January 6, 2003

· Politics

The Edge of England’s Sword swings in my direction:

Kieran Healey [sic] laughs at the above post, but not in a nice way. He seems to think that because a nation has some unique characteristics, it cannot be part of a general set of nations. Presumably the same objections mean that Austria cannot be counted part of Catholic Europe. This is a pretty absolutist line to take and I don’t think it’s a reasonable criticism. I have asked Jim Bennett for his thoughts.

Presumably my objections mean nothing of the sort. Of course we can create any number (an infinite number, in fact) of “general sets” of nations: the Anglosphere, Catholic Europe (which Austria is certainly part of), the “Global South”, “Blue-Eyed Nations”, “Nations Containing Manchester United Fans”, “Countries which use Olive Oil for cooking vs Countries which use Butter” and so on. The central analytic question is, which of these concepts is most useful for understanding political and cultural change? The Anglosphere Primer clearly states that the concept is meant to pick out a real civilizational unit—- “a distinct branch of Western civilization for most of history” with England and the United States as its “two densest nodes”.

Yet, in response to Chris’s post, Iain relegated England to the periphery of the Anglosphere. This suggested to me that there was something wrong with the concept (at least, with his use of it). The defect, I argued, was that his political commitment to the Anglosphere ideal was trumping the analytical usefulness of the concept. When it came to choosing between the political ideal of the Anglosphere and the empirical reality of English institutions, reality lost out, and, absurdly, England got redefined as an outlier in the Anglosphere.

Thus does political sociology become political ideology. A concept which might accurately describe a cluster of nations becomes a normative list of Good Things About England and America. In the process, two kinds of unpleasant facts are thrown away: (1) Key features that aren’t shared between the countries (the experience of socialism in English political history, the federal political structure of the U.S.); (2) Key features that are shared but don’t fit the Anglosphere ideology (persistent and severe class and income inequalities, say). Note that a “Warts and All Anglosphere” could easily incorporate (2) into its analysis, and argue that things in (1) don’t fatally compromise the usefulness of the concept. That would be the right line to take, I think. But Iain wants the Anglosphere to be all things good and nothing bad. So he tweaks the idea to make it so, to the point where the country that is supposed to be a “central node” in the “civilizational network” turns out not to be pure enough for full membership in the concept.

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I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.



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