Danny Yee >> People >> Mike Salovesh
Date:         Thu, 2 Mar 2000 02:52:11 -0600
From:         Mike Salovesh <t20mxs1@CORN.CSO.NIU.EDU>
Subject:      Redfield's folk-urban continuum

Joe Heyman said:

> It's also worth commenting the problematic status of "urban." This is > obviously a response to "folk" as in folklore. A parallel move was made > long ago by Robert Redfield in the folk-urban continuum (and I won't > comment on what acronym grad students have given that one). Redfield had > the beneficial effect of setting off a long tradition of very fine work on > cities, much of which does indeed address the city-ness of the topic. But > Redfield's notion that there was a folk and that its polar opposite was > urban was quickly discovered to be misleading on both ends. The analogy to > urban folklore is apt--what is referred to as "folk" lore is usually the > patterned, orally transmitted artistry of poor peasants, tribal peoples, > and rural folk in economically stagnant areas generally, who the "folk." > But then "urban" lore has nothing to do with being urban so much as it has > to do with patterned, orally transmitted artistry of people who occupy more > dominant positions in terms of status, occupations (offices, email, etc.), > locations (suburbs as much or more than cities), commodity consumption > (SUVs and other car-jacking anxieties, etc.), and so forth.

Sorry to disagree, but once in a while I am troubled by how far summaries of Redfield's ideas depart from what Redfield actually said -- not to mention how far they depart from what Redfield taught.

Where I'm coming from: Most of what I learned about social and cultural anthropology while I was a student was strongly influenced by the three anthropologists who were my special mentors: Redfield, Eric Wolf, and Tom (Lloyd A.) Fallers. I had taken courses from Redfield, and he had become my advisor, before Eric Wolf joined the faculty at Chicago. Redfield died while I was on my first field trip; Wolf served on my M.A. committee when I returned. Eric then left Chicago. I had been Fallers' TA during a year I spent at Berkeley, and when Tom came to Chicago he agreed to serve on my doctoral committee. I owe more than I can say to each of these great men. It is no reflection on Eric or Tom that our first-born son was named David Robert (David for himself, Robert for Redfield); in my family, you don't name a child after a living person. Our son's middle name does tell you how I felt about Redfield while I was writing my dissertation.

In his seminal article, "The Folk Society" (American Journal of Sociology, 1940) and in the longer consideration Redfield gave to the idea in __The Folk Culture of Yucatan__, Redfield carefully pointed out that when he talked about both "folk" and "urban" he was talking about the poles of a theoretical construct, not about real cultures/societies. It's a conceptual, not a descriptive, model. He repeatedly said that the apparent dichotomy is the same kind of distinction others made with such ideas as Gemeinschaft as opposed to Gesellschaft, mechanical versus organic solidarity, and other conceptualizations on a macro level. There is no real society that totally fits the "folk society" model, and there is no real society that entirely fits the "urban society" model. Not according to Redfield, anyhow.

It wasn't Redfield's intent to be misleading or confusing on this point. The problem didn't lie in Redfield's notion, since he explicitly denied that ANY society was entirely folk-like or entirely urban. Any real society, he said, has to lie somewhere between the two poles. Assertions that such-and-such a society was wholly "folk" or wholly "urban" would be alien to what Redfield was talking about. (The title of __The Folk Culture of Yucatan__ , in fact, is clearly contadicted by the content of the book.) From the beginnning, there never was any lack of other writers who misunderstood Redfield on this point: such misunderstandings first appeared in the SOCIOLOGY journal where he published the original article.

I have commented, elsewhere, that there's nothing particularly difficult in saying that Society X is more folk-like than Society Y -- provided that you restrict that statement to a single dimension of variation. It would be easy to support a statement like "Society X is more folk-like in the way it deals with kinship than Society Y". You could do so without having to imply that either kinship system is totally like what would be expected in Redfield's ideal model of a folk society. Redfield's models are ideal types. He's talking about tendencies for a society to be more like one pole than the other, rather than about saying that the society IS either folk or urban.

