Making Sense of Wales: A Sociological Perspective

Making Sense of Wales: A Sociological Perspective

by Graham Day


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780708317716
Publisher: University of Wales Press
Publication date: 04/28/2003
Series: Politics and Society in Wales Ser.
Pages: 295
Product dimensions: 15.60(w) x 23.40(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Graham Day has been closely involved for many years with the development of a sociology of Wales.  He is a former editor of Contemporary Wales and has published widely on rural policy and development, national and local identity, and devolution.  His recent research projects include work on Welsh civil society and on migration in north-west Wales.

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Making Sense of Wales

A Sociological Perspective

By Graham Day

University of Wales Press

Copyright © 2002 Graham Day
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7083-2310-6


Visions of Wales

In 1981 the annual conference of the British Sociological Association (BSA) was held at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth. Around 300 members of the sociological profession met to discuss the topic of inequality. The conference organizers were taken aback somewhat when certain delegates asked if they could be given a tour of the local collieries. The nearest coal mines to Aberystwyth were some 80 miles away, a considerable journey by country roads, and would not normally have been thought part of the itinerary for any visitor to the locality. Despite their expertise in British society, and critical engagement with information and ideas about it, these visitors were responding to an image of Wales in which the mental landscape was dominated by winding gear, the blackened faces of miners and doubtless some associated scenery of rugby football and male voice choirs. None of these were at all significant in the daily life of most of the people who lived in this small Welsh rural seaside town; whereas to the sociologically alert, knowledge of some other aspects of life in Aberystwyth could have been highly informative.

For example, back in 1969, Aberystwyth had played host to the then Duke of Cornwall, who was learning the Welsh language at the university prior to his investiture as the Prince of Wales. The everyday use of Welsh was very much a feature of the town, and one which might be thought to be of interest to these social observers, though in fact most seemed to be unaware of its existence. Charles's induction into the Welsh language was a way of trying to make him more 'Welsh', and so more acceptable to the people of Wales. However, the presence of a member of the British Royal Family in Aberystwyth had aroused intensely contradictory feelings among locals, angering nationalists but giving royalists something in which to delight. Doubtless both factions included some of those whose disapproval just a few years earlier had helped blacken the reputation of a Principal of the University College, Goronwy Rees, whose readiness to offer undergraduates sherry on a Sunday morning had affronted the lingering remnants of Nonconformist sabbatarianism. Rees got his own back by describing the town, with its twenty-two chapels, as a 'sluggish backwater' isolated from the mainstream of contemporary life; he depicted the University College as beset with difficulties arising from primitive and atavistic 'Welsh tribal feeling' (Rees, 1972: 248). Aberystwyth was still throwing up interesting questions about its social nature some years after the BSA conference, when the visit of the Queen to open an extension to the National Library of Wales occasioned a massive police presence, and the threat of student demonstrations forced the abandonment of plans for a celebratory lunch on campus.

Already we have the threads of a number of issues to do with Wales and Welshness, and what is special about it, taken from this particular local context. Aberystwyth is a thoroughly Welsh place, and contains clues to much that makes Wales distinctive; but it is not identical with every other Welsh place, nor can we learn all there is to know about contemporary Wales from its limited vantage point. In fact, a well-known Welsh political commentator who studied there some forty years ago remarked recently that in Aberystwyth, which seemed to him little changed, perhaps it was always 1959. So both time and place seem to be relevant considerations when deciding what lessons can be taken from this particular example.

The sociological question posed by these opening remarks is a familiar, but important one: how are we to move between the sorts of generality and theoretical proposition that lie at the core of sociology as a discipline, and the concrete specificity of a given instance, which in the end is what we might want to understand? How can we draw general conclusions without losing sight of the particular and unique? This is what I mean by the problem of 'making sense'. The same question arises at a broader level of generalization when one thinks about Wales, as an entity, and what sociology can usefully say about it, or learn from it. Wales (like Aberystwyth) is a specific place, and signifies a very particular social formation. What kind of reality does it represent for the sociologist, and how is it usefully to be compared and contrasted with other such entities? What indeed is the appropriate sort of comparison to make? In the case of Wales, the answer is complicated because sometimes it is treated as a region, at others as a nation, and sometimes as part of a strange amalgam called 'England-and Wales'. The points of reference which are used to bring out its particular characteristics vary widely, and change over time. There are times when, in the course of examination, its very existence seems to be in question, and frequently there is extreme puzzlement and dissension about its nature and trajectory. Book such as When was Wales? (Williams, 1985), the curiously titled Wales! Wales? (Smith, 1984) and Wales: The Imagined Nation (Curtis, 1986) convey something of this puzzlement. In fact, it has become almost obligatory in recent years to note how variously Wales is imagined, represented and packaged, and to acknowledge the confusion that exists about which of these accounts, if any, is closest to reality.

