Review: The Homeless Mind

The Homeless Mind
The Homeless Mind: Modernization and Consciousness
Peter Berger, Brigitte Berger, and Hansfried Kellner
Vintage Books, New York, 1974

Review Copyright © 1996 Garret Wilson — February 2, 1996

Note: This review essay was first created for the University of Tulsa Honors Program Junior Colloquium: "Modernity and its Discontents" in 1996 for Dr. Jensen.

In The Homeless Mind, Berger, Berger, and Kellner try to introduce the reader to the concepts of modernization and its problems, and set forth a model that attempts to explain how modernization takes place. Their stated hope is that the reader, after understanding how modernization occurs and the problems it brings about, will be better equipped to deal with modernization and to formulate methods of remedying its problems. Here, the concentration will be upon the explanations given by the authors on the actual processes of modernization and the problems that then arise.

The main ideas presented by Berger, Berger, and Kellner can be somewhat summarized by the following: modernization processes, mainly technological production and bureaucracy, are giving individuals feelings of anxiety and confusion by introducing them to varied viewpoints, so those individuals try to lower this cognitive dissonance by adopting separate thought processes for public and private life. This action, along with other facets of modernization, remove from the individual the feeling of belonging and increase feelings of isolation, therefore bringing about a feeling of psychological homelessness. Many methods of attempting to resist modernization are intrinsically paradoxical, and thus this situation of homelessness resulting from modernity has no easy solutions.

This albeit lengthy summary is nevertheless incomplete; the authors advance so many ideas that are important to their line of reasoning that it is virtually impossible to present them all in a few short sentences. On the other hand, many ideas mentioned in the above summary are so complex that the authors have coined specific words that attempt to cover literally paragraphs of information; such terms are certainly "loaded words" in a very literal sense.

The authors, when writing of modernity, are referring to "the institutional concomitants of technologically induced economic growth." Put another way, the authors believe that economic growth that is brought about by technological advances brings with it certain institutions, or ways of thinking, which are incorporated into the everyday life of a society’s population. The crux of their explanation is that modernity has two processes, which they refer to as carriers, that have traditionally brought modernity to the masses. The first, which can readily be seen in their definition, is technology. New ways of doing things has brought about new ways of thinking about things. Thus, the arrival of the technology of steam engines and consequently Henry Ford’s assembly line concept were technological advancements that were carried over into many aspects of industry. It soon came to the point so that most workers worked in factories which used this assembly-line concept along with the other factory-related paradigms that went along with it, and these eventually became not only processes of making automobiles, but also paradigms of thought for everyday life. Thus, as time went by, most members of the population adopted technological paradigms as methods for everyday reasoning.

Examples of relevant concepts which carried over into society are "componentiality" and "separability of means and ends." These are some of the aforementioned "loaded words" which the authors coin to attempt to summarize complex phenomena, although these specific terms should be recognizable and understood already somewhat from common sense. "Componentiality," therefore, as a concept that has been incorporated into everyday thought, can be understood, first from the technological standpoint, as the way the assembly line breaks up the final process (the automobile) into separate stages (components). Transferred to the consciousness of the individual, he/she no longer looks at objects in life as simple objects in themselves; they can be understood as a collection of components. A stomach ache to an individual is no longer just an uncomfortable phenomenon, it can be explained in light of the separate components of the food that was taken interacting with the component of the stomach organ in the different components of gastric juices. Similarly, the "separability of means and ends" carries over from the individual’s job to the individual’s everyday reasoning. As putting together different components can be seen as a mean to the end, the automobile, so that idea is applied to other aspects of the individual’s life: "If I am to become an electrical engineer, it is necessary that I learn my multiplication tables." These concepts are only two of many given by the authors that try to show how technology has introduced into individuals’ lives different rules and modes of thought that are more restrictive in the sense that there are more things that have to be adhered to.

One more term that the authors claim carries over from the job to the individual’s consciousness illustrates the overall spirit of the book: "anonymous social relations." In a factory setting, one must use a certain part and make it into an automobile (or at least contribute his/her part) without caring who took part in making that item; the part should be used, and should be the same, whether Jim, Joe, or Bill made it. The authors claim that this lessens the individual’s relation to others in society. There is less of a personal touch in the everyday method of looking at the world. Through this and other ideas brought about through technology, individuals slowly lose their identity. This contributes to the feeling of homelessness.

The other major process which brings about modernization, and consequently the feeling of homelessness, according to the authors, is bureaucracy. Here, the authors do not tread into much new territory; they state the traditional concepts of bureaucracy being an institution that creates restrictions on the individual, an idea that should be quite familiar to the reader. Bureaucracy creates more "red tape," as it were, and the individual feels as if his/her life is being controlled to a greater extent than before. And as a result of bureaucratic identification, the individual’s place in life is emphasized relative to the bureaucracy itself: instead of emphasizing the individual as a Smith, or a member of a local club, his existence as a citizen, for example, is stressed. This leads to more anonymity; the individual becomes hidden in the masses of others who are also under the bureaucracy. The individual’s feelings of homelessness are increased.

