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1 Briefly distinguish doxa, heterodoxy, and orthodoxy.

2 What are the advantages and disadvantages for human beings living within each of these symbolic universes?

3 Becker connects despair and the death of meaning with the experience of heterodoxy and would argue that those cultures that operated within a singular world view were spared the death of meaning to a greater extent. Kueneman would also agree that small scale communities (which were also operating within a doxa) would experience less despair, but for very different reasons. Contrast these positions.

Unit 7
Communities of Belief, Limiting World Views, and the Maintenance of Conviction
In the past few units, we explored why human beings must be cultural creatures. We focused
on the various needs of our species, and we discussed how culture helps stabilize and narrow
our human potentiality. Each of us, at birth had the potential to become different persons, and
we could have become members of any number of communities with widely disparate customs,
practices, ideas, and values. But we were raised in a community surrounded by significant
others; our potential limited and focused by the language we learned; our behaviour was
delimited by a self-concept that was shaped in conjunction with our community; we developed
habits and ideas that contribute to the generation of fairly consistent behaviour; in short, our
biographical history focused and developed a subset of our potential. Although our potential
has been circumscribed, life is stable; for many of us faithful compliance with the cultural script
provides safety and significance. Any tinge of sadness for potential left unfulfilled, for social
realities unexplored, for human natures not “embodied” (literally), is somewhat ephemeral.
In the reality of the human condition there seems to be a willingness of human beings to accept
the yolk of their tribe. Culture is a confining straightjacket. It limits choices, creates necessities,
and cultivates obligations. As you will see, Charon views this convergence of activity as the
outcome of social interaction. The experience of fitting together lines of activity and negotiating
reality creates a process for the mutual influence of symbols, self- concept, identity, and
interaction. For Charon, the emergent homogeneity of this social interaction is the basis of
society and culture. “Society is interaction” and “culture is the product of interaction.” In this
unit, you will see how symbolic interactionists attempt to make the jump from the
interpersonal level of interaction to the whole of society.
Becker accounts for this willingness to accept the limitations of culture, in part, analyzing how
cultures, each in their own way, meet the basic human problems. While the cultural solutions
are variable, what makes them satisfactory or acceptable is their ability to answer common
human questions. Each cultural perspective may be a limited worldview, but it is engaging for
those who live it so long as it works. But Becker also has another explanation for the human
willingness to embrace their particular culture. Culture provides meaning, direction, safety, and
significance; it provides a worldview that is stabilized by collective perception and cognition; it
provides the climate for the emergence of a stable personality. But what if cultural constraints
are optional? What if they are not necessary? What if my core convictions as a person are the
result of the accidents of my birth? What if we would have been very different persons in
another culture? What if culture is fictional, what if our values are socially constructed and,
therefore, arbitrary? How can a person readily live with conviction, and a set of values if they
are arbitrary? How does a person justify the pain and sacrifice that results from following the
cultural script if it is not “ultimately” necessary to follow this particular script? Now the title of
his book comes into view. We are well aware of how human society gives rise to the birth of
meaning. But what if we see through the social construction of reality? What if we learn that
human beings are making up their own nature? The recognition of cultural relativity carries
with it the possibility of the death of meaning. How do human beings cope with the despair
inherent in this knowledge? Becker says that, for the most part, humans keep their conviction
intact by denying that culture is fictional. Thus, we do not struggle too hard against our cultural
straitjacket since it provides our life with meaning and direction. We will be exposed to a
thumbnail sketch of Becker’s position on despair and death, which was fully developed in his
book, The Denial of Death.
Finally, this unit will continue to inject the Marxist concerns about censorship and ideological
hegemony. It is argued that human beings are not really aware of other perspectives on reality
because powerful factions suppress alternative viewpoints that do not support their interests.
This argument is necessary to counteract the homogeneous cultural bias of both Charon’s and
Becker’s writing.
Learning Objectives
By the end of this unit, you should be able to:
• describe the homogenizing and self-limiting tendencies of a symbolic community;
• start constructing the theoretical complications attendant upon a social psychology that
recognizes the existence of communities of belief (cultural plurality, heterogeneity,
cultural relativism). Both symbolic interactionism and neo-Freudian thought, which have
formed the core of the course thus far, have paid insufficient attention to the modern
plethora of world views and the consequences of this circumstance for the individual
• consider and be able to demonstrate the individual unwillingness to emerge from
ethnocentric world views with its attendant anxiety, despair, and loss of ready
conviction; and
• consider and paraphrase the Marxian argument that powerful class actors manipulate
information production and distribution in such a way as to create an ideological
hegemony that limits the individual actors’ knowledge and awareness and thereby limits
their ability to recognize, choose, and act on alternatives.
Assigned readings
Becker, chapters 10 and 11
How to Proceed
1. Complete the readings as they are introduced in the manual.
2. Answer the study questions for each reading.
3. Review the commentary.
4. Prepare an answer for the unit 7 test question found at the end of the unit.. It is one of
the four questions that may be asked in the second test. On the date of the second test,
you will be assigned one of questions 5, 6, 7, or 8. Since you have only 96 hours to turn
in your answer, it is essential that you prepare the outline for these answers in advance
of that short reporting period.
Issues and topics to be discussed
1. Social interaction based on shared meanings creates doxa (an unquestionable taken for
grantedness) present in homogeneous, small-scale communities. Such communities are
typified by mutual aid, kin-like relationships, cooperation, and self-restraint.
