TRUST ME, I’M AN ANTHROPOLOGIST





By the time we left England, and I embarked on a rather erratic education at a random sample of schools in America, Ireland and France, my father had manfully shrugged off his disappointment over the chimp experiment, and begun training me as an ethnographer instead. I was only five, but he generously overlooked this slight handicap: I might be somewhat shorter than his other students, but that shouldn’t prevent me grasping the basic principles of ethnographic research methodology. Among the most important of these, I learned, was the search for rules. When we arrived in any unfamiliar culture, I was to look for regularities and consistent patterns in the natives’ behaviour, and try to work out the hidden rules – the conventions or collective understandings – governing these behaviour patterns.

Eventually, this rule-hunting becomes almost an unconscious process – a reflex, or, according to some long-suffering companions, a pathological compulsion. Two years ago, for example, my fiancé Henry took me to visit some friends in Poland. As we were driving in an English car, he relied on me, the passenger, to tell him when it was safe to overtake. Within twenty minutes of crossing the Polish border, I started to say ‘Yes, go now, it’s safe,’ even when there were vehicles coming towards us on a two-lane road.

After he had twice hastily applied the brakes and aborted a planned overtake at the last minute, he clearly began to have doubts about my judgement. ‘What are you doing? That wasn’t safe at all! Didn’t you see that big lorry?’ ‘Oh yes,’ I replied, ‘but the rules are different here in Poland. There’s obviously a tacit understanding that a wide two-lane road is really three lanes, so if you overtake, the driver in front and the one coming towards you will move to the side to give you room.’

Henry asked politely how I could possibly be sure of this, given that I had never been to Poland before and had been in the country less than half an hour. My response, that I had been watching the Polish drivers and that they all clearly followed this rule, was greeted with perhaps understandable scepticism. Adding ‘Trust me, I’m an anthropologist’ probably didn’t help much either, and it was some time before he could be persuaded to test my theory. When he did, the vehicles duly parted like the Red Sea to create a ‘third lane’ for us, and our Polish host later confirmed that there was indeed a sort of unofficial code of etiquette that required this.

My sense of triumph was somewhat diluted, though, by our host’s sister, who pointed out that her countrymen were also noted for their reckless and dangerous driving. Had I been a bit more observant, it seemed, I might have noticed the crosses, with flowers around the base, dotted along the roadsides – tributes placed by bereaved relatives to mark the spots at which people had been killed in road accidents. Henry magnanimously refrained from making any comment about the trustworthiness of anthropologists, but he did ask why I could not be content with merely observing and analysing Polish customs: why did I feel compelled to risk my neck – and, incidentally, his – by joining in?

I explained that this compulsion was partly the result of promptings from my Inner Participant, but insisted that there was also some methodology in my apparent madness. Having observed some regularity or pattern in native behaviour, and tentatively identified the unspoken rule involved, an ethnographer can apply various ‘tests’ to confirm the existence of such a rule. You can tell a representative selection of natives about your observations of their behaviour patterns, and ask them if you have correctly identified the rule, convention or principle behind these patterns. You can break the (hypothetical) rule, and look for signs of disapproval, or indeed active ‘sanctions’. In some cases, such as the Polish third-lane rule, you can ‘test’ the rule by obeying it, and note whether you are ‘rewarded’ for doing so.

 

BORING BUT IMPORTANT

This book is not written for other social scientists, but rather for that elusive creature publishers used to call ‘the intelligent layman’. My non-academic approach cannot, however, be used as a convenient excuse for woolly thinking, sloppy use of language, or failing to define my terms. This is a book about the ‘rules’ of Englishness, and I cannot simply assert that we all know what we mean by a ‘rule’, without attempting to explain the sense or senses in which I am using the term.

I am using a rather broad interpretation of the concept of a rule, based on four of the definitions allowed by the Oxford English Dictionary, namely:

 

· a principle, regulation or maxim governing individual conduct;

· a standard of discrimination or estimation; a criterion, a test, a measure;

· an exemplary person or thing; a guiding example;

· a fact, or the statement of a fact, which holds generally good; the normal or usual state of things.

 

Thus, my quest to identify the rules of Englishness is not confined to a search for specific rules of conduct, but will include rules in the wider sense of standards, norms, ideals, guiding principles and ‘facts’ about ‘normal or usual’ English behaviour.

This last is the sense of ‘rule’ we are using when we say: ‘As a rule, the English tend to be X (or prefer Y, or dislike Z).’ When we use the term rule in this way, we do not mean – and this is important – that all English people always or invariably exhibit the characteristic in question, only that it is a quality or behaviour pattern which is common enough, or marked enough, to be noticeable and significant. Indeed, it is a fundamental requirement of a social rule – by whatever definition – that it can be broken. Rules of conduct (or standards, or principles) of this kind are not like scientific or mathematical laws, statements of a necessary state of affairs; they are by definition contingent. If it were, for example, utterly inconceivable and impossible that anyone would ever jump a queue, there would be no need for a rule prohibiting queue jumping.

When I speak of the unwritten rules of Englishness, therefore, I am clearly not suggesting that such rules are universally obeyed in English society, or that no exceptions or deviations will be found. That would be ludicrous. My claim is only that these rules are ‘normal and usual’ enough to be helpful in understanding and defining our national character.