The third aspect of modernization that contributes to the feeling of psychological homelessness the authors refer to as, "pluralization of social life-worlds." This concept is relatively straightforward: premodern societies have a set of beliefs and norms that are more or less shared with the population as a whole. Each individual readily identifies with other individuals in the group, because they have the same beliefs. Moreover, these other individuals strengthen those beliefs because they are the same. Religion, for example, is not just a private philosophy of the individual but a set of beliefs shared by the community. In fact, there is no distinction made between private and public aspects of beliefs such as religion — indeed, there is no need for such a distinction to be made. The individual therefore feels very much at home in his society.

Modernization processes have the potential to (and usually do) introduce the individuals to other viewpoints. The more the population grows, the more likely it is that members of that society will interact with other societies, which are also expanding. Modern technology not only increases the population through advances in medicine, but also provides the means to interact with other societies. Thus, modern technology has produced new modes of transportation, from large wooden ships to horseless carriages to airplanes. As populations grow and expand due to modern processes, they are introduced with many ideas that are alien to those shared by the community. Many advances in science also are not in perfect accord with beliefs previously held by the community. The individuals come to understand that their ideas are not necessarily universal ones. Truths that were held to be universally self-evident are now seen to be highly localized. This inevitably gives the individual great doubts about the validity of beliefs formerly unquestioned.

The individual at this stage realizes that his/her belief system is in jeopardy. In order to prevent a complete loss of that belief system, which would immediately cause a sense of abandonment, the individual many times creates a distinction between public and private life. Since his/her beliefs are no longer shared by the community at large (after all, the community at large now also consists those from other societies), the individual puts less emphasis on those beliefs in his/her actions in the new "public" life, and relegates most aspects of those beliefs to the new "private" life. In the private life, one can believe what one wants without interference from others in the new modern society. Religion, for example, is then no longer a shared part of society; church and state are suddenly distinct. Each individual believes and practices what (if any) religious beliefs he/she feels are correct. This concept of a "pluralization of social life-worlds" is less a carryover of some new paradigm brought by modernization, as are technology and bureaucracy, as it is simply a result brought about by the very processes of modernity. Nevertheless, the authors believe that the resulting separation of life into public and private spheres further isolates the individual from the community — the feeling of homelessness yet increases.

The premise of the book, therefore, can be placed in the authors’ own words:

...The secularizing effect of pluralization has gone hand in hand with other secularizing forces in modern society. The final consequence of all this can be put very simply (though the simplicity is deceptive): modern man has suffered from a deepening condition of "homelessness." The correlate of the migratory character of his experience of society and of self has been what might be called a metaphysical loss of "home." It goes without saying that this condition is psychologically hard to bear. (p. 82)

Alternatives to such a condition should therefore be sought, the authors claim, although they advance no straightforward solution to the problem. Most of the remainder of the book is spent in various case studies. The authors give examples of many Third World countries which have been affected by modernization. The modernization processes here, such as cable television and other modern forms of communication, are sometimes very different than the ones that started modernization, but their effects are the same. Sometimes there are those in a society who see modernization as their salvation, the solution to their impoverished condition. Others see modernization as an enemy that will bring an end to the traditions that have long given the individuals of that society a safe, calculated way of looking at life.

Whatever the viewpoint, the authors see the theme of psychological homelessness inevitably showing up everywhere that modernization occurs. If modernity is embraced, the above consequences occur. However, the authors note that even if modernity is shunned, the very methods of rebellion inevitably uphold various facets of the very thing these individuals are fighting against. For example, many Third World countries turn to nationalism (i.e. bureaucracy) in an effort to curtail modernization, when the very concept of such a bureaucracy is in itself a part of modernity. The "youth culture" of the seventies is seen as a rebellion against the rigid and cumbersome constraints of modernity, but the solutions offered by this culture are shown as inseparable from modernity concepts. Although those of the youth culture try to separate themselves from modern society and its ideas by being different and spontaneous, they are, by this very attempt, in effect planning their spontaneity, which is in itself paradoxical. As the authors put it, anti-institutionalism has been institutionalized.

The closest the authors come to a solution is in stating that they take the middle of the road; they advocate neither an outright rejection of modernity or an embracing of the same, for the reasons outlined above. While they indicate that socialism in many ways decreases the individualistic tendencies of modernism and strives to reidentify the individual with the community, they admit that current implementations of socialism have their share of demerits. They hope that their book will be used not only for analyzing but also for political reform. As they believe that making certain decisions will bring about sacrifices in other areas, they wish that this work can bring about an examination of values, a determination of which things are the most important as societies face the effects of the processes of modernity.