Post-modernism that isn’t. But it is. But it isn’t.

Originally published at The Benfell Blog. Please leave any comments there.

I’m gradually making my way through Walter Truett Anderson, The Future of the Self: Exploring the Post-Identity Society (New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1997). Essentially, his argument takes the form of trying to conflate enough ideas about identity, social roles, the complexity of our bodies, and even personality, with self to suggest that the most common notions of self are inadequate. It’s the kind of argument that appeals for a judgment call. If you think this conflation is sufficiently compelling, you’ll accept his ideas about the self. I don’t, but that’s not my point with this posting.

I’m remembering something called the ecological fallacy. This actually has nothing to do with environmentalism or our relationship with the earth or even how we fit into systems. Basically, if you have a finding about individuals, and you apply that finding to groups, or vice versa, you have committed an ecological fallacy. The way this might most obviously take shape is to observe that within a certain population the average couple has 2.3 kids; with an ecological fallacy, you might say that a particular couple is a member of that population, therefore they will have 2.3 kids—not zero kids or one kid or two kids or three kids or maybe even more, but exactly 2.3 kids. We don’t usually have fractions of kids and in fact you’ll find quite a range of variation in the data that leads to the average of 2.3 kids, so this is an obviously absurd statement. But it reflects an inappropriate generalization that researchers have to watch out for, which is why (I hope) every introduction to research methods class warns about it.

I recently completed a term paper for one of my classes in what will hopefully be my last semester in the Transformative Studies program. This was an interesting class, entitled Goodness, Evil, and Politics. But for a topic that is obviously about groups of people, I read three books by psychologists. Anderson is yet another psychologist. And in fact, I’ve been reading a lot of psychologists.

Psychology is a social science but its unit of analysis is individuals. Most other social sciences have groups of people as their unit of analysis. Yet in Transformative Studies, we are generalizing from a study of individuals to claims about groups of people. Hence my recollection of the ecological fallacy.

To be fair, I’ve actually found some legitimate use of this, like in that term paper, where I draw from the WikiLeaks revelations a need not only for the government but the people to confront a dark side that we generally don’t acknowledge.

But at some point, Anderson starts writing about morality as an organizing process. The best way I can be careful about this is to let him speak for himself:

In saying that we are moral animals I don’t mean that we are naturally disposed to be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, kind, or any of the other virtues on the Boy Scout list. We obviously have strong abilities in the opposite direction on all of the above counts. I mean that we moralize. We operate by principles of right and wrong, and those principles are part of our continuing effort to make sense of the world, to organize the raw material of experience—the “blooming, buzzing confusion” that William James famously described—into some kind of coherence. (p. 163)

This operation of organizing our experience—on moral terms of good and evil—is what he’s referring to as an organizing process.

Because this organizing process involves such complexity, and because it can be hard work, people have historically made it easier by participating in the lie of self. They pretend to be less complex than they are, less changeable, less multidimensional. (p. 164)

Anderson’s on thin ice here. He tries to skate around it by writing that “people have historically” done this. Within the rules of classic Aristotelian logic, he might only be referring to a single individual, but the way most people will interpret this phrasing is that many of us do this. And he might be right. But it also might be a hasty generalization.

Here’s the catch. When I write about generalization or about ecological fallacies, I’m inherently referring to statistical, i.e. quantitative processes. This is thoroughly the stuff of positivism which, as Bruce Mazlish explained in The Uncertain Sciences (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2007) attempted to find a single methodology as a scientific means of finding all truth. The quest for that methodology dismissed qualitative approaches and ignored any nuances. It in fact attempted to adjust the data to the method, which is one way that positivism fails even by its own standards.

Positivism only seeks truth at an aggregate superficial level based on a statistical sample. As such, in the social sciences, it really only tells us what it failed to disprove about the class of people known in that paradigm as research subjects. Along the way, it assumes a great many variables that make those subjects different from the rest of us aren’t really relevant, that in all of the complexity that makes a living being, only the factors researchers choose to control for make any difference. And then it generalizes that “truth” to all of us.

But Anderson advocates post-modernism—or, as I’m tempted to call it based on my reading of Pauline Marie Rosenau, Post-Modernism and the Social Sciences: Insights, Inroads, and Intrusions (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 1992), anti-modernism, because it seemingly rejects much of modernism (including positivism) simply because it is modern. Anderson’s book was recommended to me in the hope that it would increase my sympathy for post-modernism. I think that thin ice just broke and Anderson has fallen through. Because in making the kind of claims that Anderson makes, he’s appealing to a positivist sensibility, that what applies to some people applies to many of us. That’s simply not a very post-modern approach.

There are other problems. Anderson relies on a dubious definition of progressivism from James Davison Hunter. Here’s how he does it:

Hunter calls orthodoxy “the commitment on the part of adherents to an external, definable, and transcendent authority,” and progressivism “the tendency to resymbolize historic faiths according to the prevailing assumptions of contemporary life.” (p. 158)

Probably most people would go along with Hunter’s description of orthodoxy. It’s at least close. And on the strength of that authority, Anderson expects us to go along with his description of progressivism. But my definition of progressivism is different: I think progressivism has to do with an embrace of the diversity of humanity, a concern that we all should share in our common inheritance from the earth, and that we should preserve and protect the earth for future generations. Anderson not only obscures a richer definition of progressivism, he uses the incomplete definition to equate progressivism with post-modernism. And then, I have to quote this because you won’t believe me otherwise:

Orthodoxy, at least in its grumpier and more militant forms, becomes what we usually call fundamentalism these days. (p. 159)

It doesn’t take very long for Anderson to drop the word, usually. Either you are post-modernist and progressive or you are fundamentalist and modern. To get around this obvious absurdity, he writes,

Most people in the West do not succeed in achieving anything like the secure identity and moral certainty of the young Taliban soldier. Some do reasonably well without either. They improvise, borrow from here and there, shop around, adjust to the situations in which they find themselves. (p. 161)

In other words, they’re post-modernists!

What’s really going on here is that Anderson is drawing a dichotomy between old fuddy-duddies, presumably including myself, and everything that’s hip, and cool, and—oh, I can’t use the word modern here, can I? Anyway, if you’re in that latter category, in Anderson’s light, you’re a post-modernist.

If you think that might be overreaching, I think you’re right. But it’s basically the same as Anderson’s entire strategy for blurring the boundaries of the self throughout his book. And that’s why, ultimately, I don’t find him persuasive. The dichotomous thinking doesn’t help either.