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Good Families of Barcelona: A Social History of Power in the Industrial Era

Good Families of Barcelona: A Social History of Power in the Industrial Era

by Gary Wray McDonogh

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Gary McDonogh combines ethnology and history to analyze the organization, reproduction, and decline of an urban industrial elite. Using Barcelona as the foundation for more general consideration of power-holding groups, he tells the story of the Good Families," those few hundred lineages who have dominated the city in the nineteenth and twentieth


Gary McDonogh combines ethnology and history to analyze the organization, reproduction, and decline of an urban industrial elite. Using Barcelona as the foundation for more general consideration of power-holding groups, he tells the story of the Good Families," those few hundred lineages who have dominated the city in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Originally published in 1986.

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Good Families of Barcelona

A Social History of Power in the Industrial Era

By Gary McDonogh


Copyright © 1986 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-09426-7



Anthropology long has been concerned with social organization and change in preliterate societies as well as with disenfranchised groups in Western society. Today, anthropologists are beginning to realize the need to address the same questions to those who hold power in contemporary nation-states. The role of elites and the nature of their power over other groups and social processes is a central component of a holistic study of human society and culture. The absence of ethnographic investigation is all the more striking because of the potential contribution that anthropological theory and methods may make to research that has been dominated by historians, sociologists, and political scientists. The personal contact of fieldwork incorporates strategy, flexibility, and personality into abstract models of power. And from these studies of elites anthropologists can return to more "traditional" problems with a clearer sense of the framework within which peasants, workers, and tribesmen live.

An anthropological examination of elites, in fact, reveals processes of group formation strongly reminiscent of those that we have explored in so-called "traditional" societies. Above all, the role of the family as an economic, social, and cultural vehicle for elite solidarity is as widespread and pervasive in industrialized societies as in any classic case in anthropological literature — Trobriands, Nuer, or Zuñi. Indeed, social critics, novelists, and scions of ruling classes have made these observations before; ethnography is only slowly pursuing such insights and bringing field experience to reflect on models of power in complex human societies.

This study explores the meanings of family within one modern elite that has coalesced in Barcelona and the surrounding polity, Catalonia, since the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century. Through an examination of the family in multiple contexts, within the dynamics of elite formation, reproduction, and decay over time, this work incorporates power groups into the major theoretical and methodological concerns of modern anthropology.

The elite considered here, the Good Families of Barcelona, forms a small and relatively closed community of two thousand to three thousand men, women, and children. They constitute between one hundred and two hundred patrilineages in a city of approximately two million inhabitants amid over six million people in Catalonia. Despite the limited number of families involved, this tightly integrated social group has controlled economic power in Catalonia for much of the past 150 years. It also made a brief bid to dominate Catalonia as an autonomous political entity. In establishing their position the Good Families have synthesized a new capitalist bourgeoisie with a historic aristocracy. They thus include both old and new holders of power. Exchange and alliance have ennobled new wealth· while reenriching and revalidating older nobility.

Family and kinship have played primary roles in the unity of this group. The household provided the framework for the consolidation of economic growth in the new leaders of the bourgeoisie. Social interconnection underlies a solidarity of power independent of formal political institutions. Yet, while family pervades the social history of power in Barcelona, it must also be examined as a continuous product — social and cultural — of the evolution of Catalan industrial society. That is, it was not through a particularly fortuitous model of the family that this group triumphed but rather through the ability of power groups to adapt the family to new settings and problems.

Furthermore, this study relates different levels of power and of conflict. The elite families of Barcelona have been influenced by competition and struggle within Catalonia, by the problem of definition of Catalan hegemony within the Spanish state, and by the status of Catalonia as a productive region within a world economy. These diverse levels have impinged as much upon the family as a unit of procreation and socialization as on its economic and political aspects.

The remainder of this chapter is devoted to placing the issues in the study of the elite of industrial Barcelona into a broader context. The following section introduces some basic concepts of elite research and situates them with regard to work in Barcelona and comparative study. A subsequent section presents the Good Families as elite, and the final section discusses the primary resources and methods that underlie this work.

