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Here I Go, Here I Go, Here I Go!

Martin Tyrrell on Methodological Collectivism and the 1994 World Cup

About a year ago, Penguin (or, possibly, Picador) brought out The Picador (or Penguin) Book of Contemporary Irish Fiction. The ludicrous front cover featured Marilyn Monroe reading Ulysses. Marilyn died in 1962, forty years after Ulysses first rolled off Sylvia Beachem’s presses, so the image was none too contemporary. None too Irish either, come to think of it. Monroe, though she once touched down at Shannon Airport and obligingly sipped a Guinness for the photographers, was about as Irish as Jack Charlton’s eleven whilst James Joyce disliked Ireland so much he refused its diplomatic protection even when, following 1939, his physical safety made same advisable.

Still, as if to make up for the cover the Editor’s Introduction was plenty Irish and plenty contemporary. In particular, it was the former. Reading it, one began to feel that The Penguin (or Picador) Book of Contemporary Irish Fiction had been pulled together less for the writing and more for the Irishry. At least one contemporary reviewer got the feeling that the various scribblers were being praised more for their passports than their prose. Here was art as us and them; editor as ra-ra skirted cheerleader; literature as Eurovision Song Contest; author as Johnny Logan. Irelande, douze points! It was the aesthetics of It’s A Knockout.

George Orwell once said a nationalist was someone who, if pressed, might even claim that his country could beat the world at cooking. But this was the same George Orwell who said that the English knew best when it came to cooking potatoes and making cheese. And it was Orwell again who said that if someone wanted to add to the ill-feeling in the world, there was no better way to do it than by organising a series of international football matches. As it happens, this is exactly what somebody has done. I refer, of course, to the World Cup and, as I write these words, a succession of such matches has just come to an end.

Now, it would be nice to be able to say that George Orwell was as wrong about football as he was about potatoes. Nice, but not strictly true. This World Cup will be remembered as the one that cost one Columbian player his life, shot dead by patriots angered at the finesse with which he sent the ball between the goalposts of his own team. Moreover, though there has been little in the way of crowd trouble at the actual matches, I suspect that in living rooms and pubs across the globe, many viewers are, by now, nursing hitherto unfelt hatreds towards entire peoples; people, of whom they were, until quite recently, at best only dimly aware and towards whom they bore no ill will. But for the good clean fun of international football, they would have gone on being indifferent to those others. Now, however, in the time it takes for one striker to score from the penalty area, an entire category of fellow human beings will, forever, be thought of as “gits”; in the moment needed for one defender to put out his foot and trip up a centre-forward, “bastards”; in the five minutes required for a prima maradonna to writhe in an agony that convinces no-one except the referee, “wankers”. Thus does nation speak unto nation.

Several commentators on nationalism, have likened it to religion for, like religion, it is full of priests and prophets; shrines and sacraments; hymns and prayers; saints and sinners. And, like all the best deities, the nation proper, when it is not being anthropomorphised into John Bulls, Uncle Sams and Mariannes, is conveniently abstract. Though nations are everywhere – in the news, in history books – they are also nowhere. No-one has ever seen a nation and no-one would even be too sure what to look out for. As Walter Bagehot said, we know what a nation is except when somebody asks us. The best any of his twentieth century successors have come up with is that the nation is an ‘imagined community’. Aside from times of war or international trade negotiations, it is in things like football that the nation is at its most imaginable. “The imagined community of millions”, Eric Hobsbawm writes, “seems more real as a team of eleven named people.” Hence, in the world of football, the Saudi football team is Saudi Arabia. Similarly, when it comes to anthologies of contemporary writing, The Penguin (or Picador) Book of Contemporary Irish Writing is Ireland. And, of course, in the world of potatoes, George Orwell’s are England.

A few years ago, Margaret Thatcher told a generation raised on sociology that there was no such thing as ‘Society’, only individuals. In some quarters, the reaction was a little like that of children indignant on learning the truth about Father Christmas, but it was also close to that of Tories impatient on hearing the truth about nations. For, if truth be told, the nation is no more real than society. ‘Society’ is just Sixties-speak for ‘nation’ and both are about as real as the Easter Bunny.

