Way back in September, the very second post in this weblog was an account of lunch with Jason Kaufman, a smart young sociologist at Harvard who wanted to talk to me about the comparative history of Canada and the United States. Reading that post, it’s easy to see my respect and envy (as a historian) of Jason’s willingness (as a sociologist) to make big generalizations and bold, contentious claims. I now have another reason to respect and envy Jason: he had an op-ed piece in this Sunday’s New York Times. (If that link expires, try this one.) But the reaction to the piece by other smart people I also respect reminds me of something about big generalizations and bold claims: they can easily be disputed, and they can often be wrong.
The op-ed is a teaser for Jason and his co-author Orlando Patterson’s article in the next American Sociological Review. Their NYT piece is called “Bowling for Democracy,” which is cute because Jason’s first book was an extended take-down of Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone. But they’re talking about a different kind of bowling here. The question they started with was, “why don’t Canadians play cricket?” Cricket remains popular in almost all the former British colonies; Canada and the U.S. are the two big exceptions. Kaufman and Patterson’s thesis is that in nineteenth-century Canada and the United States, cricket remained the preserve of upper-class elites. Anxious to maintain their class identity in an increasingly egalitarian society, Canadian and American elites clung to upper-class signifiers like cricket and kept the plebes off the pitch. When baseball came along in the late nineteenth century, it was all too easy for promoters like A.G. Spalding to caricature cricket as a sissy, blue-blooded game and position baseball as the manly, populist alternative. In India and the Caribbean, by contrast, British elites had little fear of class assimilation. There were easier ways to tell who was in the club and who wasn’t, so elites encouraged their colonial subjects to play the game.