A Nation of Provincial and Integral Tales in the Making?

6619522_origBy Paul Gilfillan

A few days ago when chatting with the Fife poet and novelist Wullie Hershaw about the post-Referendum scene, our topic of conversation turned to the cultural tasks of representation that need doing in the period in which we wait for the next crack at achieving independence. I recalled to Wullie that part of my motivation to write my book A Sociological Phenomenology of Christian Redemption (2014) was the conviction that, as it outlined an account of integral human being from a Scottish perspective, the current period of re-imagining and re-founding Scotland was an ideal time to put such an account into the public realm.

When beginning my research for the book back in 1998 as a doctoral student my focus was the relationship between class and national identity. However, some sixteen years later, what I ended up producing was an account of integral human liberation viewed through the prism of the impending 2014 Independence referendum. I had originally began by confining my research to how the Scottish working class were beginning to move away from mobilising upon a class-only basis in favour of the more integral or holistic basis of class and national identity, but as my understanding deepened I found myself going ‘all the way’ and articulating an account of what I refer to as integral liberation as a result of adding three further elements that meant producing a holistic or integral account of (Scottish) human being: intellectual or cognitional agency, psychological liberation and, finally, the specifically supernatural experience which the Christian tradition names the ‘gift’ of grace or redemption.

I also recalled to Wullie how prior to publication I was asked to write a brief description of the book for marketing purposes and it seemed that a selling point was that it is the only ethnographic study of contemporary Scottish nationalism to have appeared so far, and so might appeal to anyone with an interest in a detailed and descriptive study of Scotland from a particular geographic locality. However, even in the historic year of 2014, not everyone agrees that what the world needs is an ethnographic study of Scottish nationalism. I recall, for example, a letter from a very experienced commissioning editor ‘Sarah’ who advised me: “As I’m sure you’ve experienced with other publishers, it is partly the Scottish focus that is a problem for our international marketing and sales potential worldwide…so anything with a specific regional focus struggles.”

A researcher, then, who spends sixteen years conducting an ethnographic study of his natal village (Cardenden) and surrounding region (Fife) to come to a contextualised grasp of Scottish human being is in some danger of digging a hole for himself in light of producing a representation that has a relentlessly local and provincial focus. However, as a professional sociologist with the responsibility of teaching students about contemporary Scotland – but also as one of many thousands of ordinary Yes activists who spent the last year canvassing their locality and region – an insight that needs defending is that most people spend most of their lives immersed in localities and regions. For the professional sociologist as well as the nationalist activist, then, there is the need to recognise and then reject the pseudo-internationalism of the publishing world and the pseudo-internationalism that characterises political unionism in Scotland which is guilty of a facile universalism that is unconcerned with tackling a number of thorny issues that might divide those of us in favour of independence – such as religion, history and regionality.

From my own local or regional and provincial point of view, the Yes campaign gave Fifers the opportunity to mobilise their provincial or sub-national regional identity and constitute ‘the Kingdom’ as a cultural and organisational category for a political and constitutional purpose. Also, among the various locality-based Yes groups, what did not matter throughout the referendum campaign were party political loyalties or not having any political party loyalties. However, our current interregnum period provides the opportunity to discuss a range of differences and the opportunity to learn now to live with difference today and not simply how to live with difference in a future independent Scotland.

In this regard it is useful to remember that the independence movement has a history of ignoring major differences that lie within it. The SNP, for example, refused to address the issue of social class for many years and kept to a purist line that was blind to social realities in order to appeal to as many Scots as possible. I propose that another stage in the development of Scottish nationalism is that of addressing the issue of culture and history and its place in our public life and our educational institutions. More specifically, the question of what constitutes integral human liberation and how this relates to how we imagine Scotland and how we conceive the purpose and meaning of ‘being Scottish’ will either unite or divide those of us in favour of independence and can only arise on the basis of addressing the further related issues of:

– language (Scots, Gaelic, English)
– provincial / regional identities
– the ‘Catholic’ past & the Christian ecumenical issue
– a pre- and a post-industrial narrative for localities / provinces / nation
– the content of a written constitution

While such a range of issues is not a source of division for myself and a Fife poet such as Wullie – indeed is a source of coming-together and common ground – it is clear that if most Scots will not unite behind all of the answers to all of these questions, those of us in favour of independence have the historic opportunity to come together and unite in agreeing these issues need to be de-privatised, discussed and recognised. One of my hopes is that the resolve to address these issues might be one of the lasting legacies of the Yes campaign and one of the defining tasks of this interregnum period as it is clear that there is nothing quite like fighting a common cause to enable those participating to put their differences into perspective. My experience has been that while from the viewpoint of one’s armchair one may see a number of intractable differences, when one has spent that last year or so canvassing the same streets and facing the same difficulties, armchair opponents easily become ‘brothers in arms’ because of a lived verification of common purpose despite other differences.

