After a long delay this post returns to more certain ground, the Highlands, and with it a sense of uncertainty that comes from looking at what you think you know. One of the issues with the familiar is the way it falls into your assumptions about it. Earlier posts in this series touched on these assumptions and confirmation biases and their role in shaping our worldview in relation to totalitarianism and post colonialism. For example, Achebe (1978) threw Western Liberal assumptions back at us, and Comaroff and Comaroff (2012) asked us to consider our assumptions about what a functioning democracy looks like. I cannot promise anything on Western Liberalism, however, I am going to consider our assumptions about the functioning of democracy through examining local decision making practices in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. I focus on two books, the first is by anthropologist Susan Parman (2005) entitled “Scottish Crofters: A Historical Ethnography of a Celtic Village” based on early 1970’s doctoral research. The second is Booker Winner “His Bloody Project” by Graeme Macrae Burnett (2015).
Figure 1: Bloody Prints, source: Sara Band, http://saraband.net/2016/07/27/bloody-project-longlisted-man-booker-prize-2016/ Fair Use
“His Bloody Project” uses a familiar literary trope, found or narrated accounts that are put together or narrated to the author. In this novel the accounts centre on Roddy Macrae and the events leading up to a triple murder. This is not a spoiler, so does not contain anything about whodunit, or perhaps more appropriately whydunit, instead I focus on a particular character, Lachlan MacKenzie. Lachlan, and his daughter and son, are murdered, we know this at the start, the narrative unfolds through the events leading up to and then past the murders. The Macrae’s and the Mackenzie’s have a fractious relationship, made even more difficult when Lachlan takes on the post of the village constable, and begins to exercise his power over the village and in particular the Macrae’s. The position of village constable is seen as a burden, organising compulsory works, communal events, adjudicating local disputes, but mainly being the link with the local landlord and enforcing their rules.
The novel suggest people take on the role reluctantly, accepting it on through the fear of a “willing constable” being imposed. The best candidate for constable is the person who wants it least. Roddy’s father, a somewhat withdrawn man, is approached in a roundabout way typical of the Highlands, while not asked directly he understands what is being asked and refuses. Lachlan makes a grab for and gets the position. In Roddy’s account the power brings out the worst in Lachlan, the accounts from other villagers add to this sense, through these Macrae Burnett creates a sense that wanting this type of power and influence over your neighbours is “not a Highland thing”. Indeed it is not. While I cannot do justice to the passages, I think it is one of the best descriptions of how decisions are still reached in some Highland communities, a mode of indirection that bewilders some. It reminds me of debates around whether questions around temporality explored in narratives concerned with remembering and forgetting are actually concerned place. For example, whether “Being and Time” by Heidegger uses the temporal as a way to approach place making by indirection (Malpass 2006).
The Scottish Crofters
Parman’s account of her time in the Western Isles contains a similar set of stories, of reluctant “township clerks” taking their turn, or of those who relished the role being subject to ridicule. Of a distrust of authority and official process’s, while also recognising communities needed to learn how to operate in these spaces, and individuals who could act as translators (even approximate ones) of local issues into official rhetoric were useful, even if they were not to be trusted. Parman’s was a young student from the US, and what is interesting is her confusion. Her own missteps as she found it difficult to get “straight answers” to questions, or when she made appointments and they were not kept, or trying to get the heart of how decisions were made.
I first read Parman’s in 2005 when the second edition came out and an online colloquium on a Highland discussion board was set up, with the great and the good from rural/Highland sociology and anthropology commenting. I read it as an ethnography, asking how closely it sat with my own experience, it is only now I am able to ask what it says about decision making in local communities. Parman identifies some interesting areas, the importance of informal networks, of the ripples that flow through a community, of issues that appear fully formed and unamiously supported when they suddenly appear in official documents. Rather than deliberate discussions in public, the risk of open disagreement is minimised through indirection, through carefully structured discussions which never surface the matter at hand. It is familiar, and you can see why I referenced Heidegger earlier, clearly a politically troubling figure whose arcane language does little to hide distasteful views, yet I often think about his work on the “close at hand” (Heidegger 1993), how one reads things through those things that are close, and thus don’t need to be spoken. I suppose here I situate my own approach to understanding place in relation to Heidegger, and Ingold’s (2000) use of Heidegger, to suggest place making arises first from dwelling and through this building the social and structural, contested of course, but we can read the close at hand, and to whose hand it is close to, as a way to read these places.
What Parman does it set out the unspoken, the ripples go out, but not directly, one does not ask what do think of this when you pop round, you say well this person has suggested this, what do you think. But of you don’t, you would never come straight out and ask, the suggestion must appear to come as a natural part of the conversation, maybe even an “ah yes I forgot … did you hear” on parting at the door. Likewise people will not disagree directly, but suggest someone else who might not agree, or a hypothetical position to depersonalise what they are saying. Even though everyone knows “the rules”, it is a way of communicating that allows extended relations who live in close proximity to engage in shared activities.
