Take-home essay instructions (cross-posted in ASSIGNMENTS)
Which theorist – Marx, Durkheim, or Weber – offers the best conceptual toolkit to understand the “American Dream” and its impact on “society”?
The purpose of this assignment is to use your knowledge of the respective theoretical frameworks of Marx, Durkheim and Weber to make sense of the American Dream – to view it through the lens of theory. The first step is to think about how each would “conceptualize” the Dream. Obviously, all would agree that it’s more of an “ideal” than “material” phenomenon, but each would specify the conceptualization differently. For example, Marx might think of it as an expression of “bourgeois ideology,” Weber might consider it a specifically American “ethic of capitalism,” and Durkheim might conceptualize it as a kind of (secular) religion where perhaps credit is “sacred” and debt is stigmatized and/or criminalized…
You have a good deal of latitude in crafting your essay. While the assignment calls for some creativity on your part, it also requires that you demonstrate comprehension of the key concepts and theories. Thus, essays must do two things: 1) accurately present the relevant concepts/theories (from the perspective of one of the “Big Three” theorists) and 2) creatively apply concepts/theories to the phenomenon, i.e., the “American Dream,” or some aspect of it.
There’s no consensus on the definition or the “meaning” of the American Dream — it’s an abstraction, one that’s politically and emotionally charged — but this description from the US Library of Congress, which can be regarded as a relatively “official” expression of this idea, is a good jump-off point:
James Truslow Adams, in his book The Epic of America, which was written in 1931, stated that the American dream is “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.” (214-215)
Essays should comment, at least briefly, on the views of each of the three theorists. You should reserve at least a paragraph to compare/contrast perspectives. In other words, address how the other two (besides your “preferred” theorist) would approach the phenomenon, why/how they might emphasize different aspects of the phenomenon, for example. Essays should be 850-1250 words (roughly 3 ½ – 5 pgs.) in length and comply with standard formatting rules (1-inch margins, 12-pt font, double-spaced text). They should be emailed to me at Nicole.Hala@qc.cuny.edu by April 6th (by midnight). (You’re encouraged to post them on the blog as well, but it’s not required.)
You can write an excellent and interesting essay by relying solely on the texts in the course reader. Or you could draw on other course material (“recommended” items, videos or podcasts from class, etc.) to help frame and/or inform your paper. There are endless possible frames: the broader “crisis” (its economic or cultural or moral dimensions), social unrest (here or abroad), debt or student debt in particular, the housing bubble or foreclosure crisis, unemployment, social problems like suicide or crime… So the idea would be to explore the American Dream as it relates to an issue of particular interest. Here are some suggestions (some items have already been presented in class, others will be in the next couple weeks):
- pdf: “Army of Altruists: On the Alienated Right to Do Good,” (D. Graeber) Harper’s, Jan. 2007.
- link: “Obama and the Closing of the American Dream,” (A. Rana) n+1, 9/3/2008.
- pdf: “Financializing Public Universities,” (R. Meister) 2010.
- link: “I, Capitalist (accounts from a life under the empire),” (T. Smith) Slingshot, Issue #109, 2012.
- link: “Thirty More Years of Hell” (C. Kilpatrick) Jacobin, 2/6/2012.
- link (audio): “The Giant Pool of Money,” co-production of This American Life and Planet Money, 5/9/2008 (1 hr)
- in-class (video): “House of Sand and Fog” (2003) 3/5 – 3/7.
And here’s a list of the “key concepts” to choose from. There are more possibilities, but all essays should engage at least three core concepts from your chosen theorist. (These are the same set of concepts that will be covered by the midterm exam – on 3/19)
Marx: class, bourgeoisie, proletariat, forces and relations of production, capital, surplus value, alienation, labor theory of value, exploitation, class consciousness
Durkheim: anomie, social facts, social solidarity, mechanical solidarity, organic solidarity, collective conscience, ritual, symbol, sacred and profane, collective representations
Weber: Verstehen, ideal types, Protestant ethic, calling, iron cage, rationalization, bureaucracy, authority, charisma, class, status, party