The generalized other is rather clearly developed and assists in the unambiguous presentation
of self, definition of the situation, and a high level of consensus on typifications and symbolic
Symbolic interactionism is an excellent perspective for accounting for the emergence and
maintenance of shared meanings in the production and change of mind, self, culture, and social
Conscience and conviction have a particular quality in the realm of singular world views.
2. Discuss
▪ heterodoxy—orthodoxy (straight or straightened opinion)
â–ª cultural plurality
â–ª communities of belief
â–ª cultural relativism
â–ª common human problems are met in a variety of cultural
patterns—pragmatic adequacy.
â–ª all cultural solutions are arbitrary, artificial, fictional, and
tautological, as is made evident by the anthropological record.
Modern communication and the goals of social science place us in a situation of heightened
awareness of the many forms of human nature that have been fashioned by the human animal
on this planet.
3. Knowledge of alternative realities threatens our conviction for our own meaning system.
Loss of ethnocentrism and doxa exposes the human animal to genuine despair and the death of
Neurotic response to anxiety is to organize one’s world in ways to avoid it.
Humans try to organize their world in such a way as to avoid facing:
o the fact that our cultural practices are social fictions and hence ontologically
o death as the existential absurdity for the human animal who can clearly
anticipate his/her death and the negation of a life’s accomplishments.
Individually and collectively we create the social lies that are necessary to calm our nervousness
and sustain our fragile conviction that is based on the cultural fiction. Freud discussed this as
the ‘internal source’ of human unfreedom. While our constitutional openness makes choice
possible for us, and while our knowledge of cultural pluralities makes this biological plasticity
evident to us, there remains the strong urge (need) to escape from this freedom (Sartre) and to
act in bad faith by uncritically adhering to the dictates of the folie a deux cent million.
This is the pathology of normalcy. If we all accept the same twist of our personality and all
support each other’s attempts to maintain face and conviction, no one will notice this act of
self-deception, especially us.
4. Ideological hegemony, manipulation, false consciousness.
Social classes, power, domination, manipulation Marx, Gramsci, Sallach, Lukes.
Relevant counterfactuals and their effect on willingness to comply with cultural imperatives.
Symbolic interactionism fosters and explains the consensual basis for group life. But there also
exists, power, domination, coercion, force, and manipulation of consciousness of subordinates
by superordinates.
Social psychology in the Social Interaction Tradition has been unable to reflect on these
macro social forces that have an impact on the psychology of the modern consumer citizen.
Briefly lay out the restriction of individual choices for subordinates that emanates from
stratification in the contemporary world situation.
5. Thus, while human beings have alternatives they may not wish to explore them (section
3) or they may be denied the opportunity (section 4).
Reading assignment 1
Reading overview
The symbolic interactionist perspective, with its emphasis on taking the role of the other, does
a very adequate job of accounting for dyadic and small group interaction. It is faithful to the
dynamics of negotiating order among persons who share a similar perspective, who wish to
undertake some type of joint action, and who are operating on the basis of consensus rather
than power. In these two chapters, Charon makes his bid to extend the interactionist
perspective to the level of society. You will note that for him there are many societies in the
modern social structure. He accounts for their cohesiveness by reference to the familiar
concepts of shared symbolism, interpretation, definition of the situation, role- taking,
presentation of self, labelling, and identity. As you read this section, assess the range of
applicability of this account. Does it apply to all situations? Most of them? Do you have a
concern that this perspective is inadequate to account for many situations that are based on
controversy and confrontation?
In the chapter on society, Charon, once again, accounts for social cohesion as based on the
process of consensus building. There is no doubt that friends, or even organizations and
countries, can be held together by shared values, goals, and a common definition of the
situation that are the hallmark of cooperation and consensus. But just as friends are held
together in stable relationships, so are enemies, rivals, and adversaries. Symbolic interactionism
provides a good understanding of social order that is consensual. Actually Charon limits the
scope of his analysis to cooperative relationships. But is it adequate to explain social cohesion
based on coercion, force, or other forms of power where a super ordinate dominates the lives
of subordinates? Under those circumstances, we would need to replace the designation
“society” with one that can manage power, conflict and domination such as “political
As you read this section, also ask yourself whether symbolic interactionism can really account
for large scale (macro) social order. It may provide an adequate account of dyadic and micro
social orders such as families, friendships, occupational settings, and consumer exchanges, but
can symbolic interaction adequately explain Canada as a society, or as a mosaic of many smaller
societies? What of economic, political, corporate, and technological forces? It is not a criticism
to recognize that a perspective has limits. But it is necessary to know how far a theory goes in
explaining a social reality. It is also important to remind ourselves that we, as a species, are in
dire need of consensual agreement on how to reduce human population numbers to
sustainable levels, to reduce excessive consumption and adopt such ideas as voluntary
simplicity, and to build ecologically sustainable local communities. Symbolic interactionism has
much to offer toward our understanding of the social psychological realities of building such a
Study questions
1. What is Charon’s understanding of culture and society?
1. Discuss whether you think that symbolic interactionism can account for social
order based on consensus and power.
