Erzsébet Barát is Associate Professor at the Department of English, University of Szeged, Hungary. E-mail:
Social Realities in the Making
(Papers in English and American Studies XI. Monograph series 3.)
Szeged: JATEPress, 2005.
ISBN: 963 482 724 1
The third volume in the monograph series within the Papers in English and American Studies (PEAS) published by the Institute of English and American Studies, University of Szeged is Irén Annus’s elegant and ambitious work entitled Social Realities in the Making. It is also a pioneering work in that it is the very first contribution to the PEAS series representing the departmental scholarly activities in the field of American Studies.
The volume is made up of two separate papers: the first paper, “The Theory of Structuration,” and the second one, “In Search of American Identity,” are linked up with the sociological objective of addressing two aspects of social reality, the medium range dimension of structuration and that of the micro-level of identity formation. The former is concerned with the discussion of Anthony Giddens’s grand narrative developing a general model of the duality of structure, while the latter is more concerned with the particular context of the United States, discussing the modernist project of the nation state formation from the perspective of the birth and changes to the American national identity.
The first part takes up the challenging task of introducing readers to the complex argumentation of the central question of the Giddensian project, namely, the attempt at cutting across the binary opposition of the macro/micro differentiation of the social, i.e. the structure/identity binary. The three chapters in Part One provide a new way of thinking about the relationship between the particular individual social subject and the social structure based on mostly Giddens’s The Constitution of Society published in 1984. It is more than timely for Hungarian students and readers alike to be introduced to one of the few leading British contemporary sociologists who has been concerned with the emergence and development of modern society and ‘high’ or late modern society. The first chapter discusses the major theories Giddens identifies as influential on his own model; the second describes the actual model of structuration; while the third is a brief account of the reception and major points of criticism of the duality of structure. Annus provides an accurate and lucid outline of the sociological context against which the issues are identified as necessary logical moves. The author does not only provide a succinct discussion of the relevant categories but also translates them into, maps them onto, an interpretative visual chart in the Appendix entitled “Mapping Giddens.” This is especially useful for pedagogical purposes, advancing a critical rereading of the preceding three chapters on the theory. It provides not only a highly accessible overview of the major concepts and categories of the model, proving wrong the frequently voiced critique against the model that it is either too complex or way too difficult to grasp, but more importantly, invites students to articulate their own interpretation. This intellectual map is of great import for Part Two as it can be considered as a possible testing of the model.
The most important merit of the book for students of American Studies and cultural studies is that it brings its readers up to date with major theorizations of the acting agent and agency in the first part and points out their limits in terms of the structuration model when discussing the roots of the theory of structuration. In actual fact the elegant discussion of the concepts of actors and actions could have been taken up again to function as a profound point of reference for the second part of the book when discussing the various theorizations of U.S. identity formation. At the same time, this integrative move could have functioned as the focalizing insight into the actual impact and reception of Giddens’s theory of structuration. The link is left implied now for the future course instructors, nevertheless a link that is worth carving out of the compelling logic of the two parts.
The second part discusses the major social theories of identity formation at the intersection of nation and ethnicity, which is revisited in the last chapter from the perspective of racial dimension. This part is mostly organized in a chronological order, corresponding to the major historic stages the author identifies as formative of the emerging changes to the U.S. identity. These start with the Anglo-Saxon protestant fathers, through the melting pot theory to the various formations of the pluralist society and the diverse responses to its crisis, including invented ethnicity and identity politics. The closing chapter on race is of special import in that it introduces the most recent developments in critical racial studies. It not only performs the indispensable duty for any American studies person to discuss the history of slavery and its formative effects on the emerging national identity but also the parts exposing the dominant race as colored: whiteness cannot pass as the ‘neutral’ non-color any longer.
The one dimension that one would like to see integrated into the impressive list of competing theories of identity formation in Part Two is the difference globalization makes. The understanding that ‘denationalization’ is a distinctive dimension of the social struggles over both retheorizing identity as well as that of the political development of the social struggles in late modernity, has substantially shaped the scholarly debate that centers mostly on the role of the U.S. in globalization.
The book is highly recommended for all cultural studies courses on identity formation and especially those of American Studies, arguing compellingly that the most formative realm for identity formation and institutionalization is the national; which remains the case even in the context of global transformations, constituting the nation and/or ethnicity as the major source of agency, enabling and limiting access to highly complex and specialized structures of agency – issues on which Giddens’s model provides a possible way of modeling.