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America Becomes America
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.