reasons why you might not be agreeing with this, or accepting this information. First, of course, would be the idea that “History isn’t about me, it’s about Kings and Presidents and wars and big things like that.” Again, that idea is just propaganda and foolishness: History should be about you, and the people you know, and the people in your city or your province, History needs to be about you and why you are where you are this moment. You are just as important as you make yourself to be important (within the global context of 7 billion other people also making themselves important). And once again, to create a more useful science of History, we must create a science of History that includes literally everyone.
Another reason you might not like or accept the idea that you are part of History, and that your thoughts and actions create the four inter-related basic social sciences, is that you may already have strong ideas about how the world works, based on your religion or your culture or ideology, and my ideas are somehow conflicting with your strong ideas about what you already believe. Yet without asking you to change your beliefs, there is most likely a place in your belief where the believer can and must analyze human motives and actions scientifically, and all I’m asking is that my system be considered among any other scientific systems that might be used to analyze thought and behavior. If your version of religion, or your version of scientific ideology is so extreme and comprehensive in its explanations of human thought and behavior that it rules out my ideas, I would just humbly suggest that is all the more reason to consider my “omelet of the social sciences” as an alternative.
Perhaps you’re just the kind of person who reacts against anyone at all who “tries to tell me what to think.” And again, I’ll stress that my proposed re-definitions of the social sciences are just a framework, a bare bit of scaffolding or a garden trellis, which enables your thoughts to grow and be built up, always to your own preference, yet hopefully providing a bit more foundation and support for your own ideas, and hopefully providing a bit of common language for your thoughts and actions to interact productively with the thoughts and actions of others.
And finally, there are, sadly, many millions of people in our world who feel themselves incapable or unworthy of forming their own thoughts, of forming new and better behaviors. You’ve been bullied, perhaps, or told you are stupid or inadequate, or maybe you started out full of vigor but have been beaten down by accidents, experience, or losses of various types.
Yet nothing lasts forever in this human life, and there are indeed accidents and misfortunes and outside forces intervening in the stories of our lives, and in your specific case , these may seem depressing and insurmountable. And it’s sad and true that we can’t re-grow the loss of a limb, or re-create specific loved ones we have lost. Yet as many teachers and coaches will tell you, nothing is ultimately insurmountable as long as you live and breathe: you can change the context of your thoughts, you can change your attitudes towards your accidents, failures and losses, you may be able to move some of the circumstances that seem to hold you down. Today’s stupidity may be tomorrow’s clever, today’s clarity may be tomorrow’s confusion; accidents and misfortunes and outrages will occur, yet in the end you are the one whose psychological structures react and adapt to those outside forces, you are one who must eventually create the explanation you will use for your accidents.
Part of the reason my theory of Human History uses the metaphor of an Omelet, is that it’s all mixed-up and often messy. Compared to the simplistic notions of today’s popular media, your behavior is actually “over-determined,” there is more than one reason you’re doing what you’re doing and thinking what you’re thinking. We do not have data on everyone else’s early years, or their recent years (and the impressions we think we have may be mistaken), so our scientific analysis of their human behavior is unclear, and imprecise, and thus often comes down to the information we can easily get — general cultural background, specific life history, and general personality types. Yet we do have, or should have if we had been paying attention, the data on our own lives, and the re-defined social sciences are a powerful tool for understanding that the self-examined life is the life most worth living.
If we had more full information on everyone else’s life and thoughts — which our 21st Century technology shows signs of possibly providing! — we can get a more precise analysis of the four social sciences at work — the creation and distribution of the ideas and values and stereotypes that run people’s behavior.
As a Historian, I do suspect that even with better data we’ll still find that Psychological choices and values run hand-in-hand, simultaneously, with Philosophical/Scientific/Religious choices and values and Economic choices and values. If you are a tense, striving financial executive it is because of a whole set of inter-related, simultaneous Psychological, Philosophical and Economic choices you made in your past; if you are a relaxed, confident technician in a stable field that’s a whole different set of inter-related, simultaneous Psychological, Philosophical and Economic choices that you made in your past.
The omelet is all mixed up, yet the four major social sciences that make up the mixture can often be distinguished, usefully, as we study specific cases of human thought and action. Let’s take a closer look at all four of the major social sciences, starting with Psychology, the science of the creation and distribution of personality structures.
