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The social psychology of Adam and Eve


I am arguing for three links between the biblical creation myth and social theory. First, I am arguing that, by exploiting the story for the social psychological ideas that can be drawn out of it, we have a rich way to appreciate the nuances of the myth. By treating “Adam and Eve” as a parsimonious and memorable form of sociological theorizing, we can effectively appreciate the elaborate, highly tuned, richly coherent, and subtle structure of the myth. We can answer a series of initially enigmatic questions about the logic of the story, and in the process we can bring out some of its neglected features, such as the burden in the final gift. Here empirical theory serves to clarify the hermeneutics of a powerfully appealing element of cultural life.

Next, reversing the perspective, we can reveal the myth as a testable empirical theory. In this article, I can only suggest the promise of such a theory. But this operation draws out theoretical ideas about emotions - such as their dualistic and dialectical character - that are difficult to summarize elegantly without the aid of the symbolic powers of mythical narrative and that point empirical investigation in new directions.

Third, there is the empirical question of the impressive resonance of the story of Adam and Eve. I am arguing that the everyday emergence and decline of emotions, in typically brief, typically inconsequential, social interactional episodes, parallels the metamorphosis described in Genesis. This parallel indicates a ground for the appeal of this creation myth wherever people structure their emotions into socially situated forms, wherever “falls,” literal or figurative, can lead alternatively to shame, laughter, crying, or anger. The narrative structure of everyday emotions is surely not the only nor the most important basis of the appeal of Adam and Eve, but there is a grounding for the resonance of the story, a tacit basis for its pervasive appeal, in the stories that we corporeally convey as we construct socially situated episodes of shame, laughter, anger, and crying.

Something similar was argued by the English and German literary and philosophical Romantics but their claims were far more ambitious. They frequently appreciated biblical stories such as those of the Fall from paradise, the prodigal son, and the tearing of Christ from communal embrace and eventual resurrection, not as history or allegory but as proto-scientific summaries of ongoing human realities. In M. H. Abrams's review, the Romantic “tendency was... to naturalize the supernatural and to humanize the divine.” All the figures and events of the bible were “‘to be seen and felt within you.’”

My position in this essay is neither so grand nor so optimistic. I am arguing that emotions in everyday social life describe a metamorphosis of fall, chaos, and an attempt at graceful reintegration, but not that this process describes all of social life, much less all of history, nor even that it describes what is most fundamental, best, or most elevating in life, as the Romantics might have said. For Schiller, the Fall was “fortunate” because it led to a spiral ascent toward a paradise more grand than the one Adam lost. Our situated emotions routinely lead back to the banalities from which they emerged. Moreover, much of emotional life does not necessarily take the form of bounded narrative episodes; indeed much of what may be most important about social life, in any number of senses, is not characterized by the bouts of crying and anger, phases of shameful feeling, and moments of laughter that this essay addresses. But the story of Eden resonates elaborately in emotionally colorful moments within the mundane prose of routine interaction, just as those sensually vivid experiences are narrated in corporeally distinctive ways. Revisiting Genesis, we can grasp its wisdom reverberating through the workings of emotions in everyday social life.

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Katz, J. The social psychology of Adam and Eve. Theor Soc 25, 545–582 (1996).

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  • Empirical Theory
  • Prose
  • Appealing Element
  • Colorful Moment
  • Biblical Story