S I X T H E D I T I O N
SOCIAL THEORY The Multicultural, Global,
and Classic Readings
EDITED WITH COMMENTARIES BY
New York London
First published 2017 by Westview Press
Published 2018 by Routledge 711 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10017, USA 2 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4RN
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Copyright © 2017 by Charles Lemert
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Names: Lemert, Charles C., 1937- author. Title: Social theory : the multicultural, global, and classic readings / Charles Lemert. Description: Sixth Edition. | Boulder : Westview Press, 2016. | Revised edition of Social theory, 2013. Identifiers: LCCN 2016015315 (print) | LCCN 2016016941 (ebook) | ISBN 9780813350028 (hardcover) | ISBN 9780813350448 (ebook) Subjects: LCSH: Sociology. | Sociology–History. Classification: LCC HM585 .L3936 2016 (print) | LCC HM585 (ebook) | DDC 301–dc23 LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2016015315
ISBN 13: 978-0-8133-5002-8 (pbk)
In loving memory of Florence Brown Lyons (1915?–1995),
who taught me to think and feel about these things, and thus to read and speak of them
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Social Theory: Its Uses and Pleasures Charles Lemert, 1
Modernity’s Classical Age: 1848–1919 Charles Lemert, 19
The Two Sides of Society 28 Karl Marx 28
Estranged Labour, 29 Camera Obscura, 33 The Manifesto of Class Struggle, with Friedrich Engels, 34 The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 37 Capital and the Values of Commodities, 40 Capital and the Fetishism of Commodities, 46 Labour-Power and Capital, 48
Friedrich Engels 52 The Patriarchal Family, 52
John Stuart Mill 54 Of Society and the Individual, 54
Jane Addams 55 The Settlement as a Factor in the Labor Movement, 56
Harriet Martineau 57 Woman, 58
Emile Durkheim 59 Mechanical and Organic Solidarity, 59 Anomie and the Modern Division of Labor, 62 Sociology and Social Facts, 63 Suicide and Modernity, 65 Primitive Classifications and Social Knowledge, with Marcel Mauss, 71 The Cultural Logic of Collective Representations, 75
Friedrich Nietzsche 80 Peoples and Countries, 81
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Max Weber 82 The Spirit of Capitalism and the Iron Cage, 83 The Bureaucratic Machine, 86 What Is Politics?, 90 The Types of Legitimate Domination, 92 Class, Status, Party, 94
Sigmund Freud 101 The Psychical Apparatus and the Theory of Instincts, 102 Dream-Work and Interpretation, 105 Oedipus, the Child, 108 Remembering, Repeating, and Working-Through, 111 The Return of the Repressed in Social Life, 114 Civilization and the Individual, 116
Ferdinand de Saussure 118 Arbitrary Social Values and the Linguistic Sign, 119
John Dewey 124 Democracy and Education, 124
Split Lives in the Modern World 126 William James 126
The Self and Its Selves, 126 William Edward Burghardt (W. E. B.) Du Bois 130
Double-Consciousness and the Veil, 131 Charlotte Perkins Gilman 134
The Yellow Wallpaper, 135 Women and Economics, 136
Anna Julia Cooper 139 The Colored Woman’s Office, 139
Georg Simmel 143 The Stranger, 144
Charles Horton Cooley 146 The Looking-Glass Self, 146
Social Theories and World Conflict: 1919–1945 Charles Lemert, 149
Action and Knowledge in a Troubled World, 161 John Maynard Keynes 161
The Psychology of Modern Society, 161 Talcott Parsons 162
The Unit Act of Action Systems, 163 Erich Fromm 165
Psychoanalysis and Sociology, 165 Georg Lukács 166
The Irrational Chasm Between Subject and Object, 166 George Herbert Mead 167
The Self, the I, and the Me, 168
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Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (V. I.) Lenin 172 What Is To Be Done?, 172
Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno 173 The Culture Industry as Deception, 173
Martin Heidegger 176 The Question Concerning Technology: The Age of the World Picture, 177
Karl Mannheim 177 The Sociology of Knowledge and Ideology, 178
Robert K. Merton 181 Social Structure and Anomie, 181
W. E. B. Du Bois 190 Black Reconstruction and the Racial Wage, 191
Unavoidable Dilemmas 194 Reinhold Niebuhr 194
Moral Man and Immoral Society, 194 Gunnar Myrdal 195
The Negro Problem as a Moral Issue, 195 William I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki 197
Disorganization of the Polish Immigrant, 198 Louis Wirth 202
The Significance of the Jewish Ghetto, 202 Walter Benjamin 205
Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction: War and Fascism, 206 Virginia Woolf 207
A Room of One’s Own, 207 Antonio Gramsci 209
Intellectuals and Hegemony, 209 Mao Tse-tung 210
Identity, Struggle, Contradiction, 211
The Golden Moment: 1945–1963 Charles Lemert, 215
The Golden Age 228 Winston Churchill 228
The Cold War, 228 Daniel Bell 229
The End of Ideology in the West, 230 W. W. Rostow 232
Modernization: Stages of Growth, 232 Talcott Parsons 237
Action Systems and Social Systems, 237 Sex Roles in the American Kinship System, 239
Robert K. Merton 241 Manifest and Latent Functions, 242
Claude Lévi-Strauss 245 The Structural Study of Myth, 246
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Roland Barthes 249 Semiological Prospects, 249
Louis Althusser 251 Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatuses, 252
Doubts and Reservations 255 David Riesman 255
Character and Society: The Other-Directed Personality, 255 Erik H. Erikson 259
Youth and American Identity, 259 Edwin M. Lemert 261
Social Pathology / Societal Reaction Theory, 262 Erving Goffman 263
Presentation of Self, 264 Jacques Lacan 265
The Mirror Stage, 266
Others Object 268 Simone de Beauvoir 268
Woman as Other, 268 Aimé Césaire 270
Between Colonizer and Colonized, 271 Martin Luther King, Jr. 272
The Power of Nonviolent Action, 273 C. Wright Mills 275
The Sociological Imagination, 275 Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale 278
