Review of Mind, Modernity, Madness in American Journal of Sociology

By Karen A. Cerulo, Rutgers University

Mind, Modernity, and Madness is the final installment in a trilogy of books penned by sociologist Liah Greenfeld. The projects were conceived as vehicles to help us better understand the political, economic, and psychological aspects of modern culture. Like her earlier books, Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity (Harvard University Press, 1992) and The Spirit of Capitalism: Nationalism and Economic Growth (Harvard University Press, 2001), this is a substantial piece of writing, impeccably researched, ambitious in its execution, provocative and fresh in its approach.

Nearly all of Greenfeld’s works emanate from an interest in the culture of nationalism. In Mind, Modernity, and Madness, she links those concerns to the emergence of psychiatric disorders, particularly schizophrenia, manic depression, and bipolar disease. Unlike other recent books that suggest we must choose between biological and cultural etiologies of mental illness, Greenfeld argues that the two are intricately entwined and situated in the creation of nations. “It is obvious that the dramatic transformation in the image of reality,” she writes, stems from a consciousness imposed by nationalism,s three core characteristics: popular sovereignty, equality, and secularism; these elements “significantly affect the nature of the existential experience—the very way life is felt” (p. 3). And here lies the crux of Greenfeld’s thesis. From the days of its origins, nationalism has remade the notion of individual identity, putting the individual in the proverbial driver,s seat. In the world of nationalism, individuals are the ultimate decision makers, the architects of their destiny. This way of “feeling life” is, at once, empowering and overwhelming. Thus as biological predispositions to mental disease meet the pressure of self-authorship, the perfect storm ensues. In a very real and documentable way, the culture of nationalism drives some to the throes of madness.

Greenfeld builds her argument on a theoretical foundation that challenges long-standing conceptions of mind. She suggests that we replace dominant dualistic approaches in this realm—those that partition the material and the spiritual—and instead treat reality as a tripartite structure “consisting of three autonomous but related layers, with the two upper ones being emergent phenomena—the layer of matter, the layer of life, and the layer of the mind” (p. 58). As her argument unfolds, she focuses more specifically on the qualities of mind, identifying the biological elements from which mind grows and by which its development is constrained. She also explores the ways in which symbolic culture transforms and expands the biological mind, making it a far more complex and dynamic entity that reforms and reconfigures itself, ever emerging in relation to changing environmental events.

The most impressive contribution of the book comes in its historical chapters. Here, Greenfeld uses an extensive array of data to convincingly illustrate the nationalistically based roots of madness. With Greenfeld, we approach the historical starting line of 16th-century England; we sprint across nations and through time, over a terrain of literature and history, and into the minds of philosophers and psychiatrists. All roads lead to one empirically based conclusion. Greenfeld’s examples and explanations illustrate the ways in which both an opened social structure and the anomie born of multiple, often contradictory, cultural messages, make the formation of self-identity—the very thing that nationalism expects its inhabitants to produce—difficult for many and debilitating for some. Identity issues, argues Greenfeld, lead to collective malaise (at best), and for those who fail the challenges of identity formation, mental impairment, dysfunction, and derangement. In some ways, the book is not simply about madness, but about the costs and sufferings of the modern world. Moreover, it is a book about the future of nations. For in her provocative conclusion, Greenfeld asks us to reflect on the ways in which a madness born of nationalism becomes a mobilizing force, creating a politics of sheer ideology and shaping a destructive form of political action that is more therapeutic than productive.

If I were to identify any weakness in the book, it might be the author’s base for a cultural study of the mind. Greenfeld seems to ignore a strong sociological tradition in this arena, including both classic and contemporary works done by symbolic interactionists, social constructionists, sociologists of knowledge, ethnomethodologists, and sociolinguists. Weaving such works together with those of biologists, cognitive scientists, and philosophers would only have strengthened the foundation of the authors, arguments.

Still this fault is small in a book that is otherwise a tour de force. Indeed, this book will make a new and interesting contribution to the study of mental illness, the sociology of science and knowledge, and political and cultural sociology. It also presents a host of testable propositions that should be enthusiastically pursued by sociologists of culture and politics. Finally, the book provides stimulating material for graduate classes that address cultural or historical analysis. Indeed, Mind, Modernity, and Madness is the kind of book that remaps intellectual terrain, prodding us to rethink our conclusions and refocus our sights.

American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 119, No. 5 (March 2014), pp. 1527-1528


One thought on “Review of Mind, Modernity, Madness in American Journal of Sociology

  1. Bernard

    All this is based on the idea that nations do exist. They do, indeed, to a certain extent. However, one of the most challenging questions in a globalizing digitalized world impacted by accelerating immigration flows will be the place nations will occupy in the future and their level of influence on the formation of individual identities. Nations weakening power (economic and cultural) will leave space to other types of human networks, not based on space boundaries. This could in itself trigger far more new psychological diseases than nationalism (an invention of the XXth century).
    Science has little to do with all this, except by bringing new technologies. In fact, we shoudn’t expect scientists to change the way we manage societies, they (almost) never took responsibility for their inputs and will mostl probably never take. Philosophers and thinkers must take the lead, suppported by sociologists and integrating most recent knowledge in cognitive science.


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