Saturday, 14 November 2015

Industrialisation Was A Big Change - Anthropology/Sociology

       There was a brilliant article on Aeon recently about male tears in European history and how men appear to have wept just as much as women until only a couple of centuries ago. The writer, Sandra Newman, tells us that medieval and pre-industrial men and women across Europe were expected to cry in all manner of situations, and that men experienced no embarrassment at weeping openly. The exception to this was Scandinavia, where (presumably) men had a different view of stoicism and masculinity to the rest of Europe. What's remarkable is that there seems to have been a huge cultural change over the course of the eighteenth century, unnoted except post-hoc, whereby male tears became shameful and unmanly, leading to the present unlachrymose state of things.
        The change was probably down to the industrial revolution and greater urbanisation, which took people out of their villages and class cliques and into a world full of strangers with whom they were forced to live and work. Tears are normal among friends and relatives, but not in front of strangers, and especially not in front of strangers you're trying to impress. Newman says:
       The most obvious [explanation for the loss of male crying] is that this shift is the result of changes that took place as we moved from a feudal, agrarian society to one that was urban and industrial. In the Middle Ages, most people spent their lives among those they had known since birth. A typical village had only 50-300 inhabitants, most of them related by blood or marriage; a situation like an extended family stuck in an eternal reunion in the middle of nowhere. Medieval courts were also environments of extreme intimacy, where courtiers spent entire days in each other’s company, year after year. Kings routinely conducted business from their beds, at the foot of which their favourite servants slept at night. We can see this familiarity also in odd details of royal life, such as the nobleman in the courts of many European kings whose coveted privilege it was to assist the king in defecation.
        Presumably there's more to it than that - presumably there are some other gender behavioural assumptions behind at least part of the change, something more obviously 'cultural', especially when you consider that pre-industrial Scandinavians (or, at least, Icelanders) had a different view of men crying. But it makes intuitive sense that suddenly living in a large, industrial, impersonal society could have serious effects on the expression of emotion, volume of the voice, personal hygiene, economic transactions, gender distinctions, and other factors in social interaction.

        This kind of thing was presaged by Karl Polanyi, who wanted us to start thinking of economic transactions as somehow embedded in social relationships - at all times, but especially before the 'Great Transformation' that led to the development of our current market society. Now we can buy food and, well, anything else without necessarily forming a relationship with the vendor. You can buy and sell goods and the whole thing is about the transaction, not the relationship between the two people (even if that can still be a factor, at least if you're buying and selling in North Africa or in a B2B setting or something like that).

       But if you live in a small-scale society - in a village in which everyone is related, or at least in which everyone basically knows everyone else - then markets of that sort will only really appear at the edges, at the places where you interact with people you don't know. Supply and demand comes to centre stage when you don't really care about the welfare of the other guy. In the village, supply and demand problems are inherently less important than interpersonal relationships, meaning that while of course abstract value and pricing can affect interactions, they are very often trumped by personal factors.

        Let me put it another way. You know when you were a kid, and you could tell whether it was your mum, dad, or siblings coming up the stairs by the way they walked and their weight on the steps and the jangle of keys and coins in their pockets (or absence of it)? Imagine being able to do that with most of the people you're ever going to exchange goods with or eat dinner with.

        And that can realistically only happen in a small non-urban place: your relationships will naturally affect your economic transactions, and vice versa, in a small community. That's unlikely to happen in the same way in London or even in a small village that is integrated into a wider urbanised society. Remember: you're an urbanised person not only if you live in a city but also if your life is profoundly influenced by the cities in your society. With writing, state-issued money, and industrial and post-industrial technology, nobody outside of a small and shrinking number of smaller-scale societies is truly non-urban and unaffected by these developments.

        So what I propose is the establishment, or re-establishment, of a discipline whose focus is non-state, non-urban, non-literate, and non-industrial life. That was what anthropology was originally for, but now anthropology has been largely elided with sociology, which was originally established in order to make sense of the developments that happened after industrialisation. It seems reasonable to me that there's a discipline devoted to that - industrialisation was a huge change, likely affecting even our tears and gendered behaviours.

        Likewise, there should be a separate discipline that studies what human life was like before those developments happened and in places where those developments haven't yet occurred. I don't really mind what we call it - the name 'anthropology' is obviously taken - but it's important to note that it
  • would have a subject matter, viz, non-state, etc, life
  • would need a range of different methods to study that subject matter (excavation, ethnohistory, historical linguistics, and so on)
  • wouldn't overlap in subject matter with any other discipline - including archaeology, which is more concerned with the material evidence of the human past in general than with a circumscribed part of it
  • would still use ethnographic information as a core element
  • would give skills to students that anthropology courses currently don't.
      I'm not saying that anthropology today is useless or should be discarded or anything like that. I'm just saying that it doesn't have a clearly defined subject matter; it's a discipline with a method and no circumscribed subject matter. What we have in non-industrial, non-state, non-literate, non-urban life is a subject matter with no dedicated discipline. I say we weave those things together and redraw the academic disciplinary boundaries.

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