Continuity and change

by CarlD

It seems to me we’ve been circling an issue around here of late, roughly speaking the relationship of continuity and change. This is obviously not a new problematic, but rather than bog down in old references I thought I’d just refresh the discussion. We could start by reviving Jacob’s densely-packed comment from a recent post:

I hope I am excused, at least for the time being, for not having as intimate a familiarity with the ethnographic and anthropological literature as would justify the next few things I say. As I said before, so much depends upon one’s objectives and I think that the breadth of anthropological inquiry, at least to the extent I know it, reflects how wide a net the discipline has cast. Nonetheless, in listing various ways in which one may approach a social and cultural phenomenon like the fono, it will be noticed that many of them, although more or less of respectable anthropological heritage, are *not* about understanding the dynamics that move a social-cultural system from one state to the next; in short, their objective is not a theory of history, at any scale. That is not to say that no insights into such questions is possible to be had from such inquiry; that is obviously untrue. But neither is it sufficient, or at least so it seems to me.

As you may know, as an undergraduate at UCLA my emphasis of study was archeology. I learned that while archeologists themselves have a wide spectrum of research objectives, at least one very prominent thread within archeology is the study of the growth, transformation, and sometimes collapse of societies, a natural consequence of archeologists inevitably confronting evidence of change through time. This concern with the evolution of society I took away with me, even as I moved away from archeology itself, and even as the scale of social phenomena of interest has sometimes shrunk from the rise and fall of civilizations to the causal chains making up the events of everyday life.

Here I must digress and confess that I am not yet quite clear on the scope of my own ambitions and objectives; or rather confess to having eagerly fallen prey to ever digging deeper into the micro at the expense of the macro. The futility of this is obvious, but more than amply demonstrated by the immense computing power brought to bear by Blue Brain Project in simulating a single cortical column (there are about a million in the human brain). We live in an incredibly fine-grained universe.

But to return to my main point before I trail off any further, it is in view of this concern with essentially historical processes that I wish my post to be read, though I do not cast my discussion in such a way. One thing that distinguishes say a solar system from a biological systems is the degree to which information processing is intrinsic to its behavior and long-term evolution. This is acutely more true of human systems. But how does information figure into human life, and how can theories of information inform our understanding of historical/causal social processes? To what extent can we understand the course of events at a fono, such as some of those described by A. Duranti, as the consequence of situated reactions to information flows? I do recognize however that there is some reason to be wary; after all, one can quite easily deceive oneself that one is doing something new and exciting merely by dressing up old ideas in new clothing.

Old ideas in new clothing, perhaps, but context matters and Jacob’s on a hot trail. Again without getting bogged down in scholastic referentiality, historians regularly engage in struggles to define our field orthodoxies by dismissing the other human studies (anthropology, sociology, literature etc.) as ahistorical. Sometimes with some justice. And then we fret together about whether continuity or change predominate in history, or if it’s more of a Gouldian punctuated equilibrium. Just barely getting to complexity. And every so often a Hayden White shows up to point out that the answer depends as much on investigative focus, selectivite perception and narrative choices as empirical findings. As Jacob says, one’s objectives make a real difference, among other things.

As John and I have been discussing, the dialectic of continuity and change, unlike our evaluations of it, can be complex. For example in my introductory World History classes this semester the topic has been conventions. We started out being interested in how particular historical societies establish and maintain ordinary ways of doing and thinking about things; gender and parenting customs in Confucian China, for example, which look like instances of pure (conservative) continuity. But those customs turn out to have been aggressively elaborated and enforced (and adopted elsewhere, e.g. Japan) in contexts characterized by high levels of conflict and chaos. They also turn out to have been at least partly fictive overlays of order on top of gender and class relations that remained quite contested, offering lots of space for theme and variation to strategic actors (who may then irrelevantly be characterized by hopeful activist scholars as resistors). In this sense Confucian society was successful not because its conventions were successfully totalized and rigid but because they offered a relatively flexible framework around which local particularities and situations could be negotiated. This is the dynamic dimension of Confucianism missed by literalists trying to figure out how such a formally conservative system could also produce and incorporate some of history’s greatest creative artistic and technological moments. It might be that holding some things still is helpful for leveraging movement elsewhere.

