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  • Comment On “Anxiety”: Compensation In Social History
  • Claude S. Fischer

Alan Hunt’s “Anxiety and Social Explanation” (Spring, 1999) addresses a critical need: to interrogate the psychology left implicit in many social explanations. Hunt masterfully shows how, why, and with what difficulties analysts invoke anxiety and displacement as the causes of behavior. The problem, however, goes beyond anxiety. Many historical accounts rely on theories of human psychology—often, as in the case of displacement, a rough Freudianism—which are never plainly stated, much less examined. This addendum to Hunt’s essay presents another category of implicit theory: “compensation.” 1

In psychology, compensation refers to “behavior that develops either consciously or unconsciously to offset a real or imagined deficiency, as in personality or physical ability.” 2 A compensation substitutes for the “real thing”—fantasy for reality, the ersatz for the substantive. Compensation differs from direct action to restore a loss. A peasant uprising to reclaim lost communal lands is not described as compensation (it is the “real thing”), but a peasant religious revival might be described as compensation for that same loss. Here are a few examples, chosen from excellent work, of implicit compensation theories.

Roland Marchand explains much of advertising’s appeal in the 1920s as a compensation: “Advertising not only propagandized for modern, urban civilization; it also offered compensation for its discontentsIf people experienced depersonalization in some aspects of their lives, advertising and commercial media offered many compensatory varieties of ‘personal contact”’—for instance, a pseudo-friend such as “Betty Crocker.” In his history of electrification, David Nye discusses hobbyists’ purchase of electric tools: “Because most factory work was too specialized to provide a sense of craftsmanship and office work excluded the pleasures of working with one’s hands, millions bought power tools to use in their increasing leisure time, and the home became the surrogate workplace The house became more their own, more completely an alternative to dull office or factory routines.” John Gillis explains the invention of Victorian family rituals: “the pressures of linear time had deprived family members of both propinquity and contemporaneity, but they found compensation through those ritual moments” Several social historians have explained the rise of voluntary associations in the nineteenth century as compensation— Samuel Warner, for example: “...all Philadelphians, of every class and background, reacted in the same way to the loss of old patterns of sociability and informal community. They rushed into clubs and associations.” 3

Several problems arise in these sorts of causal claims: (1) Typically, the void that needs filling is only assumed, not documented. For example, what evidence is there that Americans in the 1920s really experienced “depersonalization”? The compensation itself is often the only proof of the deficit. (2) The causal connection between the presumed need and the observed behavior is usually [End Page 143] asserted, not demonstrated. Although not definitive, it would help to quote people saying that they joined associations in order to reconnect with others. It is at least equally plausible that Americans increasingly joined clubs because they had more time and resources to do so, because these clubs were fun, and because clubs augmented their lives rather than compensated for losses elsewhere. (3) The restoration of balance, also, is usually taken for granted, not evidenced. Did Americans, by compensating, become less anxious, less isolated? (4) Finally, there is sometimes evidence against the compensation hypothesis. For example, members of associations usually have more social connections, even with people outside their clubs, than do nonmembers; the compensation theory would expect that members would have fewer ties. (There is a small literature in psychology on compensation as a defense mechanism. It lends little support to the use of compensation in social history because its empirical literature is sparse and mixed.) 4

Of more immediate concern than the empirical validity of compensation theories is simply the need to make them explicit. Until they are raised to explicitness—as Hunt has sought to raise anxiety explanations—too much is assumed. Once the theories and their assumptions are laid bare, they can then be debated: What is the latent psychological model? Is it in this instance useful? Supported by direct evidence? More so than competing explanations? Social historians who...

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