Choice and Change - J Davis (ed) 1974
Cause, knowledge and change:
Turkish village revisited
In 1949-52 I spent a total of about fifteen months in two villages near Kayseri in Turkey, and rendered an account of them˝an account necessarily deeply influenced by the common-sense constraints which I brought from my own social background. In June 1971 I was able to visit these villages, only for a few days each; but because of my warm reception, I was able to record, observe and to infer very considerable and striking changes.
These changes are not in themselves surprising; they are like the changes described in peasant societies from all parts of the world. Yet I personally found them striking, because of the impact of these differences on villages and people I once knew well. I have read about and seen social change in peasant societies. Yet I was surprised; which reinforces my conviction that there is a profound discontinuity between words in sociological books and what people actually do.
This experience led me in two directions. First, it strengthened my dissatisfaction with the way social change is described, discussed and explained by sociologists: second, brief as my visit was, I wanted to put my observations and impressions on record, since I am able to offer direct comparisons with 1950-52.
The differences from 1950-52 are many, closely interconnected and, taken together, fundamental. Nevertheless, the villages are very much the same villages as in 1950, and possibly some 'salient' things about them have not changed yet, and may never do so, or not for a long time. How can I communicate my perceptions of what has changed and what has not?
My difficulty is not peculiar to myself. Much of the language which sociologists use˝and I include social anthropologists˝is bedevilled by emptiness and imprecision, and not infrequently by a mystification which suggests religious cult rather than scientific analysis; while the attempt to convey the facts in more descriptive and common sense language, even given the necessary degree of literary skill, is hardly less selective and misleading, and perhaps more so. If the task of discussing social change in one village is so difficult, small wonder that sociology and social anthropology are baffling and confusing disciplines.
THE EMPTINESS OF CONCEPTS
This whole article illustrates my point. But perhaps it is worth briefly defending
this pessimism. The term 'social change' itself suggests almost no boundaries and
no specific core of meaning. What is it that changes? Or is it more appropriate to
make the question plural? What are the things that change? All things change all
the time, including people and communities and societies. How much change then, and
in what, do we need before we talk of 'social change'?
In an article with a title highly relevant to my theme, 'How small-scale societies change' (1969c), Professor Mair offers one answer. 'When we speak of changes in society we mean changes in the rules that govern social relationships˝rules about the ownership and transmission of property, the right to exercise authority, the duty to co-operate with particular people in particular circumstances' (p. 121).
Professor Mair puts this definition forward in the course of an important argument. She is contending that 'explaining' social change is not a special and separate sociological (or anthropological) activity requiring its own special theories. Sociologists ˝and their audiences˝live themselves amongst bewildering social changes, and it is absurd to talk as if we all expect societies normally to remain unchanged, so that change is exceptional and needs explaining. A little later in the article she defines social relationships in terms of statuses or roles, and proceeds to argue that the concept of role as a set of rules of behaviour for holders of named statuses is very far from excluding personal choice in social life. She mentions as normal human aims, power, wealth, prestige, comfort and enjoyment. 'The significance of the act of choice is that in making it a person may have to weigh the proportions in which either choice will gain him these different goods' (p. 127). Choice then is between ends as well as between means. It may also include choosing to break, interpret or even rewrite social rules. Such choices have always been present in all societies.
'Every society then offers to its members opportunities of succeeding in life by various criteria of success, and the different criteria are I would say in essentials the same in all societies. It is the opportunities that are limited by the scale of the society and its technical possibilities, and what has happened to the small-scale societies in the last hundred years is an immense widening of the field of opportunity' (p. 128).
Although her examples are not directly relevant to peasants in a modern European state built out of an ancient imperial Islamic society, most of what Professor Mair says with such clarity makes excellent sense in the context of Turkey. People's reactions to new opportunities are in terms of perceived advantages. New relationships involve new obligations which conflict directly with the old ones. Roles in new situations have to be learned not as people normally learn them, from other people who know them and take them for granted, but in odd and perhaps strange circumstances, at times where no consensus about the new situation has yet emerged.
But even so the concepts are still empty, in the sense that they do not tell us what is involved. To make sense of them, we need to be able to provide examples from our own experience and reading. They are also vague in that the boundaries implied are not clear, that is, we cannot be sure what is included and covered, or what is not. (They also carry theoretical assumptions, implications, and exclusions, which are not easy to spell out clearly; but that is not my main point here.) Social anthropologists will recognise Professor Mair's emphasis on specifiable rights and duties which can be summarised as 'rules'˝rules for 'defining' social situations, and rules for acting according to the 'definition' reached.(1) But this use of 'rules' is considerably wider than that in common English. Outside anthropology people would think of some numbered, written list, perhaps rather formally worded; and many sociologists, not in the anthropological tradition, might find surprising the implication that the totality of social action of the society studied can be adequately described in terms of rules for specific role relationships.