Incidentally, we could contrast this with the failed world-creating experiments of great modernists like Frank Lloyd Wright and Buckminster Fuller. Their systems were too rigid – they only worked one way, only solved one problem, didn’t generalize well and went the way of the dodo. On a larger scale, over the last couple of weeks my classes have been investigating four places where conventions were put under historical pressure: slavery, the Industrial Revolution, Nazism, and feminism. Slavery and Nazism turned out to be rigid systems that only solved one problem and disintegrated under pressure from situations they did not ‘fit’. Marx and the feminists thought of capitalism and patriarchy the same way, but those turned out to be flexible systems, able so far to adapt creatively to new challenges.

Of course no system can adapt infinitely without becoming something qualitatively different than it was. I’ll leave my musings at that and hope they are open-ended enough to be good for discussion.

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15 Comments to “Continuity and change”

  1. In this sense Confucian society was successful not because its conventions were successfully totalized and rigid but because they offered a relatively flexible framework around which local particularities and situations could be negotiated. This is the dynamic dimension of Confucianism missed by literalists trying to figure out how such a formally conservative system could also produce and incorporate some of history’s greatest creative artistic and technological moments.

    This is an interesting observation. Two thoughts pop into my head. The first is that I am reminded of the history of attempts to understand the Chinese family. Stage 1 was focused on articulating an ideal type, the multi-generation patrilineal household whose members eat good cooked in the same kitchen and worship the same ancestors. Stage 2 was the realization that the majority of Chinese households are not of this type and a class-based analysis, which observed that sufficient wealth was a necessary condition for the creation of the ideal household, a material condition only rarely satisfied when the majority are poor. Stage 3 was a reaction to Stage 2, that attempted to apply to China theories developed to explain the life cycle of domestic groups in West Africa. The argument was that since Chinese estates were divided equally between brothers and their wives, who come via virilocal marriage, from different natal families, are rivals, there is a strong tendency for estates to be broken up in each generation. Thus, the survival of a household depends largely on having a living grandparent or great-grandparent, whose existence prevents the division until they die. On the one hand, this was a nice fit with Chinese cosmology, in which cyclic change is a core element, and also with the dynastic cycle in Chinese history. On the other, it suggested the possibility that while at any one moment in time, only a minority of Chinese lived in extended-family households, a majority of Chinese might live in such households at some point in their lives. When I last looked at this research, it had reached Stage 4. The analysis of massive amounts of household registration data from Japanese colonial era Taiwan, supplemented by additional data from mainland China, indicated that the Stage 3 analysis is also too simplistic. The field remains open for someone with the patience and technical skills to develop models that take into account demographic, geographic, and historical factors that affect the growth and division of Chinese households.

    The second thought is a question. To what extend does it make sense to ascribe flexibility to Confucianism alone? Mightn’t it be more to the point to recognize that throughout Chinese history, both Chinese thinkers and ordinary people have been aware of alternatives, Daoism and Legalism, which date back to the Warring States period prior to the first Chinese empire, and Buddhism, whose introduction to China may have been as early as 217 b.c., as well as the myriad syntheses embodied in popular religion. Add the observation that Chinese cosmology has, as already noted above, been rooted in notions of cyclic change that also date back to the Warring States period, and the notion that it was Confucianism’s flexibility that was most important in sustaining Chinese civilization for over two millennia becomes debatable. Why not a model in which relatively rigid Confucianism provides an enduring skeleton to which Chinese rulers return following what are seen as periods of inevitable decline into chaos, during which other, equally Chinese options, may come to the fore?

  2. Thanks John! An occupational hazard of teaching a course that covers the whole world for 500 years – I know a little about a whole lot, and a lot about only a little. So the reality check and survey of research are very helpful.

    For what it’s worth given this relative ignorance, your cyclical account looks right to me. I’d add simply that Confucianism is rigid compared to Daoism but downright wifty compared to Legalism. As you say, all three strains plus plenty else were always in the mix, but I think the point I was making about Confucianism as a relatively flexible framework is not actually so far off from your point about its relative skeletal rigidity. In context it was a classic ‘middle way’ and worked as much by affording space for the syncretisms you point to as it did by enforcing standards. In this respect not much different than Catholicism or Hinduism as a big tent, each subject to their famous moments of excess of course as the more ‘legalistically’-minded took them over from time to time.