Reading assignment 2
Becker, chapters 10 and 11
Reading overview
As an anthropologist, Ernest Becker is aware of cultural relativity. As one examines the various
ways that different tribes live, one is struck by the great variety of ways that human beings
have answered some basic common human problems. There is a school of thought in the social
sciences called structuralism, which has focused on the search for underlying universal
structures in the language, myth, literature, etc., of various cultures. This variation is evidence
that human beings have potential that exceeds the ability of any one culture to harness and
develop. The existence of common problems is evidence that, in spite of our great openness
and plasticity, our human biogram gives rise to a set of questions that all members of the
species must address. More importantly, they must provide convincing answers to these
questions. As you read through Becker’s list think about whether these are “the” questions that
you are concerned with or whether important questions are missing. Ultimately, there will be
variation between individuals, but each of us will find that we are not alone in asking some
basic questions about who we are, why we are here, and what it means to “fit in.”
On the Emergence of Social Power and Transcendental Religion
In the remaining chapters of his book, Becker will be situating human beings within a natural
and a supernatural framework. As will become clear, there are alternative formulations on
what this might mean. Becker is a theist; Kueneman is an animist. These authors will interpret
the situation differently. Becker’s position has been presented in his book. I will provide a
different account of the social structural circumstances human beings that human beings have
created and how these circumstances shape their views on such matters.
Human beings emerged in small groups of extended family which worked cooperatively to
meet the needs of existence in a harsh environment with very limited technology. As nomadic
foragers, they did not create permanent settlements; nor did they accumulate many material
possessions. What goods and resources they possessed were held in common. Thus there was a
radical equality among them and the absence of surplus, class, and stratification. Together they
shared both the feasts and famines that were their lot. They were intimately connected to the
living community of plants and animals and understood that they must limit their impact on the
local ecosystem in order to live in balance. Their world was full of spirits; the rocks, plants,
animals were all spiritual beings. There was the spirit of the meadow which made life possible
there. This was but one of the “gods of local places.” These gods made life possible. They are
not all powerful, all seeing or all knowing. Drain a wetland, and you can kill the spirit of that
place. It was beyond the phenomenological experience of these first peoples to imagine all
powerful gods since they had not witnessed such centralized forms of power either in the web
of life in nature or in their own social experience, since there was radical equality among
members and only common resources available for use by all members of the community.
As human numbers grew, the foraging (hunter/gatherer) mode of production became incapable
of sustaining the increasing human biomass. One solution, practiced for millennia, was to
deliberately limit human population size in order to allow the ecosystem to regenerate what
was being extracted. But about 10,000 years ago, some humans embarked on a different
course of action that has led the whole world to the unfolding ecological collapse now upon us.
They developed agriculture. This Neolithic revolution resulted in a number of changes that
would reconfigure the social psychological framework used by human beings. Human beings
created permanent settlements near the fields. Agriculture made possible an increased
production of food which was regularly converted into increasing numbers of human beings
which set in motion the “grow more food to grow more people” treadmill which has clearly
reached unsustainable proportions. Human settlements grew and with each succeeding
generation, city dwellers became more ignorant of the ecological underpinnings of all species in
the web of life. This sedentary life allowed for the accumulation of material possessions. Those
who had access to more fertile fields were ultimately successful in wresting them away from
the community which had managed them as a “common” resource and converted them into
private property. The conditions were now set for the emergence of centralized power in
human affairs. Some families were able to accumulate more land, food, and resources than
others. They protected this unequally divided surplus as private property and denied less
powerful families direct access to it. The growing numbers of poor now found it necessary to
work the fields of those more powerful families which was manifested in social stratification of
a very powerful and rich elite supported by a very large mass of poor at the bottom of the
hierarchy who were managed by a small middle class which administered these social
arrangements. The society took on the form of a power pyramid which was made visible by the
pyramids and religious temples of all “civilizations”.
The social consequence that flowed from this development was a diminished quality of life for
the vast majority who made up the base of this pyramid. While civilization provided high
culture, inventions, and an enriched life experience for the few, it generated misery, insecurity,
exploitation, and fear for most. It is more than interesting to note that Salvationist religions
arose in these circumstances. The suffering of the present was made bearable by the promise
of a better life after death. This was the promise of an all powerful, all knowing Creator. The
existence of such a God made social psychological sense to a people who daily lived under the
designs of an all too powerful human ruler.
Recasting Becker’s Common Human Problems
The first question Becker says all societies need to successfully address is “What is the relation
of man to Nature?” The early peoples have been referred to as “animists” since they thought
that all things in nature had spirit (were animated). They viewed themselves as a member
species of a larger community of life upon which they depended. The gods that Becker refers to
in his discussion of this question are the “small g” gods of local places. We moderns, very far
removed from an understanding of living ecosystems, have been encouraged to see the world
as the gift of a Creator (a “big G” God) who gives it to us to use in our pursuit of redemption
and a wonderful afterlife (the story of each transcendental religion varies somewhat, and so we
will stay close to the familiar Judeo-Christian version of redemption). Becker’s contrast of these
two variants of the nature/human interaction is quite instructive.
Becker’s treatment of the next four common problems can each be answered with a rather
different orientation when used to consider the distinctions made above. Amongst animists,
people were considered to be essentially good, were expected to be generous, cooperative,
and empathic and were expected to relate to each other and to the rest of nature as if they
were extended kin. Amongst Salvationists, humans are often thought to be sinful, subject to
corruption and temptation, and were enjoined to do good works and provide charity to others
in order to gain favour with their God.