Social anthropologists use 'rules' to cover major moral principles; formal political
and juridical procedures;
expected behaviour between spouses, kin, neighbours and members of groups and organisations; etiquette, ritual and formal occasions; recognised ways of evading or circumventing other more formal rules; and even regularities observed by the ethnographer but not made explicit or even admitted by the people themselves. Indeed, to make sense of Professor Mair's definition we must include all these since she implicitly but clearly is talking about social life in general.
The point I am making is not a criticism of Professor Mair, but a general difficulty of social science. Professor Mair's lucid article summarises both a massive detailed knowledge of Africa and its recent changes, and wide acquaintance with writings on 'social change'.
But this erudition and lucidity is only obvious to those who also know at least in part what Professor Mair knows, and know that she knows it. To others, her background knowledge is obscured by her clarity˝by what I have called the emptiness and vagueness of sociological language˝a difficulty with which she copes better than most of us. Like all of us she is using words which are in current use in English, and many of which have other special meanings for other academic communities, so that her full meaning is clear only to those who share both the cultural world of social anthropology, and the wider world of educated users of English.
FOUR KINDS OF CHANGES
The difficulty is a general one, because we cannot write or talk without words. Like others, I, too, felt I needed some kind of classification or summary or framework in terms of which to think out the changes I observed. The scheme that follows arose directly from attempts at description; it is an extension of Professor Mair's definition. I propose four types of changes. The four types are not mutually exclusive; and they each imply the others: (i) changes in social relationships; (ii) changes in knowledge and beliefs; (iii) changes in values; (iv) changes in the general characteristics of the society.
(i) Social Relationships
By social relationships, I mean the role relationships between people living in the village and in nearby villages, and also those with people outside the rural area˝with officials, employers, fellow workers, bank managers. Since 1950, the content of many relationships have changed, many new relationships have been added, and the relative importance and frequency of relationships have also changed. As Professor Mair makes clear, since social groups imply relationships between their members, this heading includes a fortiori changes in the size, purposes, degree of specificity, strength, and distinctness of social groups, both old and new.(2)
(ii) Knowledge and Beliefs
Knowledge and belief are much more difficult. I include here relatively simple
bits of information˝who is Prime Minister, what voting is about, how much fertiliser
to use in specific circumstances, how to find a cheap bed at night in Ankara, what
a German social security child allowance is worth. But I also include changes in
ideas and assumptions of a much more radical kind˝about the nature and consequences
of sin, the nature of illness, the essence of femininity and masculinity, the uses,
reliability and consequences of money, and much more.
First, the word knowledge normally implies truth. But a large amount of what people in any society regard themselves as knowing would not be regarded as true by me, nor by most of my readers, nor by at least some people in their own society. I do not want to expand this point here, but in all kinds of ways what all of us think of as knowledge is normally either inaccurate or simplified or false˝for example, a temporary theory, a rumour, or a patient's account of his own illness. The expansion of information, through word of mouth, formal education, mass media, official statements and so forth does not necessarily involve an increase in the proportion of truth in what is known in the village. Indeed, most of the new knowledge is also partial, misleading inaccurate, biased, foreshortened or just plain wrong. In what follows, I use know and its derivatives sometimes subjectively, that is, with the knowing subject's assumption that what is known is true; and sometimes objectively, that is, with the implication that though the knowing subject takes the truth of his knowledge for granted, I as observer do not.
Secondly, the word belief has different implications from those of knowledge. We normally use the word believe when the certainty is not absolute. It may imply that the believer lacks conclusive evidence˝'to the best of my knowledge and belief'˝or that an element of judgement or opinion is involved. Alternatively it may imply a moral commitment to maintain a proposition or set of propositions, for which common sense hard evidence is tacitly or explicitly admitted to be weak or non-existent. In very many contexts˝in both Christianity and Islam, for example˝faith and orthodoxy are moral virtues, and doubt a sin. What people believe is therefore extremely difficult to state accurately. Yet to describe social change, we must make the attempt, since beliefs certainly change; and change more than people are normally willing or able to make explicit.
Plainly, if people's knowledge expands greatly, then there are likely to be changes in the notions of what to aim for, what is desirable, what is right and good, what is tolerable, what is acceptable and what is unacceptable. In other words, their values change. Besides new opportunities, and new knowledge and skills for exploiting these opportunities, they have new objectives. They may use old opportunities or break old rules for new purposes. Here again, I include things which are very different; the evaluation of desirable qualities in nubile girls, the evaluation of occupations, preferences for the form in which wealth should be stored and accumulated all directly affect immediate aims and conduct; but ideas about honour, sexual propriety, obligations to kin, piety and sin also may change; these are 'values' in a much more general sense. The accurate reporting of changes in values is at least as difficult as the accurate reporting of beliefs.
(iv) General characteristics
The fourth heading is a mixed bag. There are a number of changes in the overall
character of the society. In the village, homogeneity of knowledge and of values
declines, the sanctions of informal interaction become less effective, defiance of
accepted rules and norms increases˝with a further decline in homogeneity. The introduction
of money and market principles affects social relationships, moving them away from
traditional reciprocities towards bargaining and profit taking. The possibilities
of acquiring knowledge, skill and wealth are greater, so that the slow changes which
take place in the hierarchical structure of any relatively closed village