I'd love to know more about this. I am only starting to get into newer theories from the 1980s and 1990s, and am familiar only with the older stuff from before that time (the classics, I guess.)
What specific theorists are popular today and why? I can understand the pull/push toward speaking about individuals, but would like to know more about what theorists are doing so.
Jolanda, let me briefly describe a specific case and how I dealt with it in my book on Japanese consumers as seen through the yes of a group of Japanese market researchers. One of my purposes in writing the book was to give non-Japanese readers to hear individual Japanese voices analyzing the changes they perceived through their own research on changes in Japanese society. Each chapter in the book includes an introduction that I wrote, in which I provide the background information that non-Japanese readers need to understand what my Japanese colleagues were talking about, together with pointers to research by Western Japanologists (some anthropologists, many from other disciplines). It continues with verbatim translations of the whole or large chunks of an internal newsletter in which these researchers described what they discovered for the employees of the Japanese ad agency that established their research institute. Each chapter then concludes with the transcript of an interview with one of the researchers.
Needless to say, the book is filled with generalizations:generalizations about Japan, Japanese society, Japanese consumers, and specific types of Japanese consumers.The last are particularly interesting, since this is where my colleagues develop characterizations of emerging consumer segments and explanations of how their appearance reflects changes in Japan as a whole.
Thus, for example, a study of 60+ consumers conducted in the mid-1990s describes a group called "Silver Aristocrats." These are people who came of age and entered the labor force in the 1950s. They enjoyed lifetime employment and annual salary increases that were often large during the period of rapid economic growth in the 1950s and 1960s and the economic bubble of the 1980s. They retired with substantial pensions and generous separation payments to add to their already substantial personal savings. With their children independent and their mortgages paid off, they were free to enjoy a "third life" in which they would have both the time and the resources to do pretty much whatever they liked.
How should we treat these generalizations? To me the obvious answer is "with care." None are simply speculations or based on taking as gospel what one or a few individuals say. Some are more speculative than others but not, on that account, necessarily wrong. Some are non-controversial.
To remark, for example, that the most popular beer in Japan is toriaizu (for the time being) beer alludes to a fact well-known to every Japanese business person. Afterwork drinking sessions with workmates normally begin with the highest ranking person present saying "for the time being, beer." The beer is whatever the establishment serves and is used for the first round of obligatory toasts. Once these are over, individuals may order whatever other drinks they prefer. Does this description always apply? No. It is, however, so much the norm that for it not to happen would be noteworthy.
To me what was most interesting about this project was that I started out looking for something distinctively Japanese about my Japanese colleagues' research. What I discovered was that, while there were, indeed, cultural differences, their use of the Japanese language and certain distinctively Japanese forms of charts and illustrations, for example, the questions that preoccupied them were shared with their peers in other OECD nations: the organization man, women entering the workforce, the effects on relationships, increasingly "alien" children, what to do with retirement years extended by longer lifespans, that sort of thing. Their responses to these issues frequently involved the same sorts of moral panics as found in North America or Europe. The fear that children deprived of fathers who are away all day at factories or offices, smothered with motherly love and concern by ambitious "education mamas," pampered but also forced to endure rigorous schedules of after-school classes would grow up weak, psychologically disturbed, or otherwise pathological was, for instance, as common in Japan in the 80s and 90s as it had been in the USA in the 50s and 60s. There were, on the other hand, local material conditions that might make these fears more realistic in Japan at the time the research I was doing was done. Instead of rural villages or cozy neighborhoods with nosy neighbors to keep an eye on what kids were up to and empty lots and parks for them to play in, in Japanese cities at least growing numbers of children live in high-rise apartments inhabited by families who are largely strangers to each other. Mothers in upper-level apartments cannot keep an eye on kids in playgrounds at ground level or trust others to report or reprimand misbehavior. Fathers with hour-plus commutes and long working days may, except for weekends, literally never be home while their children are awake, unlike the American fathers described by William Foot Whyte who were away during the day but home by five or six o'clock to share dinner with their families and still have time, especially in summer, for baseball games or other community activities.
Thus, it seemed to me that in assessing the numerous generalizations on which I was reporting, as well as my own conclusions, it would be necessary to consider (1) problems that are universal, at least in advanced industrial countries (2) local material conditions that might influence the degree of severity of the problems, and (3) local language and imagery, rooted in a different history, that might affect how both problems and explanations/interpretations were being articulated.
Individual versus society is simply true crude a model to guide us in what we are doing.
That, at least, was my conclusion. What do you think?
Now, I wonder, how do you deal with the individual and society model? did you find a way out?
Other nations of different habits are not enemies: they are godsends. Men require of their neighbors something sufficiently akin to be understood, something sufficiently different to provoke attention, and something great enough to command admiration. We must not expect, however, all the virtues. ( S.M.W. p. 298)
I wonder, whether in your case your model nevertheless starts from the individual engaging with others in (several) kinds of relationship.
Phil, how do you understand the meaning of "collectivity"? If your definition agrees with that which Google just provided, A body of people considered as a whole, I would prefer the more neutral "population," which leaves boundaries and integration as empirical issues instead of a priori assumptions.
Surely one of anthropology's more convincing discoveries is the artifice regularly used to impose the appearance of whole on fluid and messy situations, where relationships sprawl instead of collapsing into tidy, localized bundles. Among the classics, I think, for example of Nadel's Black Byzantium or Leach's Political Systems of Highland Burma. Among more recent works, Chris Kelty's Two Bits, a multi-sited ethnography of the free software community, a "recursive public," whose membership and boundaries are porous and disagreements legendary, comes to mind.
I note, in this regard, that, while I did say "group" too casually, there is nothing in Berger and Luckmann's analysis of the creation of social facts that requires boundaries. A loose, open network can sustain a social fact without the network's coalescing into a whole. One thinks, for example, of the citation networks that support academic reputations. I am reminded of this example by a discussion on SOCNET, where the issue is precisely whether citation, even mutual citation, is grounds for imagining a link in a social network. Note how often scholars may cite people with whom they have not the slightest personal connection, who may, in fact, be dead.