The science of Psychology comes first, because it has a slightly more close relationship to our physical mammalian bodies than the other social sciences. The current trend is to define-down our brains, and the personality structures we have all developed as a guiding part of those brains, to a collection of medical and pharmacological inputs — you think and feel what your blood chemistry allows you, or requires you, to think and feel.
I’m not here to discuss the fine points of this or that neuro-pharmacological clinical study, or to deny that healthy well-nourished people probably tend to do better at any type of test or task than poorly-nourished, anxious and stressed people. What I’m interested in is how every “normal” human being has developed a distinct personality by, say, age 2 and-a-half, which is not always a direct reflection of their parents and other humans in their circle, and how even more development of this unique personality occurs by age five and by age eleven — in other words, long before we become anxious American adults seeking a “perfect’ pharmaceutical to bring us back to something we think we should be. And these personalities continue to develop and change in our older lives as well, we’re different at 17 years old than we will be at 23, or 43, or 68 years old.
The study of the creation and distribution of personalities and personality structures has fallen out of favor with modern Psychology, yet for the study of History, and why we behave and think as we so particularly and peculiarly do in our manifold billions across the globe in every single day, the creation and distribution of personalities and personality structures remains a key variable.
In trying to analyze any particular individual in your environment, generally you won’t have any great information on their early childhood, or even on their private life in the last week, however you should be able to place them among the major categories of personalities that most certainly do present themselves (optimist or pessimist, worker or slacker, open and friendly or closed-off and sour), and use evidence you do have to make further educated guesses on their future behavior.
As far as humans are subject to their inputs, it is safe and wise to consider the “hierarchy of needs” of psychologist Abraham Maslow as the best theory among classical psychologists, over such competitors as Freud, Jung, or Skinner (who have their insights, yet whose systems are just not as clear and reliable in practice as Maslow).
(Since I first wrote this, it has come to my attention that certain well-fed and well-paid conservative American writers deny Maslow’s ideas for silly reasons, the premises of which I completely reject, and I’ll be glad to have a word-fight with these writers at great length, however in some other time and place.)
Abraham Maslow, psychologist. Image likely copyright, copyright owner unknown
Maslow’s basic understanding is simply too fundamental, and solidly based in our mammalian bodies, to be ignored or rejected. If you’re hungry, you’re going to be concerned overwhelmingly with getting fed. If you’re fed but insecure in where and how you live, that basic need of stable shelter will concern you. And only after your basic needs for food, stability, and a loving partner/family are met, are you able to get deeply concerned about such larger concerns as climate change or the federal deficit.
Yet no matter how life’s vicissitudes may drive you from one level to another, you have basic personality structures which you created or borrowed from somewhere, early in your childhood before you were conscious of doing it, and you have your adult changes and formations as well. And wherever you come down in the major scales of personality, (optimist or pessimist, worker or slacker, open and friendly or closed-off and sour and so on), you will pursue your hunger needs with that personality if you’re at that hunger level, you will pursue your love needs that way with that personality if you’re at that love level, and you will pursue your higher personal and social needs with those same personality structures if you’re lucky enough to be at that higher level.
As you investigate specific cases, of course you will find people creating conditioned responses to various stimuli, as Skinner investigated, and you will find examples of a “life force” and a “death force” in action, and examples of sexuality being expressed in strange ways for certain people, as Freud expounded on; and you will even find examples of deep subconscious structures influencing behavior, subconciously, as Jung told us about. And of course, brain chemistries can and do influence behavior, as modern drug-based psychological science shows. Nevertheless, at the level of the whole personality in the context of existing societies, Maslow’s basic hierarchy of needs remains a fundamental tool for the overall categorization of an individual’s behavior in society.
The science of explanations, what I have called Philosophy/Science/Religion, may seem like the wildest and most difficult of my re-definitions: what’s science go to do with religion, and both ancient and modern academic philosophy may seem to be mostly abstract irrelevance anyway, why bother with it? The key is that all three of them are providing explanations, and when you’re three or four years old and your little brain is desperately sponging up explanations to make sense of it all, you’re probably just going to grab the most basic explanations of who we are and what we and our world are all about, from the most determined adult in your immediate environment, without knowing or worrying about whether this idea is most properly classified as philosophy, or religion, or science.