Black Panther Party: What We Want, 278 Betty Friedan 280
The Problem That Has No Name, 280 Frantz Fanon 283
Decolonizing, National Culture, and the Negro Intellectual, 283
Will the Center Hold? 1963–1979 Charles Lemert, 287
Experiments at Renewal and Reconstruction 298 Clifford J. Geertz 298
Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture, 298 Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann 301
Society as a Human Product, 301 Dorothy Smith 305
Knowing a Society from Within: A Woman’s Standpoint, 305 Immanuel Wallerstein 308
The Modern World-System, 308 Theda Skocpol 313
The State as a Janus-Faced Structure, 313
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Nancy Chodorow 315 Gender Personality and the Reproduction of Mothering, 316
Breaking with Modernity 319 Jacques Derrida 319
The Decentering Event in Social Thought, 319 Michel Foucault 322
Biopolitics and the Carceral Society, 322 C. L. R. James 326
World Revolution: 1968, 326 Herbert Marcuse 328
Repressive Desublimation of One-Dimensional Man, 328 Harold Garfinkel 330
Reflexive Properties of Practical Sociology, 330 Alvin W. Gouldner 333
The New Class as a Cultural Bourgeoisie, 334 Pierre Bourdieu 336
Structures, Habitus, Practices, 336 Audre Lorde 340
The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House, 340
After Modernity: 1979–2001 Charles Lemert, 343
The Idea of the Postmodern and Its Critics 355 Jean-François Lyotard 355
The Postmodern Condition, 355 Richard Rorty 358
Private Irony and Liberal Hope, 358 Michel Foucault 360
Power as Knowledge, 361 Jean Baudrillard 365
Simulacra and Simulations: Disneyland, 365 Arlene Stein and Ken Plummer 369
I Can’t Even Think Straight, 369
Reactions and Alternatives 371 Jürgen Habermas 371
Critical Theory, the Colonized Lifeworld, and Communicative Competence, 371 Anthony Giddens 375
Post-Modernity or Radicalized Modernity?, 375 Nancy Hartsock 380
A Theory of Power for Women?, 381 Randall Collins 384
Interaction Ritual Chains, 384 Mustafa Emirbayer and Ann Mische, 387
What Is Agency?, 388
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New Cultural Theories after Modernity 391 Cornel West 391
The New Cultural Politics of Difference, 391 Jeffrey C. Alexander 397
Cultural Codes and Democratic Communication, 397 Henry Louis Gates, Jr. 399
“Race” as the Trope of the World, 399 Donna Haraway 402
The Cyborg Manifesto and Fractured Identities, 402 Trinh T. Minh-ha 405
Infinite Layers/Third World?, 406 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak 409
Can the Subaltern Speak?, 409 Patricia Hill Collins 413
Black Feminist Thought in the Matrix of Domination, 413 Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw 421
Dimensions of Intersectional Oppression, 421 Gloria Anzaldúa 424
The New Mestiza, 425 Judith Butler 429
Imitation and Gender Insubordination, 429 Paula Gunn Allen 437
Who Is Your Mother? Red Roots of White Feminism, 437 Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick 440
Epistemology of the Closet, 440
Global Realities in an Uncertain Future Charles Lemert, 443
Global Uncertainties 460 Immanuel Wallerstein 460
The Modern World-System in Crisis, 460 Stanley Hoffman 462
The Clash of Globalizations, 462 Zygmunt Bauman 466
Liquid Modernity, 467 David Harvey 469
Neoliberalism on Trial, 470 Manuel Castells 471
Informationalism and Networks, 472 Saskia Sassen 473
Toward a Feminist Analytics of the Global Economy, 473 Amartya Sen 477
Asian Values and the West’s Claims to Uniqueness, 477 Ulrich Beck 481
World Risk Society, 482 Achille Mbembe 485
Necropower and the Late Modern Colonial Occupation, 485
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Rethinking the Past that Haunts the Future 488 Avery Gordon 488
Ghostly Matters, 488 Edward Said 492
Intellectual Exile: Expatriates and Marginals, 492 William Julius Wilson 495
Global Economic Changes and the Limits of the Race Relations Vision, 495 Elijah Anderson 497
The “Nigger Moment” in the Cosmopolitan Canopy, 497 Waverly Duck 500
Benita’s Story: Coping with Poverty, 500 Charles Tilly 502
Future Social Science and the Invisible Elbow, 503 Julia Kristeva 504
Women’s Time, 505 Raewyn Connell 508
Southern Theory: Gender and Violence, 508 Slavoj Žižek 510
Cynicism as a Form of Ideology, 511 Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari 513
The Rhizome/A Thousand Plateaus, 513 Giorgio Agamben 514
Sovereign Power and Bare Life, 515
Social Theory at the Limits of the Social 518 Bruno Latour 518
Spheres and Networks: The Spaces of Material Life, 518 Thomas Piketty 521
The Central Contradictions of Capitalism: r > g, 522 Owen Fiss 524
The Perils of Constitutional Minimalism, 524 Oliver Sacks 526
Urge, 526 Ta-Nehisi Coates 528
Prison and Gray Wastes, 529 Eula Biss 531
White Debt, 531 Marilynne Robinson 533
Fear, 534 Robert Pogue Harrison 535
The Dominion of the Dead, 535
Name Index, 537
When a book enjoys nearly a quarter-century of life, as this one has, it becomes a kind of mon- ument to the time covered. The problem with historical time is that it has its own mysterious manners, too often changing its direction in ways few saw coming. When this book first ap- peared in 1994 no one had the kind of lightweight personal computers that today seem to be everywhere. No one, except science fiction readers, could have then imagined the global smart phone that today links anyone anywhere to others elsewhere. More importantly, who then could have imagined the attacks on the World Trade Towers on September 11, 2001. Nor, even after 9/11, was it thinkable that the world would become involved in wars in the Middle East, Central Asia, and North Africa that would tear apart the then seeming stable global order. A good quar- ter-century ago the then long-enduring modern world order started to come undone in the wake of the collapse of the Cold War. Ever after, the spiral spins faster and faster.
