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Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation [Hardcover]

Richard Sennett


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Living with people who differ - racially, ethnically, religiously, or economically - is one of the most difficult challenges facing us today. Though our society is becoming ever more complicated materially, we tend to avoid engaging with people unlike ourselves. Modern politics emphasizes unity and similarity, encouraging the politics of the tribe rather than of complexity. "Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Co-operation" explores why this has happened and what might be done about it. Sennett argues that living with people unlike ourselves requires more than goodwill: it requires skill. The foundations for skillful co-operation lie in learning to listen well and to discuss rather than debate. People who develop these capacities earn a reward: they can take pleasure in the company of others. "Together" traces the evolution of cooperative rituals in medieval churches and guilds, Renaissance workshops and courts, early modern laboratories and diplomatic embassies. In our lives today, it explains the trials and prospects of cooperation online, face-to-face in ethnic conflicts, among financial workers and community organizers. Exploring the nature of cooperation, why it has become weak, and how it could be strengthened, this visionary book offers a new way of seeing how humans can live together.

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Amazon.com: 4.0 out of 5 stars  4 reviews
19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sennett is optimistic that people can learn community cooperation 23 Jan 2012
By Martina A. Nicolls - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Can the world learn from tribalism? Can we learn community cooperation and social cohesion? The tribal conflict over cattle rustling in Pibor, South Sudan, has resulted in attacks and reprisals between two main communities, the Lou Nuer and the Murle. Tribal tensions are not new, and have been a feature of Sudan, and other countries, for centuries. Can other countries, or more importantly, individuals, learn from tribal conflict?

Richard Sennett's Together: The rituals, pleasures and politics of cooperation (2012)contends that "living with people who differ--racially, ethnically, religiously, or economically--is the most urgent challenge facing civil society today. We tend socially to avoid engaging with people unlike ourselves, and modern politics encourages the politics of the tribe rather than of the city." In Together he traces the evolution of cooperative rituals in situations as diverse as slave communities, socialist groups in Paris, and workers on Wall Street. Divided into three parts, the book addresses the nature of cooperation, why it has become weak, and how it could be strengthened. Sennett also maintains that the capacity for cooperation is embedded in human nature.

Sennett is alarmed by the way societies develop tribalism within their ranks and the way in which this "deeply ingrained tribalism" can lead to aggression towards people who are perceived to be "different" from their own culture, background, race, community, or group. Sennett is concerned about modern capitalist societies that, he says, promote social withdrawal (hibernation, loneliness, solitude, and hermitude). Sennett details some causes of social withdrawal such as economic inequality, the breakdown of workplace relations, and the psychological effects of living in an uncertain world. He gives examples of people emigrating from "poor" communities in search of better education and economic prospects - which, he says, perpetuates deprivation in the area they escaped from.

The world is continuing towards mass human migration from poor to prosperous regions. This, in addition to conflict over land and resources, over unequal distribution of resources, over economic disproportions, and over people entering our communities that are "not like us" is pushing people to the brink of unhappiness, dissent, and social withdrawal.

Sennett promotes social cohesion that requires commitment (to community) and empathy. He champions repetitive shared experience of ritual, from religious ceremonies to workplace routines, as a way of promoting social cohesion.

Sennett is optimistic. He believes that the history of tribalism - one of near-continual conflict - can lead to creative forces responsible for cooperation.

Sennett maintains that early bands of humans formed into tribes that were bands of bands. Collection of tribes later coalesced into chiefdoms and collections of chiefdoms became nascent and emerging nation states - countries (just like the most recent example of South Sudan). Sennett says that at each stage, entities that previously competed and fought against each other formed cooperative coalitions that generated wealth more often than conflict.

Sennett maintains that cooperation is embedded in every human's genes, but it needs to be strengthened, particularly when interacting with people unlike ourselves. He therefore attempts to explore cooperation as a craft. But he also explores urban design - how cities and communities can be designed for better community cooperation (he says that most urban design is currently homogenous and rigid promoting tribalism and not social cohesion). Tribalism is, he says, "involves thinking you know what others are like without knowing them" which is counter-productive. Tribalism is human cooperation that results in aggression, corruption, collusion, organized crime, and other destructive results such as the "us-against-you" philosophy. Sennett's definition of cooperation in the social cohesion sense is "an exchange in which the participants benefit from the encounter." It is mutual support that can take many forms from the minute to the major - including polite social civilities such as saying "please" and "thank you" to the mutual support required to deal with life's frustrations and unfairness with positive social consequences. He stresses that information sharing, although on the surface appearing to be cooperation, is not communication and shared dialogue.

Sennett likens cooperation to music. In an orchestra of different instruments and different people, a ritual practice (or rehearsal) can produce harmony - musicians need to interact and cooperate to make art. "Much of the actual conversation between musicians consists of raised eyebrows, grunts, momentary glances and other non-verbal gestures. It's not just about talking and listening; it's about sympathy, empathy, and above all, shared and familiar dialogue.

