By Tom Kando
I tried to post this as a comment. Too long. Won’t accept it. Hence, a separate post:
We are honored to post Prof. Ten Have’s excellent article. It raises the level of scholarship and the quality of our blog.
The piece is called 'On the use of collectivity nouns.' I take this to mean that it is essentially a critique of certain kinds of “generalizations,”- and their moral or judgmental usage. Sorry, I now generalize about Ten Have’s article.
Ten Have ‘deconstructs’ a recent exchange between Johnny and me, triggered by events in Egypt. (In the old days, we used the word ‘analysis,’ but ‘deconstruct’ sounds nicer and more post-modern).
Regarding the use of collectivity nouns, I am now going to comment about generalizations. This is not a straw man, but an attempt to grapple with Ten Have’s argument.
Obviously, generalizations can be bad. We all know about the evils of stereotyping, racism, nationalism. Furthermore, many generalizations, even when containing some truth, are shallow and do not do justice to reality.
BUT: Isn’t Sociology foremost in the business of generalizing? Without generalizations, there is no Sociology.
The first thing freshmen are told is that Sociology is about group patterns, not individuals. For example, the instructor asks the students in Sociology One: “Who are you likely to marry?”
They reply: “Whoever I fall in love with; it all depends on the individual.”
And then the instructor lectures about assortative mating, that tall people are more likely to marry tall people, etc. Patterns; generalizations.
Surely we can agree that the question is not whether to use generalizations, but which ones, and for what purpose. A generalization can be good or bad. I can think of at least 3 criteria:
1) is it true or false?
2) is it shallow, does it do violence to important details?
3) Is it used for a nefarious purpose, when combined with moral judgment? This last point is central to Ten Have’s argument.
Examples of generalizations:
A.“Jews are miserly.”
B. “American children are more overweight than Japanese children.”
C. “The US has a high crime rate.”
D. “Americans are more optimistic than Frenchmen.”
Generalization #A fails all three tests. It is false and it is malicious.
Generalization #B passes the first test, maybe not the second, but it does pass the third test: Moral judgment embedded in a generalization does not automatically disqualify the generalization. For example, this generalization could be a call for positive social action.
Generalization #C: same as Generalization #B. Someone might say:
“Don’t generalize; Where I live, in Iowa, we have very little crime.” True.
Generalization #D: This is the sort of generalization which has become problematic - generalizations about the psychological characteristics of groups and nationalities.
Years ago, the Adorno group, Kurt Lewin, the study of national character, the “authoritarian personality,” the Culture and Personality school in Anthropology - these all made the study of such things respectable.
But because of the horrors of nationalism and racism, we now agree that one should tread very carefully in this area of research - if going there at all...
Still, what are we to do with the social sciences’ central concept - culture?
If I say, “Americans are more optimistic than Frenchmen.” (Generalization #D), and this is based on surveys, and it is NOT meant to force Frenchmen to become more optimistic, does it not pass my 3 tests?
There IS such a thing as “American Culture,” and maybe even a European Culture, or at least a Western European Culture. In statistical parlance, maybe “between-group” variations are greater than within-group variations...
Granted, the great weakness of most generalizations is criterion #2 - shallowness. To this, I plead guilty. This is a blog. Our average post has 600 words.
Finally: Prof. Ten Have is defensive about my discussion of possible European anti-Semitism. After all, it’s been over 60 years since the Holocaust.
I am only preaching caution. Nothing dies harder than Culture (remember Ogburn?). A century and a half after the abolition of slavery and after decades of Civil Rights enforcement, the South remains America’s most racist region.
I have no evidence that Europe is more anti-Semitic than America. But 60 years is historically not very long. Caution in criticizing Israel is still a good idea for Europeans, who should be as aware as possible of their motives.
Is the criticism rooted in anti-Zionism, and the fact that the creation of Israel has caused a great deal of Palestinian suffering, or in a general feeling that Jews are still a problem? (As in the not uncommon allegation that US foreign policy, Hollywood, etc. have been hijacked by Jews).
How anti-Semitic Europeans are, is an empirical question. I am just saying: make sure you continue to be vigilant about its potential reoccurrence. leave comment here
Sunday, February 13, 2011
By Tom Kando