In the past few years, the vicious atrocities of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria make Osama bin Laden’s Taliban seem tame by the contrast. Even in the allegedly civil sphere, political leaders use violent gestures and language to intimidate their opponents. A president of Russia invades neighbors in an effort to turn back the clock to the worst days of the Cold War. American police officers shoot and kill with impunity, actions vaguely warranted by the fact the United States is unable or unwilling to limit the sale of the weapons of war used to kill the innocent. As I write, one grand old American political party is campaigning for the nation’s highest office as though the civil sphere were a playground if not a gangland.
If this, and more, take place in the wider global sphere, then it should be expected that the vibrations will resonate in the quieter realm of social thought. Social Theory, now in its 6th edi- tion, has not only lived during these events, it has also come into its own in a time when the very meaning of “social theory” has taken on a broader meaning. It wasn’t all that long ago in the second half of the twentieth century that social thinkers were more likely to identify what they did as, say, sociological or literary theory, feminist or critical race theories. Though this narrower disciplinary names still have a currency, more and more their proponents are likely to view what they do in the broader sense of social theory. For one instance, critical race theory began and was once mostly confined to legal studies. Now, through the work of writers like Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, whose essay on intersectionality is included in this edition, is a thoroughly social the- orist of the kind that enjoys a close kinship to Patricia Hill Collins’s matrix of domination. Collins herself would once have been judged to be a black feminist theorist. Today she is well known as a major social theorist and past-president of the American Sociological Association.
One of the seldom recognized consequences of this new recognition of social theory’s perva- sive value is the realization that social theory has long been, and still is, a normal practical work of writers and thinkers who are not necessarily academics. One of the sad attitudes of many in sociology, my field, is the claim that sociology must never be mere journalism as if to say that those who dig deeper into the facts in order to report important public stories are somehow less serious than academics. The truth is that a great deal of journalism, but also literary non-fiction, even fiction on occasion, is very often both more true and more readable than academic social science. Paul Krugman, the New York Times columnist, is an excellent reporter on the global economic situation not because he is a Princeton professor and Nobel Prize winner but because
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over time he has learned to write out of his academic knowledge in a way that makes sense to a general public.
In this edition of Social Theory, I defend the claim that good social theory works at the limits of traditional common sense and academic formalism. This is not an insistence that academics know nothing. I am an academic and some people, it seems, think I know at least something— otherwise they wouldn’t read this book. But in this day, more than any before it, social theorists can relax into the realization what we do, whatever our calling in life, is the practical work of trying to understand, even to explain, the world as it is. One consequence of my claim is that the sixth edition of the book includes a new concluding section, Social Theory at the Limit of the So- cial. Here readers will find selections from, among others, writers like Oliver Sacks, Eula Biss, and Ta-Nehisi Coates who have written seriously for the general reader. Then too there are aca- demics who have written at the limits of their disciplinary fields—Robert Pogue Harrison on the dead and Owen Fiss on the limits of the normal understanding of constitutional law; and, too, Marilynne Robinson who, though known for her brilliant fiction is able to write convincingly about the fears that shake ordinary lives in our day.
There are other additions to the earlier sections of the book meant to account for changes of another sort. Harriet Martineau the earliest feminist theorist is here at this late date because her omission previously was a mistake more obvious now that the long history of feminist social theory is better known. Likewise John Stuart Mill is added because his classic book On Liberty represents the most coherent essay on liberal theory as it came to be in the nineteenth century. In the 1990s many social theorists assumed that liberalism was dead. A quarter-century later this is far from the case even if the bastardized liberal ideas in neoliberalism are a curse to real eco- nomic freedom. Readers will find, if they look closely, that some authors in previous editions have been dropped for the reason that their theories have not endured the test of time. These have been replaced by selections that, even if written some time ago, seem ever more current today. Then too, writers who were introduced in recent editions remain in place even though the day of their original popularity is long past. Bruno Latour, Achille Mbembe, Giorgio Agamben, Gilles Deleuze, and Slavoj Žižek remain, notwithstanding the fact that some finding their writ- ing difficult, even obscure. They are trying to say something of special social importance, often in a manner meant to reflect their view of the times.
There is a cautionary note in all this. We who are older and believe we have figured the hard stuff out, should remember that social theory is first and foremost an attempt to explain or de- scribe social riddles that occur in daily life before anyone bothers to make a theory of them. The young, even the young who are genuinely busy in their lives, understand a text we might find too hard because they are living the reality.
Social Theory as Practical Theories of Unsettled Worlds
When do very big things in life start to change? This is surely one of the more gripping questions anyone can ask. What were the first signs that the love of your life was about to leave? Or when do kids begin to realize that their parents are going to split up? Or, in the larger frame of human events, when exactly did Rome start to decline, or capitalism begin to change how business is done, or the British first realize they were losing their empire, or the telephone first become a cellular body part? Whether the questions are personal or global, people have good reason to wonder when changes of all kinds got under way. Perhaps we worry about this because we want to know why things must change. In the absence of good answers to the why, we settle for a when.
No question is more basic to social science than “why?”; and none is harder to answer than the why of social changes. It is likely that there would be no social science at all without ordinary people asking why things are as they are. Why do apples, ripe but unpicked, fall to the ground? Gravity is the answer everywhere except in outer space. But “gravity” is merely a name for less than self-evident laws of nature. Why, for another example, do people in large groups get along as well as they do? This, it turns out, is a question still more difficult to answer because, as anyone
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honest with herself knows, to live with others is to be impressed by how impossible they are and how little they respect our perfect social manners. Social scientists would be more than pleased were they able to agree on a term like “gravity” that would explain why, in spite of the countless troubles and conflicts of social life, people in groups do as well together as they do. That it hap- pens, we know. How things happen as they did or do is hard to know because social things are tricky, even devious. If how people live together changes, then why they get along more than you would suppose also changes.
Hence, asking when important social relations and structures begin to change is a central ques- tion of any social science. We want to know the why, we are dimly aware of the how, but we will settle for the when. None of the three types of questions is easily answered but at least the when question has the merit of being as common to everyday life as it is to academic social science.
