Saturday, 12 July 2008

Differentiation by other means

Historians have identified three further ways in which individuals were differentiated in society between 1832 and 1914 that transcended, but contributed to, the ‘paternalist-class’ debate: religion, gender and race.

Religion

In 1832 the language of religion was part of a common culture. By 1914 this situation was under considerable attack from the external challenge of secularism and science and the increasingly pluralistic nature of religious observance and experience. Three aspects of religious life can be identified. At one level, religion is made up of a quest for individual truth and salvation. Faith, belief and piety were seen by many as important features of their lives. At a second level, that of organised religion, Christianity was an institution and religion a social and moral force providing a generally agreed framework for the ‘Christian life’. Very few people in 1832 denied all religious ties and did not belong, at least nominally, to a Church or sect. Finally, there was the level that transcended sectarian boundaries, a non-denominational heritage of Christianity that influenced social and personal relationships. Churches, chapels and cathedrals provided visible symbolism of history, heresy and heritage. The Bible was a constant presence in people’s minds and hearts -- Bible quotations, Bible language and Bible picture -- providing a common mental landscape.

It is the ‘associational’ dimension of religiosity that is of particular important here. In broad terms the social appeal of the churches in 1832 can be compared to a ‘sandwich’. The Church of England corresponded to the top and bottom slices: the aristocratic elite and the working-classes. The meat in the sandwich consisted of middle-class nonconformists. Roman Catholicism took up a similar position to the Church of England. In practice, however, social responses to religion were less clear-cut. Methodism penetrated into working-class areas and both town and country and there was an extension of Anglican activity among the middle-classes. By the 1850s, as shown in the religious census of 1851, religious observance had already declined and this process continued down to 1914.

Gender

The most obvious means of differentiating between individuals within society was on the basis of gender. In 1832 men of all social classes discriminated against women legally, morally, economically and politically. Society clearly differentiated between the worlds of men and women. Status and power lay with the former.

Race

People could also be differentiated by race. To be ‘successful’ in the nineteenth century meant being ‘English’, culturally if not by nationality. To become part of the ruling elite necessitated adopting the cultural values and practices of the Establishment politically, socially, linguistically and religiously. This opened a cultural gap between those who ruled and those who were governed. Irish immigrants stood outside this because of their religion, language and cultural attitudes.

Conclusions

Reaching conclusions about the nature of English society between 1832 and 1914 is a difficulty process. There were a range of ways in which individuals saw themselves and their worlds and they expressed their perceptions through a range of concepts. Class, paternalism, community, race, sex and religion each played their part in this process of self-definition and group identity. To view society simply in terms of ‘class’ is to deny the richness and diversity of contemporary experience.

No comments: