why do social scientists long for the past?
Social scientists have a certain longing for the social arrangements of the past. That longing surprises me. The general argument is that in the past we had more collaboration and less competition, more friends and less anonymous exchange, more community and less markets, more happiness and less violence.
Anthropology long held to a “noble” view of the past — wikipedia has a decent summary of the “noble savage” argument. But, the bottom line is that the golden age of tribal and communal life was not that golden after all: life was short, threatened by all kinds of violence, many were ostracized and the virtues ascribed to these forms of social organization simply never existed. In short, the data support the opposite argument: things are increasingly better compared to the past. For example, Keeley’s War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage highlights how there has been a radical reduction in violence — so, even if we factor in the recent two world wars, we are by a magnitude much safer in today’s society compared to tribal life. And, Clark’s Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World highlights just how far we have comparatively come in terms of wealth and welfare over the past two centuries (no matter what you think about his provocative book, the comparative data he highlights is hard to argue with) .
Organization theorists also idealize the past. For example, Paul Adler and Charles Heckscher advocate communal arrangements that hearken to the past. Fabrizio et al, in their AMR article, longingly (Fabrizio: correct me if that’s the wrong characterization) point out that the post World War II image of organizations was one of “community” and “family” — a more employee and collaboration-oriented effort compared to the current market ethos where lay-offs and competition seemingly are the norm.
I tend to be skeptical about this type of retrospective idealization. First, on the whole, its tough to make meaningful comparisons between the past and present when we don’t necessarily have all the data (nor counterfactuals, though perhaps some natural experiments), wealth is one thing but there’s a host of intangibles of course as well (“happiness”). Second, scholarly longing-for-the-past tends to take the form where we focus on one or two dimensions without more holistically looking at whether we truly are better off on the margin. So, for example, if lay-offs as a whole have increased, are there commensurate trends where employees now have increased mobility and choice — is that a good or bad thing? For whom?
Third, its seemingly hard to make stereotypical statements about the general ethos of organizations (given vast organizational/organizing heterogeneity), specifically as we have many experiments going on with various types and forms of organizing: open source, organizations emphasizing various mixes of extrinsic and intrinsic rewards, “market” versus “family” oriented organizations, etc.
So, I wouldn’t dare to say that we organizationally live in the “best of all possible worlds,” but might we be inching toward it? Or, are we regressing? Or will the optimal models of organization automatically emerge as organizations compete and as we try out various forms of production? OK, granted, these are ideologically-laden questions — I know. But, the extant longing-for-the-past and generally negative tenor about the present seems quite counter-productive to me.
Finally, economics is getting a huge amount of the blame for everything that is negative in organizations and markets: corporate malfeasance, greed, self-interested behavior, etc. But, didn’t all of these negative factors exist far before the relatively recent introduction of neoclassical economics?