Politics, Ethnicity, and Social Structure: The Decline of an Urban Community during the Twentieth Century

By Swartz, Marc J. | Ethnology, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview
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Politics, Ethnicity, and Social Structure: The Decline of an Urban Community during the Twentieth Century

Swartz, Marc J., Ethnology

A once-cohesive community, whose members carried out a variety of activities involving group-wide co-operation, changed over the course of six decades into one in which there was little or no broad-scale participation in anything. This urban community's members still strongly identify themselves with it and maintain their closest social relationships within its boundaries, but its once-flourishing public life has all but vanished.

Such decline, especially in cities, is not unusual (e.g., Kiel 1993). The community examined here, however, has some unusual features, the most notable of which is a social structure based on a two-section system. One of the hypotheses to be tested here is that the cohesiveness of the community, as seen in its ability to act as a group, depends heavily on competition between its sections in some contexts and overall unity in others.

A further hypothesis is that government decisions stimulated ethnic antagonisms within the community, thereby disrupting the unity of opposing sections whose boundaries are based not on ethnicity but on differences in the areas from which their members' ancestors came centuries ago. This antagonism, the hypothesis continues, contributed to the decline in overall cohesiveness, which in turn played an important part in the decline of activities involving group-wide participation.

In this article the specific hypothesis will be tested with data from a community that has a social structure rather different from what is found in most other urban communities. The more general hypothesis cannot be tested by data from a single community, but the conditions for its testing in comparative studies will be indicated.


Although social structural changes of the sort just mentioned are probably never the only element in community changes, including the decline examined here, a more general hypothesis is that they appear to play a central part in bringing about or, in circumstances different from those described here, checking the effects of other factors. Social structures, through providing the bases for social relationships, are central to the nature and extent of the effects of other influences on community life because it is through social relationships that most other aspects of life are experienced by members of any group (Swartz 1991:304-11). These other aspects of life include processes such as political activities, decisions by central or state governments, changes in economic circumstances, demographics, and in the community's physical condition and location; that is, in what might be summarily referred to as the general phenomena characteristic of contemporary urban life. All of these affect the community through the changes they produce in the social structure, which in turn lead to other changes.

The unusual social structure of this community is relatively unimportant from the perspective of the general issue of assessing the different parts in community change played by social structures, in contrast to such exogenous influences as outside political processes and decisions, economic and demographic changes, and cultural changes outside of the communities. It may be that a system depending on group opposition is easier to study than more diffuse structural arrangements, since changes in the involvement of members in oppositional activities can be readily observed and contrasted with activities where overarching unity is displayed. Otherwise, however, the case to be analyzed can be taken as a limited test of the proposition that social structural change has a universally central role in community change regardless of the nature of the structure of the particular groups being examined.

When the social structure changes, the experience and response to other aspects of life are affected by that change, often as the direct results of what happens in those aspects of life.

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