This book explores the new applications of established theories or adapts theoretical approaches in order to illuminate behaviour in the field of food. It focuses on social processes at the downstream end of the food chain, processes of distribution and consumption. The book reviews the existing disciplinary approaches to understanding judgements about food taste. It suggests that the quality 'halal' is the result of a social and economic consensus between the different generations and cultures of migrant Muslims as distinct from the non-Muslim majority. Food quality is to be viewed in terms of emergent cognitive paradigms sustained within food product networks that encompass a wide range of social actors with a wide variety of intermediaries, professional and governmental. The creation of the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) occurred at a juncture when perceptions of policy failure were acknowledged at United Kingdom and European Union governmental levels. The book presents a case study of retailer-led food governance in the UK to examine how different 'quality logics' actually collide in the competitive world of food consumption and production. It argues that concerns around food safety were provoked by the emergence of a new food aesthetic based on 'relationalism' and 'embeddedness'. The book also argues that the study of the arguments and discourses deployed to criticise or otherwise qualify consumption is important to the political morality of consumption.
Taking people seriously; what you see is what you get
A can of paint can be sold with the slogan ‘It does just what it says on the tin.’ People are more than paint, but what can be seen and heard matters in social life. I have made the democratic empirical assumption that feathers and flags, clothes and gestures, voice and manners, and all the other expressions and features of identity, are not signs of who people are; they are what people, as social beings, are, and constitute their social identity. Whatever secret thoughts people may have which they communicate to no one, as social persons people exist in relation to other people, and what they do and what others see and hear is who they are. Identity is a visible, audible, and tangible social creation and cultivation, and is expressed in all the varied actions which people carry out and all the various contexts both which they create and cultivate for themselves and which they find created and cultivated already by others. Identity is a complex of circumstance and choice, of collectivity and individuality. This identity and its associated meaning and justification are cultivated and expressed as a dimension of public action: language, dress, the choreography of government and of politics, and the shapes and sounds of social and public life. The physical, created dimensions of identity, from clothes to architecture, are not only the constructed material setting for action, but are also themselves public actions which cultivate, generate, and constitute social persons.
To say that artefacts are part of identity is different from attributing purpose, character, or meaning to artefacts. Artefacts, using that term to refer to anything which is the creation of human labour, do not speak. It is the ways in which people inhabit, wear, or use them which give them their meaning. So although meanings are socially embedded in created objects and environments, it is not always easy or even possible to read that meaning once the original actors are departed. The physical presence of Stonehenge may be solid and tangible, but its social meaning is obscure and contested, and may always be impossible to discern with any certainty. Because the significance of artefacts is socially cultivated, new and different significances can be generated around them. The swastika as an ancient Hindu symbol of well-being was reproduced in Europe on the book covers of Rudyard Kipling and, with quite different significance, in the regalia of the Nazi Party. It has no inherent meaning, but has possessed real and substantial social ones. The identities which were expressed and sustained by Stonehenge or by swastikas were not arbitrary or capricious. But they were identities created and cultivated by a particular people at a particular time, and for them, and for any one of them, constituted an external reality in relation to which their individual character and the character of the their collective life was formed.
The understanding that people are what they do is to be found in one form or another across a wide swathe of accounts of human social life. It is approached though not fully realised by the distinction made in survey studies of opinion and choice between stated preferences and revealed preferences, in which it is argued that people's ‘real’ preferences about, for instance, food, are indicated not by what they say about their tastes in answer to questionnaires or in conversation, but by what they actually eat. Stated wishes, in other words, are trumped by acted wishes, the actions of the outward, public person. A revealed preference in this sense is part of the real and public cultivation of identity, a stated preference is a mere aspiration. But the narrative of preferences can be taken further, since it is possible, having made the assumption about the reality of the public, expressed identity, to see even expressed preference as significant – a statement, not an intention to make a statement, revealing what it is that the speaker, actor, wants to be seen or heard and so creating a public dimension of that person's identity. Everything that is done, in other words, is to be treated neither as evidence of something else, an inner or core reality, nor as a deceit covering ‘real’ identity, but as a component part of the public reality of the person, group, or society. It is an extension to the whole gamut of action not so much of the aphorism, ‘You are what you eat’, as of the claim that ‘What you eat is who you are.’ But what you say you want to eat is also part of who you are. The ‘realist’ distinction between expressed and revealed preferences is not realist enough. Everything that is done is real, and contributes to identity. Just as human nature is everything that humans do, so human identity is composed of all the actions, cultivations, and creations which humans undertake.
The apparent contrast between what people say and what they do, between verbal action and all other kinds of action, can be replaced by a distinction between the various kinds of things that they do. The rejection of the view that if there is a contrast between statements and other actions then only the other actions are real has a long history. Hypocrisy is not just, as La Rochefoucauld put it, the compliment that vice pays to virtue. The aphorism is a recognition that even when you want to do the very opposite of what you promised, you have to frame your betrayal in the language and values to which publicly you are committed. This may not be an iron restraint, but it is a restraint nonetheless, and a restraint placed by one part of identity upon another. And while identity may always move towards coherence, it will never achieve a point where it can be expressed in a single statement, or deduced from a single principle or description. To that extent, duplicity and hypocrisy are features of the continuous pluralism of identity and the dynamic stress and collision between its different aspects.
This view, or something very much like it, informs the account of public life given by historians. Lynn Hunt in her work on eighteenth-century revolutionary France argues that dress and ritual do not express some other or distinct reality, but are themselves an important and distinct element of reality. ‘Such symbols did not simply express political positions, they were the means by which people became aware of their positions. By making a political position manifest, they made adherence, opposition, and indifference possible. In this way they constituted a field of political struggle.’1 This understanding of things adds a further dimension to Robert Browning's lament for the lost leader:
Just for a handful of silver he left us,
Just for a riband to stick in his coat2
A riband in your coat can be a prize as much sought after as a pig or a pension if it is part of a new, or enhanced, or modified identity. Browning's allusion is dismissive of buttons and bows, but they can be as much a component of the cultivation of identity as banners or creeds. In a violent football crowd, the colour of a sweatshirt can be all that is needed to brand a person as friend or foe. Bitter, violent, and deadly religious conflicts have been pursued over the extent of a monk's tonsure, the cut of a beard, or the tailoring of a woman's headscarf. One of the many roles assigned to God by his followers is as an autocratic editor of Vogue.