Often, exceptions and deviations may help to ‘prove’ (in the correct sense of ‘test’) a rule, in that the degree of surprise or outrage provoked by the deviation provides an indication of its importance, and the ‘normality’ of the behaviour it prescribes. Many of the pundits conducting premature post-mortems on Englishness make the fundamental mistake of citing breaches of the traditional rules of Englishness (such as, say, the unsportsmanlike behaviour of a footballer or cricketer) as evidence for their diagnosis of death, while ignoring public reaction to such breaches, which clearly shows that they are regarded as abnormal, unacceptable and un-English.

THE NATURE OF CULTURE

My analysis of Englishness will focus on rules, as I believe this is the most direct route to the establishment of a ‘grammar’ of Englishness. But given the very broad sense in which I am using the term ‘rule’, my search for the rules of Englishness will effectively involve an attempt to understand and define English culture. This is another term that requires definition: by ‘culture’ I mean the sum of a social group’s patterns of behaviour, customs, way of life, ideas, beliefs and values.

I am not implying by this that I see English culture as a homogeneous entity – that I expect to find no variation in behaviour patterns, customs, beliefs, etc. – any more than I am suggesting that the ‘rules of Englishness’ are universally obeyed. As with the rules, I expect to find much variation and diversity within English culture, but hope to discover some sort of common core, a set of underlying basic patterns that might help us to define Englishness.

At the same time, I am conscious of the wider danger of cross-cultural ‘ethnographic dazzle’ – of blindness to the similarities between the English and other cultures. When absorbed in the task of defining a ‘national character’, it is easy to become obsessed with the distinctive features of a particular culture, and to forget that we are all members of the same species. Fortunately, several rather more eminent anthropologists have provided us with lists of ‘cross-cultural universals’ – practices, customs and beliefs found in all human societies – which should help me to avoid this hazard. There is some lack of consensus on exactly what practices, etc. should be included in this category (but then, when did academics ever manage to agree on anything?) For example, Robin Fox gives us the following: laws about property, rules about incest and marriage, customs of taboo and avoidance, methods of settling disputes with a minimum of bloodshed, beliefs about the supernatural and practices relating to it, a system of social status and methods of indicating it, initiation ceremonies for young men, courtship practices involving the adornment of females, systems of symbolic body ornament generally, certain activities set aside for men from which women are excluded, gambling of some kind, a tool- and weapons-making industry, myths and legends, dancing, adultery and various doses of homicide, suicide, homosexuality, schizophrenia, psychoses and neuroses, and various practitioners to take advantage of or cure these, depending on how they are viewed.

George Peter Murdoch provides a much longer and more detailed list of universals,6 in convenient alphabetical order, but less amusingly phrased: age-grading, athletic sports, bodily adornment, calendar, cleanliness training, community organisation, cooking, cooperative labour, cosmology, courtship, dancing, decorative art, divination, division of labour, dream interpretation, education, eschatology, ethics, ethnobiology, etiquette, faith-healing, family, feasting, fire-making, folklore, food taboos, funeral rites, games, gestures, gift-giving, government, greetings, hairstyles, hospitality, housing, hygiene, incest taboos, inheritance rules, joking, kin-groups, kinship nomenclature, language, law, luck superstition, magic, marriage, mealtimes, medicine, modesty concerning natural functions, mourning, music, mythology, numerals, obstetrics, penal sanctions, personal names, population policy, postnatal care, pregnancy usages, property rights, propitiation of supernatural beings, puberty customs, religious rituals, residence rules, sexual restrictions, soul concepts, status differentiation, surgery, tool making, trade, visiting, weaning and weather control.

While I am not personally familiar with every existing human culture, lists such as these will help to ensure that I focus specifically, for example, on what is unique or distinctive about the English class system, rather than the fact that we have such a system, as all cultures have ‘a system of social status and methods of indicating it’. This may seem a rather obvious point, but it is one that other writers have failed to recognize,7 and many also regularly commit the related error of assuming that certain characteristics of English culture (such as the association of alcohol with violence) are universal features of all human societies.

RULE MAKING

There is one significant omission from the above lists, although it is clearly implicit in both and that is ‘rule making’. The human species is addicted to rule making. Every human activity, without exception, including natural biological functions such as eating and sex, is hedged about with complex sets of rules and regulations, dictating precisely when, where, with whom and in what manner the activity may be performed. Animals just do these things; humans make an almighty song and dance about it. This is known as ‘civilization’.

The rules may vary from culture to culture, but there are always rules. Different foods may be prohibited in different societies, but every society has food taboos. We have rules about everything. In the above lists, every practice that does not already contain an explicit or implicit reference to rules could be preceded by the words ‘rules about’ (e.g. rules about gift-giving, rules about hairstyles, rules about dancing, greetings, hospitality, joking, weaning, etc.). My focus on rules is therefore not some strange personal whim, but a recognition of the importance of rules and rule making in the human psyche.

If you think about it, we all use differences in rules as a principal means of distinguishing one culture from another. The first thing we notice when we go on holiday or business abroad is that other cultures have ‘different ways of doing things’, by which we usually mean that they have rules about, say, food, mealtimes, dress, greetings, hygiene, trade, hospitality, joking, status-differentiation, etc., which are different from our own rules about these practices.





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