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University of California, Berkeley

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 discontents. . . . If 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. . . . [T]he 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 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 tacitly invoke such models rarely address these questions; until they do, their explanations are simply assertions.

Department of Sociology

Berkeley, CA 94720-1980


1. Some of this material appeared originally in, "Rhetorical Turns in Social History: Appeals to 'Nature' and 'Compensation'," a paper presented to the American Sociological Association, August, 1994.

2. John Ayto, Dictionary of Word Origins (New York, 1990).

3. Roland Marchand, Advertising and the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, 1920-1940 (Berkeley, 1985), p. 359; David E. Nye, Electrifying America (Cambridge, Mass., 1990), p. 283; John Gillis, "Making Time for Family: The Invention of Family Time(s) and the Reinvention of Family History," Journal of Family History 21 (January, 1996): 13; Sam Bass Warner, The Private City (Philadelphia, 1968), p. 61. Other examples regarding associations include John S. Gilekson, Middle-Class Providence, 1820-1940 (Princeton, 1986), p. 9, and Mark C. Carnes, "The Rise and Consolidation of Bourgeois Culture," in Mary Kupiec Cayton, et al (eds.), Encyclopedia of American Social History (New York, 1993): 617.

4. On associations and social ties: Claude S. Fischer, To Dwell Among Friends (Chicago, 1982), pp. 108-10. In the Adlerian model, individuals compensate to deal with some felt inferiority. The boy, for example, who feels physically substandard may compensate by fantasizing that he is strong or by obtaining a weapon. Going to extremes would lead to "over-compensation." See, e.g., Heinz L. and Rowena R. Ansbacher (eds.), The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler (New York, 1956). An exploration of the literature reveals few empirical tests of this idea. Some evidence exists that experimental subjects who face public embarrassment compensate either in action or in thought - see, e.g. Gary Chalus, "Defensive Compensation as a Response to Ego Threat: A Replication," Psychological Reports 38 (June, 1976): 699-702; Patricia East and Karen Rook, "Compensatory Patterns of Support among Children's Peer Relationships," Developmental Psychology 28 (June, 1992): 163-72; Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski, "Compensatory Self-inflation: A Response to the Threat to Self-Regard of Public Failure," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 49 (June, 1985): 273-80. An important feature of compensation is its homeostatic structure, assuming an ideal state of equilibrium, restoration of which is the psyche's goal.
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Title Annotation:response to Alan Hunt, Journal of Social History, Spring 1999
Author:Fischer, Claude S.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Date:Sep 22, 1999

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