Sunday, April 27, 2008

Misplaced skepticism about belief

A further comment on yesterday's post, which noted that Robert Putnam gives all kinds of explanations for declining social capital except for explanations that cite culture, values, or beliefs--

When Putnam first lists the benefits of living in a community that is rich in social capital, he writes that
"dense networks of interaction probably broaden the participants' sense of self, developing the 'I' into the 'we,' or (in the language of rational-choice theorists) enhancing the participants' 'taste' for collective beliefs" (67).

I find this expression odd. Why call this a "taste" or a "preference" rather than just saying that when people interact with others (and especially with people who are not just identical to them), they are more likely to develop a habit of public-mindedness? They believe that it's worth pursuing what's right for the group rather than what will most benefit the individual in the short-term.

If beliefs are too ephemeral (do you know that you hold a belief until it's tested?), then how about using affect as an explanatory term. Surely people care. Some people care about communities, and some people care mostly about themselves. Some people are willing to make personal sacrifices (e.g., slower and smaller cars) for the sake of the environment or for public well-being, and some people are not.

A social science that is unable to refer to values, or that must call them preferences (and preferences which, I imagine, are non-rational because they don't immediately benefit the self) is a social science without a moral center.

1 comment:

Khadimir said...

I would go much farther along the path that you suggest, EB. In the socio-enculturation (i.e. education) of a person, the self or selves that a person can be is broadened. Rather than characterizing "dense networks of interaction" in terms of "sense of self" or "collective beliefs," I suggest a different underlying metaphor than Putnam's "network." I do, however, wish to stress the "probably broaden ... self" part.

Consider a weave of interactions. If "I" am a cloth weave, then my self is a weave of all the interactions in which I participate. Yet, unlike a "network," these threads cannot be connected or disconnected without changing who I am in fundamental ways. That is, it really does matter that I lived with Mainers rather than Bostonians--other than that nasal accent! Now, developing the I into the we, if I may suggest, is a matter of at least two things. It is a matter of having finer and more threads in this weave, and a matter of attending to these threads. A finer weave means that the weave-self is constituted by a larger "we." However, this is no guarantee of broadened sociability unless the I comes to attend to these threads in the weaving of the self. Rather than developing a "taste" for collective beliefs, this self is and attends to the "collective." Aside, more insular yet strong communities are not blended cloths, while strong cosmopolitan communities are variegated blends.

Sociability is more than even the conscious content of a belief. We are woven into the fabric of a society long before we self-consciously investigate our "tastes" or "beliefs."