The pro-independence moment and movement is the time and organisation with the motive and opportunity to agree upon a basic model or template of integral human liberation which avoids the failed status quo ‘solution’ which seeks to privatise these questions of meaning and remove them from the public sphere and reduce politics to management of the economy and reduce education to being fitted out for the job market. If an independent Scotland is only a matter of time, this interregnum period can be one where each local and provincial/regional yes grouping has the opportunity to imagine our provincial and local integral tales or narratives insofar as we address these long durée issues and prepare for our better future.



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19 replies

  1. I’m sure this article is addressing an important issue. Unfortunately I found it very hard to absorb and understand. I’m by no means thick, but I’m not an ethnographer nor an intellectual/academic. Would it be possible to sum up the content in a way more accessaible to the general reader?

    • Yes, Brian I too had great difficulty in penetrating this, so much so that I had take an hour to try and understand what the hell was going on here. I will post my summary, as I understand it.

      • I teach at university level and have a degree in ethnology and I found it hard too. Did find the mention of a ‘Catholic’ past strange as the ‘Protestant’ past is just as pervasive. However, my overall reply to this article is that, when people have a common goal, they strive towards it. Once independence is achieved (as it will be), the nature of Scottish politics will change. The process of devising a written constitution should start now and the the other matters will be discussed as this develops. The future is local and Scotland may develop different strategies for the variety of landscapes in Scotland but this will not happen until Scotland’s destiny is in its own hands.

  2. The first paragraph says that he was speaking to his friend Wullie about Scottish identity, what he extravagently refers to as being an “integral human being from a Scottish perspective” and he says that he said to Wullie that this was an ideal time for his book to come out.

    Then he says he has been working on 1998 on a study of class and national identity but this grew into “an account of integral human liberation” from an indy viewpoint. The use of the term “integral” is difficult to understand. Integral really menas fundamental, or indespensable so I think we can safely disregard it as one of many extraneous words in this article.

    Then he says that in marketing his book, he and his mate agree that it is the only study of present day Scotland that makes a scientific study of its people and culture, which is a debatable claim.

    It appears he submitted the book to someone called ‘Sarah’ who rejected it, and he feels this is because the subject was Scotland. However, many, many books about Scotland have been published, and the much-maligned ‘Sarah’ possibly rejected the book on the grounds of an impossible writing style, or perhaps repeated use of the word ‘integral’ which she did not like.

    Anyway, the writer goes on to argue that having spent 16 years in the ethnic study of Cardenden, and because he is a lecturer and an activist, he will not have his valuable study so easily dismissed, as it so callously was by ‘Sarah’.

    During his own YES campaigning in Fife, the writer argues in paragraph five that he discovered that people in Fife, regardless of political party, have their own identity (which he calls ‘sub-national’ – I kind of like that) and he reveals what I believe is his key argument – that we should all take the chance now, while we are waiting for the next referendum, to talk about our differences. Fair enough.

    Then he says that the independence movement has always ignored the differences and divisions within it, and says that the SNP ignore the issue of class and that he thinks we should talk more about culture and identity. Incidentally, I can’t agree with this at all. One should never have to work too hard at being Scottish, I feel. But I digress.

    Then, in some inadequatly formated bullet-points, our correspondent argues that there are still some issues which he feels could potentially split the movement.

    In his penultimate paragraph, the essayist boasts that while men like Wullie and himself are well above such division, there are plenty weaker brethren in the movement who don’t have their moral fortitude and clear headedness – a group he refers to as ‘most Scots’ – and he suggests that our differences may in fact be something that could bring us together.

