A man who has devoted his life to studying society delivers a final report on everything he has learned.
At 86, Erikson (Emeritus, Sociology and American Studies/Yale Univ.; A New Species of Trouble: Explorations in Disaster, Trauma, and Community, 1994, etc.) has been examining the social order, or lack thereof, for a very long time, specializing in the effect of catastrophe on community. In this valedictory volume, he delivers a personal history of sociology, amplified by a lifetime of fieldwork among people undergoing everything from a disastrous flood in West Virginia to the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska to the war in Yugoslavia. The author starts out strongly, with a cogent account of how early societies formed and were then altered by psychological and social upheaval. The book follows a narrative line redolent of the American historian Henry Adams, as the world goes further away from unity—under the unquestioned dominance of church and state—to one of multiplicity, where the rules and traditions become destabilized. Erikson presents a modern world that is increasingly fractured due to nationalism, racism, wealth inequality, and what he calls “speciation,” where people define their political or racial enemies as subhuman. Here, the Croatian War becomes an especially tragic history lesson on how communities and even families can be divided into warring tribes of “us” versus “them.” “When those frameworks are stripped away,” writes the author, “when all those politically imposed border lines are erased, the true map of humankind—the natural geography of the world—will emerge.” Ultimately, Erikson bites off more than he can chew; he seeks to cover every possible subject, and the narrative occasionally bogs down in droning prose on geographic spaces and migratory patterns. On the whole, though, the author proves to be a wise guide to a broad field of study.
A useful, illuminating analysis bolstered by a lifetime of close observation.