Subtraction stories and social change

The closest thing I have to an historiographical principle is to always be suspicious of what Charles Taylor calls ‘subtraction stories’. While he uses the concept to refer to congratulatory stories of rational emancipation in which human beings have gradually dispensed with myths and illusions that served to limit them, it can equally be applied to refer to narratives of gradual decline in which we have progressively lost touch with the authentically human. To call something a subtraction story does not entail that we think the story is false so much as that it is simplistic. In the more sophisticated forms of subtraction stories, elements that are empirically accurate serve to reinforce the plausibility of an account that is appealing on a narrative level but analytically deficient.

The temptation here is to flip to the opposite extreme, responding to the obvious simplicity of a subtraction story by denying its claims in their entirety. For instance, to respond to those who say we have lost everything by claiming that we have lost nothing. While the inverse position might be more sensible than that which it is a response to, it’s no less questionable to me because it reproduces the narrative structure which is the underlying problem. There’s a certain temptation to these positions, with the bold pronouncements of epochal change (or lack thereof) which they license. I think sociologists are far too prone to them. In practice, I lean much more towards the pronouncement of change rather than its denial because I think things are changing in a significant way. But I think this narrative temptation inheres in any attempt to offer accounts of social change that go beyond the merely descriptive.

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