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on February 9, 2015
I first read Robert Wiebe's book The Search for Order when I was a graduate student in the early 1980's. It was presented to me as a brilliant history of the emergence of the Progressive Movement in the U.S. On first reading, I agreed that it was, indeed, a brilliant and enormously informative history of developments that culminated in the Progressive Era, essential characteristics of which have proved quite durable, still shaping the way we make decisions and implement policies in both the private and, especially, the public sector today. However, I have also become more sensitive to some of the limitations and deficiencies of this extremely valuable book.

At the outset, it is helpful to note that appreciation of Wiebe's work requires acknowledgment that it is not a history in the conventional sense, a monograph based on original sources and the interpretation of what one might usefully refer to as raw data. Instead, The Search for Order is a synthetic-interpretive document, one that relies on secondary sources, material produced by other scholars, and seeks to cast new and illuminating light on a purposefully selected mix of pertinent historical research. There's certainly nothing wrong with the synthetic-interpretive approach. Some of the most useful work in a variety of disciplines -- history, sociology, political science, anthropology, literary theory, and still more -- have this character.

Nevertheless, thoroughly evaluating research of this kind requires that the reader be aware of germane resources and understands them well enough to be able to decide if the author is using them in a defensible fashion. I readily acknowledge that this process may be less difficult than evaluating work done with raw material, original documents to which the reader is very unlikely to have access. However, I raise the issue here because of what I take to be obvious oversights and omissions in Wiebe's selection of material to use in facilitating the synthesizing and interpreting that produced The Search for Order.

Specifically, the boundaries that separate social science disciplines are almost certainly permeable enough that Wiebe has at least passing familiarity with the sociological work of Ferdinand Tonnies, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber. Tonnies, and the especially effective Durkheim, devoted a great deal of attention to the transition of social systems from simple communal forms to complex societies, and from social formations held together by likeness born of very similar life experiences as opposed to those whose cohesion is due to reciprocity and complementarity among a complex arrangement of narrow specializations. Similarly, Weber's work on legal-rational bureaucracy makes clear how modern complex organizations integrate specializations in a functionally useful fashion to accomplish specific tasks in an ongoing, adaptive way.

I cite these omissions because, though Wiebe makes his case with enormous detail, the emergence of Progressive Era reforms and innovations was based largely on the transformation of American society from one constituted of small, dispersed and isolated, occupationally and organizationally simple communities to a full-blown manifestation of modernity, dependent on a complex division of increasingly science-based labor organized bureaucratically, much as Weber described it. The Progressive Movement was premised on the assumption that rational organization capable of ongoing production of policies enabling the U.S. to function more effectively and efficiently in what was judged to be a scientific fashion could readily be contrived.

Admittedly, the theoretical schematics I introduced from Tonnies, Durkheim, and Weber can't begin to do justice to the specific complexity of the argument presented by Wiebe. But they do provide a well-developed scaffolding, a term that Wiebe uses frequently to refer to the discernible skeleton of an organizational type that may or may not develop into a mature and functioning social entity serving a more or less essential purpose.

Whether or not the reader agrees that use of theoretical material borrowed from a discipline closely related to history would enhance the value of Wiebe's book, acknowledgment of these sources would enable the author to make clear that he's not engaged in a process very much like re-inventing the wheel. If he were inclined to do so, Wiebe might present The Search for Order as an empirical manifestation of the utility, and also the over-simplifications, of Tonnies', Durkheim's, and Weber's theoretical work. Wiebe clearly has a strong commitment to detail, and in some instances I think that his work is more complexly nuanced than is useful, making it difficult for the reader to follow the thread of the author's account.

