Social Life as a D-I-Y Project . – Review – book review
Nigel Rapport. Transcendent Individual: Towards a Literary and Liberal Anthropology. London and New York: Routledge, 1997. ix, 224pp., bibliog. and index. $US80 (Hb.), ISBN 0-415-16966-6; $US24.99 (Pb.), ISBN 0-415-16967-4.
I am acting entirely in the spirit of the book under review in reporting that I had not read very much of it before I was reminded of a song by Ian Dury, ‘What a waste’, which contains the following verses: 
I could be a lawyer, with stratagems and ruses,
I could be a doctor, with poultices and bruises,
I could be a writer with a growing reputation,
I could be the ticket man at Fulham Broadway station.
I could be the catalyst that sparks the revolution,
I could be an inmate in a long-term institution
I could go to wild extremes, I could do or die,
I could yawn and be withdrawn and watch life gallop by.
The general position that Nigel Rapport defends in this collection of essays is set out many times, and he states it explicitly on the first page of the ‘Manifesto’, which precedes the ten main chapters:
Here is a book of essays intent on a social scientific appreciation of the individual who makes himself or herself ex nihilo in an originary (sic) fashion–who comes to be, who achieves a consciousness, outwith (sic) and beyond the socio-cultural environment in which he or she was born and has been socialised/enculturated. (1997:1)
Rapport, it should immediately be made clear, is not–explicitly, anyway–offering a theory of ‘gifted individuals’; for him, self-consciousness and self-creation are ontologically basic features of the individual as such, and these characteristics should not only be recognised and celebrated, but made the foundation of social scientific theory.
Inevitably–given that I read it in 1998, the year in which Frank Sinatra died–Rapport’s book also reminded me of ‘I did it my way’ in which the famous crooner celebrates in a more hubristic mode what Dury’s song evokes ironically–an intuition of life’s openness, and the opportunities for self-direction and self-transformation it presents. Rapport, closer to Sinatra than Dury, wants to say that life’s openness, and the subject’s creative charting of a course through it, is the fundamental condition of human existence. Though some might quibble with the hagiographic associations of ‘creative,’ the stress on agency here would not necessarily draw censure from the most ardent structuralist (even Althusser, for example, did not deny self-consciousness and intentionality to the subjects he preferred to see as trager, even though he argued that subjectivity should be sidelined in the project of explaining the course of large-scale social events). Rapport, however, sees the first person perspective, with its emph asis on choice, self-consciousness and self-direction, as constraining the metaphysical and methodological postulates of social science. Moreover, such a perspective enjoins a particular ethical and aesthetic orientation to individuals. Rapport’s world is one in which, as the novelist, Irvine Welsh, puts it in an interview, ‘every punter [is] the star of their own show’ (Harrison 1997:76), and, accordingly, everyone should be accorded star status. As we shall see, though, according to the logic of Rapport’s view, and as folk models hold, some individuals turn out to be more worthy of this epithet than others.
Rapport, who is Professor of Anthropological and Philosophical Studies at the University of St Andrews, continues and develops in this collection themes found in his earlier works (1993 and 1994, for example), as well as in those of close colleagues such as A. P. Cohen (1994; Cohen and Rapport 1995). In 1980-1, Rapport carried out fieldwork in the Dale of Wanet, in Cumbria, in north-eastern England. The focus of his research was a small network of individuals, amongst whom he lived and worked (incognito, for the most part, as a casual labourer), and it resulted in a number of fine-grained analyses of aspects of their lives and interactions. His major ethnographic work, Diverse World- Views in an English Village (1993), focuses on just three main protagonists (although, of course, much general ethnographic material is also presented), Doris Harvey, Sid Askrig and Rapport himself (p.xi), the first two being maternal first cousins (Rapport 1986:40). Rapport’s interests, however, are not confined to the micro-an alysis of social life, nor even to a reflexive consideration of the nature of authorship in the production of such analyses; like his supervisor, A.P. Cohen, he believes that the whole orientation of social theory needs to be changed, and from the bottom up. As Cohen puts it, in a formulation that Rapport uses as the epigraph to his monograph, ‘If we do not do descriptive justice to individuals, it is hard to see we how could do it for societies’ (1992; see also 1994:ch.1).
A year later, Rapport produced a very interesting work, The Prose and the Passion: Anthropology, Literature and the Writing of E. M. Forster, a book ‘of heroes and villains: of poets versus deconstructionists, edifiers versus systematisers, empathisers versus determinists’ (1994:ix). Rapport seeks to show the correspondences between literature (the English novel, anyway) and anthropology. More broadly, and despite what might be inferred from his casting of ‘deconstructionists’ on the side of the villains, he seeks to blend postmodern sensibilities concerning the process of writing and reflexivity with classical liberal humanism. He does this largely through a process he calls zigzagging (between literary criticism and anthropological theory, literature and ethnography, autobiography and biography, Forster’s characters and Sid and Doris of Wanet), which often takes the form of the kaleidoscopic juxtaposition of different authors and authorities with his own epigrammatic pronouncements. Although the work is hi ghly crafted, and contrives to be as persuasive as possible, the jackdawish colligation of claims and perspectives never amounts to what might properly be called an argument. In fact, I found myself imagining Rapport putting together his motley collection of intellectual sources in much the way he and Sid Askrig built the stone walls around the farms of Wanet.
Rapport continues his iconoclastic project and his modus operandi in Transcendent Individual. The notes on the jacket quote James Fernandez characterising the book as ‘a virtuoso set of arguments for an anthropology anchored in the complexities of the individual’s experience in a society of individuals’ experiences’. Actually, though, the reader expecting a sustained and detailed engagement with the complex issues that have dogged the social sciences since their inception will be disappointed. Fernandez must have been using the notion of ‘argument’ somewhat loosely, for what Rapport presents is not a consideration of the issues as they have unfolded in social theory or philosophy, but a series of largely hortatory essays, leavened with numerous references to, and quotations from, an enormously varied assortment of writers, all of whom are interpreted as providing support for his position.  Although most of the essays are interesting, I found it hard to resist the thought that, quite frequently, windmills were being tilted at and straw persons dismembered.
To return to the ‘Manifesto’: Following Oscar Wilde, who is hailed as an insightful analyst of the relationship between the individual and the socio-cultural setting, and frequently cited in the early pages, Rapport regards the individual as a thing of beauty, a source of wonder, and worthy of celebration: ‘the individual is a work of art that has given birth to itself’ (p.4). He freely acknowledges that his aesthetic and ontological commitments involve ‘a moral quest,’ which is why he characterises his project as an attempt to write a liberal social science. This will champion the individual against those views or circumstances that threaten or deny individuality. Such views he brings together under the rubric of ‘communitarianism’, which he finds in many aspects of contemporary thought, no less apparent in various sorts of social theory than in religious fundamentalism and contemporary bureaucracies.