The final question posed by Becker is “What is the hierarchy of power in nature and society
(and where do I fit into it)?” The very nature of the question allows us to begin to see that
Becker’s whole discussion of society and religion is being cast within the civilization framework.
Becker clearly situates his analysis in the life-world of the moderns who have been thoroughly
immersed in a world of vertical power pyramids. So Becker casts cultural relativity as providing
“very diverse hierarchies from which one can draw his power, his heroism” (119). This
formulation makes sense in the modern world because domination by the powerful permeates
social relations across the globe. But this pattern of hierarchical structures of domination is only
about 10,000 years old. For 190,000 or more years prior to this human beings lived in small
scale groupings which disbursed power within cooperative, mutual aid relationships which did
not manifest themselves as hierarchical structures of coercive social relationships. And so the
question should be recast to ask “What are the varying systems of relevance and meaning
within nature and society and how do I contribute to it?” So instead of using power on those of
lesser standing, a person may operate with high status in a group because he or she is very
generous and mindful of the needs and interests of other persons and living beings.
Becker argues that human beings have believed in two worlds, the visible and the invisible, for
the past half-million years. This is arguable. What is clear that they have only thought about
Redemption in an afterworld as a reward for service and suffering in the visible world for less
then 10,000 years. Prior to this, as animists, they would have understood the death of a human
in much the same way as the death of any other creature. It seems they feared it less, and
would not be flooded with the kind of anxiety and despair of which Becker speaks. Having lived
a rather satisfying life, they would be prepared to accept the passing of the gift of their life.
Their death would not be an end of life, since now other beings would have their turn to use
the resources that were freed up with their passing. While they may despair of a tragic death by
a young person who did not live out a full life, they did not have the burden of needing to
believe in an afterlife which would justifying the suffering and misery of their existence on
earth. Daniel Quinn1 suggests that if you tell an animist that “I know how you can be saved”
they would not understand what you are talking about. This statement only becomes
meaningful to those who believe in an afterlife and are interested in acting properly in this
world in order to reach salvation or redemption. Quinn suggests that there are only two
“metaphysical” frameworks: animist and salvationist. The animist view is that there is a life
process which manifests or expresses itself in many different forms. So, for example, when one
form of life is eaten by another, life continues; it merely changes form. Each being has the gift
of living for a time granted by beings which lived before it and in the end it will return this gift
for use by another. This system does not require an afterlife to make it meaningful at the social
psychological level. The salvationist view is that there is a Creator who made humans, who will
test them to determine their worthiness, and only the righteous will enter heaven. To varying
degrees, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in spite of their differences are all salvationist
religions. Judaism first appeared about 2000 B.C.E., Christianity in O A.D., and Islam in 570 A.D.
Even Hinduism which has some form of belief in an afterlife emerged about 2500 B.C.E.. These
dates are very recent for a species which inhabited an animist cosmology (below the
stratosphere) for some 200,000 years prior to the emergence of the salvationist framework. So
in spite of their important differences in the details, all followers of religions which embrace the
idea of an afterlife in an invisible dimension understand the meaning of the phrase, “I can tell
you how to be saved.”
It is my contention that Becker’s entire framework can and must be recast to make clear that
the experience of existential anxiety, fear, and despair concerning death of which Becker
speaks are not uniformly felt by all human beings. Rather they are by-products of the
“civilizational” (i.e., hierarchical patterns of power and domination) form of social organization
which permeates the modern globe and the psyche of most of the world’s current human
inhabitants. Becker’s analysis is particularly chilling because he understands the social
psychology of our time and the attraction of salvationist religions to make palatable lives that
are not intrinsically rewarding and worth living on their own terms. There are psychic rewards
for the few who live at the top of the power pyramid of modern societies. But life, for the
majority of human beings on this planet who live with the psychic scarcity experienced in its
lower reaches, has become difficult to bear, and it is this poor quality of life that makes
salvationist religions so attractive. They tell us that our life on earth can be a “valley of tears”
because it is a staging ground for redemption. And so the sermons tell us that life on earth is
not meant to be about happiness. It is an opportunity for each of us to determine our fate for
the life after death. The belief in a life after death converts the death experience into a passage
way rather than a dead end and this helps take away some of the sting. For salvationist
religions, human beings were not born to die. They were meant to be reborn and to escape this
mortal coil. In contrast, the evolutionary viewpoint offers the finality of death which makes the
fate of human beings no different from other forms of life on this hothouse planet. This vantage
point is not particularly attractive to human beings who have been encouraged to believe that
they are Children of a God who will save them from the fate that awaits the rest of nature.
As social scientists, each of us has been confronted with some astonishing and unsettling facts.
Some of the ideas and behaviours that we thought were impossible, or sick, or abhorrent, or
mad from the point of view of our culture, turn out to be the ideas, customs, and ritual
practices of some other tribe. In light of this information we had to be drawn out of our
ethnocentrism (and its certainty) to consider the possibility that there is no such thing as
“natural” human behaviour, and only culturally defined “normal” (that is statistically frequent)
human behaviour. Our other choice would have been to recoil from such cross-cultural contact
and avoid such unsettling information. So far, you are considering what it means to be human
from a perspective that radically acknowledges cultural plurality. But, in our willingness to
consider the fact that other peoples have created different values (values that may be very
much in opposition to our own) that they are prepared to make sacrifices and die for, we find
that our own certainty about how to live our lives is drawn into focus and question. Which
values are the “right” values, the “true” values? Whose definition of reality is the ‘‘true” one,
the “correct” one, the “accurate” one? Whose “facts” are right? Whose interpretation of those
facts is most faithful? Or what about the more disarming questions “What if facts, and
interpretations, and truth can only exist for human beings as opinion?” “What if there can be
no certain facts or truth for human animals?” “How do you expect me to live my life if I don’t
know what to do for sure?” “How can I bring myself to make sacrifices and risk my life for
values that may not be the right values?” It is one thing to ask, “What is the meaning of life?”
and to get an answer. But what if we get 22 different answers? Such thoughts are unsettling,
and disarming, a little paralyzing.