    Finally, the writer slips in the word ‘integral’ one more time in what is possibly one of the most impenetrable sentences on this entire website. The sudden conflation of the words ‘moment’ and ‘movement’ gets this sentence off to very bad start and as for the rest, the contributor seems to be saying that if we remove discussion of freedom (or liberation – or indeed “the template of integral human liberation” LOL) from disucssion, then bureaucrats will take over and that will be bad. But it is one of the most ambitious and overblown sentences I have seen in ages, and takes a long time to unpick, and is even then potentially bogus – as is the possibility that this revelation emerged from the 16 year study of Cardenden? Who knows. It is very likely in my opinion that this article is stating something very simple, such as “difference is good” but doing so in a rather roundabout way.

    So in summing up, we have a marketing plug for a book that we certainly don’t want to read, including a dig at English publishing houses, and the general argument that we must celebrate difference within the indy movement and allow liberation to be discussed in public, and presumably encourage it, in Cardenden, and in other sub-national enclaves.

    And that is, I believe, the thrust

  3. I think there’s more to it than what you suggest, Peter. I’m one of the Bella editors and was responsible for commissioning this piece. (It wasn’t author self-promotion.) I was alerted to the book by a professor in the social sciences at Glasgow university and was struck by the fact that on the back cover, David McCrone, the much-respected emeritus professor of sociology at Edinburgh University, describes it as “a remarkable … reconciliation of social science and the question of transcendence.”

    I don’t know Paul Gilfillan, but I could see the importance that within his field of sociology the question of transcendence (i.e. the spiritual life) is being opened up. I could also see that his book (and this article) engages the kind of discourse that is common in sociology, but is not the everyday language of the rest of us. Yes, I could see loose ends, but also the signs of a scholar wrestling with issues that are almost too big to be wrestled with. That requires a courage that tick-the-box types of academia lacks.

    What to do? Leave such a study to the rarefied annals of sociology? Or give it a wider airing as part of the exciting mix of new thinking and experiment that is emerging in the new Scotland? I chose the latter because I think Gilfillan’s “integral sociology” is trying to wrestle with something that is hard to articulate but hugely important.

    Here we are – sociology as the study of sociologists – but I couldn’t help feeling that Gilfillan might be opening a way that is befitting of the early days of a better nation.

    • Why leave ‘such a study to the rarefied annals of sociology’ ?
      Academic historians, such as Tom Devine, produce work which is accessible to non academics.
      It seems to me that it is reasonable to expect the same of sociologists.
      In the article the phrase ‘this interregnum period’ is used twice. I think it means the present.

  4. “I don’t know Paul Gilfillan, but I could see the importance that within his field of sociology the question of transcendence (i.e. the spiritual life) is being opened up.”

    Sorry, but this isn’t a good thing at all; there are surely enough people blathering on about ‘spirituality’. ‘Spirituality’ is yet another cack-handed attempt to explain why human beings are so amazing and special. Can’t we just accept that we have fluked this amazing thing – consciousness – and enjoy it without resorting to trying to explain it through babble about religion and ‘spirituality’.

    And the article could use a bit of editing.

  5. Sounds like there are two schools of thought here. One is behind the idea that if someone wants to write a book, he should be responsible enough to the potential readers to make it actually readable. The other school maintains that the author is trying to say something unique and important, nevertheless. They are being kind. The author seems trapped(?) in a way of presenting his ideas that is mindbogglingly obscurantist, and possibly cruel for inflicting his prose on others. So, those of you seeing value, help him… The man needs editors willing and able to wrestle this gator to the ground. Till then, I ain’t readin’ no more of this gibberish.

  6. Oh dear, you know, Leavergirl, I see exactly where you and others here are coming from, and part of me completely agrees with you. This past few days I have been asking myself why I have put the contrary point of view in defending Paul’s piece (I can’t speak for his full book – I have only read it’s considerable introduction). I think it’s this. Over my own career I have wrestled with the discipline of human ecology including trying to break new ground with the edited volume, Radical Human Ecology. I am very aware of how much anything that attempts to be radical is work in progress. Arguably, one should shut up and not speak until work in progress is complete. But I don’t think that’s what academic community should mean. Our work, if we are honest about it, is always going to be in progress. The advantage of a living academic community is precisely that you get to bounce around ideas in development.

