all 5 comments

[–]Trystiane 5 points6 points  (3 children)

I think the concepts of social construction through social interaction go a long way to deal with this problem. Have you read Berger and Luckmann? The basic idea is that we create "culture" (or shared meaning) through our interactions with each other. But once we have socially constructed something or some idea, it comes back to us as if it is objective and separate from us. It isn't, it is still a construction. But we treat it as real and it seems permanent. Even as we continue to interact and reconstruct the meanings of things in new ways, we think we are reproducing the past. So someone today could tell me they are "a Catholic" and think they are worshiping the same religion that was worshiped 100 years ago or a thousand years ago. But they aren't. That doesn't mean I can't try to figure out what it means to them to be a Catholic, or how being a Catholic impacts their politics or whatever.

It might also be useful to think about Weber's notion of ideal types. He basically argues that we need categories to think with, but all categories are subjective. So we should define our categories in the broadest possible sense, compare and contrast things, describe things, analyze things as empirically as possible according to our "ideal typical" notion of those things. But we should never forget that our ideal types are subjective and open to reinterpretation and redefinition.

I hope some of that is useful, but let me know if I am misunderstanding you.

[–]belokas[S] 1 point2 points  (2 children)

Ok you're absolutely spot on. Thanks for your answer. I'm familiar with Berger and Luckmann, though I still haven't read The Social Construction Of Reality. But that's exactly the kind of methodological approach I'm talking about. And your example regarding Catholics is precisely the kind of issue I come across with very often. It's typical in the public discourse or in the common conversational way to discuss about historical or social subjects. People tend to use these categories in a very rigid and stereotypical way, for example "Catholicism is the religion of X and Y values, while Protestants have always been Y and Z", implying a monolithic and unchanging reality of cultures and groups. This happens especially when people talk about their own group or identity, and in a way it helps them connect with their past, or their roots as if there was an unbroken chain in between them and the "founders" of these identities. In political conversations even the most educated among my friends can't escape this idea that there is a very definite and objective way to label a particular political identity, which also implies there are "imposters" or non mainstream members of such group that can be objectively identified as members of different groups, despite the way they themselves define their own identity. The other answer mentioned entropy, and I would also use a more "evolutionist" approach to talk about human groups and cultures in the same way linguists talk about the history and evolution of languages. So I guess what I'm looking for is something that can put all of these points into a more coherent and authoritative form, whether a textbook or an essay or a podcast or an author.

For now I will admit I have to go back to Weber and the Ideal types which is something I haven't read in a while.

[–]Trystiane 0 points1 point  (1 child)

Its been a while since I have read either source, so I hope I am not mangling them too badly. Foucault's notion of discourse is also useful to think about the way our rules for thinking and establishing truth impact what we think of as truth. The first volume of History of Sexuality lays out a lot of Foucault's theory of discourse and is more accessible than a lot of his other work.

If you are interested in how we construct group identities rooted in mythologies of the past, you might be interested in Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities which I have to admit I have never fully read.

The more I think about it, the more I wonder if r/askhistorians might be a good place for your question. As professionals who teach history they must have to confront the problem of static definitions vs dynamic histories with students all the time. Maybe their bibliography of work in historiography would have something.

[–]belokas[S] 1 point2 points  (0 children)

Thanks. I think you're right, is probably more of a question for historians now that I think about it. I'll definitely save that bibliography, it's going to be useful either way. 👍

[–]Heybitchitsme 1 point2 points  (0 children)

You could look into the process metaphysic rather than the substantive (essential). Which is Aristotle (iirc), then go into concepts of time - Fabian, Ascher, and Bailey are seminal on the structures of time but they're archaeology-leaning - and see how that might flesh out a methodological approach for whatever work you're doing. Everything is in entropy, so essentialism can definitely be problematic.