Sennett's book is divided into three sections exploring how cooperation can be shaped, weakened, and strengthened, drawing on research in anthropology, history, sociology and politics, and including concrete case studies. He concludes with chapter on the French essayist Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) who examined the world through his own judgement, describing the great variety and volatility of human nature. Montaigne continues to be an inspiration for many to the present day. Novelist Judith Shklar in her book, Ordinary Vices (1984) wrote: "It is only if we step outside the divinely ruled moral universe that we can really put our minds to the common ills we inflict upon one another each day. That is what Montaigne did and that is why he is the hero of this book."
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Rebuilding the skills for 'hard' collaboration in an age of austerity 19 Aug 2012
By Philippe Vandenbroeck - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
In this stimulating book Richard Sennett investigates how people who have conflicting interests, are unequal or don't understand each other might engage in `difficult', constructive cooperation. Sennett's view is that cooperation rests on a set of skills - he refers to them as `dialogic skills' - that can be learned and have to be sustained. Our contemporary society has been weakening those skills in distinctive ways. Increasing economic inequalities translate in everyday experiences of elites becoming ever more remote from the masses. This engenders an `us-against-them' thinking that stands in the way of cooperative behavior. The contemporary workplace - with its siloed structures, short-term commitments and lack of accountability - has progressively dissolved the `social triangle' (earned authority, mutual respect, cooperation during crisis) that infuse the work experience with an essential civility.

The notion of civility is pivotal in Sennett's argument. He traces its origins back to a sea-change in sociable behaviour in 16th century Europe, away from the chivalric values that were tightly woven into the fabric of aristocratic life to a set of civilized codes that were rooted in skilled, professional conduct. Early Reformation diplomacy and the replacement of guild hierarchy by a flatter, more flexible workshop structure are key developments that laid the foundation for this new ethics of sociability.

In investigating how we might reinvigorate our capacity for cooperation today, Sennett revisits the artisan's workshop. The embodied knowledge that craftsmen bring to bear on their tools, materials and co-workers whilst making and repairing things provides a rich analogy for an everyday diplomacy that helps people in dealing with others they can't relate to, or don't understand: they use minimal forces in dealing with resistance, create social space through coded gestures, and make sophisticated repairs which acknowledge trauma. Also professional diplomats' skills in navigating the borderline between formality and informality are to an extent transferable to our daily environment as an aid to managing conflict and foster cooperation.

Sennett's book is particularly timely at a point in time when the global economy's `creative destruction' is fragilizing huge swaths of the middle class in postindustrial societies. Ideally, these people will be able to move beyond resentment and withdrawal to embrace a redefined sense of inner purpose based on communal cooperation. However, Sennett cautions us along different lines against believing well-being prophets and transition gurus that this is a comfortable challenge. He discusses at length how in the twentieth century the very desire for solidarity has led to institutionalization, inviting command and manipulation from the top. Sennett thinks this collective bargaining strategy has ultimately sapped the strength of the Left. At an individual level there is no simple promise of happiness in cooperation and associationism for those who are struggling for survival in economically vulnerable communities.

Here we have sketched out only some of the main themes that Sennett develops in this book. Whilst Sennett obviously pushes himself to write in an accessible style, his erudition and scholarly temperament inevitably shine through. As a result the narrative strikes me a rather labyrinthine and it pays to take patient notes in keeping track of the evolving argument.

It is, perhaps, a pity that Sennett does not dwell at all on the considerable experience that has been built up in recent decades with all kinds of techniques to sustain multi-stakeholder dialogue and work towards accommodation between people holding different worldviews (I am thinking of approaches as diverse as `world cafés' and `soft systems methodology'). In that sense his book puts the `why' of cooperation more in relief than the `how to'. `Together' is not a practical guide for aspiring community organizers and facilitators but a richly layered reflection on the past and future of a vital cultural legacy: the dialogic skills needed for `hard' cooperation.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Thorough look at how to build our new Global World 4 July 2013
By J. C. Wyrtzen - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Sennett's premise is that we need to listen to other people, giving them space to develop their thought, and to attempt to understand its meaning to them. The goal is to understand the other person and their point of view not to accept it or change them. We don't need a homogenized society. We need one where we can understand the other without agreeing or forcing them to agree. He looks at the use of this open system thinking in many different periods of history and institutions. It is a wonderful corrective to our "us/them" society.
4 of 34 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Academic Boring Grandiose Unhelpful 18 Feb 2012
By Ian Johnson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation

This book is unfortunately structured and edited. Yes, Sennett describes collaboration and co-operation, and how it is a craft that we could benefit from studying, learning, and applying in our lives. But, in that case, it should be useful as an instruction manual, instead of being written as a featureless academic monologue, with few headings and no summaries, action points, diagrams, or other helpful tools. What is needed is either a complete re-write, or a 50 page workbook that presents the essential points in a useful manner. Sorry Richard, I appreciate your wisdom, I just wished that it was communicated in a more readable and useful fashion.
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