The term “reform” conveys a tension between constraint and possibility. The prefix re- suggests familiarity and recursion, just as the root form denotes structure, whether institutional or ideological. And yet “reform” also promises an improvement of circumstances or a mitigation of harm. This optimistic undercurrent requires that reformers not simply deride the existing order but propose alternatives. And to the extent that the term calls for a realignment of established elements rather than obliterating what exists and starting over, “reform” can seem less alarming—but also more tepid—than “radicalism” or “revolution,” even as it suggests greater political engagement than “benevolence” or “charity.”
That said, scholars have shown that “reform” cannot be neatly distinguished from those other terms (Bergman and Bernardi 2005; S. Ryan 2003). In the nineteenth-century United States, when “reform” enjoyed wide circulation as a generic descriptor of individuals and movements, its meanings shifted depending on the social and political commitments of the author. Most who called themselves reformers described their work as benevolent, even when they called for structural change rather than direct dispensation of aid, while opponents of particular reform movements characterized their adherents as radicals committed to undermining national stability.
As these contestations suggest, reform emerged as a crucial element of US identity construction in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Dorsey 2002; Maddox 2005; Roberts 2017). Some activists embraced the general title of reformer to indicate their investment in all manner of social progress, but others chose the less grandiose mode of aligning themselves with specific projects (e.g., abolition, temperance, dietary reform, dress reform, and woman suffrage). Such articulations intersected with a thriving culture of reform: books, pamphlets, and periodicals, many with broad geographical circulation; organizations with frequent meetings in established gathering places; and a distinct material culture, which became a staple of various groups’ fundraising efforts. Unsurprisingly, this culture of reform also engendered resistance: as the nineteenth-century socialist Albert Brisbane (1846, 142) explained, his organization, “not wishing to take a name so much abused as that of ‘Reformer,’… [chose] the simple name of Associationists.”
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s essay “Earth’s Holocaust” (1844) advances a predominant nineteenth-century critique of reformers—that their efforts to improve the world failed to address the foundational task of changing the individual heart. But Hawthorne’s lament disregards reformers’ deep engagement with questions of individual perception and transformation. Nineteenth-century reformers drew on the work of such Scottish Enlightenment thinkers as Adam Smith, whose Theory of Moral Sentiments ( 1966) articulated the perceptual processes by which one human being comes to feel sympathy for another. As this genealogy suggests, reformers’ appeals were calculated to change individuals’ beliefs, commitments, and crucially, feelings. Indeed, the history of reform has long been imbricated with the history of affect, with reformers relying on rhetorical modes such as sentimentalism and sensationalism to energize their texts and interventions (S. Samuels 1992; Sánchez 2008; Schuller 2018).
This link between reform and emotion has also troubled advocates for social change. Mid-nineteenth-century attempts to rationalize charitable efforts, for example, followed in an Anglo-American tradition, associated with Thomas Malthus, of countering affective responses to suffering, which, some feared, might encourage unwise giving and thus perpetuate dependence. Later in the century, as reformers sought to professionalize social service work, they drew on the emerging fields of sociology and criminology to categorize and comprehend the immigrants, delinquents, and prisoners they hoped to improve. Yet affect could not be so easily banished. Jacob Riis’s New York photographs are apt examples; some of his images purport to document urban squalor with a quasi-scientific detachment, but others represent sleeping children or an immigrant Madonna with an unabashed appeal to viewers’ emotions.
Many who have sought leftward social change in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have distanced themselves from the term “reform,” preferring such labels as “activism,” “progressivism,” and “protest.” Broad social-change initiatives have been tagged simply as “movements” (e.g., the civil rights movement, the labor movement), with “reform” and its near synonyms elided altogether. Just as salient, though, is the term’s currency among political conservatives, who have launched attacks on the social safety net under the aegis of entitlement reform. But it would be misleading to call this a co-optation, as if reform and its metaphorics of progress at some point belonged exclusively to the Left. On the contrary, conservative elements have suffused even the most ostensibly left-leaning reform movements in every era. Both liberal and conservative invocations of “reform” are in this sense closely aligned with the form of administrative and regulatory power that Michel Foucault (2009) has called “governmentality.” This linkage suggests that it makes more sense to think of reform as an adjunct of government itself (broadly defined) rather than as a tool reserved for the use of any particular social group or movement.
A significant development within American studies and cultural studies has involved pushing beyond meditations, however well informed, on whether reform movements and their proponents have ultimately helped or harmed the communities in which they operated (June Howard 1999). One promising avenue of research builds on the field’s increasingly expansive definitions of aesthetics, within which reform’s strategies of persuasion can be analyzed alongside—and can reshape our conceptions of—more traditional modes of assessing value (Dillon 2004). Other innovative work puts reform into productive critical conversation with discourses of genre, sexuality, violence, spectacle, interiority, and embodiment, demonstrating the myriad ways in which reform has overlapped with and worked to constitute them (Castiglia 2008; Salazar 2010; Pelletier 2015; Griffiths 2016). Scholarship on reform will necessarily continue to engage narrow questions of political efficacy and moral credibility, But the relevance of such work rests on its ability to illuminate a broader range of concerns as well. The energies animating and regulating reformist projects go to the heart of the representation and deployment of such key concepts as interiority and emotion, persuasion and coercion. In that sense, the apparent mustiness of “reform” as a term belies its centrality to the practice of American studies and cultural studies.