As a novelist, John Buchan is remembered, if he is remembered at all, for ‘The Thirty Nine Steps’. It is an early (1915) example of the modern spy novel. Its dashing main character is the forerunner of James Bond.
John Buchan’s last novel ‘Sick Heart River’ published in 1941, the year after he died, is on a totally different theme. It is about what social psychologists now refer to as ‘disassociation’ and ‘role strain’.
‘Role strain’ is an important concept in thinking about the regulatory space and the tasks of government.
The regulatory space
For contemporary societies the regulatory space has become a hugely important system for social coordination. Regulation can offer advantages over the tax and spend powers of government and advantages over legislation and the law. It acts as a way of adjusting the borders between all systems of social coordination.
We often think of regulation as an annoyance, or an expense, or an interference in our life. For example, if we run a small business we might be forced to comply with conditions for hiring employees that make it more difficult for us to expand. If we are the Head of a school, then we have to keep in mind the many rules of behaviour that now govern relationships between school policies, teachers, parents and students.
However, regulations can also make our lives easier. For example, they can give us confidence that our savings are secure in our bank, or the assurance that a product we are purchasing is safe.
Among those classes of regulation that are intended to make our lives easier are those that aim to reduce ‘role strain’ and the risks of disassociation from social engagement.
Sick Heart River
‘Sick Heart River’ was written when Buchan knew that he was terminally ill. The narrator of the story is also suffering from a terminal illness. So there is a strong autobiographical and confessional element in it. However, putting aside the autobiographical, the story is about disassociation – the reasons why a person might want to sever links with all social ties.
The story tells of the search for a socially prominent and financially successful partner on Wall Street who has gone missing. It is not a question of any criminal act. He appears simply to have stepped away, leaving bewildered family, friends and colleagues in the dark about where he is, or what his intentions are. The narrator is asked to track him down.
The search for the missing man takes place in his native country of Canada, starting from the French speaking community in the ‘borderlands’ where he was brought up, and moving into the deep northern Canadian wilderness where he is found.
What the search reveals is that the missing man has been overcome by the tension between the role he performs as a successful operator on Wall Street and his inner desires and sense of self-worth bound up with his unlived life in the North. He has fled from his socially expected role in order to come to terms with the life unlived.
Buchan had treated our choices about the social roles we perform in some of his earlier writing. In this earlier writing he emphasized the energy and inspiration we can get from our public roles, even if they come at great personal cost.
In his story ‘The Half Hearted’ (1900) set at the end of the nineteenth century, a young man confronts his life choices. He rejects the ‘stagnant’ life of a country landowner in the borderlands of Scotland (where Buchan himself had his home). He makes only a half-hearted attempt at a career in politics. Instead, he chooses a life of adventure. He accepts an offer to undertake an intelligence gathering operation for the Foreign Office in the far reaches of the then British empire. He sacrifices his life knowingly, repelling a border incursion on the North West frontier of India.
The life choices faced by the young man in the novel each involved what were then, according to the social norms of the time, socially fulfilling roles. Today, they seem to us to be totally anachronistic. Today we take our risks in Silicon Valley, not in the valleys of North West India. However Buchan, in the imagery of his time, was trying to dramatize the importance of making socially acceptable choices at the same time as remaining true to ourselves. The story is about this reconciliation. Buchan refers to true happiness as ‘the approval of our own heart’.
Buchan himself chose a life of public service, dying in harness as Governor General of Canada.
Returning from yesterday’s world of heroic fiction to today’s mundane world of everyday living, we sometimes express the potential tension between our social roles and our private desires in terms of an aim to achieve a good work/life ‘balance’. By this we mean we want to get satisfaction from our job that brings in money, satisfaction from our home life as a good parent and/or partner and also to enjoy ‘downtime’ doing whatever floats our boat.
Often we feel it is difficult to reconcile social expectations about the effort we should put into our job with the social expectations around our role in parenting/partnership, and even more difficult to find downtime when we do our own thing. Sometimes we may decide to give priority to one role rather than another, for example to earn more money, but to enjoy less family time, or vice versa. The different roles may energize us. They also exhaust and may overwhelm us.
‘Role strain’ refers to the internal tussle and the exhaustion that may arise.
