A story is told about an exchange in a saloon in a mining town in the rough and rugged West during Oscar Wilde’s 1882 lecture tour of the United States. Apocryphal or not, it carries a succinct characterization of profound differences between the cultures of Europe and the New World. At the end of Wilde’s talk a miner in the audience asked what the difference was between the new country and Europe. Wilde responded that when Americans encounter a problem they roll up their sleeves and get to work to solve it; Europeans running into a problem learn to live with it as gracefully as possible. As someone of European origin, I have taken as the theoretical ground for my thinking some of the salient – indeed, seminal – problems in social and political life, knowing that, while their solution will elude me, I will never lack intellectual stimulation, will learn much in the process, and usually enjoy the quest.
Perhaps most important for me is the inescapable tension between social cohesion and individual autonomy. People need community but crave personal freedom. How can we have satisfactory relationships between such collectivities as families, local, religious and ethnic groups, on the one hand, and an encompassing nation or society – or world – on the other? Both are needed, but how can dynamic and stable balances between them be achieved and maintained? A different form of this problem is entailed in trying to accommodate the demands of cultural integrity and democratic governance found in a political community with the wish to live in an open, cosmopolitan world. My research on political community formation on the international level; ethnic identity and relations between ethnic groups; migration and relationships between migrants and host societies has evolved from these concerns over the past fifty years.
A more recent interest is driven by another enduring but essential task: navigating the ethical dimensions of social and political relationships across cultures and generations. The essence of this problem was captured a little more than a hundred years ago by the great biologist and social theorist, Alfred Russel Wallace: “That which at one time and place is held to be right and proper is, at another time or place, considered to be not only wrong, but one of the greatest of crimes.” A few years ago I edited and contributed two articles to a volume of the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science on it: “The Politics of History in Comparative Perspective.” Thinking about this conundrum will not end before I do.