The reader will by now be wondering what conception of the individual is at issue, in particular, whether it is the one we encounter in various regions of the contemporary ideological landscape. Rapport, sensitive to this question, opposes any suggestion that a stress on the priority of the individual is a reflection of the world-view of the Anglo-American bourgeoisie. The individualism of this world-view sees ‘the social actor as ostentatiously and conventionally “distinct”, sovereign and autonomous’, and as inherently endowed with ‘dignity and social value’ (p.6), a concept that, or so he tells us, does not conform to his position (despite passages that suggest the contrary and his many references to Mill, Forster, Popper, Hayek et al.). He encapsulates his own view thus: ‘I state the universality of the individual as the fount of the agency, consciousness, interpretation and creativity in social and cultural life’ (p.6). (The source of these capacities is what Rapport, anticipating a later discussion of t he work of the neurobiologist Edelman, calls ‘the individual’s sole ownership of discrete, corporeal, sense-making apparatuses’.) So, for Rapport, the liberal, moral agenda he pursues is entailed by the essential (ontological) character of the individual (which seems to imply that Anglo-American bourgeois liberals are unconcerned about the ontological grounds of their individualism). He says, citing Nietzsche as his authority, ‘It is the essential, objective, inherent nature of the individual self … to be self-caused and free’ (p.3). My reading of the book, however, led me irresistibly to the view that Rapport’s characterisation of his position is misleading: rather than these liberal moral commitments being entailed by his ontology, they precede it and dictate its shape.
He reads Nietzsche and Wilde as justifying their view of the nature of individuality on aesthetic grounds, and with this he concurs. Once all the old gods are dead (those of the philosophers and the scientists as well as those of the religions), the world can no longer be interpreted monologically, for no interpretive ground can provide the breadth and solidity to accommodate the perspectival world that is all that remains. So, ultimately, aesthetics is the only realm of discourse of relevance to his enterprise (p.3). Hence, he tells us, the many different genres represented by the essays in the book.
On this view, no individual life is ‘singularly determined or predetermined’, not by its environment or anything else ‘hard and fast’ (p.3). Each individual–and here he cites George Kelly, inventor of personal construct theory–is ‘a scientist … an experimenter’ (p.5). Rapport interprets this to mean that each individual builds a system of ‘mental constructs … in terms of which people and events come to be construed, encountered, plotted and anticipated’ (p.5). And since the individual subject is a main focus of those creative constructs, self-construction and world construction are inseparable. Hence, Rapport suggests, the individual is ‘a divine achievement’, as E. M. Forster put it (p.4).
Although Rapport does not explicitly say why, he holds that the existentialist conception of individuality, with its stress on ‘creative responsibility’, implies an imperative for each of us to recognise the individuality of others and to respect it. Accordingly, he has no qualms about joining Nietzsche, Forster, and Mill on what he calls the same ‘path’ (p.4).
Methodologically, these views imply that the gap between informant and ethnographer is no divide at all: both ‘write’ social reality. They also entail, he continues, the invalidity of any view that sees the individual as ‘dissolved, decentered or deconstructed’ (p.7), or as living ‘unselfconsciously “amid unconscious systems of determining forces”‘ (p.6, quoting Rabinow 1977:151). Accordingly, Durkheimian, structuralist, and post-structuralist positions are all ruled out. What they all miss, and what Rapport, following George Steiner (1975), is at pains to bring to attention, is the meaning that lies beyond all social and cultural forms. This meaning, the creation of the individual’s consciousness, animates the otherwise lifeless social and cultural forms, endowing them with what meaning and purpose they might have. Here it is worth pointing out, in view of the remarks I have made about Rapport’s method, that elsewhere in the book, as well as in earlier works, he cites approvingly the views of Wittgenstein, whose arguments against the possibility of a private language–so important to his general position in Philosophical Investigations [19581–are nevertheless left undiscussed. Indeed, Rapport seems to hold an essentially Lockean view of language, in which linguistic elements stand for nothing but the intrapsychic ideas to which they have been attached.
In large part, the book is motivated, he tells us, by his inability to find himself in standard social scientific descriptions. Like Anthony Cohen (1994: Chap. 1), Rapport has qualms about portraying others in terms that he cannot bring to bear on himself as a phenomenological subject. What he will not consider is the idea that the sociological imagination can transform one’s sense of self, that the acquisition of social scientific understanding can transform one’s consciousness of the world, and, thereby, of oneself. In the face of the verisimilitude of Rapport and Cohen’s ‘self-created’ subjectivities, the idea, as Hans Joas puts it, ‘that sociology is itself a philosophical project’ (1996:69) is hardly considered. Not only, then, does Rapport take himself as ‘the measure, the precedent, the paradigm case’ (p.7), but he also wants to argue that all social scientific practitioners must do likewise. Such an argument immediately raises a problem concerning those of us who can see ourselves in standard social scientific descriptions; for those of us who find, for example, that our beliefs, desires and values were, precisely, not chosen like so many delicacies from a smorgasbord.
In addition to the approved authorities already cited (to which list he also adds Bateson, Leach, Fernandez, Wagner, among many, many others), Rapport marks out Richard Rorty, as having been ‘especially inspirational’ (p.9). Rorty, Rapport holds (on the basis of what seemed to me a very partial reading of his work), has shown us how we may achieve a just and free society while allowing its citizens to be as self-concerned and aesthetic as they choose to be, so long as they cause no harm to, nor spoil the projects of, others. Rapport suggests that Rorty, in his choice of heroes (especially Mill and Nietzsche), has shown us that as individuals we need not just ‘speak the language of the tribe, that we may find our own words, that we have a responsibility to ourselves to find them’ (p.10). As members of society, on the other hand, Rorty reminds us that we need to attend to our public institutions in order to ensure that they work as well as possible. Rorty, through his anti-foundationalist arguments, has also s hown us the futility of a search for a single meta-vocabulary that can encompass both of these ambitions. It is worth noting that there is an anti-essentialist, anti-humanist corollary of this, which Rorty discusses in essays (for example, 1980 and 1982:ch. 11), but which is not cited or discussed by Rapport; namely, that the only test of a vocabulary is whether it works, not whether it is adequate to the phenomenon (here, human subjectivity) as it is ‘in itself’ (a notion that for Rorty is empty, serving only to signal the old metaphysical yearnings). This highly partial presentation of the various authorities Rapport invokes is, I have suggested, characteristic of the way he pursues his agenda. Perhaps, though, he would not regard this as reprehensible, given his view that there are only aesthetic grounds for choosing how a perspective should be presented.
The aesthete, the moralist, the existentialist and the liberal all, then, appear in Rapport’s essays; and if they are linked only by his own biographical experience, then we can ask for no more. How distinct things overlap and interweave in an individual’s own experience is all we can reasonably hope to understand. It is for these reasons that Rapport concludes the first chapter by praising the essay form. The book of essays, he says, can be as diverse and polythetic and lacking in common themes as the individual.
