Between individual life scripts and civilization-scale Grand Narratives, there is an interesting unit of social analysis called the folkway. Historian David Hackett Fischer came up with the modern definition in 1989, in his classic, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America:
…the normative structure of values, customs and meanings that exist in any culture. This complex is not many things but one thing, with many interlocking parts…Folkways do not rise from the unconscious in even a symbolic sense — though most people do many social things without reflecting very much about them. In the modern world a folkway is apt to be a cultural artifact — the conscious instrument of human will and purpose. Often (and increasingly today) it is also the deliberate contrivance of a cultural elite.
Ever since I first encountered Fischer’s ideas, I’ve wondered whether folkways might help us understand the social landscape of globalization. As I started thinking the idea through, it struck me that the notion of the folkway actually does the opposite. It helps explain why a force as powerful as globalization hasn’t had the social impact you would expect. The phrase “global citizen” rings hollow in a way that even the officially defunct “Yugoslavian” does not. Globalization has created a good deal of industrial and financial infrastructure, but no real “social landscape,” Friedman-flat or otherwise. Why? I think the answer is that we are missing some folkways. Why should you care? Let me explain.
Folkways are a particularly useful unit of analysis for America, since the sociological slate was pretty much wiped clean with the arrival of Europeans. As Fischer shows, just four folkways, all emerging in 17th and 18th century Britain, suffice to explain much of American culture as it exists today. It is instructive to examine the American case before jumping to globalization.
So what exactly is a folkway? It’s an interrelated collection of default ways of conducting the basic, routine affairs of a society. Fischer lists the following 23 components: speech ways, building ways, family ways, gender ways, sex ways, child-rearing ways, naming ways, age ways, death ways, religious ways, magic ways, learning ways, food ways, dress ways, sport ways, work ways, time ways, wealth ways, rank ways, social ways, order ways, power ways and freedom ways.
Even a cursory examination of this list should tell you why this is such a powerful approach to analysis. If you were to describe any society through these 23 categories, you would have pretty much sequenced its genome (curious coincidence, 23 Fischer categories, 23 chromosome pairs in the human genome). You wouldn’t necessarily be able to answer every interesting social or cultural question immediately, but descriptions of the relevant folkways would contain the necessary data.
The four folkways examined by Fischer (the Puritans of New England, the Jamestown-Virginia elites, the Quakers in Pennsylvania, and migrants from northern parts of Britain to Appalachia), constitute the proverbial 20% of ingredients that define 80% of the social and cultural landscape of modern America. These four original folkways created the foundations of modern American society. It is fairly easy to trace recognizable modern American folkways, such as Red and Blue state folkways, back to the original four.
Other folkways that came later added to the base, but did not fundamentally alter the basic DNA of American society (one obvious sign: the English language as default “speech way”). Those that dissolved relatively easily into the 4-folkway matrix (such as German, Irish, Dutch or Scandinavian) are barely discernible today if you don’t know what to look for. Call them mutations. Less soluble, but high-impact ones, such as Italian, and Black (slave-descended), have turned into major subcultures that accentuate, rather than disrupt, the four-folkway matrix; rather like mitochondrial DNA. And truly alien DNA, such as Asian, has largely remained confined within insular diaspora communities; intestinal fauna, so to speak. The one massive exception is the Latino community. In both size (current, and potential) and cultural distance from the Anglo-Saxon core, Latinos represent the only serious threat to the dominance of the four-folkway matrix. The rising Latino population led Samuel Huntington, in his controversial article in Foreign Affairs, The Hispanic Challenge, to raise an alarm about the threat to the American socio-cultural operating system. To complete our rather overwrought genetic analogy, this is a heart transplant, and Huntington was raising concerns about the risks of rejection (this is my charitable reading; there is also clearly some xenophobic anxiety at work in Huntington’s article).
I offer these details from the American case only as illustrations of the utility of the folkway concept. What interests me is the application of the concept to globalization. And I am not attempting to apply this definition merely as an academic exercise. It really is an extraordinarily solid one. It sustains Fischer’s extremely dense 2-inch thick tome (which I hope to finish by 2012). This isn’t some flippant definition made up by a shallow quick-bucks writer. It has legs.
Globalization and Folkways
Globalization is, if Tom Friedman is to be believed, an exciting process of massive social and cultural change. A great flattening. Friedman’s critics (who have written books with titles like The World is Curved) disagree about the specifics of the metaphoric geometry, but don’t contest the idea that “globalization” is creating a new kind of society. I agree that globalization is creating new technological, military and economic landscapes, but I am not sure it creating a new social landscape.
We know what the “before” looks like: an uneasy, conflict-ridden patchwork quilt of national/civilizational societies. It is a multi-polar world where, thanks to weapons of mass destruction, refined models of stateless terror, and multi-national corporations binding the fates of nations in what is starting to look like a death embrace, no one hegemon can presume to rule the world. Nobody seriously argues anymore that “Globalization” is reducible to “Americanization” (in the sense of a wholesale export of the four-folkway matrix of America). That was a genuine fear in the 80s and 90s that has since faded. The Romanization of Europe in antiquity, and the Islamization of the Middle East and North Africa in medieval times, have been the only successful examples of that dynamic.
