Let them eat pie

25 Nov

On November 20th, 2011, Mother Jones Staff Writer Josh Harkinson live-tweeted from a march organized by Occupy Wall Street:

The march encountered a counter-protester sitting at a sidewalk table at Da Silvano, an Italian restaurant on 6th Ave.

She looked to be in her mid 20’s and was about to dig into a slice of pumpkin pie.

“Get a job!” She shouted, as the crowd walked past with candles, quietly singing.

“I have a job,” said an elderly woman in the march. “I go to work every day.”

“Well, you are disrupting people who have a job,” the woman at the table said.

As the crowd quietly streamed past, she added: “Do you want a glass of water? To put your candle out?“’

Besides being either gratifying or maddening, depending on your position on the global Occupy movement, this incident – which I’ll call OccuPie – is a study in sociological principles.

Except that sociology doesn’t really have principles. I’ll explain. And I promise, this will come back to OccuPie.

Despite the best efforts of some early social scientists, the field has never “discovered” any universal laws of human activity. Instead, over time, sociologists largely accepted that their object of inquiry – human, social life – is too complicated and unpredictable to support the kinds of generalizable theories on which the natural sciences are ostensibly built (and even that latter assumption is not without its doubters).

Many have embraced this as a positive step, touting Nietsche’s argument that social scientists, in their quest to build understanding, “should not wish to divest existence of its rich ambiguity‘” anyway. Some in the field have come so far as to admit that, as Danish scholar Bent Flyvbjerg (Floov-be-yerg) put it, “human activity cannot be reduced to a set of rules, and without rules there can be no theory.”[1]

I place myself squarely in the second camp, and yet I am troubled by one persistent empirical finding that possesses all the reliability and generalizability of a scientific principle – one thing that human beings seem inclined to do, without fail, across societies and divisions therein.

That is, even in the presence of irrefutable, replicated patterns of social (im)mobility;

even having faced circumstances entirely and undeniably beyond their control;

even if their choices are objectively, demonstrably limited by the hard and stubborn facts of wealth, law, geography, history and politics:

they are remarkably capable of believing that they alone determine and are responsible for their own destinies.

It’s a belief that manifests in the sort of no-nonsense, get-a-grip, quit-complaining attitude OccuPie Woman had. And it’s hard to argue with, because it’s not irrational or illogical.

In fact, it’s quite logical. But it stems from a value and a belief – not a scientific fact. The belief is that every individual is responsible for his or her circumstances, and many of the people who believe this also value it, because for them, self-sufficiency and self-responsibility are integral to freedom as much as they are integral to success.

Logically following from this belief is the notion that any problem should be solved by the individual encountering it for the individual encountering it, and once it’s done, the individual is required to move on and not worry about those who will encounter the same problem in the future, because they too will solve it individually. And if they don’t, the consequences are theirs to deal with.

Sociology, from this perspective, is just a more scientific way of blaming other people for your problems.

C. Wright Mills

Of course, as a sociologist, I see something different when I look at sociology. Although the discipline was around long before C. Wright Mills stepped – or rode, rather, on a motorcycle – onto the scene, he was the one who set out most clearly what I consider to be the field’s modus operandi: stimulating “the quality of mind” that allows people to “cope with their personal troubles in such ways as to control the structural transformations that usually lie behind them.”[2]

This is no easy task, given that “structural transformations” seem, to people like OccuPie woman, to be “excuses” for personal failures. Progressives and others who have that “quality of mind” Mills wanted to see developed have long tried to proselytize those who lack it, and they have been unable to do so, in so far as the belief in individual independence and self-responsibility thrives, even at a time when peoples’ economic lives are collapsing in tandem and interdependently through mechanisms far beyond their own personal milieus.

I think we need to stop trying to convince people like OccuPie woman. We can’t. We can’t because she’s operating on an airtight logic that we can’t argue with, because it’s rooted in a value that only gets stronger when threatened.

Our logic – that historical change and social problems require collective responses and solutions – is also rooted in a value that cannot be moved by argument alone. That value is brotherhood, sisterhood, fraternity, interdependence, humanity, community and just plain looking out for one another in ways that transcend our immediate friends and family. It is a beautiful, powerful value – but it will not trump others on its beauty and power alone.

