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History of Political Economy 32.2 (2000) 400-401

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Book Review

The Conundrum of Class:
Public Discourse on the Social Order in America

The Conundrum of Class: Public Discourse on the Social Order in America. By Martin J. Burke. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. xvii; 303 pp. Cloth, $47.50; paper, $16.95.

In the last decade, scholars from an increasing number of disciplines have begun to look seriously at the history of economic thought; although economists have traditionally defined the field, political scientists, historians, philosophers of science, and sociologists have begun to write about economic thought. Now, we can add scholars in American studies to this list.

Martin Burke has written an impressive book on the evolution of the idea of class in American society from the time of the Revolutionary War until roughly the 1880s. His method is one now standard in many humanist disciplines; termed either "discourse analysis" or the "analysis of rhetoric," the approach is to look at as many sources as possible to try to get a fix on what people were trying to say about the topic under consideration. In this case, Burke looks at what politicians, journalists, academics, working men, and ministers were saying about the idea of social class in America. Somewhat surprisingly, economists turn out to be central to this discourse for the one hundred years that Burke covers. Beginning with the Physiocrats and Adam Smith, working through Say and Ricardo, and then through the whole pantheon of American economists from John McVickar and Henry Carey to J. B. Clark and Richard T. Ely, Burke traces a world in which the disputes about social class were almost always framed, by all participants, in language and ideas derived from economic texts.

For those not used to this kind of analysis, it may be both impressive and frustrating. The care at searching out the multitude of sources and linking them together to paint a picture of the arguments under consideration will impress (and help) any scholar. The refusal to consider who was right and what was actually the case as regards the existence and role of class in American society may be frustrating to some. But Burke's point is not to say who was correct, but rather to document [End Page 400] the sides in a long argument that led to the dispute(s) over what class is and what it means in America. Class was no less problematic in 1880 than it is today, and Burke shows us the moves and strategies that brought Americans to the different perspectives in this debate.

This book is must reading for anyone working in the history of American economic thought. It belongs on the bookshelf next to Sidney Fine's Laissez Faire and the General Welfare State: A Study of Conflict in American Thought, 1865-1901 (1956) and makes a natural complement to that classic in its ability to lay out the intricate interplay between academic economic ideas and public discourse on American economic life.

Bradley Bateman
Grinnell College and National Humanities Center



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pp. 400-401
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Archived 2005
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