Herein is found the special role of social theory. The first duty of social theorists is to ask fresh why questions. Knowing when the love of one’s life may have decided to quit the relationship is some solace to the jilted lover. Was it at that party when she seemed so happy to see that new guy? Is she with him now? Popular music, from country to rap, would be more bereft of coherent lyrics than already they are if it were it not for the devastations love can visit upon the young at heart. At the other extreme, social studies might not have become sciences if people had not wondered, from the start, just when this modern world came into its own, thus to change how people lived together. Anyone who loses a love may doubt his or her self-worth. The people who lose their traditional ways may wonder what will become of them without the old, familiar ways.
Social theories are often able to propose a why, sometimes a how, and even a when to solve these mysteries. Still, when social theories suggest answers to any or all of these questions, they usually start arguments that can last for years to come. The lover who loses out usually gets over it. Social theorists never get over the whys and wherefores they are obliged to ask, even when they admit that answers are hard to come by.
Social theory is the art, if not always the science, of asking the right questions at the risk of irritating the hell out of those who, in their own minds, have already settled the matter. Social Theory is a collection of readings that is not meant to be an answer book so much as a compen- dium of the struggles of modern social theory to ask and answer the why, how, and when of the unthinkable nature of social worlds. The answers once thought convincing may still be. When it comes to social theory, few answers are completely right or wrong, which gives them a good shelf life and makes them worth reading even today. To be a social thinker, if not a professional theo- rist, is to live with uncertainty—in respect to which the most certain social thing in the modern world is that sooner or later everything changes. This may sound a bit daunting, but when you stop to think about it, most things in life that we consider absolutely certain are not. In life with others the important thing is to accept the changes that cannot be prevented, and to understand them. The social theories you will read here are more than that, to be sure, but they are at least that, which is what makes them interesting, even exciting.
Teaching and Reading Social Theory
If, as I think, social theory is inherently exciting because, when it is good, it tries to identify and explain the big questions that all individuals and collectivities must face, then what might be the corollary to this assumption in respect to reading it? I have already stated my first assumption, learned slowly over the years of teaching the subject while also writing it as best I can. The single most touching letter I have received from a reader of this book was written by a woman in mid- life, with kids still at home, working a full-time job, attending a community college in Florida. She claimed that what she read in the book changed her life. She didn’t say which texts had this effect, nor did she explain how she found time to read amid all else she was dealing with in life. But it was a sincere message that, over the years, has been repeated many times by others. Let all teachers remember that much of what Karl Marx wrote was written for the working class, or that Max Weber’s famous essays on science and politics as vocations were given as public lectures, or
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that Èmile Durkheim was the leading public intellectual of his day, or that no one was more in- fluential in the development of American public education than John Dewey. On it goes. So rule number one is: Don’t be afraid!
When it comes to teaching, I am sure that some teachers look at this book and say, “interest- ing stuff but the selections are way too short for what I do.” A few have said just this to me; to which I reply, “fair enough.” On the other hand, one thing I have learned both as an editor and teacher is that it is amazing how quickly it is possible to go to the core of an argument if that is what you are required to do. I do not claim to have gotten this right in every case. A few times I’ve gotten it quite wrong and have tried to correct the selections when the time came. I do not claim any special genius at this. If there is a skill here it is to take seriously the practice of Ralph Waldo Emerson who, in his day, read nearly everything (almost literally), but who claimed that he never read any book from cover to cover. He was a philosopher. Nonfiction works are easier to treat this way. I would not recommend this approach for the reading of fiction. But for social theories, like philosophies and similar writings, there is wisdom in Emerson’s method. There is always a core idea and, in my experience, only the very best have more than one of them, revised and elaborated on. Some of my friends and colleagues in the field will think ill of me for saying it, but Marx’s Capital is the only classical book of social theory that has quite a few ideas. Hap- pily, they are all in a single section near the start of the argument. By the time he gets to the long chapters on the working day, a good reader will have already gotten his point. By contrast, there are few books, still read today, that are very long but with not much more one than one idea. Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of the Religious Life is an example—though quickly I add what an idea it was to conclude that Kant’s theory of knowledge was wrong because knowledge belongs to the collective life, not the categories of mental life.
It may seem either a conceit or foolishness on my part to suggest that shorter selections can often get at the heart of a social theory (the conceit being that I have been able to do this well). Teachers who do not want to teach shorter selections from a big book are not wrong to think this way. A good many of them (myself included) get around the problem by assigning whole books to provide what Social Theory does not or cannot. I have regularly assigned the whole of Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (while excusing college students from responsibility for the footnotes, which constitute more than half the book’s mass). Why this book? One reason is that I love the challenge of encouraging students to learn to follow a long and sometimes way- ward argument that covers what, to them, can be weirdly obscure subjects like extra ecclesium nulla salus. But also because, Emerson notwithstanding, I do believe that reading books is im- portant and that everyone should do it often. I happen also to think that Weber’s book is one of the few from which it is very difficult to snatch a few pages to make the main points.
This brings me to another generic point that, to me, has never been more important than now: Read! We all know that not many kids today read books. This does not mean they are stu- pid. But it does mean that when they become students pursuing higher degrees, they are often ill equipped to do the work. Social theory and other kinds of writing can be difficult if readers have not spent a lifetime facing the daunting task of reading long and complicated books, whether fiction or nonfiction. I am not actually a gifted reader. I grew up in a home without books. My wife, on the other hand, has been reading since she was a child when she locked herself in the only family bathroom to read War and Peace. I am seventy-five and that book is still on my list. Very long. I have tried to read Dickens’s Bleak House. It drives me crazy. Last summer I gave up. At my age, I must save time for War and Peace. On the other hand, Dickens’s Great Expectations is also long and I could hardly put it down. Tastes are always involved in what one reads. In school, teachers usually determine what is required according to their own tastes. But students and other readers just getting into the habit serve themselves very well if they take what is re- quired then follow it by spending time in a good library wandering through undiscovered stacks. If you browse, you will find all manner of mysteries.
