Thursday, February 01, 1990

Tocqueville on "voluntary associations"

[Two communications by Jeff Weintraub & Ageliki Nicolopoulou in January 1989, contributing to an e-mail discussion among socio-cultural psychologists sparked by Robert Bellah et al.'s Habits of the Heart. The first item responded to a suggestion by James Wertsch that the notion of "voluntary association" might be linked to broadly Lockean notions of the "social contract." The second item responded to a a discussion by Michael Cole (of the Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition at UC San Diego) about Vygotsky & Luria's efforts to understand "free" and "voluntary" action as socially situated and rule-governed.
-Jeff Weintraub]

Jeff Weintraub & Ageliki Nicolopoulou (January 15, 1989)

In social and political theory, the terms "voluntary association" and "social contract" are not at all identical, or even closely connected. They arise from different theoretical backgrounds, and reflect very different con­cerns. In general, the notion of the social contract goes back to the begin­nings of liberalism in the 17th century in the social-contract theories of such thinkers as Hobbes and Locke. Both assume that individuals are naturally iso­lated and self-interested, and therefore take as their starting point a pre-social "state of nature." The question is: how is society possible? Given their premises about human nature, the answer must be some sort of contractual agreement (this is not a historical argument, but a logical reconstruction of the basis of society). Since the "state of nature" is unpleasant, individuals escape it by agreeing to a general "social contract" to further their individu­al interests: for Hobbes, the key interest is avoiding violent death, so the so­cial contract creates an absolute sovereign who can assure security; for Locke, men's key interest is preserving their property, so they create a milder govern­ment which can enforce some minimal rules of the game while they buy and sell. In both cases, the "social contract" creates an overall framework within which individuals can more securely continue to pursue their individual inter­ests and desires. It has nothing to do with community, and it does not change the indi­viduals involved.

The notion of "voluntary associations," however, comes from the work of Tocqueville, who is the key theoretical figure informing Habits of the Heart. (Durkheim and MacIntyre also play a role, among others.) For Tocqueville, the key problem is how to create and maintain a culture of citizenship‑-which means a combination of solidarity and active participation in public life‑-that can counterbalance the atomizing and isolating tendencies of modern society; these not only lead to lack of personal fulfillment but also increase the danger of the despotism of a centralized bureaucratic state. (In the 20th century this has often come to be referred to as the problem of mass society.) Generating and maintaining a culture of citizenship requires a whole range of institutions and other social devices which drag individuals out of their isolation; bring them into a world of common activity; and, in particular, give them the kinds of values, skills, and motivations ("mores," to use Tocqueville's term) which make them capable of acting as citizens in a self-governing community.

For Tocque­ville, the formation of mores is a process of education (in the broad sense of the shaping of culture and character), and so he explores the inter­play of mores and institutions. In this connection he discusses, for example, the effects of religion and other forms of shared belief. But the key factor in forming people's mores is their activity; and one of the central arguments in Democracy in America is that widespread and frequent participation in various forms of co­operative group action--and, particularly, in processes of collective decision-making and collective self-determination--serve as a crucial mode of political education. In more traditional societies people are bound into groups and into stable relationships (usually unequal) despite the absence of citizenship. But in modern societies the only alternative to isolation is self-conscious col­lec­tive action‑-which reinforces itself, in part, because of the way it educates participants. In this connection, Tocqueville discusses the potentially bene­ficial effects of such obviously "political" phenomena as federalism, local self-government, etc, and of serving on juries. (At one point, he says that New England town meetings are to citizenship what primary schools are to formal education.) But he also argues that voluntary associations can serve many of the same functions, even if they are not explicitly "political" in nature. They serve as cooperative alternatives to bureaucratic administration, and as pos­si­ble centers of resistance to it. And, most important, they serve as vehicles of education in the spirit of citizen­ship, since they accustom their members to working together and making deci­sions together as equals, they stimulate both a sense of assertiveness and a sense of responsibility, they provide an experi­ence of solidarity, and so on. In short, their chief value is that they help trans­form their members by providing an opportunity for what we at LCHC refer to as "activity-based education."

Jeff Weintraub & Ageliki Nicolopoulou (January 30, 1989)

Dear Mike:

In response to your message on "will and voluntariness" ... what Luria seems to have been trying to say in the passage you discuss is something along the following lines:
"Liberty and [moral] authority have sometimes been opposed, as if these two factors of education [i.e., socialization] contradicted and limit­ed each other. But this opposition is factitious. In reality these two terms imply, rather than exclude, each other. Liberty is the daughter of author­ity properly under­stood. For to be free is not to do what one pleases; it is to be master of one­self, it is to know how to act with rea­son and to do one's duty."
--Durkheim, Education and Sociology
"Self‑mastery is the first condition of all true power, of all liberty worthy of the name. ...liberty is the fruit of regulation. Through the practice of moral rules we develop the capacity to govern and regulate ourselves, which is the whole reality of liberty."
--Durkheim, Moral Education
Since Bellah is most fundamentally a Durkheimian, this is the underlying link which (very indirectly) connects Luria's Vygotskyanism with the discussion of "voluntary associations." Durkheim's two main points are that (1) society, and especially culture, is not just an external framework for individual action, but enters into the formation of the individual mind at the deepest levels; and (2) socially‑elaborated structures‑-both in terms of symbolism and social organiza­tion‑-don't simply serve to restrict individual action, but are simultaneously constraining and enabling (to borrow Anthony Giddens's termin­ology). Thus, the internalization (and, increasingly, the self-conscious acceptance and appropria­tion) of collectively elaborated systems of rules, including in particular an effective sense of moral obligation, are crucial to the development of a character capable of autonomy. And, as Michael Walzer puts it in developing this part of Durkheim's argument (in Obligations):
The process by which obligations are incurred and the process by which they come to be felt are not the same, or not necessarily the same. They are similar, however, in at least one respect: they are both social processes. [our emphasis]
.... The best description of these processes is probably still Émile Durkheim's Moral Education.
.... Obligation, then, begins with membership, but membership in the broadest sense, for there are a great variety of formal and infor­mal ways of living within a particular circle of action and commitment.
Tocqueville's discussion of "voluntary asso­ciations" (which is part of his sociology of liberty) focuses, in effect, on one special case of this general problem. Tocqueville wants to understand some of the kinds of social frame­works within which obligation and commitment can be generated and maintained in modern society, given that this is a society in which involuntary bonds and fixed stat­uses have eroded. Voluntary associations can contribute to this process IF they go beyond simply being collections of self-interested individ­uals linked by con­tractual ties, and generate a sense of real cooperative activity, group mem­bership, commitment to a common project, sense of obliga­tion, etc., etc. (The whole point, to get back to Jim Wertsch's original message, is that "voluntary" doesn't necessarily mean "contractual.")