To a young American growing up in 2010, there may seem to be a sharp distinction between religion and science, yet I would urge you to take a larger perspective; they are both systems of explanations, explanations that claim to represent the truth of our world. Even the current emotional and cultural differences that seem to exist between the two camps are not hard and fast: it is possible that some believers in religion may approach their explanations in a reality/research-based type of process, trying to find the explanation of their truth that best encompasses the available evidence. And while I hope the best scientists will seldom be found in this trap, it is also possible that some scientists may take their basic postulates in a dogmatic way, having a faith in certain principles that resists evidence to the contrary.
Yes, yes, yes, your Philosophical/Scientific/Religious beliefs are highly determined by the time and place you were born, and the political-economic status of your family in that society’s structure. Being born in the Turkish Peninsula of the Ottoman Empire before 1918 is very different than being born in northern China in the 1930’s, and both are very different than any Americans born after 1900, yet of course Americans vary incredibly widely depending on the region, the political-economic status, and the five- or ten-year period of birth as well. Those are the generalities that allow us to construct quick and easy narratives about people, “a World War II Air Force pilot who became a real estate developer in the ’60’s,” or “a Black mother of three, abandoned by her husband, giving her all in the restaurant industry in the 1980’s to try to make a good home for her kids.”
Yet to me the Historian, I’m just as interested in the parts of your overall culture that you DIDN’T receive or accept, that help define exactly who you are and create the differences that make each of us a unique individual. All of us that share a time and a place in our youth are experiencing the same overall national (or tribal) culture; yet why do some of us emphasize some parts of it and others of us emphasize other facets and aspects of that culture? To answer that question for just one person’s life, is to explore where the two sciences of Psychology and Philosophy/Science/Religion simultaneously interact for that person.
For me, the intensity of our individual differences in our Philosophical/Scientific/Religious explanations of what the world is and why it works as it does, is a validation of my re-definition of the science of explanations. We are constantly creating and distributing and re-creating and re-distributing our explanations of the world, this affects our every thought and behavior, and this process is a huge part of the data of History, the complete story of all people who have ever lived on our earth.
The current tendency in American media and popular discussion is to make politics something that happens outside of our normal lives, to focus on “politics” as being merely the day-to-day tactical maneuvers of a small elite in Washington DC and the state capitols, which has only two possible effects: to give, or to deny, a small tactical advantage to the President and his party, as compared to the other major party not holding the Presidency. And for too many Americans, that is what we’ve allowed politics to become, and that’s why “politics” feels like something that is outside of our normal lives, something we can’t affect or influence in any meaningful way.
For those who do not live in America, or the other relatively-democratic, relatively open societies of Europe, Canada, and Australia, politics can be something much deadly; it may mean that you as an individual must consciously decide to either ally with, accept but try to keep your distance from, or consciously resist a government structure based on a small military or ideological elite, a government structure which holds all power, controls all the higher levels of business, finance and wealth in the nation, allows no criticism, and brutally retaliates against its own citizens who may oppose it – and may brutally attack any citizens just on suspicion that they might oppose it, or just to serve as an example to others that opposition will not be tolerated.
To me as a Historian, the important questions are about where all these governmental structures came from, how did they get to be the way they are, what are the human roots of the behavior that has created the modern nation-state and its bureaucratic and police forces as the formal governors of our society? And while the connection between the roots and the superstructure has grown thin in modern industrial society, there is a basis in common human social behavior that we can find and study, and amazingly enough, it is not disconnected from the creation and distribution of our psychological structures, and the creation and distribution of our social explanations of what the world is.