One Sunday, as my wife and I rode the E train uptown, I read. Having lost interest in the subway ads for hemorrhoid laser surgeries, I had brought along a collection of Raymond Carver’s
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short stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. I finished the first story in the few stops between Canal Street and Penn Station. I paused only a moment. My wife said, “Amazing, isn’t it?” I just nodded. It was.
Later, while we were walking in the park, on the East Side just north of the zoo, a jogger lunged toward us at a good pace. His stride was strong but broken. He was crippled. Cerebral palsy, we thought, saying little else. After, we took the shortcut to the Westside. Soon, he came again, having already circled most of the six-mile circuit. Then, my wife said, “I’ve seen him running here for years. Think of what it takes.” I did. I imagined a solitary life, ordered around chaotic limbs, a life he ran with dignity among hundreds of beautiful bodies on roller blades. She had her thoughts, too. We said a little, but less than you would suppose.
Reading is like that. A relatively few abstracted marks or events evoke worlds others already know. But how does it work? When I was a little boy, I asked such a question about the radio. How was it that, each weekday evening at 6:15, I could tune in to Tom Mix on the Magnavox console in the safe, far corner of the living room? Though I have since learned many theories about reading, I still do not understand either it or the radio. Somehow, something is broadcast in the air. We get it. Others do, too, even those with whom we share no intimacies at all. In a blurb on the back of the book of stories I read on the subway, Frank Kermode says, “Carver’s fiction is so spare in manner that it takes a time before one realizes how completely a whole cul- ture and a whole moral condition is represented by even the most seemingly slight sketch.” Though Raymond Carver was among the masters of this sort of writing, much the same can be said of all writing. It succeeds at whatever it does in spite of the sparseness of its means relative to the worlds evoked.
The difference between reading and radio listening, though, is that reading seems to have be- come an activity of no necessary limits. Among the people I talk to, it is common to refer to the analysis of many different sorts of situations as a “reading.” I once heard a little story in which the term was used in such a way. At a dinner party some time ago, a guest had delivered a crude ethnic insult that angered and embarrassed most of those at the table. In a response calculated to set things straight without disrupting the dinner, the hostess gave him what the teller of the story described as “a postmodern reading of the anti-Semitism in his remark.” Apparently, that reading did little of its intended good. The old insult was still raw. Just the same, in this case a “reading” is a vastly more complex communication than whatever it was that allowed my wife to understand what I was feeling about a story we had both read and a jogging man we saw. If “reading” is an activity inclusive not just of books and events in the park but even of delicate retorts to gratuitous insults, then it is possible that there is no end to what reading might be. Nor should there be.
However it works, reading does seem to be an accurate way to describe what happens when different people discover a similar sense in an event as spare as that of a handicapped man run- ning well. In the same way that there is not an infinite number of meanings to be derived from a written text like one of Carver’s short stories, neither is it that the true nature of that man’s world is likely to be much different from what most people might imagine. Different, surely, but certainly not random. Otherwise, nothing we read would make sense. However it works, reading cannot work all too differently from the radio. Somehow, in Kermode’s words, “a whole culture” is out there. Reading is what is done with it in order to make worlds for ourselves.
Reading, in this expanded sense, is the natural corollary to social theory. If the least common denominator of social theory is telling one’s world into being, then reading must be the means by which others recognize that story as somehow familiar to them. Many will disagree with this view. One of the anonymous academic readers of this book was particularly irritated at my sug- gestion that scientific social theory is no different from the theories people produce in ordinary life. There is a difference, of course. But, however people may cherish and defend that difference, I do not think that professional social theories are degraded in any way by enjoying common ground with ordinary human activity. On the contrary.
I would not say that social theory is nothing but reading, of course. But, in my experience writing books and essays, I have learned a lesson that works very well in my teaching. It seems
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certain that one of the best ways to read difficult material is to force oneself (or be forced) to write about it. Several years ago, I picked up a tip from Audrey Sprenger, perhaps the best teacher I have ever known, who assigned to her students what she called “close readings,” by which she meant for students to write short essays that closely interpret a text. Invariably, some of my own students will call these “closed” readings, either as a joke or because, unconsciously, the stuff seems closed to them. Yet, even when they do not quite understand the material very well, the work of trying to say something about it usually pays off in the long run. I ask students to write one of these a week. They are never graded or returned. The point is to get them engaged as writers. Sometimes, what they write is awful. But, by the end of a semester, when they do these short essays, they have the makings of a substantial essay. They like it and the serious students never complain. So my second rule is: Read and write ’til you drop.
We who make a life out of writing social theory are also teachers. So far as I know it is impos- sible to be a social theorist without a day job, and teaching is the one most of us have. In my experience, there are few things more interesting than listening to a really first-rate scholar talk about teaching and its effect on research. It happened to me not long ago at Yale when Peter Bearman, a distinguished sociologist at Columbia, spoke to faculty and students. Bearman gen- erally does highly mathematical sociology, but, on this occasion, he spoke of writing an ethnog- raphy. I don’t recall the last time I was so well taught by a serious scholar talking about teaching. Experiences like these remind those who read and write social theory that the point of it all in the long run is to teach it.
It is not—nor should it be—just the teachers who teach. Students, it is well known, are really good at this sort of thing. I learned this when I happened on the practice of organizing students into groups assigned to read a list of theories together and write a joint paper they present to the class as a whole. At first, they hate this assignment, if only because it takes time and trouble to meet with others outside of class. Of course, there are always free riders who try to get away with doing very little. It turns out that I seldom have to deal with this problem because their fellow group members are often more punitive than I would be. This is because, I assume, they form a social bond of a temporary kind with fellow group members. More often than not, they produce very good social theory that sparks excellent discussion. Many report that they actually have fun.
So, if my first rule of reading social theory is Don’t be afraid, and the second is Read and write until you are blue in the face; my third rule is Have fun! Truth be told, I have had quite a lot of it reading, thinking about, writing, and then teaching social theory; and I am not alone.