But it is still seems reasonable to expect that this process, “globalization,” is destroying something and creating something equally coherent in its place. It is reasonable to expect that there are coherent new patterns of life emerging that deserve the label “globalized lifestyles,” and that large groups of people somewhere are living these lifestyles. It is reasonable in short, to expect some folkways of globalization.
Surprisingly, no candidate pattern really appears to satisfy the definition of “folkway.”
With hindsight, this is not surprising. What is interesting about the list of “ways” within a folkway is the sheer quantity of stuff that must be defined, designed and matured into common use (in emergent ways of course), in order to create a basic functioning society. Even when a society is basically sitting there, doing nothing interesting (and by “interesting” I mean living out epic collective journeys such as the settlement of the West for America or the Meiji restoration in Japan) there is a whole lot of activity going on.
The point here is that the activity within a folkway is not news, but that doesn’t mean nothing is happening. People are born, they grow up, have lives, and die. All this background folkway activity frames and contextualizes everything that happens in the foreground. The little and big epics that we take note of, and turn into everything from personal blogs to epic movies, are defined by their departure from, and return to, the canvas of folkways.
That is why, despite the power of globalization, there is “no there there,” to borrow Gertude Stein’s phrase. There is no canvas on which to paint the life stories of wannabe global citizens itching to assert a social identity that transcends tired old categories such as nationality, ethnicity, race and religion.
This wouldn’t be a problem if these venerable old folkways were in good shape. They are not. As Robert Putnam noted in Bowling Alone, old folkways in America are eroding faster than the ice caps are melting. Globalization itself, of course, is one of the causes. But it is not the only one. Folkways, like individual lives and civilizations, undergo rise and fall dynamics, and require periodic renewals. They have expiry dates.
Every traditional folkway today is an end-of-life social technology; internal stresses and entropy, as much as external shocks, are causing them to collapse. The erosion has perhaps progressed fastest in America, but is happening everywhere. I am enough of a nihilist to enjoy the crash-and-burn spectacle, but I am not enough of an anarchist to celebrate the lack of candidates to fill the vacuum.
The Usual Suspects
We’ve described the social “before” of globalization. What does the “after” look like? Presumably there already is (or will be) an “after,” and “globalization” is not an endless, featureless journey of continuous unstable change. That sounds like a dark sort of fun, but I suspect humans are not actually capable of living in that sort of extreme flux. We seek the security of stable patterns of life. So we should at some point be able to point to something and proclaim, there, that’s a bit of globalized society.
I once met a 19-year old second-generation Indian-American who, clearly uneasy in his skin, claimed that he thought of himself as a “global citizen.” Is there any substance to such an identity?
How is this “global citizen” born? What are the distinguishing peculiarities of his “speech ways” and “marriage ways”? What does he eat for breakfast? What are his “building ways?” How does this creature differ from his poor old frog-in-the-well national-identity ancestors? If there were four dominant folkways that shaped America, how many folkways are shaping the El Dorado landscape of globalization that he claims to inhabit? One? Four? Twenty? Which of this set does our hero’s story conform to? Is the Obama folkway (for want of a better word) a neo-American folkway or a global folkway?
These questions, and the difficulty of answering them, suggest that the concept of a “global citizen” is currently a pretty vacuous one. Fischer’s point that the folkway is a complex of interlocking parts is a very important one. Most descriptions of “globalized lifestyles” fail the folkway test either because they are impoverished (they don’t offer substance in all 23 categories) or are too incoherent; they lack the systematic interlocking structure.
- “Multicultural” societies are no more than many decrepit old folkways living in incongruous juxtaposition, and occasionally coming together in Benneton ads and anxious mutual-admiration culture fests
- “Melting pot” societies are merely an outcome of some folkways dissolving into a dominant base, and others forming distinguishable subcultural flavors
- Cyberpunk landscapes are more fantasy than fact; a few people may be living on this gritty edge, but most are not.
- “Intentional” communities, which date back to early utopia experiments, have the characteristic brittleness and cultural impoverishment of too-closed communities, that limits them to marginal status.
- Purely virtual communities are not even worth discussing.
- Click-and-mortar communities, that might come together virtually, have so far been just too narrow. Take a moment to browse the groups on meetup.com. How many of those “interest groups” do you think have the breadth and depth to anchor a folkway?
The genetic analogy helps explain why both coverage (of the 23 categories) and “complex of interlocking parts” are important. Even the best a la carte lifestyle is a bit of a mule. In Korea for instance, or so I am told, marriages are Western style but other important life events draw from traditional sources. Interesting, perhaps even useful, but not an independent folkway species capable of perpetuating itself as a distinct entity. That’s because a la carte gives you coverage, but not complex interlocking. On the other hand, biker gangs have complex interlocking structures and even perpetuate themselves to some extent, but do not have complete coverage. I’ve been watching some biker documentaries lately, and it is interesting how their societies default back to the four-folkway base for most of their needs, and only depart from it in some areas. They really are subcultures, not cultures.