When we are humans acting in human societies, we do seem to be constantly creating and distributing systems of social honor and social status: certain persons, certain behaviors get rewarded and praised, and others do not. Even in the most anarchic tribal societies, these creations and distributions of honor and status do tend to ‘crystallize’ into giving certain persons positions of rank or authority (over certain classes of social decisions, even if there are limits to that authority). And as these tribes grow into agricultural societies and kingdoms, and then towards modern industrial societies with modern nation-state governing systems, with abiding national belief-systems of what behaviors are to be honored and given status to, and for many nations institutions and/or institutional patterns that took shape centuries ago, nevertheless the root remains in the thoughts and actions of every individual person: we create and distribute systems of honor and status, we give social value and praise to certain persons and certain behaviors (and not to others). Perhaps for many of us, we grew up learning that only one variety of government was desirable, and that remains our guidance in political matters throughout our lives. When great reforms and revolutions do occur in our modern national systems, it is possible to trace back and see how these grew out of shifts in what types of social actors, what behaviors, attitudes and actions, that individual persons and groups of persons choose to give honor and status to.
For those of us in America, the tragedy of our times lies in how we seem to have evolved a system that rewards behaviors which no one actually honors or respects in their personal lives. To be a success in the modern American political system, it seems that one must be or become a shameless manipulative liar, who specializes in finding the hopes of the average citizen and then shamelessly selling a meaningless or even purposely misleading public relations talking point, in order to win from those citizens their donations and their votes. We all know the game, and most of us hate it. Yet we continue to follow the cues from the media, the political parties and the politicians themselves in giving respect and honor to this behavior, even though nearly all of us ordinary citizens hate and detest that type of behavior when we actually have to experience another’s use of that manipulative style affecting our own personal lives.
There are a lot of actions that can be proposed, a lot of reforms and Constitutional Amendments that can be discussed, for Americans to actually change the disaster that American politics has become (and I have made a few preliminary suggestions here); yet none of them are going to be able to come to pass until we start to consciously grasp the differences between what we as ordinary citizens actually respect, and the ways our political/media system acts to give rewards to what we disrespect, and begin to try to ensure that our actual preferences get validated by our political system, instead of, as they so often are now, being trashed and trampled by our political and governmental systems.
If you are not lucky to live in the relatively democratic nations like America, your options shrink even more: the first priority of inhabitants of a dictatorial state is to themselves, to remain alive and safe, and keep family members alive and safe. (Those of us in happier lands cannot usefully judge your choices in this respect.) Otherwise, the options for citizens of un-democratic lands are few: one can join in with and accept the actions of your rulers (or pretend to join in and accept), one can try to lie low and evade their structures, one can try to run away, or one can attempt either violent or non-violent actions of resistance and protest.
For any of us, at any time, attempting any type of serious change in our lives is always a difficult and uncertain proposition. Changes in how you see other people in society, changes in whom you give your own measures of honor and status to, will occur if you attempt to change in other respects. Yet for an ordinary person, in almost any nation, to try for serious changes in established national government political power structures (including the national myths, convenient media lies, and ideological rigidities that typically surround our national government power structures) seems to inevitably bring disappointment and disillusionment, if not prison and death. Such changes are simply illegal in most nations of the world, and are seriously discouraged even in the most progressive outposts of democracy and citizen rights.
It is precisely to prevent serious changes to established political power structures, that these structures insist on a monopoly over violence in their societies. Our natural human practice of “politics,” making judgments on the honor, status and rank of others in our society is not allowed to have any effect on the government structures that have defined specific ways of attaining rank and office within their structures: the basic, unquenchable human urge to judge and sort, at the level of individuals and families, has become completely divorced from the official “politics” of gaining power in a particular system.
This divide, this separation, this huge chasm between the reality of millions of individuals in all lands who feel alien and estranged from the government of their nation-state, and the government elites who maintain those institutions of government power, is a major problem as we move forward and try to think about improving our lives and our societies. There will be no easy answers. And compared to other portions of our human experience in the 21st Century – our creation and maintenance of our families, our on-going creation of our own particular personalities and explanations, our concepts of what economic goods and services are of value to us and why, and our unofficial, social and localized choices of what persons to give honor and status to – the portion of our experience that interacts with the institutionalized politics of our nation-state structures can be much, much more dangerous and deadly to ourselves as individuals. Most of us will be striving, over the next few decades, for the betterment of our selves, for the betterment of our lives, and the improvement of our communities (always, of course, according to how our psychologies and philosophies perceive these goals). I do hope the future of humanity on earth at the end of this Century is one of happiness and prosperity, in which citizens do feel that their choices of who deserves honor, status and rank are reflected in their political institutions. However, if we do face a future where our so-called “civilization” breaks down with much death and destruction, it seems likely that the selfishness and short-sightedness of the elites of our established nation-states will have been a major factor in the breakdown.
