Canadian Journal of Sociology Online March - April 2000

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Alan Hunt.
Governing Morals: A Social History of Moral Regulation.
Cambridge University Press, 1999. 273 pp. $96.25 cloth (0521640717), $33.99 paper (0521646898).

Beginning his career as a socio-legal theorist in English Marxist circles of the 1970s, Alan Hunt, who has been teaching at Carleton for some years, had to ‘reinvent himself’ (as they say in business) in the wake of the precipitous decline of European Marxism. Like many others in the same predicament, Hunt has carved out a research agenda characterized by a less systematic and more eclectic approach to theorizing, as well as a renewed interest in empirical research - in his case, historical research on ‘moral regulation’ projects.

The first historical sociology work he published was a history of ‘sumptuary’ laws - laws regulating dress, food, and other aspects of consumption (Governance of the Consuming Passions, London, Macmillan, 1996). Such laws cannot be explained with Marxist tools, and they provided Hunt with an opportunity to develop his thoughts on the remarkable persistence of forms of regulation that have little if any ‘rational’ utilitarian basis.

That interest in forms of moral regulation that go beyond bourgeois concerns about working-class leisure is developed in much broader terms in the book under review. The book’s introduction is a very useful, clear, and unpolemical overview of the theoretical debates and resources generated around the notion of ‘moral regulation’ - a notion introduced in the early 1980s largely to avoid the functionalism of ‘social control’. This is followed by three British studies (ranging from the Society for the Reformation of Manners, active around 1700, to Victorian sexual panics), and two case studies of US sexual purity movements. The American case studies are largely derivative and don’t add very much to existing feminist historiography, but the British case studies constitute a very significant addition to our historical knowledge of early, pre-Victorian moral regulation projects.

The final chapter, on contemporary moral politics, may be of most interest to sociologists. Informed by Foucaultian analyses of the increased importance of ‘governing through the self’ through techniques emphasizing individual choice, Hunt argues that although many of the concerns being aired today - about the sexual dangers facing women, for instance - are age-old ones, nevertheless the framing of the problem and the suggested solutions often emphasize arming potential victims with information and inciting them to govern themselves prudently, an approach in keeping with neoliberal governance generally.

Here and throughout the book, however, Hunt’s Foucaultianism - the focus on describing techniques of governance rather than on asking ‘in whose interest’, the emphasis on self- governance rather than on top-down control - is constantly checked by a lingering commitment to ‘explaining’ the world that is in uneasy tension with Foucault’s emphasis on description. Hunt provides some excellent criticisms of critical sociologists’ tendency to talk about ‘social anxiety’ and ‘crises’ leading to ‘moral panics’. He agrees with Claus Offe that since all situations at all times can be said to be marked by some ‘crisis’or other, the concept of ‘crisis’ is not useful (201). And he also points out that the diffuse notion of ‘anxiety’ that is often offered as an explanation of moral panics also posits underlying but unverifiable causes: “Such accounts offer the prospect of going beyond the experience of participants to some sense of what is ‘really going on’, of causal mechanisms that are at work behind the consciouenss of participants. The explanatory mechanism at work in anxiety theory is a variant of structuralism.” (20)

And yet, despite these incisive critiques of the lingering structural tendencies of social-control and moral panics approaches, Hunt finds it difficult to stick to the level of concrete, site-specific historical analysis in his own work. Facing a dilemma that is by no means unique to him, Hunt can see the problems plaguing the old concepts, and indeed outlines them with unusual clarity; but he is still loath to abandon the old questions. Thus, instead of saying that “crises” lead to moral regulation, he says that “crisis tendencies” lead to moral regulation projects - a move that helps to de-ontologize the unverifiable abstraction of ‘crisis’ but does not actually get rid of it. And despite his extremely insightful criticisms about anxiety-type explanations, he reverts on occasion to Norbert Elias’ psychoanalytic account of the unconscious fears that underlie projects to civilize and normalize populations. While Elias’ work has of course been of tremendous importance for all of us working on the history of moral regulation, nevertheless his psychonalytic assumptions are diametrically opposed to Foucault’s approach. Elias’ framework can certainly be turned into a sociological research programme - and at one level that is what Hunt’s book accomplishes - but its incompatibility with Foucault’s rejection of the ‘repression hypothesis’ is a point that Hunt’s overly succint discussion of methodological problems tends to gloss over. I am more partial to eclecticism than most theorists; but I am not convinced that Hunt’s approach to studying the history of moral regulation projects, however fruitful, can nevertheless be put forward as a ‘theory’ of moral governance in general - not because of any logical or empirical defects in his work, but rather because I do not think that it is possible to continue generating ‘explanations’ and general theory once has taken Foucault’s work seriously.

My reservations are in the nature of friendly disagreements, however, not criticism. Historical sociology was easier when ‘the theorist’ could just sit back, digest other people’s research, and write grand theory using either social-science ‘models’ or structural explanations. Then, one could argue about which grand theory was best.What is now under discussion is not the merits of this vs. that grand theory but the bigger, almost Kantian question of the limits of any possible theory. Now that most of us have given up both conventional social science and Marxist explanations, and now that we have deconstructed the opposition between theory and research (in theory at least), we are in a situation in which doing good historical sociology demands nothing short of the remarkable integration of empirical and theoretical skills that few people other than Max Weber have ever developed.

Governing morals is a thoughtful and valiant effort to re-invent historical sociology drawing on a much broader range of theoretical resources than were available to Weber. Its limitations and silences are for the most part not authorial weaknesses but symptoms of the times in which we live and think. As such, it deserves being read by all manner of sociologists, not just those interested in the history of moral regulation.

Mariana Valverde
Centre of Criminology
University of Toronto
March-April 2000
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