Robert A. Caro’s narrative sociology

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Robert A. Caro in 2013. Photograph: Michael Loccisano.

In recent weeks I’ve been working my way through historian Robert A. Caro’s majestic biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson, The Years of Lyndon Johnson.

Enjoying them is easy. Caro is a hugely readable narrator, is in effortless command of his sources, and has one of the most complex and dynamic politicians of the 20th century as his subject. The result is quite simply some of the most compelling history I’ve ever read.

Unpicking why Caro is so interesting, though, is a lot harder. In doing so, I think we can learn a little about the practice of history, which this work avowedly is, as well as of sociology, which would seem to be further afield from Caro’s core discipline.

Firstly, a little of Caro’s craft. This essay by Chris Jones from 2012 in Esquire gives you a flavour on the man’s work practices and his almost unbelievable dedication. Caro has been working on the Johnson books since 1975. His book The Power Broker on Robert Moses, the New York planner and freeway builder, has just been republished, with revisions.

The essay by Chris Jones helps us understand the sort of historian Caro is: he is a kind of journalist.

Gottlieb has questioned the veracity of Caro’s reporting only once. There was a single paragraph that stood out on what would become the 214th page of The Power Broker. In it, Bella and Emanuel Moses, Robert’s parents, were depicted at their summer lodge at Camp Madison, a camp for poor and immigrant children that Bella had helped found. There, they were leafing throughThe New York Times one morning in 1926, Caro wrote, when they learned of a $22,000 judgment against their son for illegal appropriations. Caro included a quote from Bella Moses, who was long dead: “Oh, he never earned a dollar in his life and now we’ll have to pay this.”

How, Gottlieb asked Caro, did he get that quote?

Caro told the story. Moses had instructed friends and close associates not to talk to him. Shut out, Caro then drew a series of concentric circles on a piece of paper. In the center, he put Moses. The first circle was his family, the second his friends, the third his acquaintances, and so on. “As the circles grew outward,” Caro says, “there were people who’d only met him once. He wasn’t going to be able to get to them all.” Caro started with the widest circle, unearthing, among other things, the attendance rolls and employment records from Camp Madison. Now some four decades later, Caro tracked down, using mostly phone books at the New York Public Library, every now-adult child and every now-retired employee who might offer him some small detail about Robert’s relationship with his parents. One of the employees he found was the camp’s social worker, Israel Ben Scheiber, who also happened to deliver The New York Times to Bella and Emanuel Moses at their lodge each morning. Scheiber was standing there when Bella had expressed her frustration with her deadbeat son, and he remembered the moment exactly.

“So that’s how,” Caro told Gottlieb.

But Caro is more than simply a reporter, of course, because his books have a subject over and above the men he writes about, and that subject is power. Caro is therefore, in a very real way, a theorist of society, and in particular the power relationships within a society.

A good example is the second half of Caro’s second Johnson book, Means of Ascent. In it, Johnson uses the classic compare-and-contrast structure of the seasoned essayist to explore the 1948 Texan Democratic primary race between Johnson and veteran Texan Democrat, Coke Stevenson. At that time, Texas was a lock for Democrats, so the winner would become the state’s junior senator.

Caro’s biographical sketch of Stevenson and his career — he was the most successful Democrat in the state, and had earned himself the sobriquet ‘Mr Texas’ — is a miracle of historical prose. But Caro uses the primary battle between the two men as a metaphor for the evolution of modern American politics. Stevenson had a reputation as a man of total integrity: he had never taken a dollar of lobbyist money. Stevenson was so old-fashioned he campaigned by turning up in small town squares and introducing himself to citizens;  he didn’t even issue a policy platform, because he believed politicians should run only on their records. In contrast, Johnson poured more money into the race than had ever been seen in a Senatorial primary. He hired a helicopter and barnstormed around the state in it. Johnson also won the support of the Democratic machine in rotten boroughs in the state’s southern counties, which allowed him to capture crucial votes with what were almost certainly stuffed ballot boxes. When Stevenson challenged the result in court, Johnson won — again largely because he was able to manipulate the Democratic Party machine. 

What we see in Caro’s Means of Ascent is therefore a masterpiece of historical narrative. Caro is not merely chronicling a particularly interesting American state election in 1948. He is in fact developing what Daniel Little would call a social explanation of power — an explanation a good deal richer and “thicker” than the descriptions sometimes offered by sociologists and anthropologists when they turn to the nature of power in democratic societies.

A final point is worth making about this remarkable project. If and when Caro eventually publishes the final book in the series — we can only hope that he lives to complete the series — he will have been working on it for nearly half a century.

