‘The Little Community’ by Robert Redfield

redfield2

1962, 168

I read this book alternating between a feeling of  “Toto,  I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore” and “Aha!!”.   I felt like Dorothy because this book is steeped in the language, methodology and publications of anthropology.  It took a number of important studies of little communities, including those written by the author himself, and examined the ethnographic methodology and questions  they utilized.  These studies were all unfamiliar to me, and because of the publication date of the book (1962), they were all fairly dated.  The book was not so much about the content of these studies, as of the role of the anthropologist and his/her methodology in that study.

But when I felt “aha!” was when he spoke about the nature and limits of the “little community”.   His “little community” has four qualities, that may exist in different degrees:

  1. it is distinctive-  where the community begins and ends is apparent
  2. it is small enough that it can be a unit of personal observation that is fully representative of the whole
  3. it is homogenous and slow changing
  4. it is self sufficient in that it provides all or most of the activities and needs of the people in it.

So does Port Phillip count as a “little community”? I’ve been conscious all along of the small size of Port Phillip- about 5000 people (although there’s no hard and fast population figures).  But was there a clear sense of “we?”. I rather think there was, in the push towards Separation from New South Wales, and distancing Port Phillip from the penal origins of Van Diemens Land and Botany Bay. Certainly, the Port Phillip press tried hard to foster a sense of  “we” (although I think that provincial presses always do this).  I think that the relatively late date of settlement indicates that geographically it was a separate entity to the two older colonies.

Redfield speaks about a “typical biography” among members of a little community- the life-path that most people in the community followed. Prominent, middle-class, public-oriented men can be traced quite easily through their involvement in different organisations in Port Phillip.  I think that you could probably construct a typical biography for Port Phillip during  the 1840s that would be triggered by a migration, involve an economic enterprise of some sort,  a financial setback, and the building of a home.  In fact, I’m about to embark on “Letters from Victorian Pioneers” and I’ll see if I can find the barebones  of a typical biography for Port Phillip there.

But Redfield warns that the descriptor of “little community” doesn’t fit comfortably with a society undergoing rapid change, especially a frontier society.   I think that whatever homogeneity there was in Port Phillip was challenged as the 1840s went on.   Change was rapid, and becoming even more so.  As such, perhaps the term “little community” is of limited usefulness in describing Port Phillip, but as he says, the question is not so much “Is this community a little community?” but “In what ways does this community correspond with the model of a little community?”

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