To accept everything people do as components of who they are is an application of a broad democratic empiricism: a recognition of the need to take people seriously and to give an account of what they actually do; the statements they make; the manner in which they present themselves; the identities, both public and private, which they construct and cultivate for themselves. People appear to care deeply about the plumage and the plazas, patios, and palaces which are part of their identity and the choreography and staging of their lives. But just as nothing that people do can be discounted as irrelevant to who they are, so statements which seem contradicted by other actions are nonetheless actions themselves, which have to be accounted for in the description and interpretation of what, and who, is happening. There is no such thing as ‘mere’ rhetoric.
The importance of paying attention to all the dimensions of identity when observing different people and different human actions arises not from any underlying or essential character of which the various aspects of identity are an expression, but because human social life is composed of all the aspects of its identity, each one of which contributes to the whole; take them all away, and nothing, no essence or founding principle, remains. That is why an identification of any single aspect or component of identity or character does not provide an adequate account, something which can be achieved only by observing the complex and particular whole.
Identity as a dimension of action; we cannot see into people's souls
While identity is visible and audible, not secret or internal, the audience for it is not only other individuals or groups, but the actor or actors themselves. Whatever conclusions may be drawn from that, it does not undermine the argument that social existence is external, and that whatever may lie within the impenetrable corridors of the soul, identity or character is in the first place public identity or character. The phrase ‘external show’ is one I will avoid, since the suggestion of an inner reality which is expressed by external action is not one I have found helpful. As the advertiser's slogan has it, ‘What you see is what you get.’ When Queen Elizabeth I declared that she did not wish to make windows into men's souls, a brave if politically unwise reply would have been that that was not possible anyway. All that could be known was what people say and do, and all of that is on the public side of any window.
There might seem to be in such an argument a dismissal of the subjective life, the thoughts and feelings of individuals. The reply to such a charge is partly in terms of evidence, that souls cannot be known, all that can be known are statements, in whatever form, about them. The important point about external action is that all external actions must be considered, and all the contexts of that action. If a voter is taken to the polls at gunpoint and coerced into voting for the government candidate, it would not so much be a denial of her expressed wishes to describe her as a supporter of the government, as a setting aside of the whole complexity of actions which constituted and set the context for the placing of her cross against the president's name. A full account of her actions would be quite different from a full account of the actions of someone who had voted freely.
The cultivation of identity is the expression or communication, either to oneself or to others, of a narrative or description of a person, or collectivity of persons. It might seem that the cultivation of an identity and its communication are two distinct activities, or at least two distinct stages of a single activity, that a narrative would be a statement about something beyond itself. But a narrative of identity is the identity, and it is difficult to imagine its cultivation unless it is being communicated either to the narrator as expressed self-consciousness or to others as action, or to imagine a communication of identity which was not at the same time its cultivation. There could not be a narration of which no one at all was aware, for in that case there would not even be a narrator. In telling a story – and the story can be told using all the modes of communication, of which language is one only – persons or collectivities cultivate meanings and justifications whereby what they are and what they do is both explained and given normative sanction. This tripartite activity of cultivating identity in a way which provides and nurtures meaning and justification is a dimension of all human action, and is what distinguishes action from mere reflex behaviour. The cultivation of identity in this manner, involving the creation or attribution of meaning and justification, is not prior to or subsequent to action, but is a component or aspect of it. Identity is created and cultivated in being expressed, and whatever its character was before such communication or expression is modified or enhanced. Statement and cultivation are simultaneous, and jointly aspects of a single action.
It will be evident that this is a view of things derived from Max Weber's definition of ‘social action’: ‘We shall speak of “action” insofar as the acting individual attaches a subjective meaning to his behaviour – be it overt or covert, omission or acquiescence.’3 But I have added to Weber's selection of meaning the cultivation of an identity which incorporates both meaning and justification. There is a qualification, too, or a redefinition, of Weber's ‘subjective meaning’. Weber comments tantalisingly that his subjective meaning can be ‘overt or covert’. But if it is covert it is not known, and if it is overt it is subjective in the sense of being expressed by a subject, but not in the sense of being internal as against external.
The use of the term ‘cultivation’ avoids the two poles of claiming an inherent identity on the one hand, or suggesting a whimsical or unlimited power to construct identities on the other. Identities are both generated and received, a perception which the term cultivation catches since cultivation is the care and direction, the nurturing and the shaping, of something which already exists, but is used to secure something other than its original form or character. Cultivation involves both nature and nurture, and in the cultivation of identity people both selectively work with and selectively appeal to the first, and cultivate through nurture, the second, identities which are influenced and affected, but not effected, by their own aspirations. The word cultivation is preferable to construction to describe this activity, since the elements of cultivation, unlike those of construction, are dynamic and flexible rather than inert, and continue to change in ways which may react to the intentions and actions of the cultivators and to context and contingency. The term cultivation catches, too, the elements of both conservation and growth and change. This human intent is most obvious (though not obviously strongest) at times of innovation and revolution. What frequently occurs at such times, as well as an attempt to dispense with old identities, is the rapidly perceived need to construct new ones whose function but not whose character is essentially the same as that of those they replace.
Cultivation catches not only both nature and nurture, but a range of related distinctions: between vertical and horizontal accounts, between action and structure, and between culture and the choices and conflict which inhabit all societies and prevent them from ossification. Not only is action best understood as a whole, which is not the same as homogeneous or undifferentiated, but the various activities which are associated with it – meaning, justification – are best understood as part of it. To describe myself as a Muslim or a Christian, a socialist or a conservative, is not simply to make a neutral taxonomic observation, but to assert my value and the value of the beliefs with which I construct and cultivate my identity. In speaking, I nurture my identity and enhance what, as I describe it, is already changed, by however so little, by my verbal or written action.
