Subjects: An Anthropology of Britain
The editor, Nigel Rapport, a professor of anthropological and philosophical studies at the university of St. Andrews, goes at length in his introduction to explain that the book is nothing less than “a sea-change” since almost until recently few people had been brave enough to call themselves anthropologists in Britain, except for a bunch of “geographers” in the fifties. To put it bluntly, a tradition has to be established, and its starting point should be the fifteen articles collected in the volume. Leaving aside Ireland, “the inclusion of which would significantly alter the focus of this writing”, both north and south of the border, and which has also already received considerably more attention than Britain, Rapport does not claim to provide a complete and definitive view of what the British people is—or are. Rather, he claims to account for the emergence of a “British expertise” in the field which could stand on its own. To start with, all contributors have chosen “anthropology in Britain as their primary area of long-term field research and major study”, thus demonstrating that Britain is as worthy a terrain as New Guinea. In addition, since most of the contributors are British, the book goes against the established principle that in order to study a milieu well, it is better to be an outsider. On the contrary, who better than someone accustomed to and educated in the ways of a community, “at home in linguistic denotation, and familiar with behavioural form”, provided he or she has a solid background as a student of anthropology, could attempt a valuable description of that community? Contrary to what might seem, the risks of “taking too much for granted” are offset by the advantages of having the experience of the milieu (“culture is not a secret, it is something experienced”).
Rapport is not blind however. He knows that, to a certain extent, each writer is steeped in his or her own culture, behaviour, and prejudices which make him project his or her own self onto the object studied. Yet, it is his desire to conceive a sort of “post-cultural anthropology”. Like any other anthropological field of study, Britain is perfectly valid, as long as the analysis tries to go beyond the “surface phenomena” of society, culture and behaviour to reach “the psychic unity of the humankind and the individual differentiation”, to touch “the human psyche in (and as) process” —the essential goal of the discipline according to the editor. Anthropology in Britain can be as worthy of establishing an enlightening paradigm for all anthropological research whatever its object. For that very reason, no attempt at defining “Britishness” is attempted, so that the title of the book could have very well been “Anthropology in” rather than “of Britain”. The articles therefore emphasize “sameness-in-diversity”, going beyond the “political nature” and “contingency” of “essentializing discourses” about ‘Armenians’, ‘lesbians’, ‘royalists’, ‘Quakers’ etc.
The articles focus on a varied range of subjects scanning major areas of social anthropology are studied (see detailed table of contents below). After the long introduction (Part I), the articles are organized in five parts dealing with Nationalism, Contestation and the Performance of Tradition (II), Strategies of Modernity: Heritage, Leisure, Dissociation (III) The Appropriation of Discourse (IV), Methodologies and Ethnomethodologies (V), and The Making (and Unmaking) of Community: Ethnicity, Religiosity, Locality (VI). Each chapter contains three articles which are supposed to be representative of anthropological methodology and discourse, not definitive studies. As can be seen from the titles, the volume intends to tackle both anthropology as a practice (II, III, IV, VI) and as a method (V), even though people less familiar with anthropology will relish less in the methodological discussion than in the more specific articles about certain social groups.
Although Scotland is completely overlooked, the whole of Great Britain is more or less dealt with (a mining town in the north of England, a small Cumbrian village, London, Wales, the Isle of Man); so are identified social or (sub-) cultural groups who contribute to British identity (women, children, a non-conformist sect, lesbians, the London ballet world, people fascinated with esoteric practices etc.). One of the most striking studies however concerns undoubtedly the ‘real royalists’. In ‘Subject Positions and ‘Real Royalists’: Monarchy and Vernacular Civil Religion in Great Britain’, Anne Rowbottom tries to understand the paradox of people living in a modern democracy, who should therefore in principle abhor monarchy, and yet in practice collect all sort of memorabilia, follow the members of the royal family around the country on their public duties appearances, are ready to travel long distances in uncomfortable conditions, wait in pouring rain or scorching sun for hours just to get the chance of exchanging a few words and offering them flowers and presents during the ‘walkabouts’ (informal meeting of the public attending the ceremony). Contrary to what one might expect a good half of this group of 14 is made of below 50 year-olds. This first article would be sufficient to justify the whole enterprise of justifying an anthropology of Britain. Non-British readers will perhaps get the same feeling as Western anthropologists coming into contact for the first time with an uncharted African tribe.
One will also read with great profit the very personal study of a small Quaker community written by a Quaker anthropologist, Peter Collins (‘Both Independent and Interconnected Voices: Bathkin among the Quakers’), an intriguing piece about identity in a little known area of the British Isle, the Isle of Man by Susan Lewis (‘National Day: Achieving Collective Identity on the Isle of Man’), as well as ‘The Fetishization of Past Everyday Life’, in which Sharon Macdonald looks into the British obsession with setting up and visiting small museums, filled with old, sometimes insignificant, objects, just to document “‘life gone by’ in this or that area, island or village”.
Even though very few pictures and illustrations are included, which is regrettable given the insistence on the use of symbols and the transformation of reality, all students of human sciences will find something of interest to their own area of study. Generally in accessible language, British Subjects will make excellent reading for anyone with an interest in contemporary British society. As for anthropologists, they will be convinced that Britain is definitely a place to practice their science.