John Brunner, “Hemlines of the intellect,”
The Twentieth Century, Summer 1963, pp. 46-56.
Our attitudes to fashion sometimes seem extraordinarily mixed up. We condemn the fashion-conscious for keeping up with the Joneses, but those who don’t go along with the latest fad are dismissed as square. We are increasingly critical of tradition but see nothing odd about deploring fashion in the same breath, apparently unaware that the two are really alternatives, that tastes and values must either be transmitted vertically (tradition) or horizontally (fashion). And of course, in the words of the late Austin O’Malley, “we smile at the women who are eagerly following the fashions in dress whilst we are as eagerly following the fashions in thought.”
I would like to suggest that a more consistent attitude would be to accept that fashion is not necessarily a bad thing, indeed that it is often a condition of progress, but at the same time to realise that it is very much on the crease, not least in spheres that might like to think they were proof against it. The adjustment of our intellectual hemlines is at least as frequent and absurd as the ups and downs of the feminine skirt and potentially a lot more harmful.
That fashion, in the sense of receptivity to new ideas and opinions, is on the increase is, I think, undeniable. In some respects Britain may be less prone than other industrial nations because it is more bound by tradition. In other respects, notably in much of our public discussion, we may be more susceptible. But most of the factors that go to enhance the influence of fashion operate in many countries besides our own. This is true whichever of the three participants in the fashion process one looks at — the imbibers, the mediators or the initiators.
The main culprits in the eyes of those who regard fashion as a dirty word tend almost invariably to be industry and admass (itself a very fashionable preoccupation at present). A picture is painted of unscrupulous businessmen foisting a succession of unwanted products and ideas on an unsuspecting public, ensuring by the Machiavellian device of built-in obsolescence that a new range can be put out every year. As with all such caricatures, there is an element of truth in it. Industry has become more fashion-conscious or consumer-oriented, as they say. This is not a particularly new phenomenon. What economists call monopolistic competition, under which firms compete by means of product differentiation, has been with us for years and has been encouraged by manufacturers because the resulting goodwill associated with the brand-name gives them some control over the market. But as the emphasis shifts still further from vast impersonal markets beyond the control of any one producer, like those which have long ruled in agriculture, to clearly defined brands, it becomes all the more imperative for firms to keep abreast of changing taste. Where once the main job was that of producing to a price, it is now one of designing to a quality, a quality that will attract and retain the loyalty of consumers. To find out what the best formula should be, market research techniques have been developed with the specific aim of spotting trends and exploiting fashions.
If anything, this country has been relatively backward in this respect. The point has been made that often British designs have been out of date and our products ill-adapted to mass markets, because too many British managements have allowed their own personal tastes to determine what should be produced. In seeking to impose English middle-class tastes on foreign or working-class markets, they have shown a lack of sympathy for their customers’ requirements which has cost them and the balance of payments dear.
Industry’s growing, if still inadequate, attention to fashion has of course been assisted by advertising. The latter has provided much of the research expertise to help industry expertise to help industry discover the wishes, conscious and unconscious, of its potential customers, as well as the voice to shout eureka once the magic formula has been discovered. Indeed, advertising’s chief economic function is to enable industry to meet those wishes with the minimum of delay by noising abroad the existence of new products. Moreover, advertising not only encourages fashion directly by trying to expedite trends towards particular products; it also does so by the very nature of its appeal. In an age of fashion-consciousness, the everybody’s-doing-it line (suitably tailored to take account of the idols and ideals of the potential consumer of the product in question, e.g. lively minds, top people) is obviously a good selling line.
Industry and advertising, however, only deal in what economists call goods and services. Among the purveyors of fashion the media — especially print and broadcasting — perform a far more comprehensive service. For their influence on fashion embraces the arts, sciences, politics, morals, the lot; and precisely because editorial copy is often not seen as having any ulterior motive, it can create a much more uncritical response.
