Sunday, November 28, 2010

What's Fair - Jennifer Hochschild (1981)

Hochschild, Jennifer L. 1981. What's Fair: American Beliefs About Distributive Justice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Reading thick book -- to a student who is pressured to read lots of literature for a short time -- is not easy work, but fruitful labor for the future study. I believe Jennifer Hochschild’s book belongs to this category (reading all pages in the book is not easy, but fruitful).

There are -- I believe -- two purposes in this book: one is explicit, and the other is implicit. The explicit purpose of this book is academic investigation of the reason “why there is not socialism in American” asked by Sombart. The duopoly system of American politics does not allow the emergency of socialism, as many political observers agreed. While some extreme conservatives may consider Barack Obama as a socialist, this type of hyper-over-misperception among extremists exists in any society. As George W. Bush cannot be equated with Hitler, any Democrat party’s politicians cannot be equated with socialists.

Of course, Hochschild’s conclusion is not about American political institution(s) or systematic analyses. Her strategies are close to Antonio Gramsci’s analyses of civil society. Citizens feel, interpret and behave politically based on their experiences and (subjective) justice or principles. As many poor people would complain, make voice for better treatment, or revolts, American poor people do the same, but they give up dreaming alternative better world, or they just dream without any actions, or their voice or action seems so weak. Her findings are well summarized in the book. First, there are two principles -- equality vs. differentiation. Second, there are three parts in a society -- society vs. economy vs. state (politics). Third, people, in general, agreed on the use of equality rule in the two areas of society and state, but ask the use of economy rule in the area of economy. Fourth, people become ambivalent, and thus feeling frustrated, angry, or transcendent. Finally, people do not realize any thoughts that may be as similar as socialism observed in Western Europe.

The second purpose is implicit and more oriented to academic audience. As she consistently argued in the last two chapters, her project highly resembles that of Robert Lane’s in both theoretically and methodologically. The motivation for the second purpose might emerge because of the influential writing of Philip Converse, arguing that ordinary people cannot understand and/or judge political issues using ideological constraint. The debate is well summarized in the second last chapter (Ambivalence chapter), and I do not feel it is worth to summarize the two sides. Anyway, her conclusion is that people’s understanding of a society is well structured within each domain (here, the three parts of a society), but critical inconsistency or confusion emerges when contrasting principles between different domains clash.

When reading the book, I’ve met so-called ideal type people we might still encounter in any society. Among the interviewed people, Maria got most of my attention. Why are there so many people who are honest, good, and hardworking but poor and alienated? This question is the main question I have, but no answers, unfortunately, I have made.

By the way, her later books highly focuses on the community and school, race, and other issues that are rooted in the social skin, which is essentially ambivalent. Civil society (although she did not use the term in the book, as far as I remember) is both progressive and conservative. As she said in the book, individual ambivalence reflects social contradiction where many interests, principles, justices, and causes fight each other.

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