    Speaking for myself, such community of contested discourses, and emergent discourses, and plain duff ones, has been and remains invaluable. Looking at Paul Gilfillan as a younger scholar and others like him, I can’t help feeling there’s a duty of us crusties to hold open a supportive space and allow new ideas to be tested and gradually to be born. That is why, as editor of this piece, I was on for proposing to Mike Small that Bella should publish it. Apologies if the editing was not perfect – none of Bella’s editors are paid, and in my own case, I find it hard enough to proof read my own work never mind anybody else’s. Incidentally, I was also editor of Calum Macleod’s piece on land reform the other day, and watch out, subject to Mike’s final OK, for a forthcoming piece on boarding school psychology from Nick Duffell who is domiciled in France that was put to bed this afternoon.

    I’m not sure whether the David Miller (above) is the same one who was such a great help with my own work at Strathclyde, but whether he is or not, I do wonder here how much the issue has been trying to figure out what Paul is saying, and how much that he’s talking about “Christian redemption” and opening up questions of spirituality. Personally, I would love to hear more from Paul on the latter. My sense, as things stand, is that he is feeling his way towards something. I want to watch that spot, see what develops, and wish him well.

    • Alastair, thank you for such a thoughtful reply. The author is lucky to have you as an ally. Your words have been with me all morning.

      It’s not so much that we have been trying to figure out what he is saying, though obviously it began that way. For me at least, it comes down to that perennial issue of process and content. Every small group faces it. “Oh I know that Peter is condescending and over-agressive in his argumentation, but let’s let him, because he seems to have something important to say.” And so hurtful process keeps on keeping on.

      I am out of patience with this approach, and that reaches all the way to writing. If the person is using obfuscatory, bludgeoning, impenetrable etc prose, my first reaction is not “but does he have something important to say”. My first reaction is, I am not interested in supporting hurtful process no matter where it comes from. Writing like that is, in my view, a violation of the reader, and a breach of good will. And like with any prosocial vs antisocial behaviors, the violators tend not to change if people ignore or suffer through the process and focus hopefully on the content. So… an age-old dilemma. 🙂

    • ‘Looking at Paul Gilfillan as a younger scholar.’

      According to the website of Queen Margaret University, he is a senior lecturer and is older than David Cameron and five years older than Nicola Sturgeon.

      Is it not part of an editor’s job to save an author from themselves ? The comments in the article about Scottish publishing were superfluous to the core argument, regardless of the merits of the latter.

      Online publishing has many strengths. It also has weaknesses. One of these is failure to realize the importance of editing, which is very different from censorship.

  7. The day I can find an editor who can protect me from myself I’ll be a happy writer! Points taken, but I’d also suggest to cut the guy a bit of slack, even if he’s a bit older than I’d thought. Perhaps a bit of slack for the editorial process too? I’ve only edited 3 pieces for Bella since Mike Small asked me, 2 of which have thus far come out, but on average each has taken me well over an hour of time – unpaid, and I’m self-employed. Why so long? Well, that’s just what I find it takes by the time I’ve sent back comments to authors (carefully worded to try and be sensitive), dealing with PC/Mac compatibility issues, and bouncing each piece around the other editors in the sub-group to see if they’ve got anything to add.

    Just because an author ends up taking a particular approach doesn’t mean that an editor hasn’t made suggestions, In the end it’s the author’s piece, not the editor’s. I also wonder if there’s been an added issue in this debate in that my attitude to Paul’s piece was basically, “He’s touching on deep issues, he’s clearly respected by people in his field who I respect (from blurb on the back of the book), but his style is a ‘sociological’ one that’s not mine, yet maybe that’s par for the course because we all have our professional languages.” I’m now wondering, however, if some sociologists might have taken offence at that, feeling that as a non-sociologist I’ve thereby allowed through an approach that doesn’t cast their discipline in the light they’d like to see it in? David Millar’s comments particularly provoke that question in me and of course, spirituality is an edgy topic at the best of times in the social sciences because to many of that discipline, it is an illusion.

    On editing responsibility, when inviting a piece like this one is entering into a relationship with a writer that involves mutual hopes and expectations and requires emotional and not just intellectual energy. There must be about 20 folks that Bella now has voluntarily working on editing. Most of these are not going to be professional editors – I’m certainly not. Discussion like we’ve had here will hopefully be a form of training if others read it. It might lead to a general raising of standards which is why I have been engaging so fully with