The media, too, have become more fashion-conscious in recent years, regardless of the form of ownership under which they operate. Their dedication to news values has always given them a strong interest in creation and destruction of fashions, but so long as they were owned and/or run by men committed to a particular party-line, there was a limit to how far they would go in pursuit of the latest political or intellectual fad. “My party right or wrong” does not give very much room for manoeuvre. Recently, however, this political commitment and all that goes with it has been breaking down. Kemsley has been replaced by Thomson, Reith and his relatively inflexible successors by Carleton-Greene. The Herald is free to diverge from the Transport House line, just as the Mail can cheerfully go awhoring after Liberal voters.
In some respects, of course, this relaxation of political control has given print and broadcasting much greater freedom of expression — the media have become freer to mediate. Since, however, the process has been accompanied by increased competitive pressures, the effect has been to substitute one master for another. Even if a politically minded proprietor may no longer have to be heeded (with one outstanding exception!) a fickle public has to be placated. Correspondents, critics, leader-writers have to be continually alive to the changes in public taste. The emphasis on novelty values is greater than ever, since only by keeping a jump ahead can one be sure not to be left behind by the next swing of fashion. (One result is the extraordinary manner in which artists and shows can be praised on one occasion and savaged on the next without any obvious deterioration in their quality. A good example of an author who received the full treatment from the make and break boys was Colin Wilson, but TWTWTW seemed to be undergoing much the same treatment just at the end of its first TV run in the spring.)
To this extent criticisms of admass are justified. The media are more ready to indulge their customers than they once were, and of course the spread of television and the growing dominance of national newspapers (with the decline of the provincial press) enable fashions to be created faster than ever. But none the less the critics grossly overrate the role of the media. To put all the blame for public fickleness on admass flatters it unduly, for in truth it is doing no more than reflect and reinforce trends that have much deeper roots in our society.
The fundamental factors making Western man so much more sensitive to fashion, or so much more open-minded as the case may be, include improved education, rapid technological change, increased social mobility, a more democratic spirit, the emancipation of the young, the growth in the sheer complexity of life, and a host of other developments to which the media have contributed almost nothing. These trends have all served to undermine traditional standards and authorities, not excluding those of the media themselves.
Our forefathers were brought up within a more or less fixed system of beliefs, religious, moral, social. They knew their station in life, their prospects and future environment. Change was slow and required few revisions in the course of man’s life. People’s gyroscopes, as David Riesman would say, were set in childhood and kept their owners roughly on course for the rest of their lives, which were, in any case, shorter. This static hierarchical society is, of course, in decay. Religious beliefs have been shaken without anything which offers similar emotional security being put in their place. (Julian Huxley may get a “deep sense of relief” from the abandonment of the God hypothesis, but few others, whether believers or unbelievers, would see it like this.) Demarcation lines between classes have been blurred, leaving people unsure of their social standing. Forms of training in youth are found useless or irrelevant in middle age. The housewife who learnt partly by instinct and partly at her mother’s knee what to buy and how to bring up her children now no longer feels competent to perform either task. Would-be patrons of the contemporary arts feel unable to trust their judgement any more in a market where taste really does seem to have become a matter of taste. The industrialist is cowed by the technical, economic and human problems of running the modern corporation.
It is against this background that our greater fashion-consciousness needs to be seen. Feeling inadequate and in need of reassurance, we are ever on the look-out for advice. Priding ourselves on our tolerance and broadmindedness, we are wide open to suggestion, whether from the media, the advertiser or the proliferating army of experts of all kinds. The housewife will turn to the women’s magazines, to Dr Spock and the Consumers’ Association in much the same spirit that the industrialist will look to operations research one year, time and motion the next, linear programming the third, while surrounding himself with departments of experts to help do the jobs, e.g. personnel and public relations, which the old-style tycoon imagined, rightly or wrongly, that he could do single-handed. The private patron of the arts may contract out altogether, but official patrons will not be short of advisory committees to help keep their ears to the ground. Sticking to the Riesman terminology, one may say that other-directed man has replaced inner-directed, and radar has taken over from the gyroscope.
