Monday, November 7, 2011

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“AN ACCIDENTAL UTOPIA? – Social mobility and the foundations of an egalitarian society,1880-1940”  by (Professors) Erik Olssen, Clyde Griffen and Frank Jones (Otago University Press, $49:95)
There are many ways that history can be written – as narrative and chronology, as biography, or even as postmodernist fantasia in which myth, opinion and viewpoint are canonised in the place of verifiable fact. But the study of history would be pointless without those specialists who worry away at the available data, tabulate statistics and attempt to view a whole society by the way men and women actually behaved en masse, as opposed to the way they or others conceived them as having behaved.

I say this clearly at the beginning, because this week’s Something New is definitely a specialist book of hard-core academic socio-history. It is not a book for the casual browser or the reader who imagines that history means a ripping yarn with footnotes. Reading it is, quite frankly, a job requiring serious concentration. Yet it is books such as this which are the foundations of a real study of history; and it is the findings of books such as this which will ultimately percolate into general educated consciousness.

An Accidental Utopia? is the latest (and apparently last) work to emerge from the long-term “Caversham Project”, which has been the diligent task of a number of University of Otago historians since 1975. Influenced by American models of academic history since the 1960s, when history ceased to be the study of social elites, the aim  has been the micro-history one of using the “local” as a means of charting social change. In this case the “local” is the old south Dunedin borough of Caversham.

Among much else, the academics and postgraduate students involved in the  “Caversham Project” have examined every available electoral roll, birth and death certificate, record of employment, marriage register, school register, record of church attendance, medical certificate, record of union membership, annual report of businesses and charities and welfare agencies, invoice of drainage and roading boards, contract, diary, personal writing, newspaper report of events, political speech, and result in national and local-body elections relating to Caversham between the 1880s and the 1940s. The aim has been to produce the most thorough examination and statistical survey of a New Zealand locality in its long-term historical development.

The opening of An Accidental Utopia? explains that Dunedin, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and before the rise of Auckland, was the most industrialised city in New Zealand. Caversham was largely a working-class area (although that term needs much modification) with much employment given by the engineering industry, including the railway workshops. Over the period examined, its fertility rate was higher and its infant mortality rate lower than those of Dunedin or the rest of New Zealand in general. This means it had a growing population. It also had an interesting mix of religious adherents. As compared with Anglicans and Presbyterians, there were higher proportions of Catholics and “Non-Conformists” (Methodists, Baptists) in Caversham than in Dunedin as a whole. This had an impact on the equitable and accepting nature of the society that developed there. No denomination could claim dominance.

The “Caversham Project” has already produced many learned articles, monographs and books including Erik Olssen’s Building the New World (1995), about work and politics in Caversham, and the jointly-edited Sites of Gender (2003) about the relationships, employment and relative status of men and women in Caversham.

An Accidental Utopia? aims to examine the topic of social mobility. This topic was always envisaged as central to the project which, as a systematic survey of sixty years, inevitably depicts much social change. The authors explain that they were in part interested in testing the thesis of W.H.Oliver and Miles Fairburn that class consciousness was always weak in New Zealand as it was undermined by social mobility. To do this, they have used a “log-linear” system of modelling, the complexities of which they explain.

So An Accidental Utopia? sets about examining methodically those different aspects of life from which social mobility can reasonably be inferred. What of marital mobility? How much did Caversham men and women marry “above” or “beneath” their social class? What of intergenerational mobility? In terms of employment, income and place of residence, did sons and daughters move up or down the social scale in comparison with their parents? What about the long-term work-life of men? Was there much mobility in patterns of employment and did men noticeably “rise” or “fall” in the world as they moved from one job to another?  And what were the political consequences of all this? Was there an increase or decrease in class-consciousness as reflected in voting patterns, successful appeals made by Caversham candidates for office, membership of parties etc?

You will note that these are a succession of questions, all ending (as the title of the book does) with a question mark. Olssen, Griffen and Jones approach their work like a scientific experiment, complete with graphs and tabulations, knowing full well that in science there are no final answers, only workable hypotheses supported by the best available evidence.

Nevertheless, a sort of conclusion does emerge.  It is clear that social class was and is important in New Zealand history. We cannot pretend that we do not have a middle class and a working class. But between the 1880s and 1940s social class was genuinely fluid in New Zealand and hence (among many other consequences) hard-line Marxism never gained much traction among New Zealand’s working class. So many workers knew they would marry into, rise into or work their way into affluence and the middle-class. Many aspired to do exactly this; and even those who didn’t tended to judge other people by qualities such as fairness, ability, and skill rather than by class.

This simplifies horribly the book’s complex argument and evidence. The authors note that before the First World War, south Dunedin was “a society of immigrants who wanted to create a new society in which social class no longer possessed the centrality it had in England.” They note further that where class was concerned, “a complex equation operated, combining features peculiar to industrial capitalism, but modified by New Zealand’s small towns and the dominance of the handicraft sector.” If, before the Second World War, New Zealand was a “utopia”, it was not because of determined social planning by Liberal or Labour parties. It was “accidental” because in New Zealand, which had a limited population and resources, the distance from the floor to the ceiling of the class structure was a narrow one.

Much can be extrapolated from these conclusions, but I will note one very minor one. This survey suggests that the 1920s in Caversham were a time of great social mobility. The government of Bill Massey is seen as accurately reflecting the wishes of most New Zealanders to have home ownership combined with the maximum of employment opportunities. Once again, this suggests some rehabilitation of Massey’s reputation, which I noted especially in Erik Olssen’s essay in A Great New Zealand Prime Minister? (another title with a question mark), reviewed on this blog seven weeks ago.

Here’s another reflection. Though sociological in method, this is a work of history. The class structures of New Zealand then are not necessarily the class structures of New Zealand now, in the ages of monetarism, globalism and consumerism – not to mention New Zealand’s much larger population. Have the barriers between classes become more rigid? Are there now more exclusively “rich” and “poor”? Has class consciousness hardened?

In a hundred years time, when somebody does the equivalent of the “Caversham Project”, we might have the best possible answers.

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