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Why we still need an Anthropology of Europe

Daniel Miller1 October 2013

(By Daniel Miller and Razvan Nicolescu)

Cake – Grano style

Cake – Grano style (Photo by Daniel Miller)

One of the advantages of visiting other field sites is exposure to the incredible contrasts between them. Although Italy and England are both part of the European Union there is almost nothing in common between our respective sites. Both Leeglade (our UK fieldsite) and Grano (our Italian fieldsite) are approximately 16,000 in population. But Leeglade is in every respect a village. There is just one small high street of basic shops. By contrast Grano is clearly a town with many different streets full of shops, probably hundreds of shops in total. There is no manufacturing in Leeglade, while artisanal work is common in Grano.

Most people in Grano live in extended families and own land. Indeed most people in Grano are self-sufficient in home grown olive oil. We have never met a landowner in Leeglade and almost everyone lives in nuclear families or on their own. Furthermore many people in Grano also own empty properties they envisage one day will be occupied by their children, this too is unknown in Leeglade.

Perhaps the biggest contrast is an economic activity and what the money is used for. The owners of most shops in Grano work in their own premises. Shops seem to exist more as places to establish the social position of the owner and an opportunity for them to socialise, rather than as a mechanism for the maximisation of profits. Indeed most things that go on here, including online activity, are really ways to facilitate offline social networking. Partly as a result most people’s incomes are considerably lower than those of the inhabitants of Leeglade. Although in Grano property prices are low, transport and food are cheap so one needs much less to live. By contrast, most of the clothing shops in Grano consist only of extremely expensive clothes, that one would have imagined as well beyond the means of the people who live there. In Leeglade property prices are very high and there are no clothing shops at all.

In Grano people will rarely spend money on a drink outside of the home, saving for items such as very expensive sunglasses and accessories. One reason is that in the summer especially the whole town socialises in the public squares. In Grano between 1 o’clock and 5 o’clock in the afternoon you can hear a pin drop. The shops are closed and no one is moving around the town. In Leeglade this is prime working time. In Grano people are very often invited to somebody else’s house for dinner. In Leeglade people spend a good deal on drinking and entertainment outside of the home, but it is very rare for them to have another person from the village invited to dinner inside the home.

Overall we would suggest that the degree of differences between the two sites are pretty much as they might have been a hundred or two hundred years ago. Some things were once in common but have disappeared. A 90 year-old in Leeglade recalls how, as a child, he saw men literally doff their cap when a carriage with local landowners passed by. The same might have been true in Grano. Today both sites are witnessing an increase in home-based IT work.  But in general a person from Grano would find almost everything about Leeglade astonishing and inexplicable. People in Leeglade would find Grano wonderful as a tourist destination but would have no idea how people live like that whole year. Though the view each has of the other has changed dramatically. Not so long ago people who were studying English were considered to be gaining an entry to a land of bowler hats and conformity, perhaps the most formal place in Europe. Today adverts in Grano for English classes portray England as the land of quirky individualism, the most informal place in Europe, in contrast to the strong social conformity of Grano.

One of the main reasons for insisting upon an ‘Anthropology of Europe’ is that when we experience these differences we also realise the importance of anthropology as a critique of other disciplines with their tendency to extrapolate into universals of human behaviour. The writings of economists and psychologists are likely to fit much more easily with the norms of Leeglade than of Grano, probably because so much of that academic writing takes place in places such as the UK and the US, amounting to a kind of academic imperialism of human norms. Indeed Razvan regards an important contribution of his work as a critique of assumptions in political economy.

We don’t want to make the same mistake in our understanding of social media. Having our nine sites means we are much less likely to privilege any one place as the basis for claims about cognitive or economic imperatives that pertain to overly abstract notions of ‘the Internet’ or even Facebook. Here we can see generalisations at the level of Europe are problematic, but as other blogposts have shown the differences between our two Chinese sites may be even more striking. Sometimes people think that anthropology is just being obtuse or ‘difficult’ because we eschew easy generalisation, and seem to be deliberately siting ourselves as flies in the academic ointments that are proffered to our understanding the world. But comparing our sites we would say quite the opposite. We do not choose to be difficult and relativist. We simply acknowledge the world as we know it to be, and refuse the dishonesty and blindness that wants to wish away these realities because they make academic life harder and make anthropology less popular than ‘science’. We will still strive for generality, theory and analysis, but we do not apologise for the fact that we are really going to struggle to achieve these things, because the integrity of our discipline says that this has to incorporate and not exile the diversity that simply is our contemporary world.