To the purist, the mere possibility that fashion may have been a motive is enough to condemn the deed. But it isn’t necessarily undesirable that businessmen should sometimes employ a specialist, more because they have heard that other businessmen whom they admire or fear have done so than because they know what to do with him, any more than it is that firms should install computers without knowing what to make of them, largely to keep up with Jones and Co. Emulation, like fear of public opinion, can be a most salutary force. Whether it is or is not depends not on the motives but on the results, on the quality of the goods or ideas “bought”.
And here there is a point that does seem to need emphasising. Just as traditional authorities themselves were the creatures of tradition, so the new authorities are inevitably in the sway of fashion. I have already mentioned this as it affects the employees of the media, but it also applies in varying degrees to all experts and specialists.
We seem extremely reluctant to accept this. We are quite ready to believe the worst of admass, so much so that it is difficult to understand why we have to be warned against it so often. (If those who spend so much time worrying about the effects of advertising ever took time off to study them at first hand at their local cinema, they would find that the typical reaction is one of ribald laughter.) But we seem to have a touching belief in the independent-mindedness of experts: the rest of us poor laymen may be incapable of resisting the wiles of fashion, but the experts at any rate know our own minds. It is precisely because we live in an increasingly specialised age that this myth is so hard to explode. Examples of professional fashions are not easy to document. Few of us are competent to discern fashion outside our own field, and in it we have a certain vested interest in preserving the myth of objectivity. One may be suspicious when art critics start eulogising pictures that would do no credit to one’s small and not especially talented children, just as one may wonder why tonsils seem to be in at one time and out at another. But admitting one’s ignorance of the subjects in question, one can do no more than that. There is, however, one broad field of which I have just enough acquaintance to pursue my suspicions a little further and that is the social science.
I am encouraged in this temerity by the pronouncements of two well-known American sociologists — Pitirim Sorokin in his Fads and Foibles in Modern Sociology and Related Sciences and C. Wright Mills in The Sociological Imagination. It is perhaps indicative that The Sociological Imagination should be so much less popular [pace Julius Gould in this issue] than Wright Mills’s other works, while Sorokin’s book has made no impact whatever. A discreet veil seems to have been drawn over these two lapses in taste.
Some of Sorokin’s charges are a bit exaggerated and his own standpoint is fairly questionable, but if only a fraction of his case is well founded, it amounts to a devastating indictment of the social sciences in the U.S.A. Some idea of the style and scope of his critique is provided by his chapter headings. He starts off with what he calls “amnesia” or “the discoverer’s complex”. This is none other than the occupational disease of the media — the dedication to novelty values which leads people to suppose that they are making original discoveries of things that have long been public knowledge. But what may be forgiven in a harassed news editor is less excusable in the more leisurely world of the academic. The second fad diagnosed by Sorokin is the use of “obtuse jargon”, pretentious long-winded language which makes for no greater precision or understanding. Indeed it often manages to confuse the issue, since words with an exact meaning in the natural sciences are transported bodily to the social sciences and lose all real significance in the process. From here Sorokin continues via “the illusion of operationalism” (a naïve belief in the omnipotence of the experimental method and its application to the social sciences), and “the fad of intelligence tests” and “testomania” generally to the preoccupation of the social sciences with mathematics and statistics — what he calls “quantophrenia” and “numerology”. His remaining chapters include strictures on “the grand cult of ‘social physics’ and ‘mental mechanics'” and “the wonderland of social atoms and small groups”.
Wright Mills labels his targets differently, e.g. abstract empiricism, but the argument is much the same. “My conception stands opposed to social science as a set of bureaucratic techniques which inhibit social inquiry by ‘methodological’ pretensions, which congest such work by obscurantist conceptions, or which trivialise it by concern with minor problems unconnected with publicly relevant issues”. This coincidence of views is all the more surprising since otherwise the two men have little in common. So far from having been a disciple of Sorokin’s, Wight Mills does not mention the latter’s name once throughout his book.