Becker suggests that our first inclination in the face of such anxiety is to retreat back into the
comfort, safety, and certainty of our ethnocentrism. When startled, the crayfish scuttles
backwards under the nearest rock in the riverbed and warily watches its environment, ready to
defend itself should its exoskeleton suit of bone armour be inadequate to ward off any would
be attacker. When startled, the human animal can retreat from its stream of experience back
under the cultural canopy of shared ideas, rituals, myths, and knowledge, and warily watch its
environment with its significant others ready to defend its “self” should its character armour be
inadequate to ward off any would-be attacker of the meaning that gives purpose and direction
to its life. It is a fragile but essential fiction. But to admit that it is a fiction (a social construction)
opens the floodgates for despair. If there are many contradictory reasons for living, there may
be no reason for living. Each culture may just be a film of lies, a monumental collective form of
self-deception, a shield against the terror of meaningless. What if there are no gods, what if
there is no redemption, or salvation, or nirvana? What if we are just like the rest of nature?
What if we are here because we have a body that is capable of survival in the current
environment? Nothing more, nothing less? Are we here because our parents were well enough
equipped to stay alive on this planet long enough to bear us and raise us to independence? Are
we here because the mechanisms of our body and our culture are adequate to the task of
struggling for existence? And when the body gives out and we become worm food, is this the
end of life? Surely there has to be more to it than that.
Life and Death: The Twin Moments in the Transformation of Form in the Life Process
How should we direct our gaze on this matter? If we focus on a single specimen of a species, or
the form in which the life process is currently embodied, especially a beauty such as an Indigo
Bunting or a White-tail Deer, we can develop a sentimental identification. Such attachments are
even stronger for our pet cat or dog and of an entirely different order (we might say) when we
focus on loved ones like our children. The end of one of these lives is rightly experienced as a
loss. But if we focus on the life process, we see a change in the form of life rather than an
ending. We see a “reincarnation,” the life process continuing in a “born again” form. Stan Rowe
sees the supra- organismic entity, the Ecosphere, as having sacred or spiritual properties and so
my use of religious terminology in the preceding line is hardly irreverent. Quinn’s focus on “the
fire of life” which burns in all its individual manifestations (all living creatures) directs our gaze
at the “élan vital” which assumes now one form, then another without end until the ecosphere
itself can no longer sustain life. If death is understood as a change of form and not an end, then
death itself loses some of its sting. It is especially hard for us as humans, because we can bind
time and anticipate our own non-existence, to accept that our life ceases with death. But as
Rowe points out “… human life as we know it never ‘begins.’ All life today is an extension from
the remote past flowing to the present from origins lost in cosmic time, billions of years ago,
passed along from cell to cell by replication in a nurturing world environment. Whatever ‘life’
may be, it is an ever evolving property of the Ecosphere and its sectoral ecosystems and not
just of organisms” 2 From this vantage point, life is reunited with death; in our death, humans
are replaced in the community of life, returned to the land, available to help launch the lives of
new members of other species who will assume their place in the stream of life as they have
their opportunity to “smile” into the sun and declare life good. Birth was not the beginning of
the life that has been kindled in us and death is not the end of it. We are a vessel which holds
the spark for awhile and then this great gift is passed on to another.
In our textbook, Becker asserts that “it is an affront to all reason that several billion years of
evolution and a few thousand of history, plus the unique circumstances of an individual life,
would create gifts that might have no more reverberation than ripples off a beaver dam”
(pg.141). An animist would argue that the life and accomplishments of a beaver are no more or
less important than those of a human being. Becker’s entire analysis of despair is subject to the
criticism that it reflects only one vantage point, that of our own culture. We should not
mistakenly assume that our world view is the only or necessarily the one best suited to help its
members deal with the knowledge of their own inevitable demise.
