A Critique of Excessive Conformity in the 1930s, Term Paper Example
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Eccentricity is only plausible when resources allow it to exist. During the 1930s, the world experienced one of the most significant economic downfalls known to history. With the crash of the stock market on Wall Street, families were finding that their life savings were no longer available in the banks, their careers were no longer viable, and their certainty with regards to their housing was now diminished. As a consequence, it could be said that the 1930s were a period of excessive conformity. Individuals living during this time were unable to indulge in risky practices, instead focusing on their ability to survive. The 1930s brought about a pessimistic world view that was in extreme contrast to the frivolous attitudes that were prevalent during the 1920s, a period of wealth and happiness. However, because conformity led to survival, this generation allowed for the recovery of the world’s economic stability in a manner that would allow for future optimism.
The despair that is frequently associated with the 1930s can said to be in part, caused by the wealth that was so common during the 1920s. Following World War I, the United States and other parts of the world experienced an economic boom that led to decreased rates of poverty and extravagant lifestyles for many (Sobel 19). In the 1925 publication The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald describes an embodiment of the ideals that this period represented for many,
“There was music from my neighbor’s house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and he champagne and the stars. At high tide in the afternoon I watched his guests diving from the tower of his raft, or taking the sun on the hot sand of his beach while his motor-boats slid the waters of the Sound, drawing aquaplanes over cataracts of foam. On week-ends his Rolls-Royce became an omnibus, bearing parties to and from the city between nine in the morning and long past midnight, while his station wagon scampered like a brisk yellow bug to meet all trains (Fitzgerald 3.1)”.
Here, the narrator demonstrates the optimistic world view that embodies the 1920s. During this period of time, the wealthiest individuals did not need to worry about anything except entertainment. This individual’s neighbor throws parties every weekend, bringing people in large numbers from the city to enjoy what he has to offer for free. Every weekend, without fail, these guests show to experience increasingly luxurious parties. They were able to live as if no cares were present in the world (Fitzgerald). However, these people, independent of their economic standing during the 1920s, were forced to wake up and face reality in the 1930s. Following the stock market crash, their lifestyles, and their livelihood, changed suddenly. No longer were they able to focus on the individuality and enjoyment associated with lavish parties and gatherings. They were forced to conform in a manner that can be attributed to their shared need; the need to survive.
When stock market prices began to fall on September 4, 1929, no one expected the economic situation in the United States to result in the disaster that we now known as the Great Depression. Across the country, independent of former socioeconomic status, people were forced to live a life of poverty (Sobel 5). In the United States, unemployment rose to as high as 25% (Sobel 5). Even individuals that were able to keep their jobs needed to find new ways to make ends meet due to the diminished hours they were provided. While optimism was prevalent among the wealthy during the 1920s, pessimisms was uniformly present among workers and families during the 1930s. A lack of funds meant that government taxes were low and as a result, the federal and state governments did not have the funds necessary to implement social welfare programs to support members of the unemployed nation.
Some sociological theorists have attempted to rationalize with the sense of pessimism that perpetuated during the 1930s by demonstrating that the existence of the excessive conformity present during this period was due to the need for structure. According to A.R. Radcliffe-Brown,
“The continuity of structure is maintained by the process of social life, which consists of the activities and interactions of the individual human beings and of the organized groups into which they are united. The social life of the community is here defined as the functioning of the social structure. The function of any recurrent activity, such as the punishment of a crime, or a funeral ceremony, is the part it plays in the social life as a whole and therefore the contribution it makes to the maintenance of the structural continuity” (Radcliffe-Brown 396).
During the 1930s, there was a greater need for structure in society. Because the 1920s represented a period of time with a strong economy, there was a lesser need to regulate law and other aspects of societal structure that was in demand in the 1930s (Kennedy 63). In the 1920, many individuals attempted to bypass the law in order to achieve economic prospects, while in the 1930s, law was needed to ensure order. Because the 1930s represented a period of economic depression, crime rates increased significantly due to the illegal actions people now need to ensure their survival rather than to achieve enhanced profitability, calling for a greater need for social structure, as Radcliffe-Brown describes (Radcliffe-Brown 396). Furthermore, greater governmental structure is needed in this instance. While the federal government didn’t need to intervene to any significant extent during the 1920s, such intervention became necessary during the 1930s, with hope that such intervention would enact positive change.
Psychological principles explain that classical conditioning contributes to the tendency for individuals to associate experience with certain emotions. In a study conducted by John B. Watson and Rosalie Rayner, “It was suggested there that the early home life of the child furnishes a laboratory situation for establishing conditioned emotional responses” (Watson & Rayner 1). Furthermore, their findings uncovered that, “This was as convincing a case of a completely conditioned fear response as could have been theoretically pictured” (Watson & Rayner 5). Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that individuals born during the 1930s learned to be fearful. This fear reflects their uncertainty with regards to their survival or if times will improve. Since the whole generation was brought up in a situation that taught them to be fearful, it is natural that the personalities of many individuals and therefore their experiences would reflect a sense of conformity.