Accordingly, he offers in these essays ‘the perspectival, the partial and the multiple’ (p.11). Yet, all of them focus upon some aspect of the individual, either in social life or in social science, and–it is important to reiterate–for Rapport there is no distinction here. ‘The writing of socio-cultural reality’, where ‘writing’ is understood in its broad Derridean sense, is the very essence of individuality (p.10). He lists his various themes in the final section of the introductory chapter. They include liberal democracy, human rights, biological integrity, agency, self-creation, interpretation and discourses, social structure, social scientific method, literature and apology. Rather than giving them as a simple list, he presents them slithering down the page in the serpentine fashion of an ee cummings poem, with ‘narrative’ and ‘writing social reality’ occupying central places.
Upon receiving this intriguingly titled book, I read the first chapter, and skimmed at random through the rest of the book, after which I was rather sorry that I had agreed to review it. I had expected a sustained reassessment of arguments stemming from Weber and Durkheim through to Giddens and Bourdieu (which, in truth, has been needed ever since Cohen and Rapport began demanding the emplacement of the self-conscious individual at the centre of social theory). And, even though I am very interested in Rorty and his ambitious attempts to meld quite different, even antithetical, philosophical traditions into an ironic anti-foundationalism, it seemed to me, after that first skim, that, despite the wide range of authors and positions invoked, I could look forward to something less than a sustained consideration of fundamental issues. In fact, however, I quite enjoyed the book, although I wouldn’t say my initial opinion was wrong. I also came to appreciate the forthright nature of the way Rapport presented his cas e, for, it seems to me, he makes explicit an anxiety subliminally present in many anthropological works: that concerning determinism and the place in cultural anthropology for human creativity. What I found worrying, though, is the level of scholarly engagement (as opposed to referencing and cataloguing). The book seems to have as much to do with spin doctoring as the formulation of arguments. More than once I was struck by the idea that reading Rapport’s citation and quote-strewn prose was rather like reading a web page–full of underlined and brightly coloured hyperlinks that instantly transport one to somewhere else in cyberspace.
I will not say any more in criticism for the moment, but will wait until I have presented some more information about exactly what Rapport has to say, and how he goes about saying it. I will not aim to be exhaustive, and will not say anything about the essays on, for example, Malinowski’s diary or playing dominoes in Wanet. As the author rightly says, all the cloths presented are woven from the same set of yarns, and it is the value of these that I would like to examine.
I cannot, though, leave the central chapters of the book without mentioning the revealing and–in the end–unsettlingly self-congratulatory account Rapport gives of his triumph over an organised scam to sell time-share apartments under the cover of giving away free gifts (ch. 8, ‘Hard sell or mumbling ‘right’ rudely’). Rapport, initially without immodesty, explains how he saw through the Goffmanesque manoeuvring of the salespersons and resisted the scam (but only by the skin of his teeth). He finds this resistance a telling datum against a motley selection of theoretical positions (those of Levi-Strauss, Foucault, Lacan and Derrida as well as Goffman, Garfinkel and Basil Bernstein), for it shows that he (as an ‘interpreting person’) was not ‘determined’ by the social experience. Yet, he has nothing at all to say about a certain Mr and Mrs Chandler who, he reports, did succumb to the pressure (p.147), nor about all the other punters who make such scams viable. In his fixation on his thrilling individuality it seems not to have occurred to Rapport that he ought to have done something to block the implication of his analysis that Mr and Mrs Chandler and the others were simply the victims of their own character defects. It also occurred to me to wonder whether Rapport might blush at the thought that his very narrow victory might not have taken place had he not been made to read Goffman, et al., in the course of his training. As we shall see, the strange currents at work in this account recur at other points in the book.
The first chapter is entitled ‘Writing Individual Knowledge and Personal Relations’. It begins with an epigraph from A. M. Maclver, a philosopher of history whose work used to be anthologised quite frequently, primarily for his exemplary statements of methodological individualism, much as Durkheim’s is anthologised for his exemplary statements of methodological holism. The quote is as follows:
Generalisations are true or false in proportion as they represent or misrepresent all the individual dealings and happenings. … ‘The Book of the Recording Angel’ may be regarded as the ideal limit to which social science approximates as generalisation tends to zero. (A. M. MacIver 1961, as quoted in Rapport p.12)
Characteristically, though, MacIver’s arguments (which are always engaging, if not compelling) are not presented. Rather, William Blake, Kierkegaard and Aldous Huxley are all quoted as pithily or poetically saying the same thing as MacIver. These views are then juxtaposed to what Rapport presents as the standard social scientific position (actually–and to put it mildly–extremely thin characterisations of Durkheim and Anthony Giddens), which has tried to conceive (or ‘to know’) the world in general, impersonal terms. Having set two perspectives in opposition in this way (a penchant for doing which Rapport shares with Durkheim), Rapport suggests that we are faced with a choice: between one that suggests ‘that the only real knowledge of the world is individual and particular and that it is of this that social science should treat’ (p.13), and another that would ‘deny or devalue the individual’ (p.12). Since there is no real choice here, as Rapport sees it, he has to offer an account of the apparent plausibili ty of the standard social scientific position. He sets out, accordingly, to diagnose the source of the crippling yearning for generalities that underlies our readiness to buy such manifestly shoddy goods.
He begins with some thoughts provoked while reading a history of hanging in nineteenth century England, which depicts in detail the absurdly arbitrary judicial processes that led people to the gallows or to a pardon (p.13). This reminds Rapport of Albert Camus’ remark that ‘one condemned to death the guilty man, but one always carries out the sentence on an innocent one’, a thought that Rapport finds haunting because, he tells us, although he is inclined to believe it is true, he also feels that some miscreants (‘terrorists, Nazis, psychopaths’) are anything but innocent. And, he feels, the issue of the impersonal versus the personal provides the right context in which to make sense of Camus’ claim, for ‘Only distance and ignorance … confers a propensity to fix things forever: to posit an absolute, fatal guilt; only on an impersonal level can someone pass an absolute judgement and condemn to death’ (p.13). By contrast, knowing the personal factors involved inevitably produces a knowledge that it is a relat ive and situational–it ‘ever confers the mitigation of contextualisation’ (p.14). Having thus pointed out the grave dangers of an impersonal view of life, Rapport begins the diagnosis of that impulse to generalise and thereby to deny, or to occlude, our individuality.
Five factors are responsible: 1) the cognitive impulse, which is based on a failure to notice that our coming to know is prior to the conceptualisation or representation of what we know; 2) the social impulse, which arises because we misconceive the conventionality of social forms and their roots in an individual’s personal world view; 3) the religious impulse, which involves projections that allay anxiety, fear, disorder and so on, and then enmesh their creators; 4) the objective impulse, which he suggests, arises from a desire to know others as we know ourselves, and, since this is impossible, ‘we imagine objectivity’; 5) the ‘negatory’ impulse whereby we deny a complex humanity in the search for what we mistakenly take to be a ‘more essential, more knowledgeable, more real’ mode of being (pp. 14-23).
