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F.J. Turner’s ‘frontier thesis’: the ruse of American ‘character'

Rojek, C. (2016). F.J. Turner’s ‘frontier thesis’: the ruse of American ‘character'. European Journal of Social Theory, 20(2), pp. 236-251. doi: 10.1177/1368431016638852


American society was transformed by the expansion of capital Westward and the explosion in opportunities that ensued for land grabbing and agricultural and industrial investment. In Turner’s (1961) frontier thesis this was portrayed as resulting in the emergence of ‘the new man’ i.e. the fulfilment of American character. The frontier thesis is a neo-Darwinian contribution. It posits exceptionalism and transcendence as the keys to American character. The gene pool of the Americans, thriving in a new geographical and social environment, is depicted as achieving a higher level of development than the stratified societies of Old Europe. What the thesis ignores is the importance of orthodox Eurocentric strategies of colonization and land appropriation. Turner portrays pioneer/settler society as a heroic departure, but in many ways, it is a continuation of European precedents. Analogously, the proposition that the push West crystallized American character obscures the role of personality, especially in urban-industrial settings, in establishing the parameters of American life. Turner conceived of character as emerging from a struggle with the spatial frontier. But the struggles of personality with the social frontier of repression and establishment values is no less significant. The paper examines the tensions between character and personality by using some ideas developed by Carl Schmitt on the significance of ‘the opportunity’ in competitive advantage. The importance of the opportunity and personality in developing the American way of life are examined by the vaudeville and celebrity traditions. The exploitation of contingency for personal advantage, the use of melodrama to engineer social impact, the social validation of forthright behaviour are examined in the context of the careers of the film actress Mae West and the comedian Bob Hope.

Publication Type: Article
Additional Information: Copyright Sage 2016
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HN Social history and conditions. Social problems. Social reform
Departments: School of Policy & Global Affairs > Sociology & Criminology
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