Thursday, June 19, 2008

Fromm and Chuuk -- social life outside of modernity

One of my projects right now is to come to terms with the historical development of the modern era and how it comes to be articulated in our own lives today. I have found Erich Fromm to be really helpful in this regard. Partly because, like me, he shares a concern with the psychological dimension of living in the modern era.

In one of his earliest books, Escape from Freedom, he characterizes an ideal social type in the medieval era. Essentially, it is a model of the organic community. People had a place in the larger social organization, their lives were in large measure defined by this place. Individual expression was largely confined to personal touches on your craft, occupation, or trade. It was an era where ethics and economic concerns were co-present, as a result...economic behavior (i.e., activity oriented toward material production and accumulation) was often of second concern to one's moral position in the community. That position depended on the execution of the duties associated with one's station in life.

What was striking about this characterization is that it reminded me very much of the way that people talk about their lives in Chuuk, the islands of Micronesia where I have conducted fieldwork. They see the community in much the same way, as characterized by different social positions in a social organization. People are very concerned with their position within this organization as it is reflected in the perception of their performance of their social positions (which is tightly connected to their displays of behavior toward others). As I am going through my fieldnotes and tapes, there is a palpable sense of anxiety about how one's activities reflect their ability to enact the social position they occupy.

This is interesting because, in the roles of the modern bureaucracy some individuals occupy, there is less concern about how their activities reflect their performance. This will be something I will work on as I go forward with the project.

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