—Charles Lemert, New Haven
Acknowledgments 2016 Edition
Over five previous editions since 1993, the book has benefited from the generous work of many excellent editors at Westview. In fact, over the course of now six editions there have been, if memory serves, eleven different editors. Such is the way of book publishing these days. I have thank them all along the way of the editions they helped bring to life. For this, the sixth edition, I thank Grace Fujimoto who stepped in early in the process in spite of the fact that she at the time had many other editorial duties at Westview. She has been a supportive as well as meticu- lous production editor. Yet, I cannot fail to say that the book would not have come to be without its original editor, Dean Birkenkamp. Since 1993 we have become friends. He remains one of academic publishing’s most imaginative editors.
Between the first and second editions, Florence Brown Lyons died. The dedication of the first gave her much pleasure. The subsequent dedications to her memory give me pleasure of another kind, though one chastened by her absence.
Between the second and third editions, we lost Matthew to a suicide I have come to accept and even to respect. I miss him still and will until whatever comes next. In this same time, Anna came to Geri, Noah, and me. As this new editions appears Anna is on her way to college. Noah married Adrienne. Geri and I continue to keep our happy life going.
Over the years, many colleagues, students, teachers, friends, and strangers have contributed to my understanding of what the book required and how, over time, it needed to change or remain as it was. I have thanked them in the previous editions. The list by now would be so long as to risk mockery of the gratitude I feel. I think of them often, always with thanksgiving. For this edition I thank Raymond Gunn who, on a warm summer morning on my front porch, forced me to rethink how this book could better treat race theorists and their affines. At every turn, I’ve done my best.
Charles Lemert January 19, 2016
Introduction—Social Theory: Its Uses and Pleasures
Social theory is a basic survival skill. This may surprise those who believe it to be a special activity of experts of a certain kind. True, there are professional social theorists, usually academics. But this fact does not exclude my belief that social theory is something done necessarily, and often well, by people with no particular professional credential. When it is done well, by whomever, it can be a source of uncommon pleasure.
When, many years ago, my now-adult son Noah was in elementary school, he came home one day with questions that led to some good social theory. After Noah had spent his first two school years in an informal, somewhat countercultural school, we moved. He was then en- rolled in a more traditional public school. Thus began a more lively and sociologically interest- ing line of dinner table talk. He observed, for example, that when his class marched from its classroom to the lunchroom, the boys were told to form one line, the girls another. The march itself was under a code of silence. Having grown accustomed to schools with few rules of any sort, my son found this strange. At dinner, he reported this exotic practice with the ironic question, “What was this for? Do they think we are going to attack the girls?” He was perhaps seven at the time.
Later, in junior high school, he began to figure this out. After some years of close observation, Noah determined that schools impose arbitrary social rules, like walking silently in sex-segre- gated lines, because they are institutions concerned as much with civil discipline and authority as with learning. He used his own words, but he had developed a social theory congruent to his earlier questions. This he enjoyed because he felt the power of being able to say something per- suasive about the world he was then just beginning to engage with the quiet rebellion of a young man in the making.
Most people—whatever their social class, age, gender, race, or sexual orientation—develop a good enough repertoire of social theories of this sort. Usually, one suspects, these theories come into some focus in childhood and early adolescence, often in reply to innocent questions about daily social practices. When such theories are stated, very often in ordinary language, innocence is already lost. The world as it is comes into being.
In There Are No Children Here (1991), Alex Kotlowitz tells the story of two boys trying to survive in one of Chicago’s most dangerous public housing projects. I read the book a good many years ago; the boys are now grown up like my son. Lafeyette, then age ten, said: “If I grow up, I want to be a bus driver.” The “if ” suggests one of the reasons Kotlowitz took the book’s title from an observation by Lafeyette’s mother: “But you know, there are no children here. They’ve seen too much to be children.” This, too, is a social theory. The boy and his mother both put into plain words the social world of the uncounted thousands of urban children whose lullaby is gunfire. If not pleasure, there must at least be some satisfaction in knowing and being able to describe one’s place in a world. If you cannot say it, how can you deal with it? Between the expe- riences of the middle-class, white boy (my son) and a welfare-class, Black boy (Lafeyette), there
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is common ground. Both knew they knew something important about their social worlds, and they knew what they knew because they could put it into words.
Thus considered, social theory is the normal accomplishment of socially adept human crea- tures figuring out what other creatures of the same sort are doing with, to, or around them. Such theories are everywhere, though they are not easy to come by. David Bradley, in his classic novel The Chaneysville Incident (1981), explains why:
The key to the understanding of any society lies in the observation and analysis of the insignificant and the mundane. For one of the primary functions of societal institutions is to conceal the basic nature of the society, so that the individuals that make up the power structure can pursue the business of consolidating and increasing their power untroubled by the minor carpings of a dissatisfied peasantry. Societal institutions act as fig leaves for each other’s nakedness…. And so, when seeking to understand the culture or the history of a people, do not look at the precepts of the religion, the form of the government, the curricula of the schools, or the operations of businesses; flush the johns.
Bradley then put into words what his readers all know but never have reason to say: the toilets on buses are foul, while those on airplanes are neat and well supplied, and it is no accident that poor people ride buses, while the less poor fly. It is, thus, a plausibly coherent social theory to say that such a society considers its poor filth, yet wishes to disguise this unpleasant attitude.
Social theory, Bradley might suggest, is about the mundane and the concealed—those hidden aspects of social life we sometimes encounter in the ordinary course of daily life. We don’t always see them, thus we aren’t always in a position to speak of them, for at least the following reasons: (1) The powers-that-be want them concealed (Bradley’s idea). (2) Either the empowered or the weak may resist talking about them because they are too threatening (Kotlowitz’s implicit idea that some people deny the reality of urban life because it’s too much to deal with). Or (3) people need time and experience to learn how to put into words the reality they live with (but not ev- eryone has the time to do this). Social theories don’t just occur to us. Some we never get. Others come in time. Some we have to work to get at. But they are there to be known and said.
It could therefore be said that an individual survives in society to the extent he or she can say plausibly coherent things about that society. Our ability to endure, and on occasion to enjoy, the worlds of irrational lunch-line rules, of crack wars in the hallways, of clean airplane restrooms and much more depends on our knowing something about why things are as they are. And we only know such things well enough when we can talk about them.