A major problem that can be seen during the Great Depression is the fact that there is no stability present. In “A Brave New World”, Aldous Huxley critiques this need. In the story, the sign hanging over the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre reads, “…COMMUNITY, IDENTITY, STABILITY” (Huxley 1). Huxley appears to be presenting this phrase ironically because the futuristic civilization he describes appears to lack this sense of stability. This is in part because the identity of individuals is not apparent. He therefore shows that because everyone conforms in this society, they are not able to drive meaningful change. This is a beneficial understanding because it is meant to draw parallels to the conformity crisis that occurred as a consequence of the Great Depression (Huxley 1). It is not beneficial to keep doing things the same way in order to create change; it is important for individuals to make risks in order to do so. Thus excessive conformity is related to a decreased ability to achieve change, which is what was needed to remove the economic struggles that people faced on a daily basis during the 1930s.
Because the children raised during the 1930s grew up with a sense of fear and pessimism with regards to the state of the world, the events leading to World War II continued to emphasize their depression. Towards the end of the 1930, President Roosevelt successfully achieved the goals of his New Deal, which allowed him to reestablish the American economy and build it back towards economic success (Moley 2). World War II began just several years later in 1939, further strengthening the American economy due to its ability to sell weapons and other resources to allied nations (Moley 3). While the pessimism that was reflective of the Great Depression was beginning to change, optimism was still not possible in this period. Conformity was still needed to allow for survival, so each individual did what was needed to ensure that they would be one of the lucky survivors.
A dramatic example of the need to conform to survive was the required involvement in the military in the United States following the implementation of the draft. According to the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940, males between the ages of 21 and 35 register for the draft, although these requirements shifted to require males between the ages of 18 and 45 to register for military service during times of war (“Final Roll-Calls on Draft Bill”). Just as the government was needed to take advantage of conformity during the 1930s, it was needed again to ensure the survival of the United States following the Pearl Harbor attacks (Kennedy 103). As a consequence, the United States became involved in World War II abroad in order to bring change to the Western world. It is interesting to note that conformity was also present at this time in Europe, leading to World War II. The war was largely based off of Adolf Hitler’s desire to create the master race. To do so, he planned to used eugenics, which is the science which deals with all influences that improve the inborn qualities of a race; also with those that develop them to the utmost advantage (Butler 1). By fighting Hitler’s plan to conform Europe with the United States’ own sense of conformity, the world was ultimately able to break free from this state and become individualistic. However, this would not have been possible without the events of the Great Depression.
Individuality can reasonably exist during times of economic strength. However, as the transition from the 1920s to the 1940s has indicated, individuality is met with conformity when there is an enhanced need for survival. The 1930s and 1940s required that every individual live their lives in a manner that would benefit the whole of society, so that everyone could survive. Selfishness played no part in these decades because it would contribute to the undoing of this individual. Thus, it is apparent that the 1930s is associated with pessimism and conformity because the need for this to occur was clearly present. People needed to leave their lives to the laws established by Roosevelt through the New Deal so that means for economic recovery could be created. This meant that it was imperative for each individual to avoid attempting to achieve personal gain because allowing the economy to recover according to these rules would bring forth benefit for all. This need continued into the 1940s when the people of the United States conformed by fighting against foreign powers and their own sense of conformity. Interestingly, it appears that conformity can only end if it is targeted in a structured format. By initiating these organized rebuttals, there is a reasonable means by which structures can overthrow other structures. Once this occurs, individuality can return, but it appears that there is a cycling need for conformity to adequately achieve this purpose. We can use this information to predict future occurrences with the understanding that periods of individualism are likely to contribute to periods of conformity. However, by allowing this, we are putting forth structures that will allow for change.
Butler, Christopher, Modernism: A very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
“Final Roll-Calls on Draft Bill”. The New York Times. 1940.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner, 2004. Print.
Huxley, A. Brave New World. New York: Harper Perennial, 1969. Print.
Kennedy, David M. Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929–1945. Oxford History of the United States, 2001.
Moley, Raymond. After Seven Years. 1939.
Radcliffe-Brown, A.B. On the Concept of Function in Social Science. American Anthropologist 37.3(1935): 94-402.
Robert Sobel. The Great Bull Market: Wall Street in the 1920s. 1968.
Watson, J.B., Rayner, R. Conditioned Emotional Reactions. Journal of Experimental Psychology 3.1(1920): 1-14.
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