The discussion of these five factors, which between them manage to raise just about all of the biggest issues in social and philosophical thought (from the nature of cognition to the nature of religion), are presented in no more than ten quarto pages. The discussion also shows well the feature of Rapport’s strategy I have already stressed: his intellectual bricolage, the way he cobbles together different orientations and approaches providing only that they suit the purposes to hand. For example, his discussion of the distortions inherent in the ‘cognitive impulse,’ one might observe, depends upon a deeply empiricist distinction between a cognitive engagement with ‘the world’ (a given) and a subsequent conceptualisation of that world-induced experience. Although I do not regard empiricism as a disreputable position, it seems strange that Rapport should have recourse to such a position in view of the proclamations he makes elsewhere (see above) about the post-Nietzschean world. It is also worth pointing out th at in discussing the fifth (‘negatory’) impulse Rapport introduces once more an invidious distinction, similar to that pointed out in my brief discussion of ‘Hard sell or mumbling “right” rudely’, between individuals who recognise and act on their essential freedom, and those who do not. For, drawing on John Berger (1975), he goes on to suggest that this particular obscuring impulse tends to produce different effects in different people: it tends to induce in the powerful the illusion that they act as sufficient causes, while in the powerless it generates both a denial of the humanity of the powerful, and a blindness to the ‘theoretical’ possibility that one could ‘strategically interact [with others], to a greater or lesser extent, for [the purpose of] effecting practical changes to one’s own life and that of others’ (p.21). The distinction I am drawing attention to here is not the explicit one between the powerful and the powerless, but the implicit one between those who can and those who cannot appreciate the true condition of their individuality. The inability, in Rapport’s view, is not itself explicable by the prevailing conditions (as, to use a famous example, the mirage is an objective and normal perceptual experience), but a function of a weakness–suffered by most, but certainly not all, individuals–for self-blinding ‘metaphysical postulates’ (p.20).
The point of Rapport’s rapid outline of the five-fold path to impersonalisation is to characterise the predominantly Durkheimian discipline of anthropology, and then juxtapose it to–or, rather, trump it with–another no less sketchy position: methodological individualism. Here, once more, we get a scant presentation peppered with the names of people with names and some of their quotable quotations. (In passing, one might note that this is one of the passages where Rapport’s earlier disavowal of classical liberalism looks rather odd, given the list of liberal philosophers cited here.)
I turn now to the second chapter, which is called ‘Going Meta.’ It begins, somewhat oddly, with a long epigraph from Edmund Leach. In the text from which this quote comes (an unpublished lecture, given in 1976, called ‘Humanism’), Leach discusses Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety Of Influence, a book that is also a focus for some of Rorty’s essays that Rapport finds so inspiring. But these connections between Leach, Rorty and Bloom only serve as an introduction to Nietzsche’s notion of the ubermensch, a term often rendered in English as ‘overman’ or ‘superman.’ This hero is an archetype of what Bloom and Rorty refer to as a ‘strong poet’, who finds himself compelled to re-constitute the field in which he works. For Rapport the term refers to the hero who transcends all existing arrangements, and can negate the controls, forces and other determinants set in place by others, to make of himself an ‘original’. This Nietzschean hero, ‘the self-invented individual’, is, of course, born into certain objective historical c onditions, but he remakes their sense, and can thus, as Sartre showed, ‘transcend their brutishness, surpass a mere being-in-the-midst-of-things, by attaining the continuous possibility of imagined meanings. His experience cannot be reduced to objective determinants’ (p.33).
The key faculty, then, is the imagination, for it is the basis of the human capacity to go beyond, to become other than one is. Since this is a basic human capacity, it is not in the possession of imagination that the strong poet stands out. Humans as such are transcendentally free, so the strong poet is just a person who uses this freedom, while others ‘decide’ to conform to the conventional; they do not, Rapport argues, conform mindlessly (p.3 4). So, those whose activities have the effect of preserving the conventional are those who work to preserve it in a context that is inherently conflicted. So much, then, for Bourdieu’s notion of habitus and Giddens’ distinction between intention and outcome. Evidently, too, if all individuals are ‘divine,’ some are more divine than others: some choose in accordance with their true nature as individuals, while others do not. The speed with which Rapport takes up and then leaves these issues suggests that he is unaware of the contradictions lurking not far beneath the surface of his position. These come out most starkly in the final chapter.
In support of these contentions Rapport gives three very short ‘excursuses’ (on narrative, migrancy and language), and mines aspects of the work of Turner, Leach, and Burridge, before presenting ethnographic examples of self-inventing individuals from Shostak, Babcock, and Fernandez. He takes this swift tour to indicate that individual creativity has remained a submerged strand in anthropology, ‘buried under a vast weight of collectivities’ (p.41). Yet, his sources make it clear that, ‘unless we work to keep creativity ever a part of our anthropological world view, in a dynamic dialectic with structure, then our vision will not simply be impoverished but severely impaired’ (p.41). So scholars like Durkheim, Levi-Strauss, Radcliffe-Brown, Fortes, Godelier and Gellner, in addition to many others, who have all seen social structure ‘as a more or less sui generis mechanism which determines relations between elements of a society–indeed, to an extent determines those elements (their being and behaviours) as well ‘ (p.41), must be opposed. For, social structure is ‘not sui generis and does not exist through inertia, but depends on the continuing, conscious, concerted activity of different individuals to intend, produce and sustain it (“language”, for instance, “is rooted in the individual’s specificity: in the finally irreducible personal lexicons, meanings and idiolects of individual speaker users”)’ (p.41, quoting Steiner 1975:46).
The next two chapters (as well as Chapters 6 and 9) deal with aspects of the mode characteristic of individual creativity: the narrative. In altering narratives about our world and ourselves (which, in the end, amount to the same thing), we give meaning to experience and provide the basis upon which we live. This rumination leads him eventually to the following fiercely voluntarististic conclusion:
Rather than according primacy to cultural or linguistic reality, a la Geertz (Durkheim, Saussure, Lacan et al.), then, rather than conceiving of the individual being inscribed into, necessarily accommodating to, a pre-given socio-cultural reality, an appreciation of the way individuals ongoingly (sic) write their own worlds must give onto a different picture. There are individuals experiencing cultural and linguistic forms, and through this process creating meaning in terms of their unique biographies and personal histories of intrapsychic strategies and practices. To phrase this differently, ‘the interpretation of cultures’ gives onto individual world-views; individuals consume cultural symbolic forms in the construction of their own systems of meaning. Moreover, the world-views which individuals mentally and bodily inhabit are matters of individual composition and often private practice, while the context in which individuals fashion, speak and live their world-views are ontologically internal to themselves . Meanings are psychologically particular, and diverse. (p.63)
This characterisation of the role of narrativity leads to a consideration of identity in the contemporary ‘world in motion’. Rapport holds that the relatively recent anthropological concern with the globalisation of culture, and the creolisation of identity that it engenders, is an artefact of the communitarianism that has held the discipline in its thrall since Durkheim. In fact, he counters, identity has always been a function of the narrativisation of the movement of the individual (not, contra conventional social theory, the individual’s fixity within a social structure). As he argues in Chapter 9, even cultural discourses are a resource or tool of the narrativising self.