Professional social theorists may find this too simple a definition of their stock-in-trade. Pre- sumably, no one likes the idea that what he or she does for a living is but a specialized version of what any person on the street can do. Yet the evidence supports the idea that there is at best a difference of degree, not of kind, between practical and professional theories of social life. Pro- fessional social theorists, if they are honest, must admit that they encounter this truth whenever they teach students who invariably say in introductory courses, “Interesting stuff, but it sounds like jargon for what everyone knows.” The comeback to the wisdom of these students should be: “Perhaps, but can they all say it?” Though professional social theorists sometimes get carried away with how they say what they know about the social world, they at least are skilled at coming up with something coherent to say.
From this uneasy balance of trade between practical and professional social theorists, I draw the justification for this collection of readings in social theory. Everyone can do it. Everyone should do more of it. Responsible practical members of society presumably would live better— with more power, perhaps more pleasure—if they could produce more social theories, that is, if they could use their already considerable practical sociologies to greater advantage. One of the ways lay members can learn to say more about their social worlds is to pay attention to what professional social theorists have said and are saying. This is not because the professionals are more likely to be right—only because they are more practiced.
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The Origins of Social Theory
The surprising thing is that professional social theorists have not been practicing their trade for very long, at least not in great numbers. In fact, professional social theory has been around only for the past several hundred years, roughly since the beginning of modern times. Though it has been argued that earlier peoples did a type of social theory (the Greeks are usually cited in this regard), social theory as we know it really began only in the eighteenth century in the various expressions of Enlightenment culture. It did not become a popular activity among the urban intelligentsia until the middle of the nineteenth century, when there first were relatively free and open social spaces. The development of civil society in the eighteenth century, mostly in Euro- pean (and a few North American) urban centers, permitted enough freedom of expression to encourage independent thinking. These were the circumstances in which a critical mass of liter- ate citizens began to pose the questions that social theory tries to answer.
It is even possible to say that the foundational categories with which social theory first began were themselves an attempt to account for what was then a striking difference between modern societies and the preceding traditional ones. The modern/traditional dichotomy became, there- fore, a technical expression with innumerable variations. Max Weber wrote of a rational, fu- ture-oriented ethic as the distinctive feature of modern, capitalist societies and distinguished this ethic from traditionalism. Èmile Durkheim wrote of different types of moral cohesiveness, the modern being a more complicated social division of labor in which individuals tended to become lost without the more immediate social controls of traditional societies. Karl Marx, of course, wrote of the uniquely subtle forms of alienation under the capitalist mode of production in which despotism, slavery, and feudal domination were replaced by less overt, but still exploit- ative, aggressions against the human spirit. Though these three, and many other nineteenth-cen- tury social theorists, held sharply different views on the actual state of the modern world, all began their social theories with an explicit theory of the modern world’s differences from the traditional.
In the briefest of terms, they all believed what no thinking person could deny: beginning with the cultural, political, and economic revolutions of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, fewer and fewer people could avoid the responsibility to have something to say about the new society. This was not just because the society was new and changing. More importantly, it was because this society demanded, in effect, that its more urbanized and literate citizens participate. Little in early or later modernity was settled. Little remained the same for any period of time. As a result, in a world where change was everywhere, those who desired to have a public life and to participate in the economic and political activities of the new times had to make up their own minds about what was going on.
The contrast with the immediately preceding period must have been quite compelling, per- haps shocking. Few of us who live in the Europeanized, Northern world today have any inkling of what the change must have meant. Even those who come from rural areas can only catch a glimpse. I once lived in rural southern Illinois. On a Sunday’s drive, one could visit small villages like Buncombe (pop. 850), where the boarded-up general store and the peeling paint told of the effect of the new Wal-Mart outlet in Carbondale, twelve miles to the north. There, the tradi- tional rural world was still passing away. But today’s passings of the pre-modern order in rural Illinois or Nebraska are but occasional glimpses of the early modern experience when everywhere the old life was disappearing.
Today, we can only imagine, at some remove, the traditional world that the early social theo- rists saw fading. Consider a passage from R. W. Southern’s The Making of the Middle Ages (1953):
By the thirteenth century . . . the main features of village life were established as they were to exist for another five hundred years. Materially, there was probably remarkably little difference between the life of the peasant in the thirteenth century and the village before it was transformed by modern mechanisms: the produce of the land had
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increased sixfold or tenfold during these centuries, but very little of this increase went into the pocket or stomach of the individual peasant. Compared with the rest of the community, he remained immune from new wants, or the means of satisfying them. Everywhere the peasant kept himself alive on a diet whose scarcity and monotony was broken only by intermittent feastings, at harvest time, at pig-killing time, and when people got married or died. There were great differences in the fortunes of individual peasants: families rose and fell, holdings grew and withered away again, following laws similar to those which governed the rise and fall of kingdoms. Over the fortunes of all, high and low, there presided the unpredictable factors of marriage and childbirth. The rules of succession, infinitely various and complicated, often modified, but with the general authority of centuries of growth behind them, were the framework within which the pattern of village—as of national—life was woven.
Since R. W. Southern wrote these words in 1953, social historians have learned a great deal more about the underlying strains and potential for rebellion and change in the traditional me- dieval world. Just the same, one can take this view of village life as a fair guide to the traditional, pre-modern world. Yes, there was change. But change was a “rise and fall” of fortune. Everything social was pressed under the “general authority of centuries of growth.” For at least five hundred years, social life in these villages remained much the same. Hence, we have Max Weber’s eloquent definition of traditional values as those adhering to the “eternal yesterday.”
