Saturday, December 18, 2010

Secular Crisis and Identity Crisis—American Style

The recent flare up at the American Anthropological Society (AAA) about whether or not they would use the word science in a mission statement reminded me that I haven’t clearly articulated the concept of secular crisis.  In my first essay about the AAA problem I made the comment that they were in an identity crisis. Let’s take a look at what this means.

In the context that I am using the phrase, identity crisis is a social problem.  AAA is an organization whose members join freely because they have some common ground that unites them.  The crisis occurs because that common ground is shaken by new ideas and new power structures among members—the overall trust that exists within the organization becomes mistrust. The group no longer has unified goals and objectives. The crisis is resolved when some resemblance of trust is reestablished; they may or may not redefine their goals and objectives.

Sometimes an identity crisis can be transformative.  In the 1970s-1980s the industry of medicine went through an identity crisis that led to the deprofessionalization of medicine.  In those years the roles and responsibilities of doctors and nurses were redefined (probably due to insurance companies getting more power over the industry).  Part of the resolution was the wider acceptance of other roles (the physician assistant & nurse practitioner) that previously had been minor within the industry.

Likewise, the profession of journalism is currently in an identity crisis.  Journalists are fighting the same battle as AAA. The recent debate between Ted Koppel and Keith Olbermann was about those who adhere to the ethos of Modernism (Koppel) and those who don’t. (Olbermann is similar to the Romantic scientists--he claims to be doing good journalism without adhering to the narrow strictures of old Modernism; Romantic scientists pursue a expanded version of science and don't limit themselves to narrow causality or positivism). Within AAA it’s the Modernist scientists who feel that they are marginalized (Peter Peregrine’s closing comments here) while the Romantic scientists and non scientists are okay with the way things are. Remember, Modernism is fading in American culture while Romanticism is raging.

Additionally, journalism is deprofessionalizing. The rise of the internet, the rise of bloggers, the decline in newspaper readership, and the decline in TV viewing, all point to the transformation of journalism.  Will it survive? I don’t care and I don’t expect Modernist journalism to rebound.

Now, take the idea of identity crisis and step it up a whole level of scale and think about a whole society that is undergoing an identity crisis.  Do the majority of Americans still believe we are Number One? Are we still a superpower? Is the US dollar still the most powerful currency? Is the US military still the best functioning weapon in the world?  Today, it seems that there is much doubt about positive answers to all these questions.  America is in secular crisis.

A secular crisis is a culture wide identity crisis.  However, it has other attributes that make it different such as:  it is transformative because a status quo is changed, genocidal warfare is common, and it is recursive in American culture history.  Previously, I reviewed the cultural eras in American history.  The secular crisis is winter within the Four Seasons theme. Let’s review the crises.

The Glorious Revolution (ca. 1676-1700) from the perspective of colonists
   Identity question: do English colonists have full rights as English citizens?
   Events: King Philip’s War (genocidal); governors from all colonies are evicted via several rebellions; CT, MA and RI colonial charters are terminated-all three are combined into a provisional colony called New England; Salem witch trials.
   Status Quo change: King James dethroned with William and Mary seated jointly; new colonial governors seated.
   Identity resolution:  Colonists are not English citizens with full rights; colonial charters rewritten.

The American Revolution (ca. 1763-1794) from the perspective of colonists
   Identity question: do English colonists have full rights as English citizens?
   Events: Succession (independence); civil war (Continentals v Redcoats); genocidal warfare on western front against Indians, and, in the Carolinas as guerilla fighting.
   Status Quo change:  “these” United States created out of the English empire
   Identity resolution: Americans are free of English control; Tories are evicted.

Slavery Conflict/Civil War (ca 1854-1876)
   Identity question:  can we have slavery and believe in freedom too?
   Events: Succession and civil war with widespread genocidal behavior; reconstruction
   Status Quo change:  The Southern power block that had prevailed since the 1790s was overthrown; the federal government became more powerful.
   Identity resolution:  we believe in freedom; slavery abolished; “these United States” became “the United States”

Depression/WWII (ca 1929-1946)
   Identity question:  Are Americans isolationists or are we a superpower?
   Events: depression; WWII with genocide in the Pacific theater
   Status Quo change: Power center of Western Civilization shifts to US from Europe
   Identity resolution:  the US is a superpower.

Our current Crisis of Confidence (ca 2001 to about 2025)
   Identity question:  is US still Number One?
   Events: World Trade Center attack; War on Terrorism, Great Recession; FED owns everything; we can expect an episode of genocidal warfare
   Status Quo change:  US Dollar replaced? Decline in economic and political influence? Will some wealthy folks get lynched?
   Identity resolution: America will either become a more powerful Superpower or a fallen one.

