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

by Claude S. Fischer
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)

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Book Description

May 1, 2010 0226251438 978-0226251431 First Edition

Our nation began with the simple phrase, “We the People.” But who were and are “We”? Who were we in 1776, in 1865, or 1968, and is there any continuity in character between the we of those years and the nearly 300 million people living in the radically different America of today?

With Made in America, Claude S. Fischer draws on decades of historical, psychological, and social research to answer that question by tracking the evolution of American character and culture over three centuries. He explodes myths—such as that contemporary Americans are more mobile and less religious than their ancestors, or that they are more focused on money and consumption—and reveals instead how greater security and wealth have only reinforced the independence, egalitarianism, and commitment to community that characterized our people from the earliest years. Skillfully drawing on personal stories of representative Americans, Fischer shows that affluence and social progress have allowed more people to participate fully in cultural and political life, thus broadening the category of “American” —yet at the same time what it means to be an American has retained surprising continuity with much earlier notions of American character.

Firmly in the vein of such classics as The Lonely Crowd and Habits of the Heart—yet challenging many of their conclusions—Made in America takes readers beyond the simplicity of headlines and the actions of elites to show us the lives, aspirations, and emotions of ordinary Americans, from the settling of the colonies to the settling of the suburbs.

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. The more America changes, the more it stays the same, according to this engrossing historical survey. Drawing on everything from economic data and mortality statistics to studies of colonial portraiture, University of California–Berkeley sociologist Fischer assesses broad trends across four centuries of American life. His measured but upbeat view of the evolving American experience will disappoint the hell-in-a-handbasket crowd: he finds that Americans have grown more religious and charitable over time, and markedly less violent and nomadic, while remaining roughly unchanged in their propensity toward greed and consumerism. Through it all, he discerns a benignly Tocquevillian trait that he calls voluntarism, an individualism softened by unforced solidarity that fulfills itself by freely building communities, be they frontier villages, dissenting churches, egalitarian families, or Internet chat groups. While vast gains in health, wealth, and political freedoms have transformed our lives, they have, he contends, made Americans more voluntaristic and thus more characteristically 'American'... insistently independent but still sociable, striving, and sentimental. Fischer's lively prose argues these propositions with a wealth of hard evidence and illustrates them with piquant vignettes of people of all eras muddling through. The result is a shrewd, generous, convincing interpretation of American life. (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


“The wants, needs, hopes, and aspirations of generations of Americans—‘all sorts and conditions’ of them—are given careful and circumspect attention in this arresting portrait of a nation ever, it seems, changing, growing. Here is a book that will tell its readers much about how and why a people once struggling to find and define themselves—the very terrain of their country, and too, its values and ideas—became the members of a United States of America whose many variations and sometime contradictions are brought tellingly alive in pages of clear, illuminating, and well-informed prose.”

(Robert Coles)

“Made in America is a book rich in its findings and judicious in its interpretations.  Fischer has uncovered a lot of things that even those of us who have long studied the United States didn't know, and he has also expertly shown that many of the things we thought we knew are simply wrong. The book will make any reader wiser and more careful in thinking about this strange country in which we live.”

(Robert Bellah)

"[A] vastly ambitious project. . . . [R]eadable and entertaining .. . . [A] formidable achievement. . . . brought to life by the stories of ordinary people.”

(Financial Times)

"Fischer has done scholars and lay readers alike an enormous service. . . . Made in America is exactly the sort of grand and controversial narrative, exactly the sort of bold test of old assumptions, that is needed to keep the study of American history alive and honest."—New Republic
(New Republic)

"A thoughtful assessment of the patterns of American life over the course of the past several centuries. . . . Challenges a number of myths. . . . Has a wealth of important insights and reads well from beginning to tend. All in all, it is a lively and intriguing effort to understand the most important elements of American life."—Times Higher Education
(Times Higher Education)

"Brave and ambitious. . . . [Fischer's] book will take its place in a distinguished scholarly tradition that historians have all but abandoned for nearly half a century."
(Boston Review)

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 528 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press; First Edition edition (May 1, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226251438
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226251431
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.6 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #945,300 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Claude S. Fischer is a Sociology Professor at the University of California, Berkeley. He started at Berkeley in 1972 with an undergraduate degree from UCLA and a Ph.D. from Harvard. Most of his early research focused on the social psychology of urban life--how and why rural and urban experiences differ--and on social networks, both topics coming together in "To Dwell Among Friends: Personal Networks in Town and City" (1982). In recent years, he has worked on American social history, beginning with a study of the early telephone's place in social life, "America Calling: A Social History of the Telephone to 1940" (1992). Along the way, Fischer has worked on other topics, including writing a book on inequality with five Berkeley colleagues, "Inequality by Design: Cracking the Bell Curve Myth"(1996). Fischer was also the founding editor of "Contexts," the American Sociological Association's magazine for the general reader, and its executive editor through 2004.