Underlying these foibles are the same human frailties that make all of us susceptible to fashion — the desire for prestige and assurance. In the social science, prestige is seen as something that they (the natural scientists) have, and we, who believe that the proper study of mankind is man, haven’t. Hence the temptation to imitate the natural sciences by adopting their manner of thinking and methods of approach. In fact, as Sorokin demonstrates, the techniques aped have as often as not already been discarded by natural scientists as outmoded, but this is a minor point. Much more serious is that mankind just does not lend itself to the same sort of analysis as inanimate nature. The observer can seldom remain neutral, the guinea pigs are often aware that they are being studied and react accordingly, the variables are usually impossible to isolate and many of the phenomena examined defy objective measurement.
The result has been an immense accumulation of facts and building of models, but remarkably little in the way of significant contributions to the sum of human knowledge. Privately social scientists may admit this, always qualifying their admissions with the words “as yet”. It is of course the essence of any really potent fashion that its addicts believe that time and history are on their side.
How far are these cults being practised over here? Although British sociology still has a strong streak of innerdirectedness, many of its practitioners agreeing with Marx that the world needs changing more than interpreting, there is plenty of evidence both in sociology and in our other social sciences of the influence of fashion. While I was actually writing this I heard a sociologist on the Third Programme delivering himself of the opinion that “the moving frontiers of empirical research establish beyond rational doubt that freedom and equality are today the very condition of the stable and responsible family”. One may happen to share the prejudice implicit here, but empirical research can establish no such thing when freedom, equality, stable and responsible are none of them words with anything approaching an accepted definition. Indeed, in some respects fashion is more influential than in the States, where at least a counter-attack is under way. Here the old tend to be even more intimidated by their failure to understand the finer points of the new scholasticism, while the young have had little chance of knowing any better. Take this question of measurement, for example. Now measurement has a valuable role to play in advancing knowledge provided it is recognised as means, not end. But when it is seen as what distinguishes science from “mere speculation” (how often have we got to be reminded that almost all scientific discovery starts as “mere speculation”), when it provides the stuff that status-giving computers are fed on, and learned journals filled with, it becomes an end in itself and introduces its own biases. For so great is the pressure to measure that one of two things frequently happens. Either highly subjective criteria are adopted which tell one more about the tester than the tested (this seems to be a particular danger in psychology) or the immeasurables tend to be discounted, if not forgotten altogether.
Two examples of this are in economics and in advertising, where probably as much social science is being conducted as in all our universities together. One of the main functions of advertising agents is to allocate their clients’ budgets between and within the various media in such a way as to achieve the maximum impact for a given expenditure. To this end a great deal of highly sophisticated figuring goes on in the backrooms of agencies to arrive at the best possible combination of media. All manner of calculations are made to ensure that the advertisements are placed in media with just those audiences the product is aimed at, and the cost per 1,000 readers or viewers is worked out down to two places of decimals of a penny. On the face of it this may seem a scientific enough procedure, but when one looks a little closer one finds that next to nothing is known about the relative impact of the different media, e.g. press and television, and that within the media we only have a crude headcount — based in the case of the press on the number of people who claim to have looked at a newspaper within a certain period. We know very little about how closely they read the paper and its advertisements, still less about how far they act on them. Moreover, even according to its own lights, the press’s headcount is highly suspect. Its sponsors recently commissioned a report on its accuracy which suggested that, for newspapers like the Observer, readership was understated by more than 50 per cent. That these rituals continue none the less can only be put down to the kudos attached to figures, which is especially great in a field where hunch is taboo, not only because it may seem unscientific, but also because it may be mistaken for graft.
Much the same sort of thing has been happening in economics, where econometrics has become the great academic vogue. This — and the puritanical instincts of many economists who find consumption such as distasteful business — has been at the bottom of the obsession with investment which Samuel Brittan mentions elsewhere in this issue. The quantity of investment has given rise to a veritable orgy of quantification and model building. It has been measured by every conceivable yardstick, expressed as a percentage of this and that, correlated, turned into capital/output ratios, all to singularly little-purpose. Because of course what matters about investment is not just its cost (the lower not the higher the better, incidentally) but how well sited and utilised it is, and above all, whether the product it is designed to make is well conceived. Through not being amenable to slide rules, these qualitative factors have been brushed aside.