The reason why sociologists have paid attention to role strain is that it is seen as one reason why people may disassociate from regular and socially expected types of social interaction. People may find it all too much to cope with and, for example, give up on their job search, or on their civic engagement, or on their family responsibilities and cut ties with their usual affiliates.
There are other reasons for disassociation.
Some people live in a world of celebrity culture, where instead of being socially engaged themselves, they live vicariously through the lives of others. Or perhaps they find ‘success’ only in the alternative reality of the on-line world playing computer games.
Others give up because their aspirations in life are unfulfilled, or seem thwarted by conditions beyond their control. For example they take out debts to get a university degree. They then find that there are no jobs open in the field of their choice that will enable them to pay off their student loans.
Others simply lose their social affiliations. They may move from the security of a particular ethnic community, with close knit social links and well understood social roles, out into the anonymity of the mixed ethnicities of a large city where they just disengage in an unfamiliar social environment.
The ideal world of engagement
Generally speaking, disassociation, for whatever reason, is seen as a social ‘bad’ in democratic societies. It is compared with an ideal world where we all know what the social norms and expectations are for us and where we all pay attention to them in our behaviour.
In this ideal world, we don’t have to make any effort to find ‘balance’, or struggle to understand different social norms, or fight exhaustion. We successfully distinguish between, and integrate, our off-line world with our on-line. In this ideal world, laws and regulations that tell us what to do, and how to behave, become largely unnecessary.
Of course the real world is not free from friction between the behaviour that is expected of us and how we actually behave. Equally important, in today’s world we do not live in a world of uniformly expected roles and norms. On the contrary, we face a world of huge social diversity, many different values and many different expectations about social roles. One example that cuts across many others, is about the role of women where different expectations are widespread.
In the real world, defensive behaviour around roles and expectations is also commonplace. We don’t flee to a northern wilderness. But we give up on dealing with social complexities. We cling to what we know.
The regulatory response
Regulation has a role to play in all this because there are certain types of regulation that can simplify our social environment, point us towards what is the ‘right’ thing to want to do, and make it easier for us to perform our different roles.
For example, when regulators inspect and grade local schools they help us in our parenting role. When regulators insist that food contains less salt, or soft drinks less sugar, they are also making it easier for us to improve our family diet. When they impose data handling requirements on businesses or internet providers they are also helping us to exercise care about how our personal data is used by others.
The limits of regulation: the border lands
There are of course limits to what regulators can do to help us perform our various roles. Even when the regulator simplifies and eases our situation, or conversely, nags us, or tries to frame our choices so that we opt for the ‘better’ one, nevertheless in real life, we are still likely to feel conflict and sometimes to act defensively. We will always likely choose the easy course of action over the more difficult, or the short term gain over the long, or the immediate pleasure over the more lasting satisfaction.
However, Buchan is making a more profound point. His story is not about yielding to short term temptations, or about being unduly influenced by the way choices are framed. What he tells us in Sick Heart River is that we have to respond in our behaviour, not only to social values and expectations, but also to our own inner sense of values and to our own expectations of ourselves.
In his narrative Buchan uses the metaphor of the borderlands. No doubt in choosing this metaphor he was referring to his own sense of home in the borderlands of Scotland and England. The use of the metaphor is intended to suggest something more than the lure of getting away from it all.
Buchan uses ‘the borderlands’ in two senses. First, it is about place. It is a home and place of safety where we can live according to our own standards, values, and sense of a worthwhile life. Secondly it is about person. It is about someone who is sensitive to the implications of their choices in life.
Buchan’s metaphor suggests that this place is a physical one. However, he does not define it as the place where we physically reside. He refers to it in terms of making a space in our lives, or in our allocation of time, or in our thinking. In the ‘Half- Hearted’, Buchan refers to ‘home’ as a place in the heart, a space in our thoughts.
Buchan’s tales belong to a vanished world. However, part of his message has a continuing resonance. It is about the need for society to recognize the wide range of valid choices that can be made by individuals, for good reasons, even if we don’t agree with them.
The regulatory space can help people achieve ‘balance’ in their lives. But unless it leaves room for individual choices, a society loses the means through which it can update its own social norms and expectations. In Sick Heart River Buchan states - ‘Each of us has to find his river for himself’.