I turn now to the key last chapter, ‘Individual Morality,’ where the work of Richard Rorty, Rapport’s ‘principal source of inspiration’, occupies a prominent position. Rapport draws on the response Rorty (1986) made to Geertz’s (1986) repudiation of his account of ‘postmodernist bourgeois liberalism’ (Rorty 1983). Rapport begins by telling us that he wishes to work out
… an ethic for anthropology which will condemn Nazism, religious fundamentalism, female circumcision, infanticide and suttee because of the hurt they cause to individuals, because of the harm which accrues in those social environments where an ethic of interpersonal tolerance is not managed: the violation of individual integrity, the threat to individuals’ conscious potential, the ideological prioritising of the community above and beyond the individuals who at any one moment constitute it. Instead of a relativistic making of allowances for different cultures maintaining different traditions–whatever the consequences to their individual members–I want to outline a liberal basis for social science which recognises individuals as universal human agents above whom there is no greater good, without whom there is no wider society, and in contradistinction to whom there is no cultural tradition. (p.181)
The ethic Rapport derives from Rorty is, he says, a second best. First place would go to the ethic that would generate Forster’s ‘republic of love:’ but this cannot be realised. Nevertheless, novelists and ethnographers, whom Rorty values so much and calls ‘agents of love,’ cherish the particular and thereby help keep alive something Rorty and Rapport find extremely important–what Kundera styled as the ‘very image of Europe’: the dream of a world where the individual is truly respected. It is to these agents of love, then, that we must turn if we wish to extend the range of moral discourse, to expand our moral imagination so as to include people who were formerly beyond the ethical pale. But how are these ethical principles to be protected and furthered? Well, they can best be protected by the principles of the liberal democratic state, and they can be furthered by ensuring more narrative creativity–moral discourse, ethnography, novels, poetry and so on. Liberal democracies embrace and nurture diversity, an d protect that diversity with various state apparatuses (pp.182-5).
Rapport considers Rorty’s vision to be compatible with many strands in anthropology, but acknowledges that many practitioners will find it unconvincing: some, he suggests, will feel it embodies ethnocentric notions–not least about what a culture is, for what traditional anthropologist could accept that a number of separate cultures could be politically organised within a single social framework? Others, of a ‘positivist-realist’ persuasion, will argue that such a vision shows itself to be indifferent to the real nature of the world, and the role of Western hegemony within it, since it implausibly suggests that principles can be set up that will command the respect of people from different cultures, who–disregarding the ‘western’ provenance of those principles–will accept them because of their compelling intellectual appeal (pp.188-9). Rapport, however, rejects both these ‘conventional anthropological responses’ to Rorty; they come down, in the end, to a reiteration of just the sort of communitarianism tha t ’emphasises the primacy of collective life over individual’ (p.189). Such communitarianism (which, we should remember, embraces classical social theory as well as religious fundamentalism and typifying bureaucracies) holds that ‘to consider an “I” is to elicit a “they” who made and make the “I” and continue to contextualise its being’ (p.189), a doctrine which Rapport then seeks to undermine in favour of a view that sees people as ‘essential persons … partaking of societies of strangers’ (p.189). He does so because communitarian thought, in all its forms, is ‘finally totalitarian,’ and:
Far from providing human beings with a sense of their basic selves and identities, it misrepresents their ‘essential humanity’… it generalises and categorises and stereotypes them, it defines and limits them, it deprives and impoverishes them. Communitarian thought would determine (over-determine) its subjects and, where this is not possible, it would deny them. (p.191)
Rapport, clearly, feels very strongly about these matters, and it is here, briefly, that he gives us some glimpse of why he does so. For he turns, by way of an exemplification of his point, to a pamphlet aimed at students and put out by a Muslim group in Britain. The tract quoted is stridently anti-academic and anti-Jewish. As an anthropologist–an agent of love–Rapport can understand the context of this cry of frustration and disempowerment, and view it as expressing a ‘justifiable outrage’ (p.192). He can hear the appeals for Muslims to forsake the deceit of democracy and embrace the martial values appropriate to fighting Israel and its allies as the anguished cry of an orientialised other. Yet, he also finds an unpalatably communitarian basis to the pamphlet’s counter-orientalism, which uses ethnic, religious and nationalist categories to stereotype people. And, ‘thanks to Rorty’ (p.193), Rapport can argue against communitarian thought as it appears in Third and Fourth World polemics no less than in the o rientalising social sciences of the West, for it leads to ‘widespread hurt, cruelty, and humiliation, to mutual stereotyping and denigration, if not worse’ (p.193), which may happen even when such stereotyping is prompted by sympathy. Rorty has shown Rapport the advantages of a ‘postmodern’ liberalism that facilitates ‘the ironising and relativising of all substantive absoluteness’ (p.193). If the triumph of such a perspective should ‘humiliate’ those (like the Muslim activists) who insist on mutually exclusive communitarian stereotypes, then this is a ‘necessary cruelty,’ the price that must be paid for ‘relative kindness’. Moreover, he adds, almost as an afterthought, such cruelty is ‘commensurate with the hurt I feel, as a Jew,’ faced with the sentiments expressed in the pamphlet (p.193).
Even though much else in the book suggests that Rapport enjoys driving at breakneck speed across difficult terrain, one is still shocked by the damage caused by the crash. For, after the numerous assertions about the self-created nature of the individual–the sort of individual Rapport has at several points suggested he is–what are we to make of the ‘hurt’ he feels? Has he not insisted that the Nietzschean strong poet is able to reconfigure himself? Cannot Rapport ‘transcend the brutishness’ of the historical determinants that produce him as a Jew and therefore make him vulnerable to this ‘hurt’? Are we, perhaps, to construe him as having ‘decided’ to embrace this vulnerability, for, as he stressed (see above), with individuals nothing happens ‘mindlessly’? While one is not surprised that Rapport is hurt by the expression of vehement anti-Jewish sentiments–or inclined to censure him for reporting it–it is nonetheless remarkable that he cannot see how much this subverts the main position he has been defend ing. It is almost as though he had decided (in the spirit of irony?) to provide us with a reductio ad absurdum of his main thesis in drawing the book to a close.
Actually, though, Rapport’s embrace of Rorty raises difficult issues for him, even in the absence of this final indiscretion. For, it is not at all clear why anyone with Rapport’s views should concur with Rorty in calling novelists and ethnographers agents of love. For if, as Rapport strenuously maintains, social scientists are wrong in thinking that an individual’s or group’s socio-historical situation is causally relevant to the beliefs they have and the actions they carry out (for humans are transcendentally free), then what relevance can knowledge of this situation have for understanding them (in both senses of the term)? Rapport claims that as an ethnographer–an agent of love–he can see the outrage felt by Muslim militants as ‘justifiable,’ even though–as an individual?–he condemns it. This strikes me as bizarre. What use could someone have for a perspective that he felt he had good grounds for thinking was fundamentally defective? If the Islamic writer of the offending tract ‘made himself or hersel f ex nihilo in an originary fashion’, as Rapport insists all individuals do, what possible mitigating role could an ethnographic understanding of the individual’s prior social circumstances play? One might even wonder, given Rapport’s views on self-creation, what relevance he thinks attaches to the information that the writer of the tract was a Muslim. Given what he says he believes about individuals, what, beyond sheer sentimentality, could induce Rapport ever to don his ethnographer’s hat?
