Wyclif’s Dust: the missing chapter

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As substack subscribers probably know, I have finally published Wyclif’s Dust the book, and I wrote an informal intro about it last week.

Here I’ll write about what isn’t in the book — the places where I wish I knew more, or where the argument could be strengthened. Partly I am fessing up to potential weak points. Partly I am hoping to inspire research to fill these gaps! So, if you’re looking for a PhD topic….

Causal gaps: what really created the Great Disruption?

In his 1999 book, Francis Fukuyama coined the phrase the Great Disruption for the increase in crime, social disorder, and anomie, from the 1960s through to the 1990s. “What really caused the Disruption?” is not just one of the great unanswered questions of social science, it’s one of the great unasked ones. Perhaps partly this is a blind-men-and-elephant story. Different social sciences see part of the puzzle – criminologists and economists have theories about the rise in crime, psychologists talk about changes in attitudes — but nobody puts them together. But there might also be some fundamental incuriosity at play. I mean, this period’s best-known book of criminology is Folk Devils and Moral Panics, which is basically about how crime is a myth. It’s a good book and “moral panic” has entered the language, but come on! When it was published in 1972, the US and UK homicide rates had both already almost doubled in a decade. Perhaps social scientists, who are often committed to the broad values of the 1960s, don’t ask this question because it’s like washing one’s linen in public.

Wyclif’s Dust fingers cultural change as the culprit for the Disruption, and gives a historical narrative to support that. I would love to have more solid evidence. This is complicated, both because cultural change is hard to measure, and also because the dependent variable doesn’t really exist yet. A first step would be to capture different measures of “disruption” — crime, disorder, and anomie — to see if they vary together across different years and countries. Then one could create a Disruption Index.

Testing New Zealand’s first colour television channel. Source. License.

Stepping back along the causal chain, the book argues that technological change made the old “hothouse” culture — the West’s uniquely intense enculturation process — obsolete. The car, and especially television, fragment communities and change the sources of cultural influence. Again, for television, there has been amazingly little solid research on its effects. In just a few decades, television viewing became the third biggest use of people’s time after work and sleep. You’d think we would have studied everything about it. But while we know a lot about the individual psychology of television viewing, there is much less about TV’s effects at communal level. This is important, because television changes things even for people who don’t watch it. For example, if everyone else’s kids are in front of the box, there’s nobody to play with outside. And for this, we have a few interesting studies, often using natural experiments, but really no solid sustained research programme with clear results. It’s the same for the advent of the car.

Part of the problem here is that this work really requires strong research designs. With so many things changing at once, you can’t just correlate TV watching or car ownership with X, Y, Z and expect to get anything but a big mess. Modern empirical economics would have a lot to contribute, but for economists it’s a side interest which mostly gets left to sociologists or to media studies. (Again, we need more imperialism here.)

Causal gaps: Protestantism and edification

Going back in time, there are similar gaps for the effects of the original hothouse culture. One problem is that I argue that ultimately both Catholic and Protestant churches got into the enculturation business. So comparing Protestants to Catholics is going to underestimate true effects. But it’s a reasonable start. Economic historians have done interesting work on Protestantism’s effects on education and GDP — most famously Becker and Woessman’s “Was Weber Wrong?” I would love to have clean evidence on how it affected crime, disorder, and the labour market. Unmarried births? Apprenticeships being broken off early? (This was a big worry for early modern employers, who didn’t want to invest in teaching apprentices if they then left for a rival employer.) For some aspects, there’s a lot of interesting suggestive evidence, but still room for more solid work. It would be nice to know the effects of later waves of religious activity, too. John Wesley’s campaigns in England? Victorian church-building?

H. economicus versus H. culturalis

The big picture framing the book is the rivalry between two models of human behaviour: homo economicus (chooses actions to maximize own payoff, rationally updates beliefs, never forgets leg day) versus homo culturalis (follows internalized rules, learns cooperation and foresight, favourite food is nixtamalized corn). Embarrassingly, I am still searching for the right historical test case to play off these two theories.

An obvious place to look is religion. For thousands of years religion was central to people’s lives. There are economic theories of religion, in which churches act like rent-seeking firms, but these seem better at explaining the behaviour of religious professionals than the devotion of the multitude. I would love to gather all the evidence for homo culturalis in one place and clarify the issues involved. It’s not trivial. Homo economicus can behave like homo culturalis, given the right preferences — but doesn’t that make the theory so broad as to be vacuous? And homo culturalis, who learns from people around him, often ends up behaving optimally, rather like homo economicus. So when are the real differences visible?

The future

My biggest area of uncertainty is about the future. The book argues that we are in a time like the 16th century, of normative conflicts between different subcultures, fought using new communications technology. I make the case that some subcultures will “win” and spread. But I wish I knew which. Will traditional religions revive, as they have before? Or will there be something truly new and modern? (Everyone thinks Effective Altruism is a cult, so maybe they should just ride with that and take over the world?) Or, thinking globally, might Chinese socialism still gain hearts and minds in Asia?

This question isn’t just for sociologists. Is and ought are intrinsically linked here. If you think that modern Western countries are failing at the cultural level, then how to fix that is a practical question. Which lifeboat should we jump into? This question is so deep, complex and urgent that to answer it, I may have to write another book!

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