Monday, 20 April 2015

Who runs the countryside?

By Sam Hillyard, Durham University.

‘Why would you want to study here?’  This was the observation made by one resident of the village on which this blog and related paper are based.  From their point of view, not a lot happened there and, admittedly, it was a quiet, sleepy kind of village, tucked away in a fairly remote county in the East of England. This paper attempts to outline why it was important to look at and how the research unlocked the complexity of that social setting, describing its methods and some of its research strategies.

One of the main challenges for sociology is to open-up to analysis what seems normal – even dull.  Hence key thinkers like Erving Goffman apply incongruous metaphors, such as Shakespeare’s metaphor – the world is a stage – to society (Goffman 1959).  This asks how can we see our society afresh if we see it as a set of performances?  Another strategy is to understand that, as one of my undergraduate sociology tutors observed, the only constant is change.  Everywhere is subject to some kind of change – the people, the place and what society is becoming – so we can also explore that.  So, for example, one TV critic observed about a series that is was ‘set in super-yesterday times’ and that hence had all of the privations of life in Tudor England:
People said it was slow, but to be fair it was set before cars, so the main bloke had to go everywhere on foot […] it must have been knackering.
[…] if you think about it, they only lived in olden times, so it wasn’t like they missed out on much, like they didn’t even have chips back then, or Wi-Fi, or Mark Ronson or Broadchurch […] I mean there was nothing to do back then, they were so desperate for stuff to do that for entertainment they had to watch people sweep stuff up or poked cobwebs or read books.  It was [a] total shithouse.’ 
There is a danger, too, that because something seems normalised or has been that way for a long time it may hide inequalities.  Social scientists, like Goffman, are also very keen to examine how power operates (even at local levels) and with what consequences.  In rural areas, attention has been paid to inequalities relating to social class alongside the ‘rural penalty.’  That is, the opportunities or options urban dwellers take for granted aren’t there – the modern-day equivalent to Tudor absences (no mobile signal, no broadband and no shops open at reasonable hours).  It is also important, though, to try and understand how such inequalities manifest themselves at the local level.   
An ethnographic approach was used here.  This includes looking firsthand at what people do, rather than relying upon what they say they do (Atkinson 2015).  The style of enthrophy adopted by the research was inclusive, that is, was primarily qualitative but also included quantitative data.  The core principle is that it seeks to understand the lived experiences and perspectives of the social group/ world under study.  Starting with the school (was it at the heart of the village?), much bigger patterns of change began to emerge.  For example, who was locally important – the local squirearchy – had changed from long-term residents (villagers born and raised there) to relative newcomers.  The challenge was to try and understand why.  Helping to get an insight into these changes, some ideas from Goffman and also from a contemporary thinker on social space (Nigel Thrift), an explanation emerged.
Key village changes
In previous research, with Carl Bagley (School of Education, Durham University) we explained a number of themes, including what had changed inside the schools, from very long-serving members (28 years in one case) to a rapid turn-over of staff and what implications this had for how the school was seen by the village.  We also saw the impact of economic change – the other case study village was a former coal-mining village in Co. Durham, UK – influenced how the school featured as a force of continuity.  We also were curious about and explored how the school could be a centrifugal force for creating a sense of belonging in a village – or inversely a means of exclusion.  The theme of exclusion and how social clashes and some forms of deviancy are handled in rural areas, too, was a theme explored elsewhere. 

One of the greatest strengths of doing ethnography is its capacity to yield unexpected or unanticipated results.  By looking at the recent social history, a change in guard seemed to have taken place.  That is, who occupied the ‘front stage’ roles of village life.  Why had this so markedly happened?  In this new article in SRO, I present findings from the ethnography and use it to comment upon what rural areas are now becoming – is it a performance or does the sticky issue of space’s influence upon us (even as a penalty) hold fast?