Rorty, by contrast, is clear that the causal nexuses enmeshing social beings are relevant to their actions, which is why knowledge of them is relevant to understanding those beings, and why those who produce such knowledge and understanding are agents of love. Whatever else Rorty does, he does not provide grounds for the sort of Sartrean mauvaise foi (to evoke a writer Rapport also draws on) that seems to be in evidence in Rapport’s last chapter. If what Rapport evinces is not mauvaise foi, but confusion, then this too must be laid at Rapport’s feet rather than those of Rorty. Actually, although I cannot argue this in detail here, Rapport’s predicament bears similarities to the one Geertz got himself into in his paper ‘The uses of diversity’, and to which Rorty gleefully draws attention in the reply that Rapport finds so useful (1986).
Finally, before leaving this crucial part of the book, I would like to suggest that there seems to be something revealing in Rapport’s characterisation of social scientific communitarianism as positing that every ‘I’ elicits a ‘they’. For, if one were compelled to simplify in this manner, I think I would characterise the social scientific perspective as positing that every ‘I’ elicited a much less starkly opposed ‘we’: in the social sciences the true first person is that of the plural rather than the singular. Rapport’s opposition of the ‘I’ and the ‘they’ in this manner is also odd given the indications he gives elsewhere that Cartesian notions of personhood are problematic (Cohen and Rapport 1995:Introduction).
In the penultimate section of his final essay, Rapport sets out to pull together the case for accepting the idea that the individual is ‘divine.’ Here he invokes Edelman’s (1992) work of popular science, Bright Air, Brilliant Fire, which Rapport takes as grounding the individuality of each person in the facts of neurophysiology. Once again, though, Rapport appeals to an authority whose starting point is precisely the conclusion that we are being asked to draw.
The final section of the book returns to that arch-communitarian Durkheim (‘and his apologists’). How different, Rapport speculates, anthropology would have been had it followed ‘Mill or Simmel, or even Weber’ (200). How different, one feels like adding, Rapport’s book would have been had he meaningfully engaged the arguments of any of these three, especially the last, whose subtle handling of virtually all the issues Rapport raises make the latter’s all the more regrettable. The last paragraph of the book begins ‘contra Durkheim,’ but here Rapport repudiates his predecessor’s morality. It is this ending, coming as it does after his expression of pain, that shows us what actually comes first in explaining Rapport’s project, and which justifies my earlier suggestion that, contrary to his opening remarks, it is the moral tail that wags the metaphysical dog.
Many with doubts about standard anthropological conceptualisations of culture or society will welcome the forthrightness with which Rapport sets about his task in this book. This book could, I think, usefully be set beside Sahlins’s Culture and Practical Reason (1976) in courses on approaches in cultural anthropology. Yet, even these scholars will regret, I feel, that Rapport chose to abjure a more sustained discussion of the issues, preferring instead to counter–often caricatured-‘conventional’ positions with a confection of special pleading, appeals to what passes for common sense and an assortment of quotes and citations, at once meretricious and unduly deferential, from those he sometimes seems to regard as the immortals. I would suggest that Rapport, in his desire for a profound transformation of social theory, must engage those he has merely dismissed in this work. One good, if obvious, reason for this suggestion is that Durkheimian views about the sui generis nature of society embody a conception of i ndividuality too (Lukes 1975), which opens the possibility of engaging with and negating conventional ‘holism’ in a way quite different from that which Rapport attempts. I do not wish to appear to be as rash as Rapport in setting up positions here, so let me acknowledge immediately that the metaphysics of the social world is a forbiddingly intricate issue (see, for example, Ruben 1985; Gilbert 1989, 1996; Pettit 1993). Nevertheless, I will venture the suggestion that Rapport seems to cleave to a conception of the individual such that it is possible to think of someone in abstraction from the concrete process whereby that person was socialised; as though it were merely a contingent fact–about that very person–that she had learned a particular language, interacted with a definite range of alters existing at a specific historical juncture, developed specific beliefs, desires and values, and so on. Hobbes, in trying to motivate such a view for the purposes of developing his ‘as if story about the social contrac t, held that ‘the causes of the social compound reside in men as if but even now sprung out of the earth and suddenly, like mushrooms, come to full maturity’ (quoted in Fay 1996:31). It is this conception of the individual that Levi-Strauss spoke of as ‘that intolerably spoilt child who has occupied the philosophical scene for too long now … demanding exclusive attention’ (1981:687), and which Goffman saw as cherished by those with ‘a touching tendency to keep part of the world safe from sociology’ (1969:103). Against this, one can place another conception of the individual (more central to sociological thought, and more appropriate to a consideration of Rapport’s own personhood as and when we glimpse it behind the drive to overwhelm us with sheer grandiloquence); one in which the person is constituted by the specific historical processes that brought her into being and are always implicated in her becoming. Such a conception accounts for both the narrative structure of individual human identities and the c onvergences in narratives (persons of the same cohort and social location being subject to significantly similar life trajectories) that underpin certain sociological generalisations. On such a view, there is simply no necessary conflict between the truths of first- and third-person perspectives. What then is the problem for Rapport: what animates him so?
First, I think it would be wrong to underestimate the motivating force of the hurt Rapport reports he feels in the face of certain prominent currents in contemporary politics. Ordinarily, I would also argue that it would be wrong to try to make too much of this hurt in a review. All social scientists, I imagine, experience ordinary human emotions in the face of the broad and narrow currents of social life (Durkheim, Marx and Weber all provide illustrations of this point), and it does not seem that we can draw any definite conclusions from this, at least in general. In this case, though, Rapport’s final chapter sheds an altogether different and chastening, light on his earlier statements of position, many of which have no more cogency, and considerably less charm, than Auden’s stark commandment (in ‘Under which lyre’), ‘Thou shalt not sit with statisticians nor commit a social science.’ After the confession of the last chapter, however, I felt slightly guilty about the incomprehension and irritation I had exp erienced earlier on. For until the last chapter, the whole project seemed under-motivated, even grounded in misunderstandings about social science. Consider something I have pointed out several times already in presenting Rapport’s position, the tendency to imply that the difference between ‘strong poets’ and others inheres in their purely ‘intrapsychic’ qualities, so that mortals choose, and, hence, are responsible for the unfreedom in their lives, a view that seems unavoidable given the unrelenting stress on the fundamentally self-creating nature of individuals. Indeed, and despite the sense one has that he would be appalled by the suggestion, I could not avoid seeing Rapport’s perspective as congenial to the views of ex-British Prime Minister, John Major, who once stated that ‘we should condemn more and understand less’ (quoted in Welsh 1996:x), or those of his predecessor, who infamously declared that there is no such thing as society.
