The Life and Conduct of Elise Boulding

Photo courtesy of AFSC Archives

Peace Activist, Social Scientist, Global Citizen

Elise Boulding was neither a complicated historical figure nor a forgotten, nameless worker bee. She was a world-renowned social scientist, writer, peace activist, wife of a prominent Quaker economist, and mother of five children. An Internet search for her name results in a plethora of eulogies; commentaries; and articles about her life; her work; and her legacy, including an excellent biography by Mary Lee Morrison in the December 2011 issue of Friends Journal. Morrison also wrote a 2005 book about Boulding.

I write this article from a very particular point of view, acknowledging significant limitations. I did not know Boulding personally and have not read everything that she wrote or that has been written about her. I offer the somewhat narrowly focused perspective of a Quaker linguist and female academic who found in Boulding a role model and source of inspiration.

Boulding was born in 1920 in Norway and moved to the United States as a child. Her immigrant family was bilingual and bicultural. As a teenager, Boulding won a scholarship to Douglas College in New Jersey (now a part of Rutgers University), where she completed a major in English and a minor in French and German in three years. Her biographer, Mary Lee Morrison, said that Boulding was intensely interested in the nature and structure of language. However, like many women of her time and place, her ambition was limited. It wasn’t until she married Kenneth Boulding, already a well-known economist, that her vocational horizons expanded and she began her life’s work in sociology and peace. In the early 1970s, Boulding learned to read Dutch in order to abridge and translate The Image of the Future by Fred Polak into English, because she thought it was such an important work. 

My definition of a Quaker hero comes from George Fox’s 1656 letter written while he was awaiting trial in Launceston Gaol:

This is the word of the Lord God to you all, a charge to you all in the presence of the living God; be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come; that your life and conduct may preach among all sorts of people, and to them. Then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one; whereby in them ye may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you: then to the Lord God you shall be a sweet savour, and a blessing.

A Pattern and an Example

Boulding was a global citizen by any definition of that term. In this essay, I define “global citizen” with terms used in my field of applied linguistics: a global citizen is a person with a high degree of both metacultural and metalinguistic awareness. Metacultural awareness is the ability to transcend the local culture in order to perceive a larger perspective. People’s way of thinking changes when they develop a critical and reflective approach to evaluating their own and other cultures. Metalinguistic awareness is the ability to think and speak about language as an object in its own right, which goes beyond knowledge of parts of speech and word meanings. Crucially, metalinguistic awareness also changes people’s experience of the world, their cognitive abilities, and their identities in positive ways. 

Applied linguists use the term “multicompetence” to refer to the superior metacultural and metalinguistic awareness of multilingual people. Multicompetent people show evidence of increased creativity and cognitive flexibility. People who speak two or three languages develop divergent, creative, and original thinking, intercultural and communicative sensitivity, and translation skills. 

It is possible that multicompetence leads to a different cognitive style. A cognitive style does not affect raw intelligence; it is an individual’s default way of looking for logical inferences, connections, relationships, and meaning in the world. When people can examine their relationship to their own culture or language or to culture and language in general, they may gain an advantage over monocultural and monolingual people. As they acquire the capacity to integrate various worldviews, their cognition restructures their sense of identity as a global citizen. Boulding was a multicompetent global citizen, which more people could emulate.

A Life and Conduct

Boulding was an early adopter of a more egalitarian approach to language called language ecology. In 1999, she delivered a keynote address for the Boston Research Center (now the Ikeda Center), in which she laid out the perspective that multilingualism is a boon to a society, not a hindrance. Languages are important resources—investments that cultures and societies have at their disposal. In fact, unlike what most North Americans think, multilingualism is the norm in the world. In her keynote, Boulding said:

I would also say that each language is a precious resource. We often don’t think about this. But languages are dying out. I don’t have in my [head] the number of languages that are still alive, but they are just a very few thousand now. Think about it. Each language has developed a way of articulating the human experience that is unique to that language. Probably everybody here knows at least two languages, so you know that there are things you can say in one language that you cannot translate. You have to use a lot of words to try to convey that feeling, but you can’t get it in a word. In Dutch, there is a word that translates as, a “one-day butterfly.” It means sort of evanescent, but evanescent doesn’t give you the same feeling as a one-day butterfly.