Problems with Redfield's notion begin with the realization that it's entirely possible that there is a Society X whose kinship system is more folk-like than that of Society Y -- and that at the same time the political system of Society Y could be more folk-like than the political system of Society X. In short, what Redfield proposed in his folk-urban continuum actually tries to mix several separate continuua into a single measure. I think that was a mistake. If I were to compare two societies with regard to which was more folk-like, which more urban-like, than the other, I would limit myself to a single dimension of variation. I don't want to foreclose the possibility that I might have to rank the same two societies differently along another, independent dimension of variation that also goes from folk to urban.

It's a lot more comfortable to stick to comparing apples with apples, rather than comparing apples with horse-apples. (Does anybody out there remember what was meant by "horse-apples"?)

It helps to put Redfield's contrast of folk and urban as ideal types in the context of then-recent developments in anthropology. Up through the mid-1930s, social/cultural anthropologists tended to view themselves as people who study "primitive" peoples and cultures. (That was their vocabulary, not mine, so don't jump on me for saying "primitive" here.) More than half a century of saying that the world's "primitive" cultures were fast disappearing did a pretty good job of convincing anthropologists that it was true. Unfortunately, anthropologists were practically the only people in the dominant, NON-primitive world who saw that as a problem.

What anthropologists said to the rest of the world about there being any problems with the possibility that "primitive" cultures were disappearing was a credit to their sensitivities to the rights of people who weren't like those of their own culture. But that's not the whole story.

One of the less openly discussed reasons social/cultural anthropologists saw problems in the perceived disappearance of "primitive" peoples and cultures was fear that the subject matter of their kind of anthropology might be disappearing at the same time. The idea that this was some kind of threat was enhanced by the customary attitude that conceived of a culture as the intellectual property of the first anthropologist to describe it. (It just wouldn't be polite or collegial to go back to Ungo-Bungo when we already had good old Zz's monograph on Ungo-Bungo culture. Doing a restudy might be taken to imply that the original study was botched, and that good old Zz was really a no-good.) It looked like the day was pretty close when all the good cultures would be "taken". If that day came, it would be very hard to justify training any new anthropologists dedicated to studying "primitives" . . . and a lot of teaching anthropologists would lose their jobs.

In the middle 1930s, two committees of the American Anthropological Association directly faced up to some of the problems involved in the alleged disappearance of cultures for anthropologists to study. In the process, they deliberately and consciously rewrote the commonly-accepted charter of social and cultural anthropology. Influential symposia that came out of these committees permanently changed the old vision that the only place to do anthropology was among "primitive" people.

The committee that's directly relevant included Redfield as a prominent participant. They argued strongly that there were very good reasons why anthropology should begin to study peasant societies and cultures in addition to our traditional concern with "primitives". Once the idea took hold that it was good for anthropology to look at what Kroeber called "part-societies with part-cultures", the danger that social/cultural anthropology might put itself out of business even before the disappearance of the last "primitive" culture evaporated. In fact, the logical extension of this new charter opened the door for anthropologists to investigate industrial societies and so-called "modern" cultures without having to become sociologists.

Just saying that it was all right for anthropologists to look at peasant societies and cultures did not provide a good theoretical basis for doing so. Redfield's "folk-urban continuum" was one of the first attempts to justify the new anthropological charter for peasant studies.

Eventually, Redfield, Singer, and others came up with ideas that were both more broadly based and yet more specifically useful for studies of peasants: the idea of contrasts between Great Traditions and Little Traditions. That's still a dichotomy of ideal types, of course. Its advantage lies in its explicit recognition that the opposing poles of this dichotomy are in direct interaction and have significant influences on each other.

That's exactly what you learn when you study peasant-like societies.

-- mike salovesh <salovesh@niu.edu> PEACE !!!