October 19, 2006


Caption: This BIG hen would like to live a life of crime, but she's not quick enough.

This is the fourth of five posts on conformity, rebellion and the American dream. If this is your first visit, please scroll down to earlier posts.

To recap briefly, there is a disconnection between the goal of wealth or material success and the means for getting there. Sociologist Robert Merton argued that this gap between the goal and the means causes serious social strains that people cope with in different ways.

The coping strategies he identified were conformity (accepting the goal and legal means), innovation (accepting the goal but using illegitimate means to achieve it), ritualism (giving up on the goal but going through the motions anyway), retreatism (giving up on both); and rebellion (rejecting both and trying to change the system to make it more just).

When I teach Merton's theory, students have no trouble coming up with examples from real life for most of these.

They may identify themselves as conformists by working and going to school. They know of innovators like drug dealers who seek success illegally. They know (and sometimes admit to resembling) ritualists or people who work every day without thought of "success"). And they know retreatists or stoners who have just given up.

But most don't know any rebels and have never been exposed to the idea of rebellion. The whole idea of trying to change the overall economic structure is a pretty alien.

To a degree, this is to be expected. Any social order can appear as natural and inevitable to people who live under it and get used to it. But for many today the power of corporate globalization is such that unconditional surrender is the only option.

And it is hard to get excited about alternatives when, to use Benjamin Barber's terms, the only challenger to the bloodless McWorld of global capitalism is the bloodthirsty Jihad of tribalism and fundamentalism.

Still, this eclipse of a search for alternatives is pretty sad. Many if not most of the advances humanity has made over the centuries were due to the rebels, even though the rewards of rebellion are often on the order of crucifixion.

The list of rebellion's accomplishments includes abolishing slavery (mostly); gaining women's rights (kind of); abolishing child labor and the worst abuses of cut-throat capitalism (for a while in some places).

The great African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass summed up the rebel's creed pretty well:

If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning.

Next time: middle-range rebellion.