If I can be forgiven for playing the amateur psychologist for a moment, it is as though the phenomenological impress of the ‘hurt’, and his professional (and existential) commitment to the experience–distant, objectifying terms of conventional social science–had produced a cognitive dissonance that Rapport simply had to resolve. Not content with the thought that, given his own socio-historical trajectory, his pain in response to the vilification of the pamphlet was both comprehensible and defensible, he simply had to find grounds for feeling that his response could be justified on a more profound plane (which, incidentally, is another reason why Rorty was a poor choice of ally). I cannot say if it would have been possible for Rapport to reduce the dissonance by objectifying his pain in the terms of social science discourse (perhaps Wittgenstein was right when he remarked, of somewhat similar circumstances, something to the effect that ‘a hypothesis cannot bring peace’), nor would I wish to be thought to be blaming him for feeling as he did, or for being subject to the impulse to respond as he did (although I have expressed the wish that he had not yielded to it), but I would urge Rapport to consider the proposition that social science is internal to the ethical history of the West, and not merely an empirical or scientific adjunct to ethical practice, in which case the conundrum he faces in considering his response to the literature of Islamic activism was ‘always already’ ethical. Not the least virtue of such a view is that being beset by ethical conundrums is a familiar–if always difficult–experience.
Be all that as it may, it seems clear that something in Rapport’s case has to give, if I am correct about the contradictions into which his position leads him. I simply cannot see how he can turn to his own unchosen history as Jew in explaining his reaction to the activists’ fulminations, and yet deny such resources to those who would, for example, explain the susceptibility of Mr and Mrs Chandler to hard-sell scams.
Beyond these matters, though, there is enough in this book, as well as in his earlier works, to suggest that another of Rapport’s real–and connected–concerns is what be refers to as ‘determinism.’ What he finds alarming is any form of social theory that denies freedom as an onto logical condition of personhood. Hence his refusal to countenance any ‘descent’ (p.7) into determinism. (Cohen too takes this view: it is a matter of ‘self-direction versus social determination’ [1994:23].) Now, as everyone knows, this is an ancient, venerable anxiety, one that social theory incorporated from the broader philosophical milieu from the beginning; it is evidently sometimes still at work in contemporary discussions of structure and agency.
Rapport apparently has a quick libertarian argument to rule out determinism: human beings are manifestly creative and free, which they could not be if they were determined by external forces; ergo they cannot be subject to such deterministic forces. It is interesting to note that this shares with the diametrically opposed position (hard determinism) the assertion that if humans were determined then they could not be free. The difference between the two positions is that whereas the libertarian sees it as obvious that humans are, in fact, free, and concludes that they cannot be determined, the hard determinist concludes from the incompatibility of freedom and determinism, and the proposition that determinism is universal, that humans cannot possess free will. Opposed to both are compatibilists, who see no reason to accept the claim, common to both libertarians and hard determinists, that humans cannot be both determined and in possession of free-will. This is no place to argue the case. Not only are the terms in which the dispute is framed very vague (Rapport, for example, rejects the idea that humans are ‘determined or pre-determined,’ and it is very significant that he seems not to distinguish these two very different notions), but also the passions evoked by the arguments have made ‘determinist’ something of a term of abuse. Yet there is no reason to believe that a cogent compatibilist position is unavailable (Dennett 1984; Fischer 1994), as has been argued since Hobbes (Watson 1995:176). Suffice it to say that in the absence of a conclusive argument for the sort of incompatabilist view assumed by Rapport, there is no reason to think that the first-person verities he wishes to exalt and the third-person perspective of social science are in conflict, except on a rather superficial consideration of the issues. Take, for example, the quote from Cohen that Rapport finds so compelling, which suggests that we cannot do justice to society until we are able to do justice to individuals. Let us, for the sake of generat ing a more concrete argument, replace the rather vague notion of ‘doing justice to’ with that of ‘explain,’ and allow the implied thesis that individuals are straightforwardly the components of society (which is anything but uncontroversial, see Ruben 1985) to the same extent, say, that molecules are components of a gas (to choose an example that does not raise any ethical issues), so that we can pose a somewhat clearer question: what warrant is there for supposing that one cannot explain the properties of a thing (gas or society) until one can explain the properties of its components (molecules or individuals)? The answer–on the face of it–is ‘none,’ whether one considers the matter from the point of view of logic or of history. The behaviour of gases was formulated in, and explainable by reference to, Boyle’s and Charles’s Laws long before Clerk Maxwell developed his kinetic theory, which, through a characterisation of the behaviour of molecules, provided an account of why the gas laws held. Of course, mu ch more could be said about the notion of explanation at work here, and there is manifestly much room for discussion about laws, the relation between levels of explanation, reductionist agendas, and so on, even before one raises the issues of consciousness, intentionality and ethics in which Cohen and Rapport are interested. But that is the point: not only is so much that could be said absent from Rapport’s work, but there is little indication that he is aware of this.
The most striking feature of the book is the hyperbolic tone it adopts in relation to the individual. As I hope the quotes given earlier indicate, Rapport, most of the time, cannot forbear to depict ordinary human capacities in any but the most exalted terms. That human beings are agents–that they believe and desire that, worry about, deliberate on, ponder about, choose between and so on–is not only uncontroversial enough, but, on any reasonable view of the matter, their being so is a necessary condition for the existence of the sorts of social interaction and societal processes that form the subject matter of much social science. What, then, compels Rapport to want to transform these everyday human characteristics into the be-all and end-all of our existence (for even if, like photosynthesis, these capacities can be viewed as miraculous, they remain quotidian miracles)?
The answer, it seems, is his obsession with a highly-charged notion–creativity. Again, though, we need to isolate the narrowly ethical, hagiographic connotations of this term. That a human life introduces novelty into the world is, in certain respects, trivially true. Indeed, even everyday material causal processes produce novelty in this restricted sense. For example, every leaf (extraordinary coincidences aside) that drifts to, or is blown to, the ground from the gum tree outside my window tracks a new route, in that no other leaf has arrived at the ground in just that way. Note that in this case we not only have novelty, but also radically unpredictable novelty; for, under ordinary circumstances, nobody can compute where a given leaf will end up or how, precisely, it will get there. Yet, nobody (I presume) wants to see this as anything but a deterministic outcome.