The quantifying fad has also in my opinion had a good deal to do with failures of economic forecasting. Again, it encourages forecasters to underestimate the effects of intangibles such as the confidence factor — this was true both in 1959 and 1962 when industrialists and journalists often had a much better “feel” for the way the economy was moving than had the official forecasters. But there is another reason why the pundits make a worse job of short-term forecasting than the laymen. The itch to quantify slows down the responses since reliable statistics are inevitably somewhat out-of-date and scientific pretensions, which require that a run of figures be provided before a new trend can be recognised, only make the time-lag still longer.
Yet another form of pseudo-scientific bias, which has upset psephological and, I suspect, demographic forecasting as well as economic crystal-gazing, is the assumption that history repeats itself. To assume this is regarded as neutral, i.e., respectable; any other assumption is arbitrary. This springs from the found belief that because natural scientists have been able to predict the future from numerous observations in the past, social scientists should be able to do likewise. But if, as has been observed, human history has any lessons, it is that it has none.
I have digressed at some length on fashions in social science to illustrate that experts can be just as subject to such foibles as the rest of us. The social sciences are, however, relevant to the discussion in another way. Many of the ideas now current in political and public affairs debates emanated from the social sciences. As such, these ideas are not only created by academic and other specialists, themselves very much subject to fashion; they are also being demanded by a nation which is in a very suggestible mood. For not only are we highly impressionable as individuals; we are as a people extremely fashion-prone at present. Just as privately we no longer have the self-confidence our ancestors had, so as a nation we are uncertain and introspective about our role and status in the world.
The result of this national heartsearching is to make us highly receptive to new ideas and also to fashionable cures for the country’s malaise, real or imaginary. Planning, professionalism, a sense of national purpose, these are being widely canvassed by social scientists and are getting a very sympathetic hearing. Most of them, when scrutinised at all carefully, are quite unrelated to the shortcomings they are supposed to cure. Virtually no attempt has been made to show how economic planning is relevant to our difficulties. We tell ourselves that planning has been the salvation of France. It is just as plausible to say that lack of planning has been the salvation of Germany. We tell ourselves that we are now going to grow at 4 per cent per annum when in fact all we are doing (apart from a number of perfectly sensible reforms which have nothing to do with planning as normally understood) is hoping that by telling ourselves often enough that something will happen, it actually will materialise. Even the most backward religions are rapidly outgrowing this particular superstition.
As for professionalisation, this cult too has no lack of devotees. But none of them has shown how more professionals, who, however worthy, are by definition somewhat conventional in their approach to problems, can help to make the country more dynamic. It is really incredible that when Mr Heath appears on television to tell us that “the basis of a growing healthy economy” is “professionalism in management” and goes on to uphold the American business schools as an example to us, no one should ask why in that case the U.S. is one of the few Western countries with a lower growth-rate than ours. As for us all running round looking for a sense of purpose, only those bereft of a sense of humour and a rudimentary understanding of what makes their fellow human-beings tick could find the spectacle anything but ridiculous.
In short then we are, for many reasons, extremely fashion-ridden at the moment. This is largely inevitable and by no means undesirable. I for one would prefer a fashion-ridden society in which “old-fashioned” was a term of abuse to a tradition-bound society in which the mere suspicion of being “new-fangled” is sufficient to damn something. But while recognising that fashion can be a vehicle of progress, it might be as well if we woke up to just how prevalent it is. Or do we have to choose between credulity and conservatism?
[The original intro to this article was: John Brunner, who describes himself as “a lapsed social scientist,” has worked in P.E.P., the B.B.C., and the Treasury, and is now on the management of the Observer. His challenging article below discusses why we are — individually and nationally — increasingly fashion-prone, with some provocative thoughts upon the media and the social sciences.]