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?

Written by teppo

June 9, 2009 at 1:36 pm

12 Responses

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  1. It’s not as if all of these claims are unfounded. One of the reasons scientists begin making claims about how the past was different, although I wouldn’t necessarily say better, is because it is often true. For example, the splash about people having fewer trusted friends is actually based on a real study. I’ve also heard that people tend to join fewer bowling clubs today than they did in the past.

    Other studies indicate difference but not necessarily for the worst. So, for example, crime is not getting worse at all. The long term trend has been towards less violent crime. This is an instance where people’s conceptions about reality differ sharply from the empirical evidence. Criminologists keep telling us that society is getting less violent, but people don’t seem to listen.

    Re markets: I think there is actually quite a bit of empirical evidence that financial markets have become more central to corporate management. Jerry Davis’s new book (which I saw a preview of last week in a talk Jerry gave in our department) has a lot of sound evidence indicating this is so. I think your argument though is different. You don’t seem to be disagreeing that financial markets have changed the way managers make decisions, but instead that they haven’t caused a decline in public welfare. I think the latter question is open for debate, but I think the former is pretty cut and dry.



    June 9, 2009 at 1:55 pm

  2. Well, so, related to the first question my point is precisely that we don’t necessarily have a holistic (as well as marginal) sense (or?) for whether it matters if we, say, had certain types of associations in the past, which may have morphed into new forms of social interaction (if that makes sense).

    OK, I think I agree (and frankly this type of idealization is necessary to theorizing) that we might use overall trends to make points about a general organizational ‘ethos’ (or logic) in a given time period — though there of course tend to be normative and evaluative aspects wrapped into that discussion as well.



    June 9, 2009 at 2:06 pm

  3. There is also a longing for the “golden age” of family (see The Way We Never Were by Coontz), but that seems to be more common among conservatives than social scientists.



    June 9, 2009 at 2:15 pm

  4. John – Exactly, social scientists are the more likely to be the debunkers of past-longing myths than they are the propagators of such myths.

    Teppo – I don’t disagree that we should seek holistic approaches, but sometimes it’s hard enough just to do the data collection and analysis that allows you to discover that a real trend exists. Assessing the consequences of such a trend requires another major NSF grant.



    June 9, 2009 at 2:32 pm

  5. You have a point; there is a tendency sometimes to paint a rosier picture of the past than actually existed.

    But I would take a little issue with the characterization of the Adler/Hecksher argument in quite those terms. While they do refer to “traditional community” (i.e., Gemeinschaft), they are attempting at least to suggest an elaborated form of ‘modern’ community which is less closed and less oriented toward a “know your place” form of community.

    As they put it:

    It is our contention that these, more advanced forms of corporate organization are tending towards a novel, collaborative form of community more suited to higher levels of interdependence, as distinct from Gemeinschaft-like dependence and Gesellschaft-like independence.”

    I think if you pushed them on this, Paul and Charles might argue that they are more interested in something closer to Polanyi’s double movement: the pendulum swings between individualism and community; they think things are moving back to community and they want to articulate a vision for what it should look like.


    Sean Safford

    June 9, 2009 at 3:01 pm

  6. Economics has contributed significantly to the notion that ‘greed is good’, by it’s credo of rational self-interest. Thus it deserves to re-look at its’ foundations and it’ implications.



    June 9, 2009 at 3:04 pm

  7. John/brayden: I’m not so sure you can frame it as conservatives versus social scientists. I know plenty of left leaning social scientists who lament the end of “welfare capitalism” or the “alienation” that comes with industrial life.



    June 9, 2009 at 4:18 pm

  8. teppo,
    good post. i was thinking similar things recently when i read a colleague’s book about a community that had experienced a shift from corporatism to neoliberalism. to read the book you’d think that corporatism is not characterized by the dual economy but rather that every single person in the town used to have a unionized job in the core sector.



    June 9, 2009 at 4:43 pm

  9. I think it is true that there is a nostalgic tendency in sociology, and that it has been that way since the very beginning. Perhaps it is because sociologists are interested in social problems and in social change, so they are often analyzing negative trends, or the negative aspects of change. And also in advocacy for those who are suffering, or at least in documenting the misery of the world. And so, in the hope of achieving progress, tend to point out negative impacts and comparing them to previous, superior arrangements.

    In examining the suffering that accompanies increasing economic inequality or insecurity that results from neoliberalism, for instance, we don’t point to the concurrent positive changes happening at the same time in other areas such as gender/ethnic/sexual equality. But you can’t do everything at once.

    Nonetheless, I also get fed up with the nostalgia present in a lot of sociology. Non-unionized blue collar workers may be economically worse of now than thirty years ago. But they are still far better of than they were a hundred years ago. Especially if they are gay or disabled etc etc.



    June 10, 2009 at 7:38 am

  10. WHICH social scientists are we talking about? As stated, this is only an unnamed collective, and that is a known fallacy in forensics.

    Is this an inertial resistance to change, preference for the immediate past as merely the minimization of future risk?

    Marxism is the most famous restatement of the Eden Myth, but Ayn Rand, too, glorified the lost age of near-laissez faire. Perhaps each only longed for a lost childhood of their own.

    Myself, I long for the future: colonies on the Moon, robots in the home, annual rejuvenation treatements, interactive 3-D dramas …


    Michael E. Marotta

    June 10, 2009 at 12:57 pm

  11. Teppo,
    great post! I think that as organization theorists (I do agree it’s key to specify which social scientist we are talking about) we should critically examining the status quo, and this critical stance pushes us to look at the past for benchmarks, but also to project our ideas into the future to imagine novel organizational forms. I would also be concerned if were only going back to traditional communities, welfare, unions, etc… but I don’t think that’s what we are doing.
    For instance, I completely agree with Sean´s characterization of communities in Adler/Hecksher, and I would add, of my work with Siobhan O’Mahony on Open Source Software Communities: the agenda is to understand the emergence of novel community forms of organizing, understand them, and explore whether they could be a viable option for the future of organizing.

    Economics, on the other hand, at least in the last twenty years, seemed to be much more comfortable with the status quo, and I think this might explain why it’s getting so much blame. I am not saying that they deserve the bashing (whether and how much they contribute to build the world we live in is a much more complicated question), but their panglossian worldview implicitly legitimized the social and economic arrangements we were living in (compensation, malfeasance, greed, etc…), and now they are being asked to explain how come this was not, after all, “the best of all possible worlds.”


    Fabrizio Ferraro

    June 10, 2009 at 3:34 pm

  12. a little late, but a quick word of thanks for the pointer to the adler and heckscher paper. it may be a familiar standard to you, but it’s first i’ve heard about it. this has become a helpful blog for me to browse.

    i found the paper unusually useful for wondering about past and future forms of organization, and for what it’s worth, present my thoughts here:

    they are indeed harking back to a old sense of community, longing for some revival. but they are also onto something about the nature of an emerging form that is/will be about collaboration but not quite about community.


    david ronfeldt

    July 1, 2009 at 4:55 pm

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