Our current crisis is still unfolding.  I tend to see it as being similar to the Glorious Revolution and the Civil War era since those played out during Dionysian times.  There will be lots of seemingly isolated events that take place that actually are connected reciprocally or reflexively (but not in a cause/effect way). Thus, I can foresee rebellions in several states with the governors and elected bodies being replaced wholesale like.   I can foresee many wealthy families leaving the country or being lynched.  This could all happen as WW3 plays out overseas and our need for collective emotional release allows for some genocidal events. Resolution will come when there is a sense that fairness is returned to the population; America will either become a more powerful Superpower or a fallen one.

Stepping back down to the organization level, AAA isn’t likely to go through a blood bath.  They either agree to get along or break up. Years ago at Stanford U they chose to break up and now there are two Anthropology programs there, the scientists (Department of Anthropological Sciences) and the non scientists (Department of Cultural and Social Anthropology). Must be nice to have the luxury to afford both.


  1. I believe I understand the gist of your essays on Apollonian and Dionysian thinking, that yin-yang like the influence of each waxes and wanes in importance as to how a given society perceives and interprets information/knowledge. Still I find it passing strange that anthropologists as a group have decided that right now is a good time to have an identity crisis, with a fracture line within the discipline developing along "scientific" and "other" types of thinking. This makes no sense.

    Biologic anthropology and pre-historic archeology have always been solidly scientific fields. With the application of recent developments in cognitive science and neuroscience (over the past 2 - 3 decades), cultural and social anthropology were headed in the same direction. Why would these fields abandon the scientific approach now? I'm not that well read on cultural anthropology, but it seems to me this field took awhile to recover from the ignominy of the earlier Margaret Mead type anthropologists with their biased observations and flawed theories. If cultural anthropology turns back the clock on its methodology, it'll be like a sequel to a bad movie. Think Noble Savages II , or something similar.

  2. LOL, Noble Savages II, funny stuff. Identity crisis is a process that takes years to work through. Anthros have been at it for 30 years. I suspect this recent tiff is close to the end of the process with the romantic scientists generally in charge but still needing to pay attention to the concerns of a minority faction.

    American archaeology has also been de-professionalized with Native Americans taking a more powerful position in the interpretation of the American past.

    This all reminds me that I need to define better what I mean by Romantic science. I also want to learn more about 19th century naturalism for comparison. Too many books to read, so little time.

  3. I just read the Higher Ed article on the AAA dispute and it confirms my worst fears. When you see PhD's deride "hegemonic Western" scientific colonialism you're already well outside the bounds of scientific thinking.

    Intrinsically, science does not hold a political persuasion, nor does it attempt to maintain one. It can, of course, be abused by those who do. That's a human failure, not one of science itself. I understand science and the scientific method are human constructs, but I can't think of any other that has been as successful.

    Any other human construct, that is. Take for example political systems. What's our track record on those? Depends on who you ask. You know, theoretically, Stalin & Mao ruined communism's good name. Gave it an ill-deserved bad rep. Might have been the perfect political system if the humans who designed it hadn't screwed it up. Or if its detractors had been a little more reasonable, right?

    How about religious belief systems? Well, which ones? There are many. Economic systems, same thing. We could go on, but all other human constructs are variegate and all are lacking in some respect. We often settle for the "best" of these by comparison with the rest. And there is little consensus on that.

    Not true for science and the scientific method. I'm not idealistic or religious about this. It's just that science is a way of understanding the natural world that is potentially universally acceptable. If the post modern cultural anthropologists want to dismiss this, they run the risk of making themselves irrelevant. And they should stop pretending to advocate for the Third World societies they study. Most of those societies would benefit greatly from a better understanding of science.

  4. I used to think that calling ourselves scientists was important; I even argued that position in a 1994 essay. Today, I am ambivalent about it. When I discovered what scientism was and that it had fallen greatly in the US I stopped worrying about the science label.

    My concerns about our current secular crisis are echoed by Gonzalo Lira, at

  5. I don't think the label "science" is particularly important, or apt, for every social science field. If the post modern cultural relativists who control the votes at the AAA want to do away with the term, so be it. At least they are being honest about their approach to studying human culture. Ironic though, that they preach uniformity of belief at home - to the point of changing their label, while promoting relativism abroad. And their fervent belief in the power of a single word, science, that it conjures up colonialism and hegemony, that it enslaves poor San tribesmen who struggle to be free blah blah blah... that sort of magical thinking strikes me as, uh, evangelical almost.

    On the other hand, if physicists stop calling themselves scientists I'll get worried. That's not exactly inconceivable the way things are going. Don't know if you've read Hal Lewis's letter of resignation from the American Physical Society. The link is here (read it and weep):

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