The reality or otherwise of conceptions like ‘nation’ and ‘society’ is what motivates the debate between methodological individualists and methodological collectivists in the social sciences. For collectivists, entities like ‘nations’, ‘classes’ and ‘genders’ (sic) have, in some sense, a real existence over and above the lives and minds of the individuals who comprise them. For individualists, however, no social scientific explanation can legitimately appeal to entities above and beyond individuals simply because there are no such entities. To a methodological individualist, a collective category is merely a term of convenience for a lot of individuals, it is neither supra-individual nor qualitatively distinct from its membership. No whole is ever more than the sum of its parts and there is no collectivism that cannot ultimately be reduced to anthropomorphism. To understand a football team, whatever name it’s called (‘Sweden’, ‘Arsenal’, ‘A bunch of prats’) entails studying its individual players and the way in which they co-ordinate their individual performances to produce an effective division of labour. The name in itself explains nothing, even if it is the name of a political unit. Names like ‘Brazil’ or ‘Argentina’ applied to football teams falsely imply some kind of transhistorical continuity.

Take ‘Italy’. The Italian team that played so well in the World Cups of the 1930s and the one that played with no small amount of mediocrity just before I sat down to write are two entirely different teams. Deep down, surely even the sports commentator reminding us that Italy is playing as well as it did in those halcyon days of Mussolini and the corporate state must know that this is so. There is no overlap of personnel between Italy now and Italy then; pace the television soap opera Santa Barbara, the part of Italy is now being played by completely different footballers compared with the 1930s and, in about twelve years time, they will all be different again. The 1994 Italian World Cup squad merely occupies the same space as its 1934 counterpart. They do not even wear the same kind of clothes and the style of play has also changed. True, both sides represent ‘Italy’, but what is ‘Italy’? ‘Italy’ the people is no more constant than ‘Italy’ the football team and the same is true of ‘Italy’ the political unit. ‘Italy’, whether it is invading Ethiopia or singing some embarrassing song on Eurovision is, in the end, individual people performing individual acts. Though this year’s final was between Italy and Brazil, it was not, as many commentators insisted on saying, a rematch of the 1970 final. Any continuity between the two teams of then and the two teams of now is purely nominal; any rivalry, purely superstitious. If four musicians decided to call themselves ‘The Beatles’ and released an album under that name, they would be sued in every court in the Western world, clear proof that music brings out an appreciation of philosophical niceties not known in sport.

All of this is the kind of talk no collectivist likes to hear but it is also talk to which no collectivist has much of an answer. In principle, all that is required is to show conclusively that the differences between collectives and individuals are not just a matter of numbers; that the collective is a thing in its own right, over and above its members; a thing in itself. In practice, however, it is unlikely that a proof of this kind will ever be had. No methodology suggests itself whereby we might access this strange, supra-individual concept and study it in the abstract. In the end, collectivists, like individualists, study groups in the same way, with reference to some sample of the individuals that comprise them. However researchers might style themselves – methodological individualists or collectivists – all social scientific research adopts a methodology that is implicitly individualistic. To learn about any collective – a nation, a political party, a football team – we must first learn about its individual members, gradually building up some impression of the overall group through the accumulation of lots of data on an adequate number of individuals. An opinion survey, for example, works by putting an identical question to a large number of people and then summing the responses to find out which kinds of response predominate. The same is true of semi-structured interviews or even television ‘vox pops’ for, in the end, these are really just small scale opinion surveys. The wholes that emerge from this kind of research are, quite literally, the sum of their parts. That is all they are and all they’ll ever be.

Faced with all this, year after year, century after century, academic seminar after academic seminar, the collectivists have gotten more and more modest in their claims until they are scarcely collectivists at all. Those glory, glory days of Collectivism United are over. The scarves sag, the whistles wheeze, one last outsize banana droops. It’s all gone very quiet over there!

© Dr. M. Tyrrell 1994

Martin Tyrrell has a PhD in social psychology and currently works in applied mathematics.

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