October 17, 2006


Caption: This rooster has given up on the rat race. He's a retreatist.

This is the second post in a series about conformity, rebellion and the American dream.

As the late great sociologist Robert Merton noted in the 1930s, there is a built-in strain in American life. From the earliest days of the Republic, America was seen by many as a land of opportunity where people of lowly origins could rise to the pinnacle of material success through their own efforts (being white and male was usually a plus).

As he put it,

The symbolism of a commoner rising to the estate of economic royalty is woven deep in the texture of the American culture pattern, finding what is perhaps its ultimate expression in the words of one who knew whereof he spoke, Andrew Carnegie: "Be a king in your dreams. Say to yourself, 'My place is at the top.'"

People are taught from an early age "not to be a quitter," that "there is no such word as 'fail,'" etc.

The goal of success as wealth and status is alive and well. The problem is that there is no clear way of achieving it and most people never get there. Many of the few at the top of the "economic royalty" pile were born there. Many who work hard their whole lives wind up impoverished. Many keep going through the motions but live what Thoreau called "lives of quiet desperation."

And, as noted in an earlier post, social mobility is now actually higher in many parts of "old" Europe than it is in the U.S.

This gap between the goal and the means for achieving it is demoralizing and leads to anomie (a sense of normlessness), instability, social strain, and a tendency towards deviant behavior.

Next time: coping with the strain.


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