It is no accident that a similar perspective can be found being developed by political scientists studying issues such as legitimation, for when an identity is cultivated, so too at the same time is a justification or legitimation of that identity. To say who we are is to say, not subsequently or later as a defence, but simultaneously and as part of the same statement, what our authority is. The account which I have given of government in Legitimating Identities, and which Ian Clark has given in his discussion of legitimation in international society, is of external, visible, and audible practices, rather than of inner, inferred realities’ justifications.4 Government, as an activity, is not supported or enabled by legitimation or coercion but is composed of them. ‘In the same way that erosion of legitimacy does not lead to crisis of government, so the bestowal of legitimacy does not cause international stability: it is but another way of describing such stability as already exists. In short, legitimacy and stability are not two separate, and causally related, conditions.’5
To speak in this way of action as meaningful and justified behaviour is to go beyond behaviourism or materialism in either its Marxist or utilitarian, liberal, rationalist forms. It provides a way of saying something intelligible about the ways in which people relate and combine for public action, public meaning, and public identification, whether as members of faiths, or as political actors, Hindus or Muslims, fascists or transformationalist socialists.6 An account of what people do, of all the many kinds of action which they perform, is an account of who they are. Action, whether of speech, or comportment, or dressing, or dancing, is then not external or additional to the person, but part of what constitutes the person. Actions, and the motives and meanings which are part of them, are not then separable from identity, they are components of it. In a similar way, Patrick Gardiner has argued that ‘to speak of a person having a motive, aim or plan is to make a shorthand, and often rather indefinite, statement about him.’7
In talking in this way of an identity which is cultivated with external – in the sense of visible or audible – forms, a stand is being taken against both the view that there is an inner reality which the external forms express, and the view that such expression is secondary or instrumental to some other aspect of the person or collectivity, their interests or ambitions. R. H. Tawney once remarked caustically that in 1918 the Labour Party had declared itself a socialist party, and had believed that it thereby became one.8 But this eloquent criticism could lead one to ignore the contrary, or at least complementary, fact that a great deal of what people and organisations are as social beings is precisely what they do and that what they say is part of that doing. The question is not, therefore, was the Labour Party ‘really’ a socialist party after 1918, but what did it mean when it declared itself one, what did it imagine describing itself as one involved, and how did this declaration relate to other actions of the party? None of this involves, or need involve, rejecting or bypassing the neat incisiveness of Tawney's remark. A formal statement does not determine all the other aspects of a party's character, and its meaning and function will not be best understood by relying entirely on the explanations given by the party itself. But claims and rhetoric will always have a significance, and the task is not to dismiss that significance, but to determine as exactly as possible what that significance is. Choosing to describe oneself as socialist is not insignificant, and is a claim to a character different from that of conservatives, or liberals, though even that broad suggestion will need specifying in relation to who is making such a claim, where, when, and to whom.
So I want to dismiss the account of human life as fractured between ideas and interests, or between rhetoric and action. Human identity is all of a piece, or, rather, all of a patchwork, and if words and the material cultivation of identity were of no significance, they would not be employed. This is the importance of Marx's distinction between a class in itself and a class for itself. If a group can be attributed with some common characteristic by an observer, but does not itself express a common identity, it cannot be accurately described as a class. There is a difference, in other words, between a taxonomic similarity and a social identity. For the true empiricist, everything that exists is significant. But ‘significant’ can be a misleading word, since it suggests that the importance of actions is as signs or signifiers of something else. But they are important also in themselves, not as clues, but as components.
Action is complemented by what it creates, and so modifies its own circumstances
Cultivation, as action with already existing resources, captures the double dimension of structure and act, context and innovation. ‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.’9 This much-repeated sentence of Marx is true as far as it goes, but it does not follow to their conclusion the implications of its own insight. The past is not very distant, and is composed of all that has been done, so that any action is immediately a part of the past and hence of the context or circumstances in which further action is carried out. The history which men make is instantly a part of both their identity and the circumstances in which that identity is cultivated. Some, at least, of the circumstances in which men make their own history have been made by them and chosen by them, as well as by others. People who express themselves by particular actions – whether of dress, or speech, or the use or construction of objects or built environment – cultivate their identity as much as they express it and, in acting, produce something that was not there before, rather than communicating a previously unheard or unspoken character. So with a group or nation, an expression of collective identity is never adequately described as such, since what is expressed is modified in the act of expression.
Equilibrium and symbiosis, coherence and consistency
Whilst the continual search for coherence and the making of choices – actions at both an individual and a collective level which pursue that aim and at the same time alter the circumstances in which it will be pursued – are a central feature of human life; there can be a tension not just between various actions, but between ‘actual’ action and aspiration. On the other hand, aspiration can be divided between ‘secret’ aspirations which, by their very nature, will remain secret and unknown, and expressed aspiration, which is a form of action.
If the relation between the various aspects of human action is seen as symbiotic, then the ensuing account will be of a relationship which will seldom if ever be static, but will be characterised both by tensions, and by tendencies to equilibrium. There will be a continual but not in detail predictable search for coherence in reaction to cognitive dissonance. Something similar is described by Mary Douglas in her account of dietary rules as a construction of an ordered relationship to experience for the cultivation of holiness and completeness.10 The search for coherence has affinities with rational, as contrasted with rationalistic, action as described rather differently by Michael Oakeshott: a cultivation of coherence on the basis of existing resources, habits, and traditions.11 At the same time, this search will be a form of dynamism, in which each choice in pursuit of harmony necessitates further choices.
In such a process, there are three tendencies at work: towards equilibrium to avoid incoherence, towards control of the discordant, and towards stability or security so that identities and landscapes are predictable. All three of these could be subsumed under a single category, the tendency to harmony. Weber's punctual bureaucrat, who arrives at his office on time each morning because not to do so would conflict with his own sense of himself as a dedicated professional, provides an example of such coherence, or impetus towards coherence. Geoffrey Hawthorn employs a similar conception, borrowing the phrase ‘necessary identity’ from Bernard Williams and describing ‘an identity such that someone who has it feels bound to act in ways that maintain their identity in the eyes of others’.12 If the relationship between the dimensions of identity is symbiotic/organic rather than mechanical/mathematical, that does not change the expectation of possible coherence, but it does change the expectation of automatic coherence, and requires an expectation of the frequent possibility of non-correspondence between one aspect of identity and another. If we are not dealing with fixed components in a rigid mechanical structure, then all the various activities in which people engage, and all the various ways of perceiving and understanding those activities, may be relevant as part of the total phenomenon. Clothes, or plumage, can be as relevant as diet or dogma, and compliance or resistance as relevant as circumstance, tradition, or coercion.
