Representations of ‘us’

Following yesterday’s meeting with The Supervisor, a merry jaunt through my unread books and arguments via the land of hope, I am back to reading and a commitment to writing a chapter: a context-setting chapter on representations and realities of Catholicism in Ireland. During the week, I was able to read Karen Andersen’s recent article in Social Compass entitled Irish Secularization and Religious Identities: Evidence of an Emerging New Catholic Habitus. The meeting with Mark and Karen’s paper crossover in one crucial way. Consider the ways that Irish Catholicism is represented in both popular culture and academic discourses. Karen tells us, when speaking about Ireland’s modernization, that:

…indicators of the modernization of Irish society include the replacement of agriculture by the industry and service sectors and increased urbanization. These indicators suggest that the scene is now set for the loss of the social significance of religion. (p.23)

Ok, so ‘we’ moved to the cities and worked more in factories than farms. Furthermore, and earlier in her paper:

A short supply of nuns, brothers and priests impedes the Catholic Church’s ability to operate in all areas of Irish society, and they are less effective in transmitting Catholic teachings to and instilling Catholic moral values in new generations of Irish Catholics. (p.21)

And I was reminded of Kevin’s appeal to keep teaching Christianity in schools if you want a totally secular state. Karen portrays the Catholic Church as an organisation that ‘operates’  in ‘areas of Irish society’. The institution, whatever that is, has lost its power in the field of healthcare and education and most particularly in relation to struggles with mass media. What kind of representations of a modernising Ireland are these? After Vincent Browne’s show on Wednesday and his attendance at the Conference’s press conference earlier that day, ‘the mass media’ is as much an unhelpful abstraction as ‘the Catholic Church’ is. Pitting ‘the mass media’ up agin ‘the Church’ as abstracted agencies controlling fields of power is like saying Coke outsells Calvita cheese by five to one. The Catholic Church, and here’s something you may not read every day, is not a media organisation. Those of you who believe that de meeja is ‘out to get the Church’ may also want to read that last sentence again. Vincent Browne is a journalist with a TV show; Christy Jones is a leader of Catholics in Sligo and Roscommon.

Representations of Irish modernisation include but are not limited to:

  • a change to export-led industrial policy
  • greater participation by women in the labour force
  • increased educational opportunities
  • GDP growth and consequent growth in public expenditure
  • a shift from agriculture to services
  • declining fertility rates
  • a secularisation of Catholic and other religious practice
  • a slow and progressive liberalisation of sexual morality
  • an increasing proportion of the population living in urban centres
  • increases in extra-marital births

(I could compile a list of what is not represented but that would be jumping the gun a little.) These are all axioms of modernisation processes as currently understood and placed in one way or another throughout the opening half of Karen’s paper. In as much as they represent ‘the truth’, it is probably as good as we are going to get. In telling stories about the way we have lived our lives and the lives of our parents, it probably is not the best way. Dominant representations have the additional quality of being hegemonic you see. They colonise the acceptability of other ideas and representations. How can we understand secularisation processes in Ireland as being anything else other than a decline in the institutional power of the Catholic church in the fields of education, politics and healthcare? How else do we understand how Ireland modernised than through a representation of ourselves as leaving behind what is ‘traditional‘. This leads to questions about the (re)production of knowledge, many of which I will deal with in the coming time. I’ll end with a last quote from Karen Andersen’s paper which is as depressingly true as it is politically undesirable:

It is now principally the media that define what constitutes a morally decent life. (p.23)

Have a great weekend.


2 thoughts on “Representations of ‘us’

  1. Interesting, from a comparative viewpoint. In Britain, religion has ceased to be considered any kind of social or moral ‘compass’ for, arguably, approaching a century. Much higher numbers attend church in Ireland than in the UK (statistics vary, but it seems to be about 6% here). So this country’s secularization process, if that’s an appropriate thing to call it, looks very different from Ireland’s. Goes back to what you were saying the other week about ethnocentric theories of secularization – the process is completely different in every society.

    I’d say that the media does have a strong role in establishing normative moral and social standards in the UK – but that ultimately, as I think Bauman claims, the media is a tool for communicating the standards of late capitalism. Which, let’s face it, aren’t exactly high standards. But that’s a subjective judgement. Some would suggest that the social standards that were once set by religious institutions were no better.

    Hope the PhD’s going well!

  2. Naomi, thanks for the comment. Ireland’s secularization is indeed very different but this makes it no less exciting to study. Although reading Talal Asad’s Formations of the Secular over the weekend, it leads me to ask if the framing of ourselves as moderns is more problematic than any definition of secularization processes.

Comments are closed.