Horace Miner’s Study of Rural French Canada in Rapid Transition ca. 1936

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May 13, 2004


The Bottom Line another ethnography that rapidly became a resource for history of a region

Having extracted my discussions of three other 1930s rural community studies by University of Chicago-trained anthropologists ( Milloca, Pascua, Suye Mura, villages in Sicily, Arizona, and Japan, respectively ), I decided to add my discussion of the fourth, even though the book is not in the database. (My discussion of Robert Redfield's book seems too lengthy and too technical, and I cover the specific works of Berkeley alumni too briefly to extract as reviews. The lengthy article I'm working on is titled "American Anthropology Discovers Peasants.")

Like John Embree and Edward Spicer, Horace Miner was a protégé of Robert Redfield and much influenced by Radcliffe-Brown-style functionalism as a University of Chicago anthropology student. Like Spicer (and Charlotte Gower), Miner focused on religion, the "deeply ingrained" Catholicism— "Lack of contact with persons of other convictions and the relative lack of functional problems in the mode of living mean that the particular native belief is rarely questioned. Life in St. Denis is a flow of traditional behavior. . . Religious behavior and thought dominate all life." Like Redfield, Miner aimed to provide an ethnographic description of a "folk culture in its least-altered existent form" (the most rural point of the folk-urban continuum) and to consider factors responsible for cultural change in the direction or urbanization and anglicization" (ix). Although Miner was interested in social and cultural change and urban influences on the countryside, St. Denis de Karmouraska at first seemed to Miner "so old French [that] I was worried there would be no outside influence. I lose no sleep over that now" (Miner:Redfield, 3 Aug. 1936).

Redfield’s introduction to Saint Denis framed it as a study of peasants:
"The habitants live in terms of common understandings which are rooted in tradition and which have come to form an organization. The fundamental views of life are shared by almost everyone; and these views find consistent expression in the beliefs, the institutions, the rituals, and the manner of the people. . . . The sanctions which support conduct are strongly sacred. . . . There is little disorganization and little crime."
Redfield characterized "the French Canadians herein described. . . [as] almost the only North American peasants." Miner does not seem to have used the term "peasant" in the text, but when Redfield urged Miner to be frank about anything in the draft introduction that made him uncomfortable, and specifically wondered, "Perhaps there will be objection to calling rural French Canadians peasants; they seem peasants to me" (Redfield:Miner 9 Sep. 1938), Miner replied (14 Sep. 1938) that "‘peasant’ does not disturb me at all; it is a common term of reference in Canada." Miner’s original title had been "Quebec Folk "(with St. Denis in the subtitle), but in a 1963 foreword to a reprinting of St. Denis, he denied having "undertaken to illustrate or to ‘test’ any social typology" (vii), noted that the "context of peasant culture" was supplied in Redfield’s introduction.
Miner stressed that his "analysis of St. Denis was made along ethnological and structural-functional lines, strongly influenced by the teaching of A. R. Radcliffe-Brown. (It certainly has a Radcliffe-Brownian focus on kinship... and folk Catholicism was as exotic to Miner as to Redfield and to R-B). Miner approached change in culture change as resulting from social "structural forces and from diffusion, not as a shift away from a folk type of culture" (vi). Redfield himself noted the increased money income and the export of labor to factories rather than the agricultural pursuits that had been de facto exclusive in the traditional/folk society.

While doing fieldwork, Miner disclaimed any "intention to be solely a reporter of the ‘society’ of St. Denis, but rather [sought to be] a commentator on how the present culture reflects the change which is going on at present, the directions of this change, the means of its introduction, and the forces responsible for it" and to provide a basis for comparison of social changes elsewhere (Miner:Redfield, 30 Nov. 1936).

George Peter Murdock lauded St. Denis in an American Anthropologist review as the most genuinely culture-explicating of recent community studies, and lauded it for making "explicit the traditionally patterned norms according to which people behave and organize their interpersonal relations" and for providing an outstanding analysis of social and political organization. "Religion and its intimate interpenetration with all other aspects of the culture are admirably portrayed, albeit with a certain Durkheimian rigidity" he wrote.

Miner later undertook an anthropological study of a corn-belt county" in the United States, and preindustrial cities in Africa including a community study of Timbuctoo that was not published by the University of Chicago Press despite 1948-49 recommendations to do so from major figures in the field (Redfield, Sol Tax, Joseph Greenberg, and William Bascom) and Miner’s willingness to subvent publication. Eventually, it was published as a memoir of the American Philosophical Society in 1953, and criticized as applying rather than testing the folk-urban model, confounding multiethnicity and urbanism, and failing to distinguish normative from descriptive assertions. Miner went on to psychological anthropology research on purportedly rural ("oasis") and "urban" samples of Algerians born in a small town at the edge of the Sahara desert . Miner seems to have done little research after the midpoint of the twentieth century, though writing some general pieces about African urbanism/urbanization. defending the value of the folk-urban continuum, and writing a spoof of exoticizing cultures by looking at American culture as exotic in "Body ritual among the Nacirema" (an excerpt of which is online at http://www.msu.edu/~jdowell/miner.html.

Miner taught at the University of Michigan from 1946 until Alzheimer's disease forced his retirement in the mid-1980s. He died in 1993.

Like Embree and Spicer, Miner was newly married (to a woman née Agnes Murphy), though her contribution to his St. Denis fieldwork is less obvious than that of Ella Embree (who grew up in Japan) and Rosamond Spicer (who was also a University of Chicago anthropology graduate student during fieldwork in Pascua).

There is a 2000 documentary made by Bernard Émond, entitled "Les Temps et le Lieu" that I have not seen on Miner and changes in St. Denis. (It is not listed in IMDB, but there was a National Film Board press release about it.) I'm sure that Émond found the control exercised by priests lessened. Québec nationalism has been decidedly a secular movement, and French Canadian sociology/anthropology of religion has been preoccupied with the sharp decline in the status of religion as part of what is generally known as Québec's "Quiet Revolution."

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