Moreover, if events are individuated temporally as well as by their other characteristics, then it is trivially true that every event is unique. And even when we turn to the realm of action and experience, there is a Pickwickian sense in which every action or experience is unique, and produces a novelty. That the sense is Pickwickian is apparent from the reflection that each of my experiences is unique–in being mine–but only in the same way that my bicycle is unique in being mine, for if I give it away then it ceases to be mine: in short, such novelty is simply an artefact of indexicality. But, of course, humans produce novelty in a more profound sense in that they take specific courses of action that, in any given instance, are ‘never the only ones possible,’ to use a formula much used by Sahlins. (Even here, though, we need to exercise some caution in drawing implications: for who would want to say of the actual path the leaf takes that it was the only one possible?) And, if, for example, I decide to lea rn Polish, and successfully achieve my aim, there is a sense in which I have transformed myself in transforming, as a result of my decision, my capacities. I might even succeed in transforming aspects of my character, by, for example, learning meditation techniques that make me less volatile. To take a more radical, and more famous, example, one used by Hume in disputing what he took to be Locke’s unrealistic conception of the social contract, one can imagine that a poor peasant or artisan might exercise his ‘free choice’ and leave his country of birth for another even though ‘he knows no foreign language or manners, and lives from day to day by the small wages which he acquires’ (Hume 1948:363). It is cases like this, it seems, that induce people to speak of the radical freedom of human beings, even, perhaps, of their being self-causing or self-creating. But is there enough in such examples to warrant the metaphysical hype about human beings?
Certainly, we have no reason to deny that the capacity to have beliefs and desires concerning our own future states, as well as, of course, the power to act upon them, are vital to the ordinary exercise of human agency. Moreover, as has been pointed out repeatedly (most famously, perhaps, by Frankfurt 1971), the human ability to formulate beliefs and desires about our beliefs and desires, i.e. the capacity for second-order beliefs and desires, seems especially crucial to both our mutual interaction and our projects of ‘self-creation,’ as well as to the ethical frameworks in which these are embedded. Unique as this capacity appears to be, it does not involve forms of explanation that escape the framework of causal understanding. Nor does this capacity normally involve us in a refusal to acknowledge sub-personal, contingent psychological states (our perceptions, understandings, hopes, expectations, beliefs and so on) as causally relevant to our decisions. But while my deciding upon some course of action may be necessary to my achieving my ends (learning Polish, say), it will not usually be sufficient (e.g. there may be no Polish teachers around, or they are charging more than I can afford). The world, in the shape of living and non-living things, is an enormously important factor in how things turn out for me. Accordingly, such factors are relevant to the causal analysis of my actions, including those Rapport wants to glorify as ‘self-creating’: and, of course, many of these factors fall under the rubric of what social scientists since Durkheim have called social facts. In regard to individuals, moreover, we should note also a point made by Weber: that the choices made, and the ‘self-creating’ actions taken, by individuals (excepting, perhaps, the radically insane) are for the most part predictable, or–at least–retrodictable, once we know enough about their psychological states (many of which are in turn explicable only in terms of social conditions) and the relevant features of their social and non-social milieu .
So, the fact that, standardly, human individuals are intentional, conscious, self-conscious and self-directing (in short, enjoy freedom of will) provides no rationale for the suggestion that they ought to be spoken of as ‘divine,’ or as uncaused causes (on any but the crudest conception of cause, anyway). And it seems sheer perversity to ignore or marginalise the supra-individual social regularities that, since the era of ‘political arithmetic’ (Hacking 1990), have been found to obtain empirically. Moreover, the modest reminders of the social science perspective I have assembled above would suggest that acknowledging the validity of both the first- and third-person perspectives is a necessary condition of a proper understanding of the individual. Repressing, in the name of an under-motivated ethical perspective, the causal patterns that emerge in social life, and which structure the experiences of individuals, seems to amount to something less than a mature conception of human being. (As though their tendenci es to form gases with determinable properties was somehow less of a fact about molecules than their chemical composition.) As indicated above, it can plausibly be argued that the social sciences grew out of and remain part of Western ethical dialogues, so that dismissing their ‘standard’ forms, in the way Rapport does, has ethical as well as methodological implications. Furthermore, in the absence of a decisive argument showing the incompatibility of free will and determinism, we have no grounds for doubting that supra-individual social regularities supervene on other causal processes, including those that constitute the realm of human freedom.
Certainly, Rapport has produced no such argument, nor has he indicated where he believes his readers might find one. By contrast, there are compelling arguments to suggest that the interest of standard social scientific perspectives in phenomena ranging from the micro to the macro is conceptually well-founded (for a detailed and rigorous consideration of the issues, see Jackson and Pettit 1992a, b).
What Rapport has produced, as I have tried to argue, is an entertaining but deeply flawed book. This, in itself, is not really ground for complaint: many have produced books that are deeply flawed without even being entertaining. What I think does provide ground for complaint is the metamessage the book can be read as embodying. Nobody could justifiably reject out of hand the suggestion that many–perhaps all–strands of mainstream social science are fundamentally inadequate, incoherent, or in need of drastic revision; conversely, such a bold suggestion would, to be taken seriously, require appropriate arguments and demonstrations. Somebody who undertook such a task would have enriched intellectual affairs, even if the arguments produced did not, in the end, carry the day (think, for example, how much contemporary psychology owes to the rejected views of B.F. Skinner). Rapport’s book, by contrast, makes enormously sweeping claims, yet provides little by way of a serious argument. It suggests that conventiona l social science, and much contemporary theory, is seriously amiss, but implies that this can be established by presenting a set of counter-claims liberally garnished with quotes from figures of great standing, as though their stature were sufficient to vouchsafe what they say. I acknowledge that in the current climate one more frequently than formerly finds scholars adopting positions based on something perilously close to rumour-mongering (people advert to, or hint at, without stating or defending, what Derrida has shown or Nietzsche established, and so on), but, I submit, opposing the all too real pressures that induce these tendencies to crypto-journalism is a matter of some importance. In short, and despite the very obvious learning of its author, Rapport’s book ultimately comes across as an anti-intellectual tract; and that is regrettable. To invoke an Jan Dury song once more, ‘there ain’t half been some clever bastards’, and some of them have, over a long period, contributed to what Rapport characteris es as ‘standard’ social science. At the very least, their views are worthy of serious engagement, even those that we have reason to reject.
(1.) Although the subject matter of Rapport’s book certainly suggests the title of this paper is apt, I ought to say that I an Dury’s 1979 album, Do it yourself may have also played some part in its occurring to me, as may ‘Do-it-yourself understanding,’ chapter 3 of Dennett’s Brainchildren: Essays on Designing Minds (1998). Although the remaining shortcomings of this paper are my responsibility, I am grateful to Francesca Merlan, David Moore, John Morton, Alan Rumsey, Jimmy Weiner and Michael Young for helpful comments on an earlier draft, and to members of the ANU’s Anthropology Graduate Student Seminar for a stimulating discussion of an initial review-paper.
(2.) Written by Ian Dury, Rod Melvin and Chaz Jankel, and performed by Ian Dury and the Blockheads ((C) Rhino Records under licence from Templemill Music Ltd).
(3.) I also felt that another of the dust-jacket reviewers–Allison James–used terms loosely in describing as ‘elegant’ Rapport’s idiosyncratic and archaistic prose.
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