Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

'Common Sense' and 'Governmentality': Local Government in Southeastern Ireland, 1850-1922

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

'Common Sense' and 'Governmentality': Local Government in Southeastern Ireland, 1850-1922

Article excerpt

The anthropological heyday of local-level politics from the mid-1960s to 1980 was associated with a transactional or processual, action-orientated paradigm. (1) In part it was a response to an earlier structural-functional focus on the comparative study of 'political systems' (Fortes & Evans-Pritchard 1940) and 'government'. Government had been defined in terms of its functions (Mair 1962) so that cross-cultural comparisons could be made of the diverse structures (lineages, bureaucracies, judicial institutions) which organized collective tasks (leadership), maintained order and managed disputes (law), deployed legitimate force (authority), and regulated external relations. It was in reaction to this concern with total societies, government, formal groups, and functions that the local-level politics paradigm explored micro-political processes, informal quasi-groups (factions, coalitions), and networks which were generated by the decisions of locally rooted actors (entrepreneurs, brokers, and big men) in pursuit of wealth, influence, and/or power. Politics were found whenever and wherever goal-orientated actors manipulated resources in a public domain (Swartz, Turner & Tuden 1966: 4-7).

Both political paradigms have been amply criticized for many reasons over many decades. Most critiques distil down to the failure to make historical processes, differential power, and unbounded units the bases for ethnographic description. (2) Thus, by 1980, a turning away from the study of both political systems and local-level politics accompanied the fragmentation of their subject matter into such sub-fields as legal anthropology, political economy, and the anthropology of bureaucracy and of formal organizations. Since 1990, calls for a 'reconstitution of political anthropology' (Gledhill 1994: 22; Shore & Wright 1997: 12) through a focus on power have not healed the fracture. This is because power is everywhere; therefore everything is political--approachable by diverse methodologies (e.g. presentist, historical, discursive, reflexive) in all sites (e.g. transnational networks, local places, rituals, the self) and through every theoretical lens. This has meant that all of anthropology is now political anthropology, as perhaps it should be. However, it also means that the subject matter of earlier political anthropology, namely the analysis of specialized political bodies, agents, and processes, remains lost.

One of these subjects, used in both the comparative study of political systems and, later, transactional politics, was the study of local government councils and of the offices and people associated with them. In 1965 Bailey's seminal article bridged an ethnographic divide between African, Indian, and Western European ethnographies by distinguishing two ideal types of council (elite and arena) and two ways in which decisions were reached (consensus and voting) according to the public accountability of the council's members, the council's tasks (administrative or policy-making), and the council's area of concern (external or internal relationships). A 1971 symposium attempted to further this exploration into 'conciliar behaviour' and 'the council mechanism as a means of achieving results' (Richards 1971: 6). However, such exploration never went further as anthropologists became detached from the study of formal, non-judicial bodies and roles which had explicit governmental purposes and which were simultaneously implicated in political processes in part through the actions of goal-orientated individuals. (3) Councils became relegated to occasional use as means for pursuing other topics. (4) Yet, as we try to show in this article, the use of such specialized, political subject matter, in the context of historically informed ethnography, can be profitable both in exploring contemporary theoretical ideas in anthropology and in shedding light on key historical moments.

Common sense and governmentality in political anthropology

Recent concern with the cultural manifestations of power as control and regulation has led many to apply Gramsci's concepts of hegemony and, occasionally, common sense, while others have used Foucault's idea of government rationality or 'governmentality'. …

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