Have you ever held an economic? Of course you have, every manufactured article you’ve ever held is “an economic” — and every agricultural product that came through trade channels or your own efforts is an economic, too. People’s bodies most certainly can be “an economic” — they are to your doctor, to your health insurer, to your drug manufacturer and retailer, to prostitutes and their customers, to military recruiters and so on. The more interesting question is whether you often hold anything that’s not “an economic.” Perhaps if you pick a dandelion puffball that’s growing wild on your neighbor’s property, that’s not an economic — at least not to you, it may still be an economic to your neighbor and/or to weedkiller manufacturers; and a human body you touch in a relationship that has no economic dimension whatever (can you really say that about your relationship?) is not an economic. Yet, I will submit, even if you’re vacationing in a national or state park and you eat a wild berry or rest your hand against a tree, or skip a smooth stone across a river, that counts as an economic recreational value you’re receiving from that public investment in parkland.
The point of this conceptual romp, is to emphasize how different people hold different values of different objects and services, how we are constantly creating systems and ideologies of what we value, and expressing them through particular material goods and services we provide and consume. And certainly our understandings of how we fill our bellies and how we shelter ourselves from Nature’s afflictions, forms a large portion of our explanations of how the world works, and our creation of particular personalities starting well under five years old. Although it is common to bemoan how our American kids are trained in the worst greeds of our commercial cultures at a very young age, I would say that a consciousness of a culture’s dominant economic values comes pretty young in tribal and agricultural societies as well.
For 99% of us, the economic values and typical material goods of the culture we are born into determines our reception and replication of the economic values of the people that surround us. Yet again, it is the ability of particular people at the margins of society to reject those values and try to create new values, the ability of innovators to see and build new sets of values, the ability of traditionalists to re-discover and re-new older values that may have been forgotten, and the broad panorama of individual variations and preferences within an established cultural economic system, which are the most interesting points in this phase of Human History, and which illustrate the extent to which we do indeed create and re-create and distribute our systems of economic values.
The story of our economic values over the last few centuries is, of course, the incredible story of our creation of an industrial society which encompasses nearly all aspects of our modern lives, an industrial society that would have been incomprehensible to our ancestors (and which too often feels that way to ourselves as well), and there are many historians and commentators to tell that part of the story. To purposely take another perspective, I would emphasize that while the typical economic values of a modern industrial society are the overwhelming reality for those of us in North America and most parts of Europe, and in ever-increasing enclaves in China, Japan, East and South Asia and Latin America, it nevertheless remains true that most of the other important economic value systems of humanity’s last few millenniums do remain in existence and continue to rule the lives of tens or hundreds of millions of persons in the portions of the world that have NOT yet been conquered by high-tech modern capitalism.
Agricultural economic systems our American and European grandfathers would have recognized continue in force in many less-wealthy nations, and even in the hinterlands of North America and Europe. Industrial systems that would have been considered ultra-modern in 1900 can be found in small portions of the advanced nations and in larger portions of East and South Asia and Latin America. Tens of millions of North Koreans suffer under the remnants of Leninist/Stalinist agricultural and industrial value systems (and arguably this may be true for parts of Cuba, Vietnam and others as well).
And as we travel further along the back roads of our world where economic modernism has not taken large effect, examples can be found of even earlier forms of the industrial and factory systems of capitalism, mercantilism and feudalism, and examples can be found of nearly all varieties of early capitalist, feudal and traditional agricultural systems, until we get to the rural hinterlands of places like Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Borneo or Brazil where examples of traditional hunting-and-gathering societies can still be identified. Again, to this historian, this incredible diversity of systems existing simultaneously on our globe today is a validation of how we do create and distribute economic value systems, and how we create and distribute the physical goods and services that express those values.
Omelets and Ideologies
So there you have it, the briefest explanation I can give at this time of “Ron’s Omelet,” the Democratic Revolution of the Social Sciences, the re-definition of the social sciences which is designed to account for 99% of the behavior of the ‘normal’ members of all human societies through all time (and to account for at least 30–50% of the behavior of our non-normal sisters and cousins as well).