What if we shout out to the abyss and ask, “What is the meaning of life?” and it answers “How
should I know, you tell me what is the meaning of your life!” Could we acknowledge this
possibility? Nietzsche once wrote,
“…the strength of a spirit could be measured by how much ‘truth’ it could take, more clearly, to
what degree it needed it attenuated, veiled, sweetened, blunted, and falsified.” 3
Most of us lack the strength of spirit to stand under (to understand) this view of reality; rather,
we seek the shelter of normal neurosis. It is normal because each of us agrees to support this
common definition of the human mission for “our selves” and for the other. It is neurotic
because it helps calm our anxiety about why we are here and what our lives really mean. We
join in the collective project of erecting a cultural meaning structure, a canopy of ideas, of
projects, of relevances that tell us that our life has meaning. Alfred Schutz4 stated it very
But in a word, we want to state that the whole system of relevances, which governs us within
the natural attitude is founded upon the basic experience of each of us: I know that I shall die
and I fear to die. This basic experience we suggest calling the fundamental anxiety. It is the
primordial anticipation from which all the others originate. From the fundamental anxiety
spring the many interrelated systems of hopes and fears, of wants and satisfactions, of chances
and risks which incite man within the natural attitude to attempt the mastery of the world, to
overcome obstacles, to draft projects, and to realize them….. As long as the once established
scheme of reference, the system of our and other people’s warranted experiences works as
long as the actions and operations performed under its guidance yield the desired results, we
trust these experiences. We are not interested in finding out whether this world really does
exist or whether it is merely a coherent system of consistent appearances. We have no reason
to cast any doubt upon our warranted experiences, which, so we believe, give us things as they
really are. It needs a special motivation, such as the irruption of a “strange” experience not
subsumable under the stock of knowledge at hand or inconsistent with it, to make us revise our
former beliefs.
Such strange experiences could be contact with another culture, or contact with someone who
is “mentally ill.”
What does it mean to be “mad” or “out of one’s mind?” We might look at another culture and
say that some of their practices are mad or sick. We might even say that these people are out of
their minds. But from a symbolic interactionist’s perspective, if this is a cultural practice, based
on shared meanings, these people are very much in “their minds,” it would be more accurate to
say that they are out of “our” mind since it is we who cannot understand what they are doing.
Perhaps that is because we do not stand under the same meaning structure. This is what Becker
means by normal neurosis. The participants are part of it, they feel comfortable and they do not
want to step outside their fragile fiction. It seems that humans value their prison. It may feel
more secure to be limited by one’s culture, because one can also turn to it for stability and
direction. This is what Becker, echoing Freud, meant by the “unfreedom from within.” Not only
are our significant others trying to limit the development of some of our potential (the
unfreedom from without), but we, ourselves, are actively involved in narrowing down our
world, and constricting our experience.
Study questions
1. What does Becker mean by the fictional nature of human meanings and why are
they such fragile fictions in his view?
1. The human animal can bind time, that is, creating past, present, and future. We
have already discussed how human life benefits from the ability to bring the past
and future to bear on our present action. What problem does this ability to bind
time create for the human animal that could lead it to despair?
The globe was once a larger place; separated by oceans, deserts, and mountains. Cultures
sprang up that were isolated from each other. These tribes developed their languages, their
gods, their myths, their rituals, their rules, and roles, and institutions. The shared meanings and
shared conventions created a doxa (an unquestionable taken for grantedness, indubitable). The
socially constructed reality was apprehended as natural. Just as the plants and animals had a
nature; so too did human beings have a nature. In this closed world, protected from crosscultural contact, the world of nature and the world of culture were fused. Since there was only
one view of reality it was indubitable (unquestionable, too evident to be doubted). Certainty
and conviction around central beliefs was very high; these were small, kin-like, homogeneous
communities whose continued existence was often predicated on cooperation and mutual aid.
Because members lived out their lives with a small number of people, and since the
contributions of all members were valuable, individuals had to practice considerable selfrestraint so that interpersonal conflict did not disrupt the life of the community. Such
communities did not allow for much freedom of belief, and the “generalized other” was rather
clearly developed, with adults having very similar ideas about important matters. The high level
of homogeneity and certainty assisted in the unambiguous “presentation of self,” allowed for
accurate “definition of the situation,” and was manifested in a high level of consensus on
typifications and symbolic representation. Conscience and conviction had a particular
primordial quality within insular communities, which had established a singular world view. The
symbolic interactionist perspective is quite adept in accounting for the emergence and
maintenance of shared meanings in such communities.
Heterodoxy and the rupture of taken for grantedness
The globe has shrunk; modern transportation, mercantilism, imperialism, missionary work and
other forces have ended the isolation of cultures from each other. As a species, we are
increasingly aware of cultural plurality; we can have knowledge of different communities of
belief; we are courted by a call to cultural relativism. Symbolic interactionism will not be of
much help with this issue since Charon does not talk about the clash of mutually invalidating
societies undermining each other’s conviction. Confronted with multiple realities, we can begin
to separate the natural and cultural dimensions of the world, and we can see our view of the
world as one opinion about the way things are in a discourse that is aware of other opinions.
The recognition of a variety of cultural solutions to common human problems makes it
increasingly evident that all tribal conventions are socially constructed and, therefore, arbitrary,
artificial, fictional, and tautological. Our world view can no longer be embraced as a doxa, it
now has competing world views to be compared with, there is a heterodoxy for each of us to
contend with. Certainty is more difficult to maintain in a heterogeneous environment that
invites invidious comparisons. Modern telecommunication and the goals of modern social
science place people in a situation of heightened awareness of the many forms of human
nature that have been fashioned on this planet. The loss of ethnocentrism and doxa can
undermine our certainty as well as our ready conviction to meet the requirements of our
Becker makes it quite clear that the human animal does not like to live with uncertainty. And I
would argue that this is especially the case for those who follow salvationist afterlife views. It is
anxiety provoking; it undermines our need for safety and especially significance. The human
mind comes into its own by helping to organize the world of perception so as to keep anxiety
under control. Pierre Bourdieu5 states that “every established order tends to produce (to very
different degrees and with very different means) the naturalization of its own arbitrariness.”