C. Wright Mills knew that the battle was about values in his time, too, only he seemed to assume that there were widely-shared cultural values whose endangerment would hit everyone (except the Power Elite) with the same, sickening thud. But Occupy and OccuPie show that they don’t; there are different values at stake here, and neither of them is going away.

Individualism holds and grows fast. In their 1986 work, Habits of the Heart, a group of sociologists led by Robert Bellah wrote that individualism was the “first language” of Americans. The dozens of people they interviewed, and the political discourse at the time, shared “the notion that our problems are individual or in only a narrow sense social (that is, involving family and local community), rather than economic, political and cultural.”[3]

Individualism takes hold in unlikely places, too.

Often the people who are most hemmed in by structural and economic barriers, despite their best efforts to escape, are the most dedicated to propping up the myth that people who fail to ‘make it’ in conventional terms have no one and nothing to blame but themselves.

I’ve found this in my own research, and it echoes one of the first sociology textbooks I ever read – Jay McLeod’s Ain’t No Makin’ It. McLeod spent years following two groups of teenagers from the projects who saw their opportunities closed off because of discrimination, lack of (initial) resources, bare-bones schools, overworked parents, and a culture of crime and drugs that made a target out of anyone who tried to do well in school or work a conventional job.

The deck was undeniably stacked against the young men in McLeod’s book, but they were more or less convinced that they just had to play their hands right. Like most Americans, they believed that where you come from places no limits on where you can do, despite the fact that people on the economic ladder in the US tend to stay on the same rung their whole lives.

In Canada, movement up the economic ladder – which we refer to as “income mobility” – is slightly better, but not much. Recent statistics showed that, year over year, working people were nearly as likely to slip into a lower income quintile as they were to climb into a higher one. Across generations, poverty in childhood is a strong indicator of poverty in adulthood. A person’s educational attainment is also closely linked to that of their parents.

Looking at income and education alone, then, there are suggestive patterns. To OccuPie woman, such patterns might be taken as an indication that the propensity to make terrible choices is a genetic trait or cultural tradition passed from parents to children. To someone else, the patterns might be proof that peoples’ lives are mostly or completely determined by structural factors beyond their control.

A more convincing interpretation, to me, is the kind that sociologist Margaret Archer offers in her recent book, Making Our Way Through the World (2009, Cambridge University Press). Through the life histories of a few dozen participants from the UK, Archer shows human life to be a complex but readily understandable negotiation between personal powers and the structural and cultural constraints people confront, daily and over the course of their lives. In other words, the individual’s life is not wholly determined by their cultural environment, parents, class position, gender, historical moment etc., but nor is it wholly theirs to direct and pursue as they see fit.

But the challenge, I think, is not convincing people like OccuPie woman that our fates are interconnected, that we are not all the sole authors of our biographies, that we are not, no matter how closed off we make ourselves from the rest of the world and its “historical push and shove”, private individuals; rather, our challenge is to reach out to those who are beginning to suspect that their troubles are not wholly “private” or “personal”, who are beginning to “feel that their private lives are a series of traps”, and to bring the simultaneously reassuring and terrifying news that those traps are not solely of their own making.

We need to admit that we each bear some responsibility for our circumstances, but at the same time as we seek to change ourselves we should also seek to change society, not only for our own benefit but for the benefit of others.

The goal, paraphrasing Mills, is to take the “personal uneasiness of individuals” and focus it upon the “explicit troubles” in their everyday lives (the workings of power, hegemony, ideology), and to transform the “indifference of publics” into “involvement with public issues.”[4]

OccuPie woman’s steadfastness – embodied, in my imagination, in one woman stoically eating her pie as 30,000 bodies stream by – is rooted in a powerful value. But then again, so is ours.


[1] Flyvbjerg, 2006. Making Social Science Matter, pp. 84 and 46.

[2] Mills, 1959/2000. The Sociological Imagination. Oxford University Press. P. 4.

[3] Bellah et. al. 1985/2008. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. University of California Press.

[4] Mills, 1959/2000. The Sociological Imagination. Oxford University Press. P. 5

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