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City air makes you free

City air makes you free

Ryan Schram

Mills 169 (A26)


September 10, 12, 2018

Available at http://anthro.rschram.org/1002/7.1


Brenner, Suzanne. 1996. “Reconstructing Self and Society: Javanese Muslim Women and ‘the Veil.’” American Ethnologist 23 (4): 673–97. doi:10.1525/ae.1996.23.4.02a00010.

Supplemental reading

Schram, Ryan. in press. “Religion and economy,” The international Encyclopedia of Anthropology: The Anthropology of Religion (pre-publication draft, 27 November 2015).

Before we get going

Before we get going, I should mention that my slides for today are much denser than usual. This lecture is also much denser and more abstract. So I suggest that you concentrate on listening and use the words on the screen as a guide to the main points. Don't try to copy down everything on the screen. All of the slides are online on http://anthro.rschram.org.

The rise of cities

US urbanisation

  • USA 1900: 30% of people live in cities
  • USA 1990: nearly 80% live in cities (US Census 1995).

World urbanisation

  • In 1800, 3% of the world lived in cities.
  • In 1900, 19%.
  • In 2000, 47% … and recently over half of people live in cities (The Economist 2007).

What do you think are the main differences between rural and urban societies?

What is a contemporary society?

This class is about the conditions of life and society in the contemporary world.

The contemporary world is:

  • Interconnected. Everyone lives in some kind of conjuncture of cultures and orders.
  • Fluid. Societies are produced through their interactions with other cultures, and every society is a product of their history.
  • Complex. Many different kinds of logic coexist within every society, like reciprocity and commodity exchange, or in-the-world or on-the-world
  • Defined by unintended side-effects. All societies are changing all the time, but change goes in different directions, and history is not linear or progressive.

In other words, anthropologists argue that you cannot understand life in the contemporary world by a “from-to” story, e.g. from tradition to modernity, from oral to literate, or from sustainable husbandry to industrial exploitation. Each contemporary society is a “both-and” story.

Multiple modernities

This week we taking a second look at the concept of modernity. Today I want to talk about modernity as a distinct kind of change.

On Wednesday, I want to argue that there is more than one kind of modernity. Specifically,

  • All societies change, but not all societies end up being the same.
  • Not all kinds of social change are progress.

By the end of this week, I hope to have explained why anthropologists for the most part are very skeptical that there is such a thing as modernity. They prefer to talk about it as multiple modernities, each with its own logic and history.

Max Weber: the man, the myth, the sociologist

Max Weber (1864-1920) is widely considered the founder of modern sociology. Along with Emile Durkheim, he is credited with some of social science's main ideas.

Weber's approach to social forms starts from the view that there are different types of society, and one can compare them to understand each better.

Weber and modernity

For Weber “traditional” societies were different from “modern” societies.

Traditional societies are based on following rules because 'this is the way it has always been.'

Modern societies allow more freedom for individuals to make choices. Modern societies are based on agreements between individuals.

Weber says that modern societies are more rational than traditional societies.

That doesn't sound like anthropology

Weber did not look at cultural differences the way that anthropologists do. His views about social change are ethnocentric. He assumed that all societies were moving toward greater rationality, which he saw in the German state.

Let's look at Weber's key ideas to see how he arrives at this idea of modernity.

Weber's theory of society

Weber's theory of society starts with the concept of “social action”. There are four types of social action, each based on a type of meaning they embody.

  • Traditional: I do it because this is how it has always been.
  • Affective: I do it because it expresses my emotions.
  • Value-rational: I do it because this is the best possible way to advance a collective goal of my society.
  • Instrumental-rational: I do it because I get the most for the least amount of effort.

Social action and society

People are always motivated to act by a combination of all four types of motivation: tradition, affect, value-rationality, and instrumental rationality.

One type of motivation is always predominant in a single form.

People do different kinds of actions in different kinds of contexts.

Different social institutions call on people to be different kinds of actors and to think about themselves and the value of their action in a certain way.


Think about these examples. Each of these actions has a different meaning for the person who does them.

Giving a fruit loaf. It's getting close to the holiday season and so there's lots of family gatherings. You may feel obligated to do something for the people hosting a party for you. Mauss would say that this obligation is reciprocity. Weber didn't believe in reciprocity. It's a tradition. You basically do it out of habit.

Giving change to the Salvos.

Buying ramen noodles.

Each of these have different kind of primary motivation. Each social role one plays – relative, donor, customer – embodies a different value.

Religion as a type of social action

What kind of value does religion embody? Or, from an actor's point of view, what is the motivation for participating in religious worship and a religious organization?

Religion as a type of social action

In most senses of the word, people are not motivated to participate in religion for reasons of economic gain, at least not primarily. It isn't instrumentally rational, at least not primarily.

By the same token, religious institutions are not set up to create a space for people to pursue self-interested goals.