But with the knowledge of multiple realities, it is impossible to recreate doxa, an indubitable,
taken-for-grantedness that is only possible when there is no knowledge of alternatives.
Bourdieu says that the best that can be achieved in a world of heterodoxy is the creation of an
orthodoxy. He states:
Orthodoxy, straight, or rather straightened, opinion, which aims, without ever entirely
succeeding; at restoring the primal state of Innocence of doxa, exists only in the objective
relationship which opposes it to heterodoxy, that is, by reference to the choice -hairesis, heresy
-made possible by the existence of competing possible and to the explicit critique of the sum
total of the alternatives not chosen that the established order implies. It is defined as a system
of euphemisms, of acceptable ways of thinking and speaking the natural and social world,
which rejects heretical remarks as blasphemies.6
Becker provides an account for this strain toward orthodoxy rather than skepticism or cultural
relativism. He argues that human beings are trying to organize their world in such a way as to
avoid facing: l) the fact that our cultural practices are social fictions and, hence, ontologically
optional, and 2) the possibility that death can become an existential absurdity for the animal
who can clearly anticipate its demise and the negation of a life’s accomplishments. An
orthodoxy may be the individual or collective attempt to create the social lies that are
“necessary” to calm our nervousness and sustain a fragile conviction that is based on a cultural
fiction. While our knowledge of cultural pluralities makes our biological plasticity evident to us,
there remains the strong urge (need) to escape from this freedom and to act in “bad faith” by
uncritically adhering to the dictates of the folie (foolishness) à deux cent million.
Not all Orthodoxies Need Be Conflated with Religious Belief
The idea of orthodoxy is often seen to be connected to religious belief systems. Hence a person,
who becomes aware of different religious beliefs, will strive to justify one of them as the right
and true belief and develop criticisms of other beliefs to demonstrate their falsity. The idea is
that the person (or group) is aware of alternatives and works to reestablish conviction for only
one of them. A careful reading of some of Becker’s other works, especially his Escape From Evil:
An Essay on the Unification of the Science of Man7, will make clear that Becker also saw science
as a path for the development of secular orthodoxy as well. (It is more difficult to see this in the
current work because Becker thinks that science’s insight can be delivered over to Religion).
Becker thought that the social sciences allowed us to understand the various human cultures
and to enumerate the good and bad that flowed from each set of beliefs. The social science
project was to help us intentionally choose the best of all possibilities in order to create a
modern culture which we could intellectually defend as the best of all possible worlds. And so
the project is the same; in the face of multiple cultures, science should strive to justify the one
it proposes as the best and to develop a critique of other possibilities. All such scientific
proposals would be continuously subject to examination and review, and the “ideal” would
change over time.
This is rather different from religious world views which are to be believed rather than tested
against social and material reality. During a crisis of faith, the individual who is experiencing
doubt is directed to intensify his or her commitment to their faith rather than encouraged to
more fully explore the options that have caused the doubts. The scientific approach is to
become fully aware of the strengths and weakness of all perspectives and to articulate why we
should put our “faith” (conviction) in any of them. In this sense, religious faith fosters a
“restricted awareness context” among it believers, and science cultivates the development of
an “elaborated awareness context.” Both are fostering the maintenance of an orthodox
position for human conduct.
As we will see in the next Unit, Becker thought that the ideas of science should be vetted
through the democratic process where ordinary citizens would be able to provide their input on
how to best “form a more perfect union.”
This is the pathology of normalcy. If we all accept the same twist of personality and support
each other’s attempts to maintain face and conviction, no one will notice this act of selfdeception, especially us. This is the internal source of unfreedom.
Conformity and the absence of relevant counterfactuals
If there is an internal source of unfreedom, which was exposed by Freud, there is also an
external source of unfreedom, which was identified by Marx. In the past two decades, North
American and European social scientists have explored and reported the ways and means by
which a small and decreasing number of individuals, families, and corporations have gained a
large and increasing amount of economic, political, and technological power. While monopoly
capitalism is only a couple of hundred years old, the transnational nature of modern capitalism
in the past 50 years has allowed corporations, and the families who own them, to amass
financial holdings that give them economic and political power that often exceeds that of
national governments who seek to regulate corporate activity. Nation states that refuse to
make concessions to the economic interests of this elite risk “alienating” this capital which
would result in plants closing and relocating in a ‘‘more favourable climate for investment” (the
Third World), the loss of jobs, and the shrinking of the Gross National Product. The economic
elite have been able to turn national governments into competitors for industrial plant location.
Which country will provide the greatest infrastructural support (power, transportation, healthy
workforce, etc.) to the corporation for the least cost; which country will provide the cheapest
loans, give the biggest grants to the company who is “shopping” for a good deal; which country
will be toughest on unions and softest on pollution controls; which country will provide the
greatest tax breaks; which country will allow the greatest amount of profit to flow out of the
country and require the least reinvestment? Which country can inspire the greatest “investor
confidence”? There is little doubt that this is the era of the transnational corporation, and it is
clear that the power of these economic organizations clearly outstrips the political and
economic power of most, if not all, nation states.