By contrast, read the description of modern life written in 1903 by a friend of Weber’s, Georg Simmel, in “The Metropolis and Mental Life” (1903):
The psychological foundation, upon which the metropolitan individual is erected, is the intensification of emotional life due to the swift and continuous shift of external and internal stimuli. Man is a creature whose existence is dependent on differences, i.e., his mind is stimulated by the difference between present impressions and those which have preceded. Lasting impressions, the slightness in their differences, the habituated regular- ity of their course and contrast between them, consume, so to speak, less mental energy than the rapid telescoping of changing images, pronounced differences within what is grasped at a single glance, and the unexpectedness of violent stimuli. To the extent that the metropolis creates these psychological conditions—with every crossing of the street, with the tempo and multiplicity of economic, occupational, and social life—it creates in the sensory foundations of mental life, and the degree of awareness necessitated by our organization as creatures dependent on differences, a deep contrast with these lower, more habitual, more smoothly flowing rhythms of the sensory-mental phase of small town and rural existence.
Hardly anyone who lives in or has recently visited a modern metropolis could fail to under- stand intuitively what Simmel meant by the psychological individual who, even on crossing an urban street, must react differently from—and thus become some other sort of human individual than—a rural cousin or an ancestor in an early thirteenth-century village. But what is most in- teresting is that it would have been impossible for Simmel merely to describe the metropolitan mental life. He had to produce a theory. The passage is, of course, a sometimes abstract but clear enough social theory, not just of urban mentality but also of modern life itself. Few people in those earliest decades of the new urban society, even as late as 1903 when Simmel wrote, could have spoken of the new life without comparing it somehow to the traditional or the rural. This necessity was the first condition of social theory.
Thus, we may say that the first professional theorists were individuals who could not have done social theory without the new society. At the same time, they were individuals who, having begun to think of that society, could not help but think about it theoretically. It was as though the open space and rapid pace of the new world meant one could best embrace it not with any
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act of the will or reflex of feeling but only with a theory. The first form of that theory was com- parative. Simmel and the others writing a century and more ago thought of the modern social world in comparison to the traditional.
Today, these are no longer the necessary conditions for doing social theory. The social worlds in which people must now do their theories are sharply different from those in the late nine- teenth century. Still, always in the background somewhere is that foundational condition of so- cial theory: it would not have come into its own, certainly not as a professional activity, had it not been for the new modern society that encouraged and even required thoughtful talk about what was going on.
Thinking an Earlier New World Order
Today’s changed conditions for doing social theory have disturbed the original balance of trade between lay and expert social theorists. Were we to compare, say, the end of the nineteenth cen- tury to the end of the twentieth, we would soon find two major differences in the circumstances affecting who thinks about social life and how they think. First, the number of people with ready access to a culture supportive of critical thinking has increased dramatically, especially after the hold of the European powers lost control on their colonies in the 1950s and 1960s. Second, the people normally engaged in critical social thinking today are no longer necessarily identified with a dominant class of bourgeois intellectuals. Many of the new social theorists do not consider themselves bourgeois (even if they are), and many are visibly not anything like the white, male advocates of European culture who wrote the first, best-known social theories.
These two differences—one of number, another of kind—make social theory today an enter- prise largely, but not entirely, different from that in the nineteenth century. Among the more salient differences is that today’s social theory is produced in more intimate intercourse with the lives of people who are not at all professional in the subject. Hence, the balance is different. At the end of the nineteenth century, social theory was chiefly done by experts; today, even the ex- perts pay closer attention to what some call everyday-life social theory.
Alvin W. Gouldner, a social theorist who wrote in the period when these differences became evident, would have referred to these as cultures of critical discourse—cultures that encourage large numbers of people to think critically about the social world and that provide these people with the tools with which to do the thinking. Gouldner himself thought of this change in what turned out to be overly general terms. He assumed there was one culture of critical discourse and that it was ready-made within the culture of modern life. In one important sense, Gouldner was correct. Modern life, in contrast to the traditional, did seem to encourage critical thinking. This was, in effect, the main point of the Enlightenment—the idea that, in Immanuel Kant’s famous definition, modern, enlightened people would “dare to know.” Daring to know and daring to use that knowledge are attitudes toward life and the world that could only arise among people will- ing to break with tradition, thereby looking to new, future possibilities. In this sense, modernity was a culture of critical thinking and thus of social theory. Just the same, the present social world encourages a state of mind more complicated than an essential and universal humanistic attitude of critical reasoning. Increasingly in the last generation, the world seems to engender any num- ber of different cultures, many of which, in turn, encourage critical social theories—theories that may each be in a different voice.
Very often, these differences are subtle, barely detectable. My son and Lafeyette were about the same age when each put into words a shrewd diagnosis of his worldly circumstances. On the surface, both boys might seem to have been producing social ideas appropriate to a certain level of male psychological development. On close inspection (whatever developmental psychology might teach us about when children can formulate cognitive or moral objects), the differences between the theories of the two boys are there to be seen. The white, middle-class boy who diag- noses the duplicitous and confusing functions of his school does so in a gesture of prowess. What he discovers and says about this aspect of his world is, to be sure, armament against a sometimes
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frightening, often goofy social arrangement. Yes, even members of the middle class have reason to fear the world. Some individuals make the journey to adult life with ease, some with great pain. And a few do not make it at all. But most do, somehow.
Lafeyette’s real world was different. He said “if I grow up” in recognition of the harsh world in which he lived. By the time he met Kotlowitz, Lafeyette had witnessed the murder of other children not much older than he. Like the middle-class boy in a safer, suburban life, he was a shrewd ob- server. Yet Lafeyette was expressing something that went well beyond keen observational sense. He was putting into words what every Black, male child growing up in urban projects knows to be true: Poor Black boys do not always grow up. Boys like my son can be enrolled in countercultural schools or private schools where, on occasion, the rules make more sense. They might have options.
But boys like Lafeyette, whatever their options, cannot escape the simple, hard facts of their social situation. Their odds are different, and the difference is a complex result of powerful social forces that go well beyond anything Lafeyette and his brother and their mates could hope to manage. He was not using the technical language of social theory, but he was saying that he recognized the meaning of being poor, Black, male, American. These four social forces—class, race, gender, nationality—form a matrix that defines, and limits, at an early age, what and who boys like Lafeyette can be. Some may outrun the limits; some grow up; some grow up whole and well. But boys born into Lafeyette’s social circumstances must, somehow, figure out who they are and what they want to be in relation to the limiting condition “If I grow up.” This makes his theory of his world different from my son’s.