In first coming to the village, where I lived for just shy of a month on three occasions with my partner John and our two dogs, the layout immediately seemed strange.  There were two main streets, in parallel to one another and I could see what had been the heart of the village had closed up (blacksmith and baker shutting), but a new store had opened towards the A-road.  I did a lot of walking in and around the village – dogs can be useful fieldwork ‘tools’ – and from the housing stock could see its layers of expansion.  Census data and the old Norfolk county trade directories confirmed that the village had really grown – and mostly since the Second World War. 
What was left in the ‘old’ village was its school and also a very fine church.  Looking through their records – inside and out of the church – several names cropped up again and again.  Many English villages also have Parish Councils and I compared and contrasted who sat on what and when (i.e. the School Governors became the Friends of the School and former and present Parish Counsellors).  I got to know who were key people in the village currently, speaking to the current head, former heads, local business owners and newcomers and established residents alike.  They were identifiable by the overlap between who villagers themselves recommended that I speak to and the way in which certain individual names cropped up repeatedly.

Payne (1996) observed that, in his view, community studies always seemed to find the people they researched were nice and got along with one another.  Here it became very clear that the village did not ‘gel’ and there was some historic rancour.  The exploratory, open-ended character of ethnography allowed me to explore this further.
Looking at the records and speaking with residents and attending and interacting in events across the village (spending time in school, at the shop, going to meetings and talks and, obviously, walking the dogs) I identified two generic sides.  These were the established residents – those literally with relatives in the graveyard – and the people who had not lived there for so long.  Looking into this further, it seemed there were two types of incomer – a ‘professional’ class and those who – quite literally – did not want to be there.  That is, they were in housing association accommodation over-spilled from the nearest market town.

This challenged a lot of the existing comments about rural life that suggest people moved there to colonise or to sediment into a new lifestyle; that class lines were purely about whether you worked on the land or owned it and that gentrification was all about the people who lived there.  I worked out that important people didn’t always have the live there to have an impact upon what happened.  For example, the former Lord of the Manor had never been resident, but had influenced what the village became by relinquishing key land around the village pre-WW2.  Also, given that there were fewer residential business owners (i.e. blacksmith and baker has gone), those that remained were all the more important.  So the head was important, but had not been resident since the 1970s – when the tied accommodation (aptly named School House) was sold.  Furthermore, the second home ownership in the oldest (and prettiest) part of the village meant people who weren’t there had influence – driving up property values and living a lifestyle that was disconnected from the village and its future.  This created parallels with my own, transitory relationship with the village – I was only there for a few weeks, but looking at the guidebooks in one of the converted barns I stayed in, nothing inside or of the village was showcased or advertised.


So what to conclude from these changes?

First, the performance of the countryside includes co-location (being there) and also co-presence (people backstage, with a different, indirect connection).  That is, what we imagine those spaces to be informs what they become because we act according to our imagined view.  As Chicago sociologist W.I. Thomas phrased it, if you think someone’s great, then he [sic] is.  

What was curious here was that change – and change was inevitable to some degree – had really shifted the size of the village.  Once everyone could no longer know everyone else, a certain sociability had been lost.  It was present individually (after Payne, I did actually like everyone I met during fieldwork, with one exception) but a collective synergy or goodwill had been lost.  Rather than end on a negative note, which would be easy because this village continued to experience economic pressures and poverty, I could too see how the balance of power had changed into the hands of people who were likely to weave new threads of connection.  These included the incomers and the non-residents and – intriguingly – for the most part they were women.  I hope this piece of – admittedly small – research shows that the global can be viewed through the local and the capacity of ethnography’s exploratory spirit to engage with such themes (with or without the help of your dogs!)
Further reading and references

Atkinson, P. (2015) For ethnography.  London: Sage.
Goffman, E. (1959) The presentation of self in everyday life.  Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Weekly Wipe (2015) ‘Philomena Cunk and Barry Shitpeas on Wolf Hall’ Series 3, Episode 1. [accessed 19 March, 2015]

Read the full Sociological Research Online article here.

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