Many people find religion emotionally satisfying. But many people find soap operas emotionally satsifying too, so that can't be the only motivation.

Tradition, yes, perhaps.

Religion as ethics

For Weber, some religions draw people because they give them an answer to the ultimate meaning of life, and show them how to be an ethical person. They ask people to do things based on “value rationality”. Pursuit of a collective goal is the reason why people pray, worship and participate in a religious community.

Religion is rationalization

Religion is a force in society because it gives people an alternative to tradition. It forces them to examine why they do what they do.

In other words, religion rationalizes people's social behavior.

Religious change leads to social change

Weber argued that many religious movements sowed the seeds of social revolutions.

As society became more rationalized in general, he believed people would not need religion to give them motivation to be rational. They could rely on systems based on instrumental rationality, like bureaucracy and markets.

The Protestant Ethic

The Weber thesis is that the development of an ascetic form of Protestant Christianity spurred the development of market exchange and capitalist production. This is presented in his famous book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905).

The Protestant Ethic

Calvin teaches that salvation is for the elect. There's nothing you can do to earn salvation.

What you do with your life has nothing to do with your relationship to God.

If you were successful, it was a sign that you were in the elect. Wealth is not valuable for its own sake.

A person should follow one's “calling” as a duty to God.

The means of earning a living (a calling) are separate from the ends (a living, wealth and success). Thus if one is wealthy, one can be deatched from this wealth and deal with objectively.


Protestant reformers condemned people for being consumed with worldliness: being greedy and venal. Greed is bad.

Because their philosophy was based on a new way of thinking of the person as an individual, they actually paved the way for disembedding the economy from social relationships.

Greed is good? Not really. Weber concludes that Protestantism led to people believing that self-interest is just human nature.

Modernization theory

In the past, anthropologists and sociologists wanted to know how societies became more modern, and moved toward the type of society found in Europe. This school is called “modernization theory.”

Robert Bellah, Tokugawa Religion (1957).

James Peacock, Muslim Puritans (1978).

Why is Weber's theory influential?

Even though Weber was ethnocentric in some ways, he did think that culture played a role in the history of society.

The values people learn from cultural institutions, especially religion, cause a society to change.

The Secularization Thesis

Weber's argument that religion would eventually become less important is called the “secularization thesis”

  • Religious ethics forces people to reorganize society in ways that separate traditional practices and rules from higher values.
  • As societies become more rationalized, religious institutions are separated from other domains of society.
  • Religious identity becomes a private matter.
  • Overall, people become less involved in religious activities.

Problem: Secularization isn't happening

For many years, people have observed a return to religion.

As more modern forms of society have developed, new religions are developing too.

While Europe and Australia are highly secular in some ways, religion is still a defining feature of people and groups.

This is not what Weber predicted!

The paradox of religion

Religion causes people to be rational, and to rationalize their lives and their environment. But this rationality does not lead to secularism or modernity in a classic sense.

Why revival in Java?

Brenner considers several theses:

  • A 'return' to tradition
  • Symbolic shelter
  • Maintain social esteem

She ultimately rejects all these as insufficient explanations.

Reform and Islamic modernity

She ultimately chooses to take seriously the explanation that her own informants gave her.

Brenner's informants described religious change as a 'movement', a kind of training, and as self-discipline.

In other words, it was a new way of seeing oneself. It is a means to a new subjectivity.

Islamic modernity and Suharto's modernity

Brenner contrasts the Islamic movement with the nationalism of the New Order and the goverment of Suharto (1960s-1990s).

New Order: Modernity through consumerism and capitalism.

Islamic movement: Modernity through creating autonomous individual believers who can choose to follow a pure Islamic ethic.

What do these visions of the future have in common?

What do they differ on?

Why secularism?

World Values Survey 2014, Australia, “How important is religion to you?”:

  • 'Important' 31.1 %
  • 'Not very important' or 'not at all important' 65.3%
  • Compared to around 60% in Scandinavian countries and 30% in the US.

Do these figures surprise you? Why is religion so unimportant to a majority of Australians, and for that matter, many European countries too, but not the US?


Bellah, Robert N. 1957. Tokugawa Religion: The Values of Pre-Industrial Japan. Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press.

The Economist. 2007. “The World Goes to Town,” May 3. http://www.economist.com/node/9070726.

Peacock, James L. 1978. Muslim Puritans: Reformist Psychology in Southeast Asian Islam. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press.

“Urban and Rural Population: 1900 to 1990.” 1995. United States Census Bureau. October. https://www.census.gov/population/censusdata/urpop0090.txt.

Weber, Max. 1905. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. London: Unwin Hyman. https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/weber/protestant-ethic/index.htm.

World Values Survey. 2014. “World Values Survey Wave 6: 2010-2014: Online Data Analysis: V.9 Important in Life, Religion.” World Values Survey Database. Accessed June 30, 2014. http://worldvaluessurvey.org/.

A guide to the unit

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