The question then arises of what, if anything, can be predicted about the likely outcomes when there is incongruence within a population or territory. Is one factor in general more powerful than another? In states, does rulership normally have a built-in advantage, whatever its identification, whether religious, economic, ethnic, or cultural? One response to that question is that the answer is contained in the question, in that if such an advantage could not be identified, the person or persons enjoying it would not helpfully be described as rulers, and that for such a description to be appropriate, such an advantage must be discernible. In that case this fits, or at least is not inconsistent with, Patrick Dunleavy's criticism of rational-choice accounts of party competition: political leaders are Procrustean, and have both the capacity and the will, if not to replace reality, then at least to readjust it to their convenience or advantage.13
Should we expect differences in the ways in which different kinds of rulers react to incoherence? Do despots of various kinds pay less attention to telling stories to their subjects? Or does that depend on what they want from them? It is easier to tell an extravagant story about yourself if it is addressed to a limited audience. The greater the audience, the greater is the possibility of laughter. And to begin with, despots have less need to pay attention to large audiences. John Prescott's two Jags, for which he was pilloried in the United Kingdom, would not have been so widely and publicly derided in China, but in a democracy they were cause for merriment.
The recognition of the search for harmony or coherence raises the question of sincerity. A charge often made against those who are seen as greedy, unscrupulous, tyrannical, or devious, is that they must know the difference between right and wrong, must be aware of their own wickedness, and that therefore any account they give which reconciles their actions against their fellow humans with a pattern of meaning and justification must by hypocritical or deliberately intended to deceive others. But there is another account available, which by no means reduces the force of charges of oppression or greed, but does replace the charge of hypocrisy on the grounds that it oversimplifies to the point of distortion what is actually going on, and takes as the starting point the assumption that it is plausible or even likely that views which one person considers implausible are genuinely held by another person, and that incoherence is more common than conscious and deliberate deceit. Two illustrations from religious discourse may fill out this point. Evangelical Christians can sometimes be heard dismissively talking of the ‘intellectual difficulties’ of those who do not agree with their demands, the implication being that those who express such ‘difficulties’ recognise the force of the evangelical claim, and are constructing barriers against it. It does not require one to be sceptical about religion as such to see the inadequacy of such an account. Similarly, Islamists may attack what they describe as Western decadence for refusing to acknowledge the truth of Islam, again with the implication, or overt claim, that those in the West who are not Muslims are in some sense, as another discourse might put it, ‘in denial’. Again, one does not have to be an opponent of Islam to see the inadequacy of such an account. There is a frequent tendency to assume or to argue that those whose conduct one regards as wrong, unacceptable, or abhorrent, cannot possibly believe that how they are acting is right, and must be insincere or hypocritical. It is both intellectually much more difficult and morally and ideological disconcerting to start from the premise that there is a real or potential harmony or at least modus vivendi between people's stated beliefs and the rest of their behaviour, and that even the most, to the observer, repellent conduct can be in harmony with the stated values and beliefs of the actor. This is one of the reasons why the debate amongst historians and social scientists over slavery in the United States has on occasion been so heated. To the opponent of slavery, it has frequently seemed difficult not to believe that there must have been at least an element of hypocrisy in the justifications which the beneficiaries of slavery gave for the society in which they lived. Such a view assumes that there must be standards of right and wrong which are both independent of human societies, and self-evident to all individual humans. One version of this view sees such intuitive or rational apprehension of moral criteria as following from the common rationality of a common humanity. The essential character of humanity transcends, or underlies, or is both historically and logically prior to, the values and practices of particular cultures or societies. The other version sees a universal apprehension of moral criteria as involving a metaphysical dimension which is revealed to or grasped by properly religious or spiritually attuned persons.
The first version can be queried by referring to the varieties of human morality, the second by the observation that whatever the alleged source of metaphysical criteria, they can only ever be heard, or read, in the actions of humans. This was the point satirically presented in Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses when, however hard the angel tried, he always found himself speaking not his own words but those of the prophet whom he was addressing.14
The search for coherence is best understood not as people trying to explain or justify what they know to be wrong, since there is no knowledge of right and wrong independent of our knowledge of what people do and believe. Conceptions of right and wrong can only be conceptions of human beliefs, and the search for coherence is then a response to the existence of difficult, contrary, or opposing views rather than of, necessarily, an attempt to square consciences which are either innate and independent of any other human action, or in direct contact with a moral realm distinct from and superior to the lives and actions of humans. This personification of morality is part of the search for a coherent or harmonious sense of self. For self-identity is told, unless the self is unrealistically solipsistic, in terms derived and developed from the narrated and acted-out identities of the range of knowable human actions. To act incoherently is to act in a way which disrupts this narrated self.
But the response to this apparent dilemma is that analysis and interpretation are distinct from moral evaluation, and that one is not compromised by the other. To explain how it was that people in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries could believe in the existence of witches and in the need to torture and kill those whom they considered in league with the devil is in no way to make a moral judgment on their actions, nor does it prevent one subsequently from doing so.
The most sustained and substantial way in which coherence can be sought by cultivating identity is through association of the individual with a group, association, or collectivity of people – the observation of concrete identity made by Hegel using the example of war when he argued that physical survival was subordinated to an identity enhanced by association with the group or community.15 There is, however, a paradox here. Identity is cultivated by identification with a group. But at the same time identity requires distinction, and the drawing of lines of demarcation and contrast both between the person and other persons, and between the collectivity which gives the person a more substantial identity and other collectivities. The first distinction is then between a person and his or her associates, a distinction among friends, the second a distinction between one's own association and competitors or even enemies. This is why Orwell's reassurance to the middle classes that they need not fear sinking down into the mass of the population, ‘you have nothing to lose but your aitches,’ was historically negligent.16 The desire to sustain identity by association with others is most commonly complemented by the desire to underline identity by distinguishing the association from which one draws support from other, different, associations. The point was expressed fictionally by Philip Roth at the conclusion of Portnoy’s Complaint where his protagonist visits Israel and finds his sense of identity, which in New York had been delineated by the presence of large numbers of people who were not Jews, shaken by a society in which even the muggers were Jews.17
Simple accounts are simple
Human action can be seen as one or a series of meaningful behaviours, in such a way that the material and the cultural or intellectual cannot be separated, however much they may be analytically distinguished. This view is inimical to the kind of construction of distinct and rigid categories of beliefs, desires, and behaviour which characterises some recent accounts of rational humanity, whilst recognising the usefulness of such distinctions at an analytical, but not at an interpretative, level.18 It is similarly inimical to an insistence on ‘parsimonious’ or single-factor explanations. Such explanations frequently slide into saying either that all factors other than the one singled out and narrated are mere reflexes, or that they are unimportant, and that whether or not they change with the ‘core’ dimension is not of significance or importance either to the living or the understanding of human life. Either conclusion is unsatisfactory and arbitrary, since it is deductive rather than inductive, and dismisses as proper subject of enquiry precisely what, either empirically or historically, is actually going on.