    As for the gory details of how that worked from place to place and time to time, those are a bit beyond the scope of my required freshman-level general education class. But I teach that thing from the data up rather than from the scholarship down, so what I’m most interested in is showing the students how to read a more complex story in the subtext and countertext of excerpted official documents that appear to young Americans to be describing a rigidly oppressive totalitarian social order. Which is not, I think we’re agreeing, the right understanding of how China kicked ass for several thousand years.

  3. Updating, in context of this post/discussion it would be well worth checking out N. Pepperell’s post “Is Slavery Capitalist?” at Rough Theory. NP has an exquisite understanding of the relational complexity of Marx, and quite rightly troubles my simple dismissal of slavery as a rigid, situated system that linearly disintegrated under pressure from the more flexible capitalist system. In fact slavery was and is incorporated into the capitalist world system in a variety of more and less local modes, and as Marx well understood this is part of what makes capitalism such a resilient critter. Check it out.

  4. I could go back to the Kuhn/Foucault dialect about discontinuity and continuity, or talk about Modernity specifically but, as Jacob said about ethnography, my familiarity with these diachronic issues is limited.
    But I do have a background in ethnographic disciplines. Including folkloristics, which is too often the forgotten part of ethnography,
    Yet folkloristics has precisely this strength that cultural anthropology tends to lack: historical depth.
    One might argue that folkloristics had an “ethnographic past” problem the way cultural anthropology had to come to terms with its emphasis on the “ethnographic present.” But I’d say folkloristics probably got out of this ditch quite a ehile before Writing Culture was published.
    See, the core concept of folkloristics is “tradition.” The same way cultural anthropologists may spend hours on end discussing definitions of “culture,” folklorists expand the same type of energy discussing “tradition.” So I would never claim to have the ultimate definition for that concept, at least not within the field.
    But, as a relative outsider to the field, I can say that I found a relatively satisfying definition of “tradition,” in terms of the functions to which I put it:

    A notion of continuity through change.

    Too smple, right? But I like its simplicity because it hides a few strengths, at least for my teaching purposes.
    For one thing, it avoids the issue of “how long a practice should be maintained to be considered a tradition?” It does embed an idea of transmission, but this transmission needs not be through generations, so it can be used to talk about all sorts of transmission trajectories, from “xeroxlore” to “Internet memes.”
    Another feature is that it allows the “conversativism” to be imagined instead of factual. So we can involve all the “invention of tradition,” “genuine or spurious” traditions, and even “imagined communities” without having to build a whole new model.
    But what I find especially helpful, at least in non-folkloristics courses where I introduce it, is that it makes for tradition to be a dynamic process, instead of a static, pre-functionalist concept.
    It’s still a bit of a challenge. Some people, including several folklorists, think of functionalists as those who say that traditions are vestigial patterns, surviving “without a function.” Yet isn’t the main insight from functionalism that things either shift in function or disappear? Sure, the function a given tradition serves may be unimportant to the functionalist and s/he may treat that traditional practice or object as a vestige from the past. But I also think s/he would agree many practices take on more prestige when their original function disappears and that prestige function takes part in a type of meta-function, regulating some other functions in the system. Instead of a vestigial component, the traditions become organs of coordination. Or something.
    I’d have a lot more to say about this, including the whole micro/macro issue (ethnography is resolutely on the micro side, but in a global, “cross-cultural,” and networked way). But I’m not in a position to expose anything very formal about any of this.
    Just wanted to put a few disparate thoughts out there.

  5. Alex, this is really helpful. I think continuity vs. change is one of those pseudo-oppositions that dissolves once we get out of the platonic forms and into the way of things. Dynamic continuity through change (and change through recontextualized continuity) is a much more productive orienting hypothesis for most purposes, although it appears to foreclose revolutionary transformation (and support typical activist libels against functionalism) in ways that need careful nuancing. Again NP’s post on slavery linked above is a great model of this sort of analysis, including an underlying commitment to seeing exactly how more transformative change could emerge from the functional dialectic of continuity.

    I’m fascinated by the notion that traditions might be vestigial patterns rather than vitally functioning conventions. Why? I like very much how again you dissolve the opposition by noting the repurposing of vestigial functions into coordinating (or perhaps signifying) meta-functions. ‘Big weddings’ might be an example, their original function in the performance of family status and solidarity almost completely cleaned out in favor of the celebration of the couple’s individual autonomy; all the family folderol still formally in place, but now chafed against rather than accepted as the point of it all?