An Inconsistency

Boulding’s son Philip said in a 2014 interview with The Norwegian American that his mother made a conscious decision not to raise her children bilingually. He said that she never spoke Norwegian around them and that she didn’t want them to “know a language that our father didn’t know. She didn’t want us to communicate with each other behind his back, or in front of him, without him understanding what we were saying. To this day, I regret that she didn’t allow us to be bilingual.” 

That is, of course, the great loss of a resource, but I cannot fault Boulding, because when my little family left an abusive relationship and returned to the United States from South America, my three-year-old bilingual daughter informed me that she didn’t speak Spanish anymore. Although I mourned the loss of an opportunity, I did not want to risk harm to our relationship. Boulding clearly prioritized family relationships over the advantages of language ecology, and so did I. 

A Blessing and a Witness to Us 

I became aware of Boulding’s work early in the 1990s when the First Gulf War made me yearn for a way to contribute to peace. Reading Boulding’s 1990 book Building a Global Civic Culture: Education for an Interdependent World was life-changing for me. In particular, the following quote sparked my imagination and inspired much of my later work combining peace education and applied linguistics:

Whether based on religious or secular-humanist beliefs, there are people in all countries who feel allegiance to a community that in one sense does not exist—the community of humankind. It is this allegiance that we are calling species identity. The community of humankind is a country without borders, with no capital city and with only one law—to avoid doing harm to any fellow human beings. However, one cannot feel allegiance to an abstraction. That is where the concept of civic culture comes in. It can only become operational through a set of common understandings developed . . . between governments, in the United Nations, and between people across national borders. We have to enter into more social interaction and become more consciously linked across national borders to give substance to that civic culture. 

Boulding here introduced two ideas: species identity and its collective correlate: (global) civic culture. I believe that species identity was Boulding’s attempt to translate John Woolman’s insight into secular terms and operationalize it for the social sciences. From Woolman’s essay on slavery published in 1754:

There is a principle which is pure, placed in the human mind, which in different places and ages hath had different names. It is, however, pure and proceeds from God. It is deep and inward, confined to no forms of religion nor excluded from any, where the heart stands in perfect sincerity. In whomsoever this takes root and grows, of what nation soever, they become brethren in the best sense of the expression.

A Sweet Savour and a Blessing to God

Lastly, I think Boulding was beloved of the Divine, as is indicated in this description of a spiritual insight I found in a 1990 interview with her conducted by Alan AtKisson for In Context:

In a Quaker meeting one Sunday, I had a kind of vision. I was reflecting on the fact that this was Easter Sunday, and Ramadan and the Passover were just completed. Quakers don’t make a big thing of Easter. Nevertheless, I had this vision of all these celebrations, the fastings that precede the feastings both in Lent leading up to Easter and the Ramadan. I sensed this tremendous amount of spiritually-inspired feasting and celebrating going on in every country in the world.

Then I started thinking, where was the real spirituality in that? In all those goings on, how much was true prayer? And true loving? As it happened before my mind’s eye, the way these things do, I saw all of this activity distilling down, and down, and down, until I saw one drop of the pure prayer of love. One drop. I felt very sad, because I thought it was so little to come out of all that activity. Then I had a sense of God looking at that one drop. And suddenly I knew that in the eyes of God, it was enough!

Barbara M. Birch

Barbara M. Birch is a professor emerita from California State University, Fresno. Besides publications in applied linguistics, she has published The English Language Teacher in Global Civil Society and Creating Classrooms of Peace in English Language Teaching. She is a member of Strawberry Creek Meeting in Berkeley, Calif.

2 thoughts on “The Life and Conduct of Elise Boulding

  1. Thank you, Barbara, for this essay on Boulding. Her writings about family, multigenerational nurture, and encouragement to Friends to more radically include children and youth in Quaker community have been important to my work, and given me hope.

  2. Thanks Barbara for your wonderful synopsis of another of the many facets of the life and work of Elise Boulding, whose work continues to inspire so many of us. And thanks for including my previous work in your article. Working with Elise for so many years and studying her life, coupled with many hours of both formal as well asHa informal conversations over meals, was truly transformative and has influenced my own life and work ever since. My hope is that future generations of Quakers and non Quakers can return again and again to her work, which can inspire so many in so many different ways.
    Mary Lee Morrison, member Hartford Monthly Meeting

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