To employ the view that I am supporting means giving up the chance of making confident predictions about the course of events. It is fairly straightforward to predict that changing one element in a historical situation will have consequences for other elements, and for the character of the whole. But the nature of those consequences will be formed out of the relations between the changed element and all the other elements, and on their mutual influence. No particular or specified character can be predicted as a result of such a change in one element. It may well not be possible, therefore, to make predictive or explanatory accounts, but only to chart change.19 This limitation on what can be said is presented fictionally by Umberto Eco in his account of the great detective who, despite being surrounded by a sequence of criminal acts, never succeeds in predicting any of them, but only in retrospectively interpreting them.20 Even this change can be difficult to fit into easy taxonomic boxes. The elements of identity may be generalisable, but the particular combinations are frequently unique in a way which makes broader generalisations difficult or inadequate, and parsimonious accounts unrealistic.
In very different ways, Trobriand cricket and the Constitution of the Soviet Union under Stalin each illustrate this point. Cricket was introduced to the Trobriand Islands off the north-east coast of New Guinea by Methodist missionaries, but the islanders, whilst still retaining the English game and its rules as a rough framework, built on this framework an exotic ritual of provocation and communal celebration, with dancing, ritual taunts and boasting, and teams of up to sixty a side – a formalised celebration of inter-village rivalry.21 If all that was considered were the formal rules and the names given to elements in the game or ritual, then what was played on the Trobriand Islands was cricket. But if the narration was of everything that was going on, a very different and far more deeply textured account of a unique ritual would be given. If one had considered the Soviet Union in the 1930s in the light only of its published laws, then the account given would have been of a working liberal democracy, albeit with methods of representation based on class and occupational groups, rather than on geographical constituencies. This is more or less what Beatrice and Sidney Webb did in their much-derided Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation? Having described the administrative and constitutional complexity of the Soviet Union, the Webbs went on to say that ‘in each department, structure and function are intertwined with each other and with a wealth of voluntary associations and spontaneous individual activities’.22 Such a view would have been difficult to sustain for a moment had the authors gone beyond the official documents and the narratives of officials. As an account of those two sources, it had a degree of truth. As an account of the Soviet Union in the 1930s, it was largely worthless save as, and this was important, an unwitting account of one part of the way in which the regime chose to present itself to outsiders. In each case, a formal set of rules, to be recognised by all participants, was introduced, and in each case the result was, whilst an adaptation or employment of those rules, not one that could in any way have been predicted from looking at the rules in isolation and trying to read from them a resulting set or pattern of actions. One response to this account would be to say that had the rules been followed in the way that was intended by those who drew them up, then the result would have been predictable. But that is to say no more than that had things been different, they would have been different, and that had the rules been literally followed, they would have been literally followed. Even that apparent tautology can be questioned, since however precisely rules are drawn up, they are not like the bud which contains within itself all the features of the flower. And even that analogy has to be qualified: the precise shape and colour of the flower is conditioned by temperature, humidity, soil, and the actions of animals, birds, and insects. Actions will be composed of many other factors than the words of a legal or sporting document, and these factors will be necessary before those formal words can be interpreted, applied, or ignored.
Just as the Trobriand islanders created their own distinctive activity out of the imported game of cricket, practices and resources of all kinds, imported or imposed on existing societies or cultures, can be processed and employed to sustain traditional or existing ways of living. When the Oglala Sioux, following the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868, were cut off from their existing food source of buffalo and placed in dependence on government rations, they transformed these alien ingredients into versions of their own traditional cuisine. Cattle were not slaughtered in the manner of white people, but cut loose and then hunted with arrow or rifle, and renamed ‘spotted buffalo’.23
What this means is not that history, or social science, is ‘one damn thing after another’, but that there is an intermeshed and interacting dynamic of many things all at the same time or, if there is a chronological sequence, a continual and continuous movement amongst changing elements so that there is no artificial stable or timeless point at which one can say that things now begin, and are caused by what follows rather than by what precedes that point. The constant proliferation of identities, the interplay between individual and collective choice and previously cultivated circumstance, together with the tension between identity as association and identity as uniqueness and exclusion, raises the question of the relationship between the many aspects of identity and the extent to which it is causal or symbiotic. If the components are both contingent on and particular to the phenomenon described, it makes no more sense to talk of changing one in order to change others than it does to inject warm blood into a lizard in order to turn it into a mammal. There is a need to be sensitive to the complexities of actual relationships. Certain kinds of positivist social science might be inclined to see a mathematical relation between one aspect of identity and another, of the kind that if you alter one term in an equation or formula, the others are necessarily adjusted: the world is like a spreadsheet. And although numbers can change, there is an immutability about the components so that they can change only within their quantity, not their quality. But the existence of a particular component of identity does not necessarily indicate the existence of other features of rule, in the way that the presence of ‘2’ in the equation ‘2 + a = 5’ necessarily indicates the presence of ‘3’ in ‘a’.
This does not mean that general analyses have no purpose. Their contribution is to refine the language which is then applied to specific phenomena. Human action is a comprehensive but never coherent whole. No one dimension is consistently a cause or treatable as an independent variable. All dimensions are variable, and any one of them is fully understood only in its relation to others, and never independently. Conversely, an understanding of the whole will always depend on an account of the contribution of the various aspects both to each other and to the overall character of the phenomenon or event. This makes abstraction and generalisation necessary at the level of the clarification of language (I prefer that way of putting it to talking of a clarification of concepts), and makes history and particularity, narrative and interpretation, necessary at the level of actual human action. So the two secondary themes or dimensions of this book are analysis and interpretation, the one general and about the clarification of language, the other specific and about the narrative or interpretation of human action. This creates difficulties in the way of a science of human action, or even of human behaviour. The fullest account will always be a particular one, having more of the character of history or a novel than of a scientific treatise. But any such account must be also about the manner and dynamics of change. The insistence on particularity and the non-privileging of any one factor entails the belief that what is separated at the level of general analysis must be organically integrated at the level of interpretation. But the biological symbiotic metaphor goes only so far, since human action and human choice alter the materials of identity in a way that a biological organism cannot alter its components. In that sense even a single human is more analogous to an entire non-human species over an extended period than to any single non-human animal.