The metaphor of the omelet comes about in part because of the simultaneous contribution of the four (re-defined) social sciences of psychology, philosophy, politics and economics (with the psychology of our adult humans representing the particularity of vegetables and herbs and other flavorings a cook may use in her omelet, and the three more amorphous social sciences of philosophy, politics and economics representing the nearly-identical eggs the cook would add to the flavorings).
The metaphor of the omelet also comes about in part, because in practice, given the lack of good evidence on the human motives and the complete set of all historical thoughts and actions of all human actors in nearly all cases and situations, the whole result is a “unity” of culturally influenced behavior in which we’re left guessing about which apparent cultural and historical tendencies of a particular group (or groups) of people influenced a particular set of behaviors of a particular set of historical actors. In making a physical omelet, it should be theoretically possible to dye your eggs different colors, and analyze what part of the end result came from what source, yet with any significant mixing the result is an overall muddy brown from which only basic and tentative conclusions may be drawn.
However, with people and persons and personal-level situations, and local historical events you may be caught up in, you or I may be in a position to have significant information on the history and past choices of the actors in the situation, and to have significant information on who you feel is or isn’t telling the truth, and then it does become possible for each person to become their own social scientist, using this set of re-definitions of the social sciences to analyze out a greater understanding of why particular persons are acting as they are, a greater understanding of what actions may be necessary to achieve desired personal or social goals, and a greater understanding of how these things will influence and be influenced by, the greater culture and other actors. As we go forward into the 21st Century of greater information, the goal (which perhaps only I and few others may share) of a science of History in which most or even all of the information on the exact actions and states of mind of the significant actors is known and recorded looks to be within our reach.
Please note my ‘comment on comments’ on the Home Page post “History: It’s Happening Every Second”
I would like to emphasize here that this system is not an ideology, it is not trying to tell you what conclusions will be reached as you apply the re-defined social sciences to the raw data of all human life, past, present and future. Indeed, it may be objected that my presentation is the closest thing to a tautology, a circular definition of itself. Again, what I have presented is a re-definition of the social sciences that aim to study the human animal, and you are free to reject these re-definitions and continue using the existing (obscure, scattered and sometimes conflicting) definitions of the social sciences (which do not seem to be helping us, as much as they should, in the task of understanding our ever-more-complex human environment). The re-definitions I have presented are not by themselves theories which may be proven true or false; the hope is that the new definitions make it easier for you (and everyone else!) to think scientifically about the human problems that may affect or interest you, and enable you to come up with your own illuminating and/or provocative scientific theories of various situations, and that the process of proving or disproving of these specific theories will be enlightening, entertaining, and/or productive to you and others.
Underlying Themes and Structures of Human History and Society
Developing this system of inter-related, re-defined social sciences has led me towards a number of conclusions and theories about persistent and recurring themes that can be said to be common in human History and human societies. While I do wish to save some of the most provocative and interesting of these conclusions for future books I’d like to write, here I’d like to share three of these conclusions that are among the most basic fundamentals of human History and society — all in my own humble opinion, of course.
The first major conclusion I’d like to stress is that, at least so far, human History and society have survived and grown and prospered, nearly always and everywhere, much more by processes of “muddling through” than by conscious plans that are actually executed according to the planner’s intentions. Indeed, one of the most difficult things to find in the historical record is an instance of society-wide cultural, political or economic change that has been actually planned out and executed. Perhaps some of the ancient Asian empires such as Alexander the Great’s or Genghis Khan’s were indeed thought out beforehand by their creators — yet maybe even those spectacular events were simply a series of lucky accidents and aggressive responses to unforeseen circumstances. I am open to the idea that any number of grand conspiracies have been operating in the background of late 20th and early 21st Century politics and economics; yet when it comes to proving such theories, against all the alternative evidence suggesting luck and accident and muddling through on the part of particular actors, no, I am not yet a confirmed believer in any of these possible conspiracies.
