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  • Response to Simon Prideaux's "From Organisational Theory to the New Communitarianism of Amitai Etzioni"
  • Amitai Etzioni

Under most circumstances, I would not bother to respond to a thinly veiled ideological attack by the likes of Simon Prideaux. Anyone familiar with my work would immediately realize that he decided to make me into a social conservative, and grossly distorted what I have written. However, Prideaux promotes though two grand misunderstandings whose importance ranges way beyond my work and these deserve discussion. They concern functionalism and the difference between coercion and moral suasion. I will turn to these shortly, but first a few lines to illustrate how crafty Prideaux is in making my text say what it does not.

Prideaux is correct that I used the 1950s as a baseline in examining the American society. However, he is misreporting that I yearn for that society or urge to return to it. It is true that in those days, crime and drug abuse were lower than they have been ever since and that people had rigid but clear conceptions of what was expected from them. But, as I repeatedly pointed out, the regime of the 1950s should have been brought down, as it was, because it was discriminatory against women, minorities, and the young and authoritarian to boot. It is true that the 1960s (in the US) were marked by various liberation movements, including sexual and cultural ones. I stressed again and again that the problem was not the removal of the old taboos and institutions, but the failure to form new shared moral understandings and mores, leaving a void to be filled by religious fundamentalists or leaving people without shared norms, what has long been called a state of anomie. Finally, Prideaux uses my statement that a "curl back" is occurring to suggest that I seek a rerun of the [End Page 215] 50s. However a curl back, as the image suggests and my writing (especially in My Brother's Keeper) stresses, does not entail a retracing, but turning in a new direction, albeit toward rebuilding some new sets of shared norms.

I am particularly saddened by Prideaux's inability to note, what practically everybody who ever read The Active Society or A Comparative Analysis of Complex Organizations, did — that my reference to societal guidance cannot be equated with social control (of the lowers by the uppers). Guidance is based on what the members of the society, community, or organization instructs those in places of authority to do. Yes, there are, even in most egalitarian communes, such as in the kibbutz in which I lived, some people who are accorded some decision making roles. However it is a central thesis — not an aside or sub point — of both my major works, that only if those with such roles heed the directions given to them by the people at large, will their action be legitimate and their position last.

Of much greater import is Prideaux's profound misunderstanding of functionalism, shared by some others. There is a form of functionalism that assumes that a given pattern ought to be preserved and hence treats any action that disrupts the status quo as detrimental. This occurs if one claims that whatever societal institutions and structures exist must be preserved in order to keep the society (the nation or fatherland or mother church) from falling apart. However, to argue that specific social entities serve specific societal functions — for example, that the "function" of the police is to uphold law and order — or to oppress minorities— but it does not fulfill the same function as public libraries — is not to hold that in order to preserve a society, the forms and activities of these entities should not be changed. It is simply akin to observing that the "function" of pillars is to uphold a given bridge. This functional knowledge is useful to those who seek to conserve the bridge, modify it — or blow it away. Moreover, to hold that society "needs" a particular function to be served, does not mean that it will be or ought to be, but merely that if it is not, there will be effects that can be predicted and assessed...


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pp. 215-217
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2007
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