Instances of front of house: wizards, spies, hypocrites, and politics
There is an account of action and identity which describes a very different reality from the one that I have depicted, which might be called the Wizard of Oz syndrome. In the film derived from Frank L. Baum's book, the wizard, when finally encountered, turns out to have a public identity utterly different from his private one. The public identity, maintained by tricks and gadgetry and reputation, is of a powerful and barely human magician. The reality, taking cover behind a screen and controlling the theatrical equipment, is a small and insignificant fairground entertainer from Kansas. In this account, public figures have a mask which is worn for effect, and which bears little if any relationship to their actual identity. The ‘wizard’ has an identity behind the theatrical pretences, but it is quite different from the one which is created for the world to see and hear. The Oz view differs from the theatrical metaphor in drawing attention to what the analogy of identity to drama ignores: the reality of the actor behind the role. But it moves in the opposite direction, and whilst the theatrical metaphor ignores the actor, the Oz metaphor ignores the role. To dismiss the wizard as unreal is to set on one side the clear effect on others that the created magical identity had. An account of the politics of Oz which ignored the wizard because he was a creation of artifice would truly be unrealistic. The wizard was a public presence, and events would make no sense without a presence which, whatever its relation to an actual person, was an effective participant in public events, and without which the four travellers would never have undertaken their journey along the yellow brick road.
A different instance of disjuncture between public and private realities is spies, who, whilst presenting themselves as sharing an identity with one group, nation, or community, present themselves in other, and concealed, circumstances, as sharing identity with a quite different party, state, society, or community. The Philby phenomenon is an instance of a particular kind of Wizard of Oz syndrome, save that, unlike the Wizard of Oz, spies have a real community to whom they do not necessarily dissemble. The ability to maintain two identities in this particular way can, however, be associated with a disposition to proliferate personas, so that no group to which the spy professes allegiance can be sure that there is not another, or are not others, to whom he or she is making equal, but more reliable, professions of loyalty.24 But the spy is only the most extreme example of a feature of public life which Weber identified in his essay on politics as a vocation. The responsibilities which a politician takes on, argued Weber, are not compatible with a commitment to simple and absolute truthfulness, and mean that other methods are sometimes necessary to secure public well-being.25 Runciman's discussion of hypocrisy stands in this Weberian tradition, while there are many and varied instances of differences between public and other identities, from the verbal constructions of democratic politics to the courts of both Peter the Great and Joseph Stalin, where the back of house was conducted with either an informality or a ribald boisterousness that was not echoed at all in the public performance.26 Discord between front of house and back of house is not restricted to public and political affairs, though it will be on a grander scale there. It may be simple deception, of which Jacob's pretence that he was Esau in order to obtain his brother's inheritance is only one of the earliest described instances. But in each case, whatever the concealments and pretences involved, the public face is an effective reality; were it not so, the person who employs it would not bother to do so. The manipulation of identities involved in deception depends on the effective presence of both or all versions.
Interests versus identity
One reason why what Paine called plumage has been too readily dismissed, and not only by Paine, is the view that whatever importance is attached to it, it is not the whole bird. Identity, it can be argued, is better understood not as plumage or fur, which are an integral part of the beast, but as a coat which can be worn or discarded according to circumstance, and which is a means to achieving the goals and desires of the wearer, not part of the wearer's essential character. A person or a collectivity of persons, it can be argued, has interests in pursuit of which identity is an external show, and not even an external indicator of an internal reality, but like the resources of an actor in a theatre, the infinitely changeable materials for pursuing whatever it is that the essential or substantial interests of the person dictate.
In such a view, interests and identities are distinct phenomena, interests are objective and unavoidably demanding, whereas identities are not only cultivated but constructed, and not only constructed but sloughed off and replaced. The Vicar of Bray is the metaphor for this view of things: identities, in the sense of ways of life, religious practices, manners of living, are all in the last resort subordinate to objective interests, and will adapt to serve or defend them. The eponymous cleric of the song who declared that ‘whatsoever King may reign, I'll be the Vicar of Bray, Sir,’ fitted his theology and his liturgy to the ruling orthodoxy as determined by the monarch as lay governor of the Church of England. But another view is possible, that he was not a man without any identity, whose character at any one moment was a simple cover for or reflex of some objective material character. On the one hand, his principal identity was as the Vicar of Bray. On the other, the far from merely reflective or superficial or epiphenomenal significance of religious practice is confirmed, not shown to be of no significance, by the need for the imaginary cleric to have such scrupulous regard for it. Religious practice is entirely real. As Jack Goody has remarked, ‘it is doubtful whether one can regard religion as an expression of identity … Religion is not an expression or a handle so much as a major constituent of such identity.’27
A view of human life which distinguishes between interest and identity occurs in a variety of places and a variety of shapes and forms. For Marx the interests of the working class were objective facts, which might not be matched, depending on the level of correct consciousness, by a proletarian identity. In this view, interest comes first. But if interest is seen as material, economic, or a matter of physical survival and flourishing, a reversal of priorities occurs in the distinction which is made between economy and culture. Work is sometimes described as the characterising human activity. But when work is positively described, in the way that it is by William Morris in ‘Useful Work Versus Useless Toil’, the conventional equation of work with production is displaced by work as creation, and a creation which can be the creation of the person as readily as the creation of objects or commodities.28 Once creation becomes the creation and cultivation of identity, a view of human life is possible as, potentially, a comprehensive rather than a fragmented activity. The candidates for essential, true, universal, or fundamental interests which will be set against the transient garb of identity are themselves flexible and varied, just as are identities.