Figure 2: The Public Sphere, Frederic Sorrieu lithograph from 1848 commemortating universal male suffrage in France entitled “Suffrage universal dedie a Ledru-Rollin, Public Domain
Parman does not extend the analysis, or make the political points, and perhaps it is not for anthropologists to do. However, I can tease this out, as I have earlier asking, how culturally specific the modes of deliberation privileged within western models of democracy are, how they don’t even account for decision making, but describe particular sets of relations amongst particular social a class. I could argue these normative accounts of what a functioning deliberative decision making spaces should look like are more than cultural blindness but are themselves as system of exclusion (Negt O., Kluge A. ( 2016), and certainly Parman and Macrae Burnett touch on these themes. The way it favours particular forms of communication and rhetoric, and as aspect of communities life become tied into apparently democratic structures how it excludes some voices, and promotes others. However, I am going to make a practical point relating to the operation of community development. Over the years I have seen community development initiatives, community animators, local development workers, community consultations come and go. What I have often heard, as a local “they can talk to”, is a frustration, “… after all …we had a meeting, open to anyone, people could have come, spoken up if they objected. No one did, we have gone head, and now I can’t get anyone to help me …”
Coming Round to Community Development through Indirection
The problem in community development is people like me, we have experience of professional discourse, this means when there is a consultation, or a review, or letter to write, a person to meet, we can engage them, we are heard. For me this comes with the additional issues of being “a local” that can be wheeled out always ready with an opinion. We thrive in community consultations, and community development workers are drawn to us. It is easy to speak to those who share the same language and approach, even better if they are viewed as a legitimate actor through their temporal connections – being of the place. However, this bridging does little to challenge the structuring of consultation, community empowerment/right to buy [delete as applicable] which assume deliberative decision making based on cultural assumptions which do not always hold.
It is not just community development workers who are drawn in, as the community I live has enjoyed the benefits of having knowledge and time rich people who can perform in these spaces, so researchers also come. They look at places that have been successful in the community market place created by competitive funding bids and those that have done less well. One of the fashionable research and policy readings of the differences between communities focussed on social capital, and while the fashion has faded the imprint remains, the sense that some communities have something others need to develop. It tends to focus on the need to be able to engage with the formal structures, the need for people who can bridge. However, in reaching for this solution one needs to ask whether this is the case, and what kinds of questions it stops us asking. I can see two questions it obscures. First whether these people who can bridge and claim a legitimate right to speak for others have such a right. Might the very act of accepting the rhetoric of professional community development mean they are no longer legitimate, they are alienated from those experiences (Laclau and Mouffe  2014), and like Roddy are unreliable narrators of their own and the experience of others.
Secondly, and more importantly, asking what these places lack that would allow them to engage with those structures means setting aside the sense it is the structures themselves that ought to change. Arriving at this point I am reminded of a conversation I had with a friend who worked in international development musing on a particular issue and the difference between UK and international development work. We began to wonder whether the soul searching that went on within international development around the role of Western educated development workers telling people across the globe how to develop needed to happen within the UK sector. Neither of us could remember the source until their partner reminded us of the work done by Chalmers on participatory approaches and Inglis on asking why it only applied in the Global South. The influence of their work has clearly sat dully in the back of my mind, as I still ask myself why the participatory approaches common in international contexts are rarely applied in here. I have a perspective, perhaps it is because participatory approaches to deliberative decision making destabilise existing power relations, and while we are happy to use them internationally, we might be less keen at home. Or am I just getting too cynical, take your pick.
Achebe C. (1978), An Image of Africa, Research in African Literatures, Vol. 9, No. 1, Special Issue on Literary Criticism. (Spring, 1978), pp. 1-15
Comaroff J., Comaroff J. L. (2012) Theory from the South: How Euro-America is Evolving Towards Africa, Paradigm Publishing: London
Heidegger M. (1993) Basic Writing: from Being and Time (1927) to Tasks of Thinking (1964), Ed D F Krell, Routledge: London
Ingold, Tim 2000. The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. London: Routledge
Laclau E., Mouffe C. ( 2014) Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, Verso: London
Malpass J. (2006) Heideggers Typology: Being, Place, World, MIT Press: London
Negt O., Kluge A. ( 2016) Public Sphere of Experience: Analysis of the Bourgeois and Proleterian Public Sphere. Verso: London
Parman S. (2005) Scottish Crofters: A Historical Ethnography of a Celtic Village, Thomson Wadsworth: London