Whatever my new-found reservations, The Search for Order remains a masterful synthetic-interpretive account of the emergence of Progressive structures and practices in the U.S. Wiebe is an extraordinarily skilled historian who writes in a scholarly but energetic prose style, though he's occasionally a bit too clever, making his meaning less clear than it might be. I strongly recommend Wiebe's book to anyone who is a serious student of American history, and who would use history to clarify developments in the contemporary world.
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on February 16, 2012
Wiebe, professor of history at Northwestern University, argues in his book that the period of American history from 1877 to 1920 was a time of transition and collapse. In 1877, most people still lived very sheltered lives, with close ties to community in rural districts and townships all across the nation. Even those in cities had their own groups, making the city something closer to a grouping of neighborhoods instead of a collective whole. Wiebe's thesis is that the nation went from these island or isolated communities where local leaders exercised a strong level of political autonomy to, by 1920, a nation that had lost the local community politics and relied upon the federal government to solve their problems. This process was full of power struggles and people desperately looking for something to put their faith and trust in. It was a period that saw the enrichment of a few savvy and powerful businessmen and one that saw massive poverty in the new squalor of the expanding cities. He concludes that it was during these watershed years that the nation moved from a nineteenth century loose federal government system, to the modern, twentieth century bureaucratic federal government. Now ordered and powerful, it had only begun to realize its new powers, or as Wiebe states:

In a general sense, the nation had found its direction early in the twentieth century. The society that so many in the nineties had thought would either disintegrate or polarize had emerged tough and plural; and by 1920 the realignments, the reorientations of the progressive era had been translated into a complex of arrangements nothing short of a revolution could destroy. (Wiebe 302)

Wiebe's work is clearly presented to a mass audience, but any non-specialist of the period can benefit from The Search for Order as he does a masterful job of story telling; of actually drawing the reader into the unfolding events. Wiebe's argument is persuasive and seemingly through. A reader can not help but feel a palatable since of looming disaster as the pages turn. So much change occurred in American lives over such a short time. Wiebe conveys this since of upheaval well. However, the author does a poor job of documenting his work. No notations appear throughout the. The author has an interesting Bibliographical Essay that, at first glance, seems to relieve some of my concerns. However, instead of correcting the lack of notations, the Bibliographical Essay compounds the mistake. For, in his own words, he "omits a whole range of primary and near-primary materials" (Wiebe 303) from the essay which blocks a reader from examining these important sources. That is, in my opinion, bad historiography.

In conclusion, Weibe's The Search for Order is an important work with an impressive listing of secondary sources listed by topic. The author's thesis is well argued, if not well documented, and can serve as a spring board for further study in the important Progressive Era of the United States.
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on February 29, 2008
In The Search for Order, Robert Wiebe examines the changing American society between the end of Reconstruction and the end of World War I, and the struggle of the emerging middle class to compartmentalize and understand the changes around them. America experienced a significant amount of change between 1877 and 1920. New states entered the union, the frontier closed (or so was accepted at the time), a rural to urban shift produced large and disorganized cities, and the country emerged from isolation to become a world power. Depending mainly on secondary sources, Wiebe successfully argues that progressive reformers were not simply seeking a cleaner government, nor were they merely a group of displaced elite seeking to regain power, but a middle class attempting to establish new values.

Robert Wiebe creates an interesting social and structural study of the United States during a dynamic period of growth and change. While the progressive period was not sustained into the 1920s, the lasting impact is in the programs and legislation that nurtured a sense of continuity and functionality, and provided an understandable structure that the middle class masses could understand and thrive in. The Search for Order is a very readable and in-depth study of an important time period, and although the structure and placement of the final two chapters are questionable, the book remains essential reading for one trying to understand this, and succeeding time periods.
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on April 3, 2016
I found this to be a difficult read, a dry interpretation of what could have been very interesting material.
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on February 28, 2016
An interesting presentation of the era and pulling together of social, political, and economic situation.
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on July 30, 2017
Good read.
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on January 9, 2007
This book provides an excellent, and now classic, synthesis of the cultural, intellectual, and political evolutions during this period of industrialization, urbanization, and economic change. Highly recommended to scholars and highly accessible to amateurs.
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on March 2, 2018
future read
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on April 12, 2017
product arrived as described
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on February 21, 2018
Arrived very quickly, and is exactly as described by seller. A good product at a fair price.
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