Distant Strangers: How Britain Became Modern

Distant Strangers: How Britain Became Modern

Distant Strangers: How Britain Became Modern

Distant Strangers: How Britain Became Modern


What does it mean to live in the modern world? How different is that world from those that preceded it, and when did we become modern?

In Distant Strangers, James Vernon argues that the world was made modern not by revolution, industrialization, or the Enlightenment. Instead, he shows how in Britain, a place long held to be the crucible of modernity, a new and distinctly modern social condition emerged by the middle of the nineteenth century. Rapid and sustained population growth, combined with increasing mobility of people over greater distances and concentrations of people in cities, created a society of strangers.

Vernon explores how individuals in modern societies adapted to live among strangers by forging more abstract and anonymous economic, social, and political relations, as well as by reanimating the local and the personal.


This book explores the greatest historical transformation of the past three centuries and quite possibly of all time. It asks how we became modern and examines the character of modern life that is sometimes described as “modernity.” It does so by showing how a profoundly new and modern social condition emerged in Britain between the middle of the eighteenth and the end of the nineteenth centuries. The rapid expansion of the population, and its increasing mobility over ever-greater distances, created a society of strangers. This raised a series of problems for the conduct of economic, political, and social life. Old forms of authority, association, and exchange, rooted in personal and local relations, were increasingly inadequate or impossible. They were slowly displaced by increasingly abstract and bureaucratic ways of making economic, social, and political relations between distant strangers possible. Yet this did not lead to the disenchantment of the modern world, because new forms of bureaucratic abstraction catalyzed, and were made possible by, a reanimation of the local and the personal. The modern condition was, then, not just the novel experience of living in a society of strangers but the dialectical process through which the forms of authority, affect, and exchange were remade.

There are good reasons to suggest that Britain was the first country to undergo this transformation and become modern. I am, however, less . . .

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