melding the public and private


Albert Hirschman is in my opinion one of the greatest living theorists. Categorizing him as any specific kind of theorist, however, is impossible. His ability to escape categorization is perhaps what makes him so great. By focusing on fundamental concepts, Hirschman has wide appeal.

Recently, I’ve been reading some of his more obscure texts. Hirschman has a fun little book, Crossing Boundaries, that contains a couple of previously unpublished essays along with an interview of Hirschman in which he discusses his personal history (which by the way is amazing! very few distinguished scholars can count themselves as former social revolutionaries and anti-fascist freedom fighters). In the first essay in the book, Hirschman does what he does best – explores the tensions and connections that exist in a taken-for-granted conceptual dichotomy. His book Exit, Voice, and Loyalty was largely an exercise of this type. In this particular essay, Hirschman looks at the public/private dichotomy. The essay is also, in Hirschman’s own words, a subversion of an earlier book that he published, Shifting Involvements.

Hirschman’s main concern was that economic scholars often get preoccupied with the realm of the private as the area of personal satisfaction and fulfillment. In the earlier book, Hirschman argued that public life is also a major source of motivation. Individuals participate in politics, embed themselves in organizations, etc. because it is personally fulfilling. What he neglected in the earlier book, however, was a recognition that often the public and private “meld and merge.” In this essay he argues that the dichotomy is overly-simple since many forms of interaction are both necessary from a private standpoint but also publicly beneficial as well.

To illustrate this point, Hirschman turns to our old friend Georg Simmel – an early sociologist (beloved at orgtheory) who “called attention to situations where goods that seem to be wholly private actually have important collective dimensions” (17). This line of reasoning is Simmel’s specialty. An example of this kind of social form is the meal. People eat meals to satisfy a most fundamental private need – alleviate hunger – but the meal is also an important collective event that creates solidarity and feeling between members of the group. From Simmel:

But since this physiological fact is an absolutely general human characteristic, it becomes precisely a communal action: thus arises the sociological construct of the meal – it turns the exclusive self-seeking of eating into the frequent experience of being together and into the habit of joining a common purpose – something that is but rarely achieved by occasions of a higher, more spiritual order. Persons who do not share any interest can join in the common meal – in this possibility, mediated through the primitive and transparent character of material interest, lies the immense sociological significance of the meal (as cited in Hirschman, pg. 18).

The meal can’t be reduced to the sort of public good-private contribution dichotomy that economists are sometimes concerned with, given that the collective essence of the meal is a by-product and not the primary purpose of the gathering. Rather, the meal according to Simmel and Hirschman is a civilizing event whose collective purpose is undergirded by its banality.

Hirschman, in the end of the essay, reaches the point that private and public satisfaction often overlap and are mutually reinforcing. As is often brought up in the OB literature, this is also one of the interesting aspects of organizations.  Individual reasons for participating in an organization take on a different meaning in the collective context.  Intended consequences often lead to unintended consequences.  For example, self-help groups may transform into a social movement in the right situation, despite the fact that participating individuals do not necessarily want to expend the resources needed to drive that movement.

Written by brayden king

September 23, 2006 at 3:30 pm

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