I think it’s fair to say that a project of such longevity and ambition could no longer be produced by a working academic (the conditions of the publishing industry suggest that it probably can’t happen in trade publishing again, either, though that is a different story). Five books in forty years? No historian would continue to hold employment with such a track record, even if a few papers were churned out to buttress the monographs, even if the books she eventually produced were as successful and feted as Caro’s have been.

And yet, on any meaningful measure of what history and the social sciences purport to be about, the work of Caro is at the pinnacle. It is both deeply serious and widely popular (his book on Moses was a bestseller, for instance). Caro has provided the single most important source of scholarship, both primary and secondary, of Johnson and his political surroundings. Even a specialist historian who merely set out to be the acknowledged expert on a single president would struggle to match Caro’s impact, and yet a professional historian who published as little as Caro would soon find herself bundled out of the faculty.

It’s a sobering realisation for any working academic that the conditions of academic working life are now such that the working academic can no longer realistically aspire to producing the kind of serious, important work that academia claims to be about.

Alex Burns on attention cascades

Over at his blog, Alex Burns has an excellent post on Google Ngram and its ability to map long-wave “attention cascades”:

I chose the literature on the Graeco-Armenian magus George Gurdjieff and the Russian journalist Pyotr Uspenskii (Ouspensky) for several reasons. It is a structured ‘body of work’ with primary sources, pupil narratives, and second- and third-generation commentaries. This segmentation means it can be compared with a range of authors and topics using bibliometrics, historical research, and anthropological methods. It anticipated themes of the 1960s Age of Aquarius and 1970s environmental movements. It grew endogenously after some specific events, such as the timed release of Gurdjieff’s authorised writings and the early popularity of Ouspensky’s neo-Theosophical writings on consciousness, mathematics, and comparative religion. The fluctuations in Google’s Ngram Viewer can be interpreted, in part, as the rise-and-fall of what Ouspensky called the ‘Fourth Way’ in the Human Potential movement and other subcultures. Continue reading

Axel Bruns maps the Australian blogosphere

A close up of the Australian blogopshere map generated by Axel Bruns.

Axel Bruns has extracted some 2.6 million hyperlinks and come up with some very pretty data mapping the Australian blogosphere for the first time:

what we’re already seeing in the network is a relatively large cluster of sites on the left of the graph, made up of sites (MSM as well as blogs) that deal predominantly with news and politics. In addition to domestic and international news sites, various Australian political blogs (such as Larvatus ProdeoClub TroppoJohn QuigginPeter MartinCatallaxy Files, and the suite of Crikey blogs) appear as prominent nodes in the network (on both the indegree and eigenvector centrality counts). Many smaller – that is, less prominent – blogs cluster around them, but receive comparatively fewer inlinks. There’s even likely to be some further subdivision within this overall cluster, but I wouldn’t want to speculate too much on this point until we’ve had a chance to further clean our data.

You can see the full post here and download the full-size, gorgeous mapping images here.

Two important new research reports from the Australia Council

With the excitement of Australia’s hung Parliament and everything I have been giving cultural policy matters a back seat for my writing on Australian politics itself.

Indeed, the election campaign has also obscured the release of two important research reports from the Australia Council on the state of artists’ incomes and career prospects in Australia.

On August 17th – in other words, during the last week of the election campaign – the Australia Council released the new reports, which it claims “offer a comprehensive picture of the working lives of Australian artists.”

The first, Do You Really Expct to Get Paid? is the latest in the long-running artists’ income survey conducted by eminent Macquarie University cultural economist David Throsby.  This is an important and extremely rich research research project, as it has been running for nearly three decades across five separate surveys.  The latest installment is particularly rewarding, offering fascinating insights and precious hard data on issues like artists’ basic demography, income levels, working hours, employment patterns, professional challenges and use of new technology. It’s a treasure trove of sociological information which I’ll be exploring here in more detail over the next few weeks.

Stuart Cunningham and Peter Higgs’ What’s Your Other Job?: A census analysis of artists’ employment in Australia is a very thorough and interesting dissection of available Australian Census data. But it inadvertantly shows up of one of the biggest policy  problems posed by the Australia Council by the methodological definitions it employs. Presumably at the request of the Australia Council itself, census definitions  used are not those the ABS uses in it Employment in Culture series, but rather a subset of those classifications that deal only with the artforms currently funded by the Australia Council: Chiefly literature, music, visual arts and crafts, theatre and dance, “cross-artform” arts, and design.