The argument for prioritising those aspects of a person which are seen as interests rather than identity can fall back on the modified view that identity, fully comprehended, includes what are normally termed interests, and that this aspect of identity takes priority over others. If to be someone who likes warm dry weather, freedom from assault, meat and green vegetables, and a waterproof house is to have particular components of identity, it can be further argued that these components will be more solidly established, and defended, than others. If identity is described as everything that makes a person or a group what they are, then some aspects of that identity can nonetheless be given priority over others: survival, security, nutrition, shelter. But this argument would ignore the fact that these aspects are not necessarily given absolute and universal priority, otherwise people would never fight or go to war, a point which Hegel's parable of the slave and the master is intended to argue.
There are therefore two principal qualifications to this concept of the priority of basic needs. First, the placing of such requirements above other requirements of identity – whether religious faith; national military assertion; ascetic denial; loyal defence of friends, family, or household; or the acquisition of athletic or heroic prestige – cannot be predicted or assumed to be ubiquitous or universal. It will be contingent. Second, the manner of requiring even such seemingly basic goods is tailored, and confined, by personal or group identities which form the manner of eating or preparing food, of housing, or of clothing as a protection against wet or cold. Everyone, or at least most people, will eat, but not the same things, and what is a delicacy to one group or person will be repulsive and inedible to another. The work people do is part of who they are. It is frequently the first dimension of their identity that is expressed to or evident to other people. It is, like other dimensions of identity, both a matter of opportunity and a matter of constraint. One may not be compelled to be a nurse or an airline pilot, but nor, if that is what you are, can you immediately become an accountant or a dentist.
It will be clear from what I have said so far that I am not convinced by or sympathetic to the view that interests and identities can be seen as separate features of a person or group, whilst recognising both its force and its prevalence. In its various forms, from Marxism to rational choice, it rests on a conception of human life which is utilitarian, and narrowly so. It is important to put things in that way, since it is possible to conceive of a utilitarianism which was not so constructed, but which conceived utility in a way which provided a place for what I have described as identity, for altruism, and for self-denials and self-sacrifices which a conventional utilitarianism might have difficulty in accommodating. So Kristen Monroe is able to argue, in describing those who at great risk to themselves aided Jews in Europe under the Nazis, that:
For the morally commendable, the ethical values of human well-being and the sanctity of life had become so intricately integrated into their basic sense of who they were that their commitment to these values shaped the central core of their identities. It thus became unthinkable for altruists intentionally to engage in behavior that would contradict the essence of their identity.29
To have turned away from the Jews would have meant turning away from one's self. By showing us this, the rescuers remind us how important our ties with others are in preserving our own identities.30
This is similar to the argument of Erik Ringmar, that:
people act not only in order to win things, but also in order to defend a certain conception of who they are. We act, that is, not only because there are things we want to have, but also because there are persons we want to BE. In fact, this latter kind of actions must be the more fundamental since it only is as some-one that we can have an interest in some-thing.31
Identity constrains: that was the point made in defence of the private detective Philip Marlowe, played by Humphrey Bogart in Howard Hawks's 1946 film of Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep, who had been dismissed as amoral and opportunist. On the contrary, ran the counter-narrative, he was a white knight coming to the rescue of a lonely old man. Identities are far more than masks, and constrain those who wear them in ways which they would not necessarily anticipate, but would still consider appropriate for who they were and what they believed in. The rule of law might have operated in general in the eighteenth century in the interests of a dominant or ruling class, but, as E. P. Thompson has commented, ‘the rulers were, in serious senses, whether willingly or unwillingly, the prisoners of their own rhetoric’, and there will always be ‘men who actively believe in their own procedures and in the logic of justice’.32
Some have argued, in a manner derived from a quote of Weber's, that ideas and, by extension, ideas about who one is and therefore identities, can be seen as ‘switches’ which direct the train of self-interest along one railway track or another.33 This seems to me to artificially separate conceptions of identity from conceptions of need or interest, but also to apply the metaphor with insufficient imagination. If the role of ideas or, in the case of the account which I am presenting here, of identities, is to be acknowledged, it might be more illuminating to see them not as controlling the points on which the train runs, but as constructing the individual or group as a train rather than as a sailing dinghy or a pony and trap in the first place. Unless one perceives oneself as, for instance, a Scot, one cannot perceive an interest in defending Scottish interests against an English-dominated London parliament and government. Unless people first conceive of a class of cyclists, or motorists, and identify themselves with one or the other or both, they cannot have an interest in road use.
Because people are constituted by identification, it is not possible to say that interests cause identity, or ideas and values cause action, since all of these described features of human life are what compose the identity in the first place. The metaphor of identities as like clothes and therefore as secondary or superficial presents, in fact, not a clinching argument for those who want to assert the primacy of some utilitarian essence, but a trap into which their claims collapse. The trap was first set by Thorsten Veblen in The Theory of the Leisure Class when he argued that clothing, real clothing not metaphorical clothing, was used not only or even principally for warmth or protection: ‘the greater part of the expenditure incurred by all classes for apparel is incurred for the sake of respectable appearance rather than for the protection of the person.’34 And the appearance is the entire social presence, so that Jones and Stallybrass discussing Renaissance Europe can argue that to ‘understand the significance of clothes in the Renaissance, we need to undo our own social categories, in which subjects are prior to objects, wearers to what is worn.’35 The observation need not be limited to the Renaissance. Arthur Hocart complained of those for whom:
only economic interests can create anything as solid as the state. Yet if they would only look about them they would everywhere see communities banded together by interest in a common ritual; they would even find that ritual enthusiasm builds more solidly than economic ambitions, because ritual involves a rule of life, whereas economics are a rule of gain, and so divide rather than unite.36
This is an insight which has been advanced against a narrowly material conception of interest in economic theory, and in economic theories of choice, to propose an economics of human life which is less universally homogeneous, and more aware of the particularities of identity.37
Private identity and public gaze
Robinson Crusoe cultivated an identity on an island before the arrival of any other humans. But once there was even one other person present, his social identity was engaged with that other person since a social reality depended on a society, however minimal. In Thornton Wilder's play Our Town, when a family member returns on her birthday, as a ghost, no one can see or hear her and in an important sense she does not, therefore, exist.38 Pretence does not create something socially unreal, since even a deliberate attempt to present a new or ‘deceitful’ account of oneself creates a different self, which becomes at least part of who you are as a public reality and presence.
