Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

Editorial: Societal Interpretations of New Zealand

Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

Editorial: Societal Interpretations of New Zealand

Article excerpt

Social scientists and related intellectuals such as historians have long been concerned with trying to identify the unique features which characterise any particular society. A recent example of a book which went 'viral' was Booth's (2014) popular portrait of the several Scandinavian societies. One approach has been through a 'national identity' literature in which the characteristics of a society are supposedly imbricated in nationally unique features of a widely shared modal 'national character' or 'personality'. Founding Sociology Professor Jim Robb's 1946 Masters Thesis at VUW explored this. He later gave a short course on 'Social life in New Zealand'. However, this approach is not only fraught with conceptual and measurement difficulties, but in any event provides only part of the story. This editorial canvasses the extent to which New Zealand sociology has developed a holistic conception of New Zealand society, and since only scattered components of such have been developed, how it might proceed to do this.

The 'New Zealand Identity' Literature

One of the preoccupations of the development of 'authentic' New Zealand writing from at least the 1930s onwards was about the essence of New Zealandness and this became further enhanced in early social scientific writing, especially by historians. In this local tradition attention has been drawn to features such as: distance, small size, small size of enterprises, the British imperial frame, and the broader setting within a Western/US frame.

According to Burdon (1966), writing authoritatively for the Encylopedia of New Zealand "New Zealand Society: Its Characteristics" required discussion of the following topics:

* An Equalitarian Society

* Educational Advantages

* Rule of Conformity

* Limitations of Urban Life

* The Appeal of Sport

* Place of the Arts

* The Puritan Tradition

* The Effects of Insularity

* Maori-Pakeha Relations.

Often-cited writers on New Zealandness include Ausubel, 1960; Bell, 1996; Burdon, 1966; Kersey, 2002; Johnston, 1976; King, 1985, 2004; Mitchell, 1972, 2002; Sinclair, 1961; Winks, 1954. One particular stream of such writing has been overseas scholars visiting New Zealand (e.g. under auspices of Fulbright or who occupied university lecturing slots for a period) who have then written more or less 'popular' works describing New Zealand society. Some have an edge of satire, even armed with apposite illustrations. Of these, that of American educational psychologist Ausubel (1960) became famous, or even notorious. (See retrospective review by Kersey, 2002.) His analysis was deliberately provocative. He found that New Zealanders bristled at any criticism and were less relaxed and easy-going than they thought. He especially argued that social class differentiation and an entrenched pattern of racial discrimination were both denied by popular discourses (which instead were celebratory) which had the effect of suppressing any acknowledgement of the on-the-ground realities. Austin Mitchell's treatise (although not it's more pallid update) was especially popular, partly because of its catchy title The half-gallon quarter-acre pavlova paradise, that nicely captured several features of the central New Zealand myth.

It might be argued that the prevalent Arcadian myth of New Zealand Society (Bell, 1998) diverts attention from social characteristics. There is a tendency for limited social content to our images which instead focus on scenic wonders, farming prowess, homes, advanced technology, and public amenities.

There are remarkably few more formal sociological embellishments of this genre. Paul Spoonley, and especially Avril Bell more recently (2014), have contributed to a major thread of discussion about the Pakeha identity, largely posited against the Maori. In a long-since delivered unpublished paper John Orbell & Geoff Fougere developed a theoretical model of the social consequences of a small-scale society compared to a larger one. …

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