The relevant definitions are carefully explicated – but what it is significant is who is missing. If I read the definitions correctly,  whole swathes of the cultural sector are missing. There are no film-makers, no animators, no game designers or developers, no broadcasters or book or magazine publishers, no librarians or archivists, no journalists and no bloggers – nor any of the related professions that might be snobbishly considerd “non-artistic” but in fact are vital to the production and performance of the arts – jobs like sound recorders and producers, festival promoters, museum curators and film and TV producers.

In fact, the film and television sector appears to have been excluded altogether – a strange and arbitrary decision which appears to have more to do with existing policy ambit of the Australia Council than the relevance or cogency of this definition to the broader debate. After all, what is it exactly makes design more “artistic” than cinematography?

None of which is to criticise Cunningham and Higgs’ report, which still has some really interesting things to tell us – data I’m going to explore over the course of the next week or so.

The sociology of political blogs: the left and right blogospheres

Previous studies of the blogosphere have used link analysis to suggest a symmetrical relationship between twinned left and right blogospheres. Yochai Benkler's new research overturns this theory, suggesting left-leaning blogs feature more in-depth analysis, use more complex platforms, and raise more money. Source: Berkman Centre for Internet and Society

By way of the invaluable Eszter Hargittai comes news of Yochai Benkler’s latest research on the blogosphere.

Eszter writes:

Yochai Benkler, Aaron Shaw and Victoria Stodden of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society have just released “A Tale of Two Blogospheres: Discursive Practices on the Left and Right” showing some significant differences in types of blog platforms used (with different affordances), co-authorships and levels of participation among blogs of different political persuasions. Here is one example of specific findings (based on analyses of 155 top political blogs):

Over 40% of blogs on the left adopt platforms with enhanced user participation features. Only about 13% of blogs on the right do so. While there is substantial overlap, and comments of some level of visibility are used in the vast majority of blogs on both sides of the political divide, the left adopts enabling technologies that make user-generated diaries and blogs more central to the site to a significantly greater degree than does the right. (p. 22.)

In an interview with The Nation, Benkler explains a little about his research. The interview is full of insights, such as this one:

What we have seen is a model where things that used to be available only to thousands of people are now probably available to hundreds of thousands of people–maybe low millions. That is to say, let’s imagine for a moment that something like one percent of the US voting population, about 2 million people, have relatively easy access to a platform that makes them visible to thousands or tens of thousands of other people. That’s clearly new, in that you never had something like this in a mass media environment. It’s also clearly far from “everyone a pamphleteer, and everyone a town crier.”

And this one:

… this is the first time we’re getting a more detailed look at the technology of options and patterns of use–the first time we’re seeing there’s a difference between the left and right blogospheres, in terms of technologies adopted and the shape of the discourse, as it were, between left and right. I’d say most of the discussions of the blogosphere in politics, up until now, have claimed to observe a symmetry and talked about the blogosphere as one phenomenon in its relationships to political discourse. What we found is that the story is more complex–as it almost always is.

It is important to emphasize there is a lot of overlap between the two sides. But, it does look like the right wing of the blogosphere developed into a stronger emphasis on individual bloggers with very short stories and links–to other places and particularly to mainstream media. And to the extent that we saw larger-scale discourse inside a group of people talking to each other, it was more of a phenomenon on the left wing of the blogosphere.

I think our study questions the idea that there is somehow a technologically determined effect in political blogging. So different institutional settings and mediascape settings adopted things differently. I think the right–when you think of the blogospshere emerging in 2002 and 2003–the right had control over all branches of government; it had Fox News as an outlet; it had churches for organization; it was plausible to adopt a practice or blogosphere that largely reflects and amplifies that media and discourse space.

I think the left was out of government. Clearly, the churches were not an organizing space, and unions did not have the same kind of scope and reach and civic associations; there was no mirror image to Fox News. The effort to create alternative to talk radio was quite weak, there was a small number of magazines–like The Nation, like The Prospect–but nothing like the mediascape on the right. And then the blogosphere comes along and creates a new alternative.

You can see the full paper as a PDF here.

Bob Stein at the Melbourne Writers Festival

Last Thursday, my sister (Kate Eltham of Electric Alphabet) moderated a whole day of sessions about digital publishing at the Melbourne Writers Festival.

It was a fascinating series of sessions which included some very interesting comments from the Institute for the Future of the Book’s Bob Stein.  While I didn’t record or transcribe his comments at the festival, I was able to chat to him on Friday night, which was brief but very rewarding. I’m going to attempt a brief precis of some of the things he said, in the sessions I saw. Continue reading