  6. Btw I’m working on a paper with Dad right now about the pedagogy of complexity, which reminds me that ‘dynamic continuity’ translates into complexity-speak as ‘far from equilibrium stability’, the point generally being that outside of pure chaos and final entropic states it takes a lot of work to keep things ‘the same’.

  7. It does take a lot to keep things “the same,” including a willingness to disregard what has changed. Thinking about weak signals, here. And the importance of context. The specific item may be exactly the same (say, mass-manufactured through exactly the same process, etc.). But it can’t be the same thing if the context has changed even a tiny bit (even fluctuations of the market could make sense, in this case).
    Revolutions are an interesting thing. They also disregard a lot. Namely, what hasn’t changed that significantly.
    To be somewhat naïve about this…
    In retrospect, we think of the United States as a completely different thing from the colonies which preceded it, yet I can’t help but thing many things remained relatively stable, at the time. Not just a matter of transitions taking time. But there might be a line going back from colonization of that part of the continent by British interests all the way to the present day. If only through core references, from the Mayflower to contacts with native populations. Since then, the sense of continuity has been quite strong, and people in the USA often put their “Founding Fathers” in a somewhat achronistic relationship with contemporary politicians. So, despite the revolutionary ideals of the USofA, we may perceive (from the outside) a great deal of continuity.
    But, actually, the case is much clearer in my mind with France, as they do have a clear sense of continuity. To this day, descendants of French aristocratic families trace back their ancestry and discuss the possibility of gaining power, I’ve been told. And French history books have been known to go back to the Gauls, a sense of continuity they kept in many of their African colonies, it seems. French popular culture is full of examples of the unquestioned assumption that the notion and “nation” of France go back all the way to Ancient times. Yet France is also filled with its revolutionary pride.

    Since the two passports I carry have to do with non-revolutionary entities (Canada and Switzerland), my perspective on these is somewhat skewed, of course.
    On the other hand, as a Québécois, I could also point to attempts at triggering significant discontinuities. In fact, around here, we’ve even been using the term “revolution” in our own way, around here. (The concept of a “Quiet Revolution” which occurred in recent history, and profoundly affected society with very little forceful action.)
    But this is where things get interesting. In Quebec, we often act as if things had completely changed during the second half of the 20th Century. Yet one very significant form of continuity is the fact that a large proportion of the population comes from people who lived through a period of intense influence from the Catholic clergy. My mother and people of her generation have mostly gone through a religious educational system and, until rather recently, school boards in Montreal were divided along religious lines. “Quebec society” (including the sphere of formal politics) has become very radically secular, but there’s an undigested relationship to the Catholic Church behind many social matters in Quebec. Which, in part, may explain the “reasonable accommodation crisis” of a few years ago, bringing up some latent ambivalence toward religion.
    Anyhoo…

    You mention functionalism and equilibrium. Since I’ve been teaching “intro. to society” with its “WMD” emphasis (Weber, Marx, Durkheim), I tend to think about these issues quite a bit more.
    Seems to me, there’s something almost disingenuous in the debate between “conflict theorists” (represented in textbooks by that other Karl) and “functionalists” (played by Émile, for the most part). For the most part, in North American textbooks, these two “major theoretical perspectives” are presented as feeding off one another in an almost dialectical manner. Almost in the same way people have constructed the “conservative” and “progressive” sides of the “political spectrum” in the US. In fact, I’ve had an interesting discussion with students about the pairing of the two distinctions (“functionalists” sounding like “conservatives” and “conflict theorists” sounding like “progressives”). [Ok, I’m out of quotation marks for today.]
    This pairing seemed rather strong and even useful until we started talking about structure and agency, when things got somewhat more complex. Basically, people holding either of these theoretical perspective (if they really exist) agree with one another a lot more than they disagree, in the way they’re presented. Put simply: in both cases they work at the macrolevel, do the same kind of analysis, and think about the importance of hierarchy. They do disagree on some conclusions, perhaps, and inequality is perceived differently by people on both sides. Yet, not only are contemporary sociologists doing things which completely blur the lines between these two but, more importantly, the way to conceive of society is remarkably…stable. From Marxian scholars to Talcott Parsons, from Marxist revolutionaries to Glenn Beck, the social model goes along some of the same (modernist) lines.
    And this is where the ethnographic insight could come back. Not just as cross-cultural, but as based on microlevel analysis allowing for fluidity in human interactions.
    True, there was a period in the history of ethnographic disciplines when continuity was overemphasized and it was difficult to account for changes in sociocultural phenomena. Yet there was already a notion of open-endedness in culture and society. Not so much in terms of cultural phenomena or trait. But in terms of the identity negotiation and the importance of encounters. Even with cultural contexts taken in isolation, the contact between researcher and local realities implied a permeable system.
    So, from the outside, the positions represented by Durkheim and Marx in those introductory textbooks sound more artificial, disembodied, closed, and even static.
    Of course, introductory textbooks are quite a strange thing. They probably don’t represent anything so important, in the grand scheme of things. And, clearly, they’re not very useful as source material. Yet it’s fascinating to observe what models they propose.
    Basically, social change is taken both as an essential feature of the system (as the only constant part of it, blablabla) and a reducible phenomenon (as a series of predictable modifications in the system). The future, in these textbooks, mostly looks like an intensified version of the present, with countries and governments mattering in the same ways and for the same reason.