These questions are not peculiar to Wales, by any means, and yet they arise in a pressing way for anyone who wishes to understand it, presenting a challenge which until recently was not felt universally for all such particular societies. Many wide-ranging discussions of themes and topics in sociology such as class, race, gender, industrial structure and so on, have been produced, drawing exclusively upon information and relationships which refer to Britain, or even to England, without anyone finding this remarkable. It is as if the Englishness, or Britishness, of the example can be allowed simply to fade into the background, as an irrelevancy, a merely contingent feature, without in any way contaminating what is being learned. For example, during the 1960s and 1970s, entire theories of affluence and the remaking of the working class were built upon the narrow base of a sample survey of workers in four Luton factories; Luton was treated as 'prototypical' of British experience (Goldthorpe et al., 1969) and British experience was regarded as self-evidently instructive for more or less anyone with an interest in social change. However, when a group of sociologists chose to turn the spotlight onto Wales, in the context of the BSA Sociology of Wales Group, they were faced immediately with the objection that there could not possibly be anything interesting or significant enough about Wales to warrant such attention – you might as well, said one critic, do the sociology of Norfolk!

Yet, why not? Unless they are to be understood as purely geographical expressions, places on the map, as indeed Wales was once notoriously described, both Norfolk and Wales seem to signify much more to people than this dismissive suggestion would warrant: in their different ways, they enter into people's understanding of the world they inhabit, as having their own unique properties, and as representing various quite complex phenomena, with a historical presence and ongoing existence which makes them, in a variety of respects, real and effective forces in their lives. They are, Durkheimians might conclude, social facts, external and constraining. Arguably Wales is just as much a part of the 'real' world as Britain, or Europe, or indeed, Luton and Norfolk: so why should it be any less worthy of study? Need a special case be made for its consideration? The same question is raised by the editors of a recent volume about regional and local planning, when they draw attention to the over-reliance among British planners on evidence and examples from England, and the failure to appreciate developments in Wales and Scotland 'as Scottish or Welsh phenomena, rooted in their national context' (Macdonald and Thomas, 1997: 1). Generalizations are drawn from English experience which become misleading when extended beyond England's boundaries, even if they are valid within them.

This implies that there is indeed something distinctive about Welsh planning, or at least planning in Wales, because it can be understood fully only from within the particular setting of a Welsh 'nation'. Certainly once one moves from planning to the world of social policy and administration, Wales figures quite prolifically in the literature, legislation and ruminations of decision-makers, so that it would seem almost laughably absurd to question its existence or importance – it is simply there, manifest, for all to see, in the dense body of administrative acts, organizations and structures. There are whole libraries of material relating to Wales; and by now there is also a multiplicity of Welsh websites providing a different sort of confirmation of its existence. The 'real' Wales has its 'virtual' presence in cyberspace, as well as being represented in the thoughts and imaginations of social observers. If anything, the volume of discussion about Wales, and the range of forms which register its existence, has been increasing – because through the fact of devolution, Wales has assumed a new political as well as social significance, and gained new foci of attention. A salient example is the decision of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) to commission a Welsh extension to its Household Panel Study from 1999 onwards in order to improve the quality of its dedicated information about Wales. This is a direct expression of the view that greater independence in decision-making needs to be backed up by more effective research and data collection.

Not everyone would agree with this conclusion. According to one deliberately provocative comment, 'most of the Welsh never talk about Wales. For most of us, Wales is a team and a nice place from which to get a letter. It exists for the purpose of sport and sentiment' (T. Williams, 1996). In its denial of any major significance to the issue, this is a minority view and, paradoxically of course, itself forms part of the very attempt to interpret and make sense of what Wales is all about with which we are concerned. Apart from anything else, it immediately poses some pertinent questions – who is this 'us' which is being referred to, and how accurate are the writer's assumptions about 'our' views? While it is true that, for much of the time, most people wherever they are do not reflect consciously upon the nature of the society to which they belong, but simply go about the business of daily life, nevertheless occasions arise on which they do have to give thought to such matters. Arguably, such occasions have grown more frequent in recent years. Contrary to the view expressed, there are others who might riposte that, far from never talking about Wales, there are quite a number of Welsh people (and a few non-Welsh individuals) who seem to talk about little else. Indeed, Williams himself makes the point that there are now many who are able to earn quite a decent living out of doing so; and in the process they are very argumentative, producing a multitude of different impressions of the country. Perhaps the particular perspective of sociology can contribute something towards cutting through the resulting cacophony of voices.


