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Family and Community in Ireland, 3rd Edition

The Other Clare, Vol. 27

The Othering of Clare by Orla O’Donovan

Family and Community in Ireland, Conrad M. Arensberg and Solon T. Kimball,
CLASP Press, Ennis, Co. Clare, 2001, pp. 560 (Third Edition)
ISBN 1 900545 13 6, Price: €33.00

The understanding of history that assumes all societies evolve in a unilinear way from traditional to modern ones has tremendous force, as does the idea that some societies are more ‘developed’ than others in this process of social evolution. In a call for the abandonment of the concept of ‘development’ and its associated construction of history, the Mexican political activist Gustavo Esteva (1992, p. 10) argues that the word ‘always implies a favourable change, a step from the simple to the complex, from the inferior to the superior, from worse to better.’ The notion of development, he argues, is a reminder to two-thirds of the world’s population of what they are not. They are not part of the modernised developed world or the ‘civilised world’, but belong to backward poor societies whose social maturation has been retarded. They are others, different in mind and body, to those who populate the advanced Western world.

The third edition of Family and Community in Ireland, published by Clasp Press, provides us with some insights into the genealogy of this modernisation thinking. It also elucidates how such modernisation thinking that constructed Ireland as lagging behind Britain and the USA in the process of social evolution came to shape how many people (including Irish social scientists) viewed Ireland. What distinguishes this edition of Family and Community in Ireland from the two previous editions, published in 1940 and 1968, is the inclusion of a lengthy commentary, written by Anne Byrne, Ricca Edmondson and Tony Varley from the Department of Political Science and Sociology in the National University of Ireland, Galway. Based on a study of archival material, the commentary considers, for the first time, the history of the Harvard Irish Study from which the publication originally emerged and the ongoing controversies it provoked.

Family and Community in Ireland emerged from the social anthropological strand of the Harvard Irish Study, a three-stranded study undertaken by researchers from Harvard University in Ireland between 1931 and 1936. Overall, the study sought to investigate ‘the origin and development of the races and cultures of Ireland’ (p. XVIII). At least seventeen excavations were conducted at various sites around the country in the archaeological strand of the study, including Cahercommaun and Poulawack in the Burren in County Clare. The physical anthropological strand, in an effort to clarify the ‘racial composition’ of the Irish, involved a team of researchers who measured bodily features such as the forehead slope and cranium of approximately 12,000 people. While this research was also conducted in various locations in Ireland, it was concentrated in County Clare where the heads and other body parts of 1,114 men were measured. Fieldwork for the third strand of the study, the social anthropological strand, was conducted exclusively in County Clare, mainly in the rural districts of Luogh and Rinnamona and in the town of Ennis. This strand of the study was conducted by Conrad Arensberg and Solon Kimball, the authors of Family and Community in Ireland, who, based in the Queen’s Hotel in Ennis and in the Carey household in Luogh and the Quin homestead in Rinnamona, lived among and observed people in County Clare over a two-year period. Their research endeavours aimed to investigate aspects of Irish ‘folk culture’ (p. xxv). Revealing how the overall study was rooted in socio biology that assumes cultural diversity is related to genetic diversity, the original plan was to correlate the findings from the physical and social anthropological strands of the study, though this never came to fruition.

Arensberg and Kimball conducted their research in County Clare under the direction of William Lloyd Warner, who is regarded as a US pioneer in the field of social anthropology. Warner is credited with having contributed to the broadening of the scope of this field of research to include not just ‘primitive’ societies, but also ‘modern’ and ‘transitional’ ones. As Byrne et al. (p. XXXIII) note, he was interested in ‘making comparisons between modern and traditional societies, in categorising cultures along a continuum which ranged from ‘simple’ to ‘complex’’. Steeped in the understanding of history and cultural diversity that Gustavo Esteva calls us to abandon, Warner not only assumed that all societies could be plotted along a continuum of social evolution, but that the Anglo-American society from which he himself hailed was at the most developed end of that continuum. For him, ‘Euro-American society’ was modestly assumed to have led the way in the historical process of social evolution and was regarded, as ‘one of a few highly differentiated cultures which lie at the extreme pole of complexity’ (p. xii). In contrast, County Clare, which was regarded as a microcosm of Ireland, was further back from this pole of modernisation in Werner’s imaginary continuum. It was a transitional society, in between the traditional ‘Old World’ and the modern ‘New World’. In Warner’s account of why County Clare was selected as the site for the ethnographic research, he notes that it was ‘a county in which there was a blending of older Gaelic [read primitive] and modern British [read advanced] influences’ (p. xiii). (The background to the study, as discussed by Byrne et al., suggests that pragmatic reasons may also have contributed to the selection of Clare; it was the constituency represented by the then Taoiseach, Éamonn de Valera, and he was one of the many elites enlisted by the Harvard team to secure approval for the study and the ‘cooperation’ of local people). The construction of County Clare as abnormal and as having been by-passed by progressive modernity is also evident in the writings of Conrad Arensberg. When writing about his collaborator Solon Kimball’s sojourns in ‘ancient’ Ireland, Arensberg notes that ‘it was years before he saw the more ‘normal’ rest of Europe with its Paris, London or Rome’ (p. XLVI). In a similar vein, when describing Luogh, one of the research sites in County Clare, Arensberg emphasises its remoteness and that ‘it does not entirely escape modernity’ (p. LI).

The detailed description of life in County Clare in the 1930s provided by Arensberg and Kimball tells the story of the centrality of the family structure and kinship to social and economic production and reproduction in ‘pre-modern’ Ireland. In this Arcadian account of the daily lives of the people in the countryside and the town-dwellers in Clare, the family, the community and the economy are presented as tightly interwoven sub-systems. As Byrne et al. note, Family and Community in Ireland has the status of a classic text. The study is widely regarded as having had a profound influence on how Ireland is conceived and studied by Irish social scientists (for better or for worse), while internationally it continues to be a source of interest for those concerned with the social history of Ireland. For many people who have turned to the text to understand Irish society, the mistake has been to read it as a form of narrative realism that provides us with a literal account of what life was like and how people understood it. It is advisable for the reader to consider the overall study in the context of the modernisationist assumptions that imbued it. The inanity of the implicit search to identify the aspects of the racial composition of the Irish and Irish folk culture that act as impediments to the modernisation along the lines of the Euro-American experience then becomes apparent.

I strongly recommend this third edition of Family and Community in Ireland, not as a record of life in Ireland in the 1930s, but as an anthropological representation of Ireland. It is a highly readable book that will be of interest to those concerned with the history of ‘othering’ representations of Ireland and the history of social anthropology.

Esteva, G. 1992. ‘Development’ in Sachs, W. The Development Dictionary: A Guide to Knowledge as Power. London: Zed Books.

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