Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character

July 15, 2010

Made in America is a thoughtful assessment of the patterns of American life over the course of the past several centuries. Claude S. Fischer, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, reflects on questions of culture and character in an effort to understand how "ordinary people living ordinary lives" behaved in the first years of New World settlement and how they behave today. As his argument unfolds, he challenges a number of myths about systems and structures as he reflects on questions of continuity and change.

Fischer draws on years of research, including extensive work in the historical record. His account draws on census, survey and administrative materials to drive his argument but also includes engaging personal stories about representative Americans to help make his case. In the end, he concludes that "continuity is a striking feature of American culture". There have been, to be sure, "important changes, spikes, sideways moves, and reversals", but there is still a remarkable consistency in the contours he describes.

At the very start, he acknowledges that modern Americans have more of just about everything than they had in the past. He suggests that they enjoy greater security and better access to a wider variety of goods. They may join different kinds of groups and interact in different kinds of public spaces, but the fundamental shape of US life is still largely the same.

Voluntarism is a key component of Fischer's analysis. People acted as if they were sovereign individuals, in control of their own fate, for most of American history. Over time, they built upon colonial patterns and became even more "independent, self-governing, and self-reliant", and such voluntarism helped provide a basis for continuity.

One important feature of Fischer's book is his conclusion that some basic assumptions about American life are simply not true. He challenges the myth of mobility, suggesting that modern Americans move less than in the past. Rather than turning away from religion, he argues, "Americans have generally kept the faith". Popular conceptions notwithstanding, Americans are less violent than they were and, likewise, less alienated from their work.

Much of the rest of this intriguing book amplifies these themes. Fischer devotes one chapter to exploring how an American sense of security has developed. He dedicates another to examining the impact of more goods and possessions. In yet another, he reflects on what he calls "the tension between knitting together and standing apart". And finally, he notes the impact of changing attitudes about public spaces: the very fact of "watching so much television certainly led Americans to curtail public engagement".

Fischer recognises the inherent difficulties in evaluating American character. And yet, writing with sophistication and sensitivity, he provides a number of useful insights about past and present trends in American life.

Still, the book never really soars like some of the very best assessments of American behaviour. The Lonely Crowd, published by David Riesman and others in 1950, provided a sharper analytical focus in pointing to the differences between inner and other directed behaviour. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, written by Robert Bellah and others in 1985, had a crisper consideration of American individualism. Robert Putnam's 1995 essay "Bowling alone: America's declining social capital", which was later expanded into a book, was likewise a more focused critique of declining social capital and connection in the US.

But Made in America has a wealth of important insights and reads well from beginning to end. All in all, it is a lively and intriguing effort to understand the most important elements of American life.

Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character

By Claude S. Fischer. University of Chicago Press 528pp, £22.50. ISBN 9780226251431. Published 23 April 2010

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