The Study of Elites in Anthropology

Although most social sciences have scrutinized elites, there is little agreement on theory or terminology to refer to ruling classes. Anthony Giddens has commented:

No field of sociology has been more subject to vagaries of usage and to nebulous and shifting conceptualizations. Terms are legion: "ruling class," "upper class," "governing class," "political class," "elite," "power elite," and "leadership group" vie with each other for supremacy in the literature. Sometimes they are applied as synonyms, sometimes they are deliberately opposed to each other. In some cases terminological usage is merely careless; in other cases terminological variations conceal ambiguities in conceptual formation. (1974:2,)

In addition, the field is permeated by ideological perspectives that directly and indirectly add a partisan air to many of these designations. Given these problems it is foolhardy to attempt to redifine elite theory or to impose order upon terminologies and models that have been disputed for so long (Bottomore 1964; Domhoff 1967; Prewitt and Stone 1:973:3-28; Giddens 1974:1^; Marcus 1983; Hansen and Parrish 1983). Instead, I will follow a consistent use of the term that draws upon this debate while adapting it to the realities observed and reconstructed in the field. This perspective refers to a complex of defining characteristics rather than to any single basis for stratification or class conflict. Through this analysis both data and interpretation of the Barcelona case may, in turn, refine the concept of elite for future fieldwork as well as theory.

Throughout this work, the term "elite" refers to a generalized power-holding group within a society. "Power" is used in the broad sense of the ability to execute and impose choices on others. By referring to an industrial-financial elite, I have imputed some primacy to economic bases of power. Yet the Good Families are not simply a group of wealthy or successful businessmen. They also include those who held power in land, in experience of political systems, or in prestige — the Catalan aristocracy. No single arena or exercise of power suffices for membership in the group or cohesion of the elite as a whole. Power will be treated as an attribute with a range of family resemblances in its actual realizations and with overlap in its execution, rather than being precategorized into distinct fields. Thus, power may be widespread, encompassing most sectors and subjects, or it may be of varying degrees of specificity. For example, a specific realm of power might be wide, incorporating political administration, or more narrow, including control over education or conversational interaction.

For an elite within Western urban society such a separation of realms is often artificial. Over time, economic and political domination become linked to prestige, cultural expertise, and ideological dominance through the group and individuals who are powerholders. Within this study "elite" refers to such a synthetic group — to a community of limited membership, whose units cohere through kinship, alliance, and ethos as well as their shared domination over key aspects of society. Analysis of an elite, therefore, must employ multiple criteria. As the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu writes:

A class or fraction of a class is defined not only by its position in the structure of production ... but also through indices like profession, income, or even level of education, also by a certain sex-ratio, by a determined distribution in geographic space ... and by a complete ensemble of auxiliary characteristics, which, as tacit demands, can function as real principles of selection or exclusion without ever being formally posed. (1979:113)

This does not ignore the fact that there exist different levels of decision making and control within complex societies. The leading citizens of a provincial town or the rulers of a peripheral society only exercise power within a certain domain. Local ruling classes, whatever their sphere of domination, lack the range of power of a central or multinational elite. Lower levels, in fact, will be dominated by these more powerful elites — a dependency reflected in social organization and reproduction. Here again, the concept of family resemblance among the realizations of power permits a more careful phrasing of the study of elites. And in no case is it likely that an elite will have absolute power in any realm: the response of other groups to hegemonic claims is both a commentary and a limit on powerholders like the Good Families, as their history will frequently illustrate.

Recruitment to, membership in, and separation from the group will be determined by a common interest in maintaining undiluted domination of resources or decision making through time. Thus, my usage of elite also refers to a socially and biologically reproductive power group, which may lose or gain member units through time. A synchronic analysis is misleading in that it fails to consider the accumulation of various kinds of capital (in the sense that Pierre Bourdieu uses the term to represent social and cultural as well as economic power) and the meshing of these processes in the formation of a community. Elites exist in and through history and must be understood within a dynamic model.

Elite here is clearly not being used in the confused generic sense of any hierarchy that has often bedeviled comparative theory in anthropology. Elite has been applied cross-culturally to groups that are not strictly comparable in domain or social milieu. Such a classification does not tell us anything about the political and economic processes involved, much less of power groups in general. Nor does it clarify generalizations concerning advanced capitalist societies and their organization of power.

My approach also diverges from the positional approaches to power common in much theoretical literature in sociology and political science. These models are premised on the assumption that power rests in institutions and thus in those who occupy slots within them. Although it is indisputable that some power rests in institutions, and thus in their executives, this view exaggerates structure and ignores other significant facets of power. Analysis can easily become a study of managers, bureaucrats, and administrators; it "dilutes" the concept of a power-holding group — and at times denies its possibility — by emphasizing only the transient holders of positions. Such groups are clearly marked as ambivalent economically and socially in Barcelona. They are not an integrated part of the reproducing elite who ruled the city, even if closely bound to it.