People create their own identities. But they do not do so with unrestricted freedom. They can work only with the materials to hand, but those materials are cultivated both by themselves and by others, and once an identity is created, and the external setting for it shaped, that setting and that identity become themselves factors both facilitating and constraining further identity cultivation. Brasilia, as a city for cars, makes walking difficult or impossible. That does not mean it cannot be modified but, unless it is, it constrains how its inhabitants can act. But the example of Brasilia draws attention to the pervasiveness of human agency in the creation of identity. Whilst people create their own identities, identities are created also by others.
This cultivation of the identity of others will in part be through the management, creation, or arrangement of material environments and resources. But it will also be carried on through descriptions of identity and the ways in which those with the power to do so define the character and the existence of groups and categories of people. Ian Hacking has referred to this understanding of things as ‘dynamic nominalism’, the view that a process is discernible whereby in describing a category of human action, one contributes to creating that category, alters the actions of those one describes, who are thus ‘moving targets’:
We think of many kinds of people as objects of scientific inquiry … They are moving targets because our investigations interact with them, and change them. And since they are changed, they are not quite the same kind of people as before. The target has moved. I call this the ‘looping effect’. Sometimes, our sciences create kinds of people that in a certain sense did not exist before. I call this ‘making up people.’39
Hacking's account denies static realism, but avoids saying that there is nothing real but only our narratives out there. Dynamic nominalism can be observed whenever an authoritative account develops or calls into existence a social category. Marc Raeff has described the ways in which modern states have contributed to the creation of social classes in order to make the general business of government, and the particular business of raising revenue, easier and more successful.40 The Blair government in the United Kingdom, following the bombings of 7 July 2005, called a meeting of ‘leaders and representatives of the Muslim community’, and in so doing cultivated, even if they did not create, that community, and gave new or enhanced identity to a group of middle-aged men and their subsequent ability to make demands on those whom they could, with increased or new authority, describe as members of their community. Each of these cultivations is an instance of a wider process which occurs whenever accounts are given of others. Dynamic nominalism is not limited to language; artefacts of all kinds can perform in a similar way, creating new realities and new identities.
The generating of new identities, or the enhancement of existing ones, may involve a contrast between the defining group or association and others with whom they contrast themselves. Other groups or associations may then be at best inferior, and at worst hostile or threatening.41 In this way identity can be not only a positive account of the defining group or association, but one which subordinates others as auxiliaries to that identity, or as possessed of an inferior status or quality which by its difference enhances that of the describing group. But it is not only at the level of groups and associations that the observer and describer can influence the identity of the observed. If people are categorised by others in terms of broad, general categories, their actual identity can be distorted and the ways in which others treat them be equally and deleteriously affected. A distinction can then be made, in the way in which both Charles Taylor and Axel Honneth have done, between recognition which sees someone in their own terms, and reification which attributes to them a simplified and distorted identity as one instance of an ostensible real and objective category.42 The concept of understanding and failure to understand being used here follows from a distinction made by Collingwood between description, which freezes an account as a series of general categories, and expression, which responds to the particularity of individuals or events. Using a graphic metaphor, Anthony Appiah has talked of the Medusa syndrome, a gaze which turns living matter to stone and freezes the complexities of individual identity into narrow, stereotyped simplicities.43 The direction of this way of talking about identity is to an insistence on individual uniqueness against an approach which continually subordinates the particular into rigid general categories. In the arguments of David Owen, this tradition has moved even more clearly towards and potentially beyond a pluralist conception not only of identity but of the means of recognising different identities.44
The composition of identity
The Burke and Paine exchange suggests a distinction between substantial identities and external and superficial ones, but if the metaphor is pursued even only a little way, it can be insisted that feathers do not cause birds, and birds do not cause feathers; rather, they are each part or aspects of a single, though complex, whole. Discussing changes in religious belief and perception, and the visual depiction of the crucifixion in medieval Europe, Jean Seaton asks ‘whether the image of the dead Christ, the imago pietus, existed before the piety it served or whether the piety was the product of the pictures – or, finally, whether the pictures were a response to a new need.’45 One further answer is that the piety was composed of such things as the images, and cannot be separated from them since it is a single word used to sum up a complex phenomenon or series of actions. In the study of identity it is not possible to take out one element to see what happens. There are few, if any, randomised controlled trials, and experiments with human identity in its social entirety would require both unbelievably large research grants and unimaginable powers of imperial or possibly divine intervention. The option sought in the film Help! by Professor Foot, who was ‘out to rule the world … if he can get a government grant’, is not available.46 And even if it were, it is impossible to step into the same revolution twice.
An explanation which dissects something out as a cause is never quite what it seems. It is not saying post hoc ergo propter hoc, but that this is an instance of a class of phenomena where x follows y, and that as a member of this class of phenomena, this is how it behaves. In one sense, that is a causal explanation, in another sense it is a tautologous redescription. Why does this creature have warm blood and suckle its young? Because it is a mammal. But it is just as accurate to say that it is a mammal because it has warm blood and suckles its young. So the explanation is saying no more than that this mammal is a mammal because it is a mammal.
The fuller the account of any set of events or circumstances, the more, and the less, is explained. For a full account, which is logically impossible and is only ever an aspiration, never an even remotely graspable achievement, would present all component elements as part of the phenomenon described, leaving nothing out as either cause or consequence. Paradoxically this does not mean that nothing can be explained. Each particular thing can be explained in terms of its immediate precedents, but things in general cannot be, for the reason illustrated by the chicken-and-egg paradox.
The fullest accounts will always be particular, even though the presuppositions and expectations, the words and stories, from which answers are constructed will be derived from and will return to generalised dialogues. The manner of understanding applies both the assumptions of democratic empiricism and a preference, in the many parallel juxtapositions of theoretical types, of recognition over reification, and a sensitivity towards individuality over the Medusa gaze. But in order to describe particular identities, it is necessary to use words which refer to general characteristics. A language which was entirely related to only one instance or identity would be incomprehensible to anyone else, even though in order to describe the particular it will be necessary to employ combinations of general terms. How else would speech be possible? The description of identity will draw on the general, though never ubiquitous, tension between association and distinction. Distinction will be in part composed of a cultivation of special or more developed characteristics within a group or association, whereas association will perhaps never be with one group or association alone, and in this overlapping of associations, further possibilities of distinction may be available.