    I’m still thinking about continuity and change, but this is where I get to allude to the practical dimension of living in a post-modern world, both in continuity with modernity (which was itself taken to be a notion of discontinuity) and in direct contrast with it.

    «Plus ça change, plus c’est pareil.»

  8. Are you guys familiar with Zygmunt Baumann’s Liquid Modernity? I’m thinking of the observation that when The Communist Manifesto uses the phrase”melting the solids” to describe modernity, that

    all this was to be done not in order to do away with the solids once and for all and make the brave new world free of them for ever, but to clear the side for new and improved solids; to replace the inherited set of deficient and defective solids with another set, which was much improved and preferably perfect, and for that reason no longer alterable.

  9. As I write, we are in the midst of the second aftershock of the biggest earthquake we have experienced in Japan. In Yokohama we’ve been bounced around. A friend in Tokyo tweets about books and CDS thrown all over the place. Rumors that at least one residence has collapsed there. No details yet from the Tohoku, northeast Japan, where the epicenter is located.

  10. Wow! Just emerged from a stupor and took a look at this. Huge quake, lots of trouble. So glad you’re outside the worst zone.

    When they’re not deadly earthquakes are really fun/weird. I experienced a couple of small ones in California. The earth moves just like water; the building you’re in tries to become a boat. I got to the SF Bay Area a couple years after the big Loma Prieta quake, and there were still plenty of people who hadn’t gotten over the existential shock of solids suddenly becoming liquids. Ironic given your Baumann comment, huh?

  11. Alex, there’s so much good stuff in your comment and I’m not at my most functional so it’s gonna take a bit for me to unpack it. But thanks!

  12. But those customs turn out to have been aggressively elaborated and enforced (and adopted elsewhere, e.g. Japan)

    Actually no, they weren’t simply adopted in Japan. They were domesticated in Japan, transmuted into something with family resemblances to the Chinese original but also quite different. The pivotal difference is that in China, preserving the family line, the lineage, was important. In Japan it’s preserving the household. In China, estates were divided equally among a father’s sons. Thus large, multi-generation families, the cultural ideal, only remained intact as long as there was a grandparent or great-grandparent alive to hold the family together. In Japan the rule was one head-one successor. The successor was usually the eldest son, but the eldest son could be disqualified if the current household head found him incapable. An heir might even be adopted from outside the family. Thus, while Chinese kinship networks tend to be very broad and deep; in Japan they are very shallow and narrow. Lots of other implications, too.

  13. P.S. There is a nice, accessible discussion of the differences between Chinese and Japanese in Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Check it out.

  14. Of course you’re right John, thanks for cleaning up my lazy shorthand. Benedict is terrific.

    Your deeper observation about how ‘the same’ ideas are adapted and transformed in new environments is critical and links up with some things Alex has been saying. I’m reminded of Gramsci’s great metaphor about socialist education that getting a single ray of light to refract the same through many different prisms would require painstaking adjustments to each one; expecting a simple transmission he called ‘an Enlightenment error’. This is what makes teaching such an energy-intensive project and makes installation of dogma by brute force so tempting (Gramsci refers to the catechism and the army corporal’s manual as works of genius in this respect).

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