In 2006, Fischer co-authored a social historical book with Michael Hout, "Century of Difference: How America Changed in the Last One Hundred Years" (Russell Sage), which describes the shrinking of old divisions and the widening of new ones among Americans over the twentieth century. In 2010, he published "Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character" (University of Chicago Press), which analyzes social and cultural change since the colonial era. And in 2011, he published "Still Connected: Family and Friends in America Since 1970" (Russell Sage), a study, using compilations of survey data, of whether and how Americans' personal ties have changed in the last generation.

Among his awards and honors, Fischer was recently elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Fischer has taught undergraduate and graduate courses in urban sociology, research methods, personality and social structure, and American society, and seminars on topics ranging from professional writing to the sociology of consumption.

1972 Ph.D., Sociology, Harvard University 1970
M.A., Sociology, Harvard University
1968 B.A., Sociology, University of California, Los Angeles

Customer Reviews

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26 of 27 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "Quite bourgeois," after all August 14, 2010
When I first picked up Made in America it appeared to be the sort of book that risked potentially mind-numbing information overload. I was inclined to just skip around it some, to cherry-pick topics where I had particular interests. I was drawn in, however. Charles S. Fischer's sweeping and penetrating survey is a treasure trove for persons inquisitive about American social history, fact-filled and thought-provoking.

The author aggregates his subject matter into five big themes relating to American culture and character: security (economic and physical), goods (consumption), groups (families, neighborhoods, churches, etc.), public spaces (both physical and virtual), and mentality (self concepts and feelings).

Fischer concludes that the modern American character is remarkably similar to that of our ancestors. "What seemed socially distinctive about America in the eighteenth century still seems distinctive in the twenty-first," he writes. The fundamental difference is that today we generally have more, "more time on Earth, more wealth, more things, more information, more power, more acquaintances, and so many more choices." He believes that "the expansion of material security and comfort enabled early American social patterns and culture to expand," that "with growth more people could participate in that distinctive culture more fully and could become `more American'."

Fischer applies the notion of "volunteerism" -- he observes that Americans generally behave as if they are sovereign individuals, individuals who succeed through fellowship. They are not disconnected, but tend to prefer choice in their group affiliations.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Continuity and Change in America January 12, 2011
Claude Fischer's recent book, "Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character" (2010) examines American life from colonial days to the present to explore whether there is a distinctively American character and experience and if so whether that experience has somehow been lost or diminished with time. It is a challenging inquiry which Fischer himself describes as an "outrageously vast and absurdly ambitious goal." (p. 8) Nevertheless, Fischer perseveres in his study with doggedness and erudition. The result may help some American readers rethink their understanding of themselves. Fischer writes that this densely documented, scholarly study addresses not only fellow academics but also general readers who are interested in the evolution of American culture and its implications. (p. 15) Born in France, Fischer came to the United States in 1952 at the age of four. He is Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkely.

Fischer's study is based upon extensive work of social historians in researching the everyday life of people in the United States before the availablity of surveys and means of scientific studies. The book is full of stories, diaries, letters, and anecdotes. Fischer has also read extensively about contemporary America. His book offers a generous, optimistic vision of the United States. Broadly speaking, Fischer concludes that there is a distinctively American character. He argues that this character can be determined most clearly by studying the development of the American middle class and the continued expansion of this class over the years to include African Americans, women, the aged, immigrants, among others.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
As a journalist, I discovered Dr. Fischer's book while following the blog of another scholar, Dr. Wayne Baker, author of America's Crisis of Values: Reality and Perception. I might not have spotted Fischer's scholarly volume in my own eclectic reading. And I have to credit Baker for getting me hooked on Fischer's work.

Here's an example of why I call this book head-snapping. Here are five assumptions millions of us share in casual conversation about our country and culture and communities:
Until recently, American families routinely shared dinners together.
Americans have become increasingly rootless, moving more and more often.
Americans have become less religious over time.
Americans have become more violent.
Americans have become less concerned about the needy.

As it turns out, based on data that Fischer describes in this new book, all five assumptions amount to myths about America. Not only am I now enjoying Fischer's work, as an individual who is interested in accurately seeing and understanding our culture, but I can see there are seeds in this book for great small-group discussion. Definitely 5 stars.
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