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Reading Jonathan Haidt’s excellent book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis’ I came across a reference to James Hunter’s ‘The death of character’, published in 2000. Haidt describes Hunter’s thesis: as America moved in the twentieth century from being a nation of producers to being a nation of consumers it replaced the intrinsically moral idea of ‘character’ in favour of the amoral term ‘personality’.

I haven’t read Hunter’s book, and he may well recognise his intellectual debt, but this thesis is very reminiscent of the core argument of one of the classics of twentieth century American sociology, ‘The cultural contradictions of capitalism’ by Daniel Bell.

Every day, it seems, new books are being published applying insights from neuroscience and behavioural science to big philosophical and social questions like ‘what is happiness?’ or ‘how do we get people to behave well towards each other’. The danger is that we ignore the insights of past thinkers who did not have access to the new science. The opportunity is to use new insights to refurbish the elegant structures of past masters.

A recent post by Chris Dillow over at Stumbling and Mumbling  offers yet more evidence of the effect of self esteem and status on performance. This time it’s about students and participation in sports, but Chris also refers back to ‘the Obama effect’ on African American SAT scores, which I discussed last week.

Maybe I haven’t been reading carefully enough, but rarely in the discussion of these findings have I seen reference to the theoretical framework they strikingly reinforce.

It may be that the first time I heard about ‘labelling theory’ was when my father was lecturing on deviance as part of his sociology courses in the 1970s. No doubt, Laurie started with the ideas of Howard Becker, the man who first developed the theory.

It turns out that Becker is still alive, that his accomplishments stretch well beyond labelling theory into areas like instructing social scientists on how to explain ideas intelligibly (that’s what I call a service to society). Becker lives his life between California and France (who wouldn’t?) and he even has a funky personal web-site.

Labelling theory was subject to a nasty and aggressive neo-liberal backlash in the 80s and 90s, smeared with the allegation that it was a way for lefties to excuse bad behaviour by the underclass. But the new evidence shows that Becker was right. I hope he gets the praise he deserves and that some of his erstwhile detractors are ready to be labelled as charlatans.

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