An earlier unit discussed the notion of ideological hegemony. Basically the argument is that
those elites use their immense economic and political power to help control the circulation of
ideas. Ask yourself this question, “If I had the economic means to suppress the circulation of
information that might damage my interests would I use it?” If you were a member of the Asper
family, would you allow the National Post to print an article that might damage business at
CanWest Global Communications? Members of the Asper family have controlling shares of both
companies. While the Government of Canada may not censor such a story, who is going to stop
the Asper family? Who will ensure that the Irving family in New Brunswick will not suppress
information in all of the media outlets that they own about some shady transaction carried out
by the Irving Oil Company? K. C. Irving was one of the richest men in the world and his heirs
own all three English daily papers and several weeklies in the Province.
Corporate ownership and concentrated control of print and electronic media and the book
publishing industry are cause for concern about the free circulation of information. The JohnsMansville Corporation knew that asbestos fiber caused lung cancer and respiratory disease but
as Paul Brodeur8 documented, they suppressed this information and kept it from their workers
and consumers for over 25 years. Ford Motors was aware that many consumers of their Pinto
car would die painful deaths when, due to a design defect, it would very often became engulfed
in flames when involved in a collision. But they did not notify the consumer, and they did not
modify the car although inexpensive changes would have greatly increased its safety. Rather, as
Mark Dowie9 demonstrated, the decision was made to produce the car with its defect because
it was more profitable to pay damage suits in court for death, dismemberment, and suffering
caused to victims than to modify the car’s design. Social science literature is replete with other
examples. Through direct censorship, suppression and distortion of information, powerful
interests keep information from the general public. Marxists argue that as a result of this
manipulation of consciousness the public has a “false” consciousness about many issues. While
there is a plurality of opinions, analyses, and interpretations about certain events, not all of
them are available to us. The “truth” about many corporate practices and products, for
example, has been “straightened” into an orthodoxy by powerful elites. This is the “unfreedom
from without.” We are not only tempted to deceive ourselves from upsetting information,
there are others in our midst who are attempting to deceive us by suppressing information that
is upsetting to their interests.
You may ask, “How does he know what is “false” consciousness? A very good question. The
work of Steven Lukes10 will help provide an answer. People not aware of the danger associated
with asbestos fiber or Ford Pintos would act in a particular way. Unaware of the opinion that
such items are dangerous, they would perhaps purchase and use them. Because the
corporations involved had “exercised their power” and suppressed certain information, the
“relevant counterfactual” was not available to the consumer. Lukes argues that if they had
these other facts, facts that would counter the orthodox position, (that asbestos insulation is a
good product and that “At Ford, Quality is Job One”), facts that are relevant to their safety, as
consumers, “They would have done otherwise.” For Lukes, this is the measure of the “falsity” of
their consciousness. The point of this discussion is to highlight the Marxist concern that even if
there are multiple realities potentially available to human beings, powerful interest groups do
not allow all of these opinions to circulate freely. The commitment, conformity, and conviction
of some human beings to their culture are, to some extent, dependent upon not learning other
interpretations of reality. Human beings act upon their knowledge; in a profound way we “are”
what we “think.” If others control what we “can think,” they can control what we “can
become.” It is quite clear that the symbolic interactionist perspective, and the psychoanalytic
perspective, are unable to generate this insight into modern human behaviour although they
can shed some light on the consequences of ideological hegemony. It is the more macro, and
more structural analysis of economic and political reality, provided by political economists, that
bring these insights to the social psychology of the modern consumer citizen. It is clear that
human beings may attempt to restrict their individual choices, as was made clear by Becker. But
it is also clear that individual choice is also restricted due to the exercise of economic and
political power. Students who have chosen Unit 14 for their final assignment will find a detailed
analysis of this problem provided by Robert McChesney in his book, The Problem of the Media.
Test question for unit 7
Prepare an answer for the following question. It is one of the four questions that may be asked
in the second test. Since you have only 96 hours to turn in your answer, it is essential that you
prepare the outline for these answers in advance of that short reporting period.
Question 7
1. Briefly distinguish doxa, heterodoxy, and orthodoxy.
2. What are the advantages and disadvantages for human beings living within each of
these symbolic universes?
3. Becker connects despair and the death of meaning with the experience of heterodoxy
and would argue that those cultures that operated within a singular world view were
spared the death of meaning to a greater extent. Kueneman would also agree that small
scale communities (which were also operating within a doxa) would experience less
despair, but for very different reasons. Contrast these positions.
1 Quinn, Daniel. 1996. The Story of B: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit. Toronto: Bantam
2 Rowe, Stan. 1990. Home Place: Essays on Ecology, Edmonton: NeWest Publishers, pg.145.
3 Nietzche, Friederich. 1973. Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the
Future. London: Penguin Books. Section 39, pg.50.
4 Alfred Schutz, “On Multiple Realities,” in Collected Papers I: The Problem of Social Reality,
Maurice Natanson (ed.), Martinus Nijhoff, 1971, p. 228.
5 Bourdieu, Pierre. 1977. The Outline of a Theory of Practice, Cambridge: University Press.
6 Bourdieu, Pierre. 1977. The Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: University Press pg.
169. 7 Becker, Ernest. 1975. Escape from Evil: An Essay on the Unification of the Science of Man.
New York: The Free Press.
8 Brodeur, Paul. 1985. “The Asbestos Industry on Trial,” The New Yorker, June 10, June 17, June
24, July 1, 1985.
9 Dowie, Mark, 1977. “Pinto Madness,” Mother Jones, 2:8.
10 Lukes, Steven. 2005. Power: A Radical View, Second Edition, New York: Palgrave MacMillan.
pg. 44.

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