Positional definitions also suggest an essentially static description of elites. By excluding the past and future of the people involved, the circulation of elites is reduced to fluctuations in personnel or in institutional format, while missing what appear to be primary mechanisms of succession and continuity in Barcelona. Economic domination, for example, demands accumulation and management over decades in order to consolidate a position. Social power — the control of prestige symbols, networks, and behavior — is even more diachronic. Again, as Bourdieu has suggested, social power is based on the control of time, the extended memory and reproduction that form a major theme in this study (1979:78).

A diachronic model also entails methodological revisions in elite studies. Thus, this volume is not a description of a reified elite but an analysis of how various power-holding lineages come together into a recognized community. By emphasizing historical depth, I highlight processes of domination more than fixed groups or structures. This approach facilitates a wide range of comparative questions concerning both the powerful and the marginalized (see Hansen and Parrish 1983:273-2.75).

This use of elite should also be distinguished from those who control the apparatus of the state (Hansen and Parrish 1983:265). It may also be, as in Barcelona, a power group whose organization is independent of the political instrumentality of the capitalist state. The Good Families have lacked specific perquisites of political self-determination or control of a state apparatus. At times, they have competed for hegemony within the state. At other points, they have sought to define themselves against it. This division of power has shaped their history, organization, and ideology.

This vision of an elite, while influenced by Marxist models, also relies heavily on other European social theorists such as Vilfredo Pareto, Gaetano Mosca, Antonio Gramsci, Georg Lukacs, and Pierre Bourdieu. This work also recognizes the influence of Marcus (1983), Hansen and Parrish (1983), and Cohen (1981) on the study of elites in anthropology. From the balancing of these sources I have phrased my concern with elites in contrast to power groups defined on the basis of position, reputation, or participation in institutions in a political or economic system. Furthermore, I have focussed on the processes of unification and continuity of an elite group rather than on conflicts between classes. Such a discussion, while important, must be done as a complement to greater knowledge of the actions and beliefs of ruling classes within specific historical contexts. This entails both comparative knowledge and firsthand field investigation.

Systematic anthropological comparison of the Barcelona materials has been constrained by the scarcity of elite ethnographies, although relevant work is present in other fields. While, in general, these comparisons will be appropriately introduced in the text, it is useful to mention those resources that have proved most valuable in shaping this study.

Edward Hansen's work on the rural Catalan elite in the Franco era was a basic reference in preparation of this project (1974, 1977). Because his study was outside of Barcelona and it concentrated on both a narrower time period and a different economic order, his observations are especially useful for comparison of structures and changes within Catalan society. As I have worked in Barcelona, this documentation has been supplemented by more traditional political and economic studies that treat Catalan power groups, especially through major works by Catalan scholars studying their own society. The work of James Amelang on early modern Barcelona society in both writing (1986) and conversation also has been a constant referent for my thought and investigation.

Unfortunately, the richness of Catalan materials is not equalled by data for other areas of Spain. This is particularly troubling with regard to topics such as capital organization, family variation, and ruling-class ideology for Spain's other industrial regions. Fernandez de Pinedo (1974) on the Basque regions is a useful exception, as is J. B. Harrison's economic history (1978). While there are suggestive themes to be explored here, often it has proved impossible to do so. Other European studies provide a more useful basis for generalized comparison and for insight into specific themes. Pierre Bourdieu, as both a theoretician and a student of French society has been central to rethinking this work (1976, 1977, 1979; Bourdieu and Passeron 1976). Arno Mayer's provocative work on aristocratic cooptation of the emergent bourgeoisie of Northern Europe (1981) has also helped rephrase and expand questions. Leonore Davidoff's work (1973) on the importance of women in London society provides a valuable case for discussing a poorly explored area of elite social organization — the role of women (see also Darrow 1979; Socolow 1979; Capmany 1969:61-80; Ostrander 1984). The rise of corporate organization and its relationship to society has been examined for France by Charles Freedman (1979) and for Europe and Japan by David Landes (1965, 1969, 1976). Finally, Carl Schorske (1980) and Allan Janik and Stephen Toulmin (1973), in their work on turn-of-the-century Austria, have raised interesting points on the social models of power in industrial society and the influence of culture on individual mentalities. Abner Cohen's work on a European-influenced elite in Sierra Leone, while published after completion of my original dissertation, has also been suggestive in reevaluating the results of my research.


Excerpted from Good Families of Barcelona by Gary McDonogh. Copyright © 1986 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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