I don’t know if there is even one coherent folkway of globalization, let alone the dozen or so that I think will be necessary at a minimum (some of you might in fact argue that we need thousands of micro-Balkan folkways, but I don’t think that is a stable situation). But I have my theories and clues.
Here’s one big clue. Remember Howard Dean and the “tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show” culture?
Perhaps that’s a folkway? It wouldn’t be the first time a major folkway derived its first definition from an external source. It sounds a la carte at first sight, but there’s some curious poetic resonance suggestive of deeper patterns.
For a long-time I was convinced that this was the case; that Blue America could be extrapolated to a Blue World, and considered the Promised Land of globalization, home to recognizable folkways. That it might allow (say) the Bay Area, Israel, Taiwan and Bangalore to be tied together into one latte-drinking entrepreneurial folkway for instance. And maybe via a similar logic, we could bind all areas connected, and socially dominated by, Walmart supply chains into a different folkway. If Latte Land is one conceptual continent that might one day host the folkways of globalization, Walmartia would be another candidate.
I think there’s something nascent brewing there, but clearly we’re talking seeds of folkways, not fully developed ones. There are tax-hiking, latte-drinking types in Bangalore, but it is still primarily an Indian city, just as the Bay Area, despite parts achieving an Asian majority, is still recognizably and quintessentially American.
But there are interesting hints that suggest that even if Latte Land isn’t yet host to true globalized folkways, it is part of the geography that will eventually be colonized by globalization. One big hint has to do with walls and connections.
In the Age of Empires, the Chinese built the Great Wall to keep the barbarians out, and a canal system to connect the empire. The Romans built Hadrian’s wall across Britain to keep the barbarians out, and the famed Roman roads to connect the insides.
Connections within, and walls around, are characteristic features of an emerging social geography. Today the connections are fiber optic and satellite hookups between buildings in Bangalore and the Bay Area. In Bangalore, walled gated communities seal Latte Land off from the rest of India, their boundaries constituting a fractal Great Wall. In California, if you drive too far north or south of the Bay Area, the cultural change is sudden and very dramatic. Head north and you hit hippie-pot land. Head south and you hit a hangover from the ’49ers (the Gold Rush guys, not the sports team). In some parts of the middle, it is easier to find samosas than burgers. Unlike in Bangalore, there are no physical walls, but there is still a clear boundary. I don’t know how the laptop farms of Taiwan are sealed off, or the entrepreneurial digital parts of Israel from the parts fighting messy 2000 year old civilizational wars, but I bet they are.
Within the walls people are more connected to each other economically than to their host neighborhoods. Some financial shocks will propagate far faster from Bangalore to San Jose than from San Jose to (say) Merced. I know at least one couple whose “marriage way” involves the longest geometrically possible long-distance relationship, a full 180 longitude degrees apart, and maintained through frequent 17 hour flights.
Curiously, since both the insides and outsides of the new walls are internally well-connected, though in different ways, the question of who the barbarians are is not easy to answer. My tentative answer is that our side of the wall is in fact the barbarian side. Our nascent folkways have more in common with the folkways of pastoral nomads than settled peoples. Unlike the ancient Chinese and Romans, we’ve built the walls to seal the settled people in. I’ll argue that point another day. Trailer: the key is that “barbarians” in history haven’t actually been any more barbaric than settled peoples, and the ages of their dominance haven’t actually been “dark ages.” We may well be headed for a digital dark age driven by digital nomad-barbarians.
Our missing folkways, I think, are going to start showing up in Latte Land in the next 20 years. Also in Walmartia and other emerging globalization continents, but I don’t know as much about those.
In the meantime, I am curious if any of you have candidate folkways. Remember, it has to cover the 23 categories in “complex and interconnected” ways, and there should be a recognizable elite whose discourses are shaping it (the folkway itself can’t be limited to the elite though: the elite have always had their own globalized “jet-setting” folkways; we are talking firmly middle class here). How many folkways do you think will emerge? 0, 1, 10 or 1000? Where? How many conceptual continents?
Random side note: This post has officially set a record for “longest gestation period.” I started this essay in 2004, two years before I started blogging. It’s kinda been a holding area for a lot of globalization ideas, about 20% of which made it into this post. I finally decided to flush it out and evolve the thread in public view rather than continue it as a working (very hard-working) paper.
Random side note #2: There are lots of books that are so thick, dense and chock-full of fantastic ideas that I could never hope to “review” or “summarize” them. In a way, this post is an alternative sort of book review, based on plucking one really good idea from a big book. Fischer’s book is a worthwhile reading project if you are ready for some intellectual heavy lifting.