Whyte and Berry Individual and Society Whyte essay

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Whyte and Berry Individual and Society

Whyte and Berry both believe that the individual in society is being slowly killed, figuratively and literally, by cultural trends far greater than he. Whyte attempts to reveal this in the context of the modern white collar worker while Berry attempts to reveal it through the dilemma of the modern consumer. Because of their historical contexts, they focus on different reasons for these cultural problems.


Both Whyte and Berry indict the trend towards professional specialization as the most proximate source of the modern individual's discontent. Whyte believes that the transfer of work duties from the individual to the group leave the individual with little challenge and little to work towards. (Whyte: 399)

The Subjugation of the Individual to the Group - Social Ethic

Whyte believes that the root of our cultural problems, specialization, arise from the social ethic. Whyte defines the social ethic as "that growing body of thought which makes morally legitimate the pressures of society against the individual." (Whyte 1956: 5) He recognizes three propositions of this social ethic: "a belief in the group as the source of creativity; a belief in "belongingness" as the ultimate need of the individual; and a belief in the application of science to achieve the belongingness." (Whyte 1956: 5)

Whyte believes that the social ethic was created in response to the void left by the decline of the Protestant Ethic. (Whyte 1956: 4) The Protestant Work Ethic expounded the virtues of hard work, thrift, and competition as a means to salvation, providing men with an ultimate goal and a reason to live. With the increase of secular values and the decline of religious values, the Protestant Ethic was no longer compelling for the majority of American society. However, the individual's productive impulse did not die with the Protestant Ethic, it manifested itself again in what Whyte called the Social Ethic, the pursuit of collective prosperity. It was the individual's self-interest being achieved through the success of the collective.

Worse still, specialization may not even be very productive. Whyte intimates that thinkers who used to believe that morale necessarily increases productivity now "warn that the supervisor who concentrates on making the group happy may produce belongingness but not very much else." (Whyte: 399) Thus, specialization and the group ethic underlying it, are harmful to the interests of productivity as well as personal fulfillment.

The Gulf between Production and Consumption - Economics over Agriculture

Like Whyte, Berry also attributes the plight of the modern individual to specialization. (Berry 1977: 18) Berry explains that "…a system of specialization requires the abdication to specialists of various competences and responsibilities that were once personal and universal…the American citizen now consigns the problem of food production to agriculturists and "agribusinessmen," the problems of health to doctors and sanitation experts, the problems of education to school teachers and educators." (Berry: 19) Thus, the individual is exempt from being concerned about his larger impact on the world, for the purposes of Berry's analysis, the environment. Berry observes that "This supposedly fortunate citizen is therefore left with only two concerns: making money and entertaining himself." (Berry: 19)

For Berry, the true danger of specialization is not just boredom, but impotence. Specialization robs a man, successively, of responsibilities, skills, and eventually willpower. "He has not the power to provide himself with anything but money, and his money is inflating like a balloon and drifting away, subject to historical circumstances and the power of other people. From morning to night he does not touch anything that he has produced himself, in which he can take pride." (Berry 1997: 19)

The specialization away from the basic task of food production is Berry's ultimate focus. Berry suggests that the individual's ignorance of natural law and natural order causes the breakdown of the larger community. According to Berry, "The community disintegrates because it loses the necessary understandings, forms, and enactments of the relations among materials and processes, principles and actions, ideals and realities, past and present, present and future, men and women, body and spirit, city and country, civilization and wilderness, growth and decay, life and death -- just as the individual character loses the sense of a responsible involvement in these relations. (Berry 1977: 20)

For Berry, the separation of consumption and production changed the way the individual thought about his environment. "The collaborators purified their roles -- the household became simply a house or residence, purely consumptive in its function; the farm ceased to be a place to live and a way of life and became a unit of production -- and their once collaborative relationship became competitive." (Berry: 31) This competitive relationship is at the heart of Berry's ultimate gripe, the individual's destruction of the environment.

Means over Ends

Berry and Whyte both suggest that there is foolish focus on means over ends. Berry remarks that citizens "…are willing to hear that "96% of America's manpower is freed from food production" -- without asking what it may have been "freed" for, or how many as a consequence have been "freed" from employment of any kind. (Berry: 31) Berry's criticism echoes Whyte's own criticism of modern educational institutions, exemplified by the focus on business administration over liberal arts: "To preach technique before content, the skills of getting along isolated from why and to what end the getting along is for, does not produce maturity. It produces a sort of permanent prematurity, and this is true not only of the child being taught life adjustment but of the organization man being taught well-round-edness." (Whyte: 398)

Historical Context of Whyte

Whyte was responding to massive economic, social, and geographic transformations. Whyte lived at a time where the United States, the unscathed victor in World War II, was enjoying unprecedented national security and prosperity. The benefits of these developments spread downstream to a larger swath of society, especially returning servicemen. These servicemen received generous home financing through the G.I. Bill, which, along with the development of the national freeway, triggered a massive flight from the cities to the newly created suburbs. Thus, the physical world of the individual had changed dramatically, from the tight strictures of the city to the wide, lonely expanse of the suburbs.

The other huge transformation wrought by the G.I. Bill was the democratization of college. Before World War II, college was a privilege available to only the elite in American society, those with the money or connections to send their children to college. The G.I. Bill gave returning servicemen, from all walks of society, access to college education and the career opportunities that flowed from that privilege. The extension of a white collar career to such a huge addition of people triggered a massive bureaucratization of American industry, which had to create a new class of white collar positions. This bureaucratization prompted a larger focus on more vocational tracks of study such as business administration or communication. Berry was responding to this vocational focus when he criticized the emphasis on technique over content, as individuals educated as such often missed out on the seminal humanistic ideas and inspiration that a liberal arts education provides.

Historical Context of Berry

Berry lived at a time when the country was developing a keen awareness of the limitations of the environment. It was well after the tumultuous, free-thinking period of the 1960's and just before the excess-ridden, "greed is good" period of the 1980's. Berry was responding to the neo-liberal, free market thinking that was beginning to exert considerable influence on the government.

Without the war in Vietnam on which to channel its paranoia, American scaremongers sought another bogeyman with which to rationalize its aggressive policies. Their opportunity came when the U.S. underwent a huge energy crisis after the oil shortage. The fear being sold now was the scarcity of subsistence goods and commodities. In response to this fear of "petropower," our government developed its own notion of commodity-power, what Berry referred to as "agripower."

The Differences between Whyte and Berry

Both Whyte and Berry believe that there is a huge cultural issue underlying the dilemma of the modern individual. Whyte believes that the cultural issue comes from intellectual issues, the decline of Protestant values and its replacement with the Social Ethic. Berry believes the cultural issue is rooted in technological realities, the separation of man's consumption from production.

The Solutions Suggested by Whyte and Berry

The respective historical contexts of White and Berry inform not only their understanding of the problem, but their understanding of the solutions. Whyte suggests that the individual must realize that conflict between individual and society is inevitable and that he must not shrink from conflict merely out of a sense of obligation and altruism. Berry suggests that the individual, the consumer, must reduce his dependence on corporations and his destruction of the environment by producing his own food.

Whyte's view of the problem, that it is an intellectual issue, makes his solution somewhat abstract. Whyte does not actually recommend specific tasks and actions…[continue]

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