It may well be that we are at a point of social evolution where the problems we have dug for ourselves are so deep, and the social structures that prevent solutions are so strong, that only a well-conceived plan, well-executed over two or more decades can save us. Nevertheless, the vast bulk of historical evidence shows that this is not how societies actually behave, and suggests that our progress towards better human societies having a better, more sustainable relationship with the planet they live on will also be a process of accident and luck and tensions between opposing social forces, a process of “muddling through” in which some groups are going in X direction and others are responding in Y direction and yet others are going off on J, K,L, M, N and P directions, regressions and evolutions.
The second fundamental structure in human societies is the role of tradition and custom, seen positively as tools for social and personal order, as tools for social and personal meaning. There is a reason why all the traditional societies we know from the historical record developed strong standards of personal and group behavior, which they enforced both informally and governmentally: strong socially-enforced norms of personal and group behavior hold groups of people together in tribes and regions and nations and civilizations.
When these “cultural dictatorships” are working efficiently, each member of the group accepts for his or her self the rules laid down by previous generations. In practice, however, things don’t always remain the same: people change, subgroups evolve and particularize themselves, neighbors and floods and trade and scores of other outside forces introduce changes that confront people’s lives.
Which brings us to the third fundamental structure in human societies: the role of tradition and custom, seen negatively as the dead hand of the past, blocking needed changes today. At any particular moment in time, for most people in the world, it is very difficult for them to think outside the categories their cultural backgrounds and personal prejudices have created for them. If this sounds like an insult or a put-down, it’s not meant to be so; if I can think unflinchingly about all sorts of possible changes, it is because I grew up among sub-groups who valued and celebrated change in itself, who valued past changes that had been made in society, and who valued future changes they hoped would come about. Yet scientific/philosophical gypsies like myself are relatively few: most people were brought up in strong traditions, and even when they modify or rebel against those traditions, it is likely that they may consciously or unconsciously echo those traditions in the new customs they seek to create. Resistance to change comes at every turn: humans representing various channels of tradition and custom find reasons to prefer the old ways. Societies are often elastic: changes in social or political behavior have a way of “snapping back” into an older pattern after 5 or 25 years.
Yet people do change as accidents intervene and trends rise or fall, subgroups and tribes do change in response to changed environments, and nations and civilizations change as well, as their fortunes rise or fall, as their human and/or physical environments are altered. The seeming contradiction between the positive and negative sides of tradition, the tensions created by the negative and positive aspects of change and revolution look to be constant in human affairs.
I can’t tell you what your conclusions will be to the experience of human History in the 21st Century, will you be happy, will you be sad?
What Will Be Your Conclusions?
I can lead you towards my definitions, I can show you how to create your own new explanations, yet I can’t create your conclusions to the story of how we experience History as the 21st Century unfolds. Will you consciously grab your opportunities to re-make your personality, or will you tell people you’re stuck the way you are? Will you take the same old explanations you’ve always taken, or will you demand something more satisfying from your science, your religion? Do you truly respect and honor the power structures that rule our world, or do you understand the possibilities that arise if you only give respect to those who deserve it, and refuse your respect from those who have not earned it? Are you only capable of existing within one particular culture of economic values, or do you have the concepts and skills to survive if physical and social forces compel massive changes in our existing economic environments?
I can’t tell you what your conclusions will be to the experience of human History in the 21st Century, will you be happy, will you be sad, will we see a world of humanity that can continue with some hope into the future? From my perspective, you’re in the omelet, and you can’t get out. You are now the human being of the future, and you are continually re-creating yourself as the human being of the future. (And you are affecting the choices of others in creating themselves as the human beings of the future, as well.) You are choosing among the explanations that may bring us success, or may lead us to disaster. Every choice you make in the course of your day, choosing how you value people and how you value material goods, is part of the process of creating our political and economic cultures. You are already creating your part of the story of all the human beings on earth in the 21st Century — and we’re all waiting to know the conclusions to those stories.
I’ve tried my best to hold out some tools that may be of use to you in better understanding of what that story is, and what your part in it may turn out to be. If you don’t like my tools, create for us some better ones that might help us even more. We in the “advanced” nations are in a better position than ever to wake up each new day and re-shape our human environment to our own desires. I can only urge you to consider strongly, the urgent need to make your conclusions to the human story be the best that they can be.
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