There are many efforts to make sense of Wales, and these produce many definitions and understandings of what Wales is about. This is not surprising, since it has become quite acceptable among sociologists now to recognize that there is rarely, if ever, one definitive version or story to be told. Rather, there are multiple realities, intelligible from differing standpoints and anchored in different sets of social experiences and social positions.

Among the positions that are likely to be relevant in their formation, we could include: place or territorial location; class, or position within a structured system of inequalities; gender; ethnicity or 'race'; and generation. Each of these provides a vantage point from which people can and do see the world differently. Since people, individually and collectively, occupy all of these positions simultaneously, they are liable to create highly complex sets of understandings of their social worlds. A wide range of raw materials can be worked upon to produce these selective accounts, within which sometimes the same elements are capable of assuming very different meanings. They might consist, among other things, of a mixture of fragments of personal knowledge and direct experience, collective memories, cultural assumptions and lessons absorbed from education or the media. Often these can be encapsulated in quite specific images, such as are provided by artists and writers (Humphreys, 1995). However, the interpretation of these images usually requires the application of a considerably larger body of information and experience which enables access to their social meaning: to grasp what they are about, we have to be able to enter into the appropriate social world. The implication that a particular social world offers a preferable, or indeed, the only convincing angle of vision is often an inherent aspect of the way in which reality is construed: as well as a descriptive content, there is usually a persuasive element to images and analyses which tends to coincide with the furthering of particular interests or sets of purposes.

Since the significance of the various positions people occupy can change over time and in the light of circumstances, the resulting perspectives are not hard and fast, nor are they always totally distinct and separate from one another. Rather they are produced and reproduced in an endless process of conversation and negotiation, at times mingling quite promiscuously, at others becoming more sharply defined and distanced. Participation in this conversation does much to sustain the sense there is something worth discussing. As a discipline, sociology makes its own important contribution to this process, lending qualified support to some positions, helping to undermine others, often putting itself forward as an especially 'authoritative' version of reality. This claim is made on the grounds that sociology is more explicitly informed by theory, more closely tied to evidence, and more consciously self-critical, than many of the competing perspectives. It is not always a claim that is justifiable because, like everyone else, sociologists have their own axes to grind.

The sociologists who came to Aberystwyth with their ready-made images of Wales were simply responding to one very strong vision of Wales, maybe the one that at the time was most resonant and widespread outside Wales. Its appeal to them probably also owed quite a lot to their own political and ideological preconceptions as sociologists: it was perhaps their preferred image, best fitted to how they felt Wales ought to be. It is a vision that projects a powerful conception of a proletarian Wales, dominated by a strong and well-established industrial working class, symbolized above all by the mining industry. The figure of the 'coal smudged, cloth-capped Welsh miner' has served as a 'universal icon of working-class radicalism' (Adamson, 1998). As we will see, at best this is a gross oversimplification of any actual state of Wales, but it is the Wales that most people believe they know something about, represented most obviously, in its often clichéd version, in books and films like Richard Llewellyn's How Green is my Valley and A. J. Cronin's The Citadel, and by a wealth of other artistic representations. It forms the backdrop, conscious or implicit, to a great deal of the work which has been done on Wales over the past few decades, a considerable amount of which is concerned to gain some distance from, and perspective upon, the underlying set of experiences and relationships that are implicated within it.


Excerpted from Making Sense of Wales by Graham Day. Copyright © 2002 Graham Day. Excerpted by permission of University of Wales Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Series Editor's Foreword,
1. Visions of Wales,
2. Wales Remade? The Transformation of Economic Structures,
3. 'An Ideal Research Site': Wales and the Problem of Development,
4. Enclaves, Archipelagos and Regions: Rethinking the Regional Problem,
5. Divided and Dividing Wales? Explorations in Geography and Class,
6. Beyond the Basics,
7. Rural Wales: The Sociological Account,
8. Contemporary Rural Wales: Via Development to Dependence? 162,
9. Debating the Transformation: A Welsh Economic Miracle?,
10. Language, Culture and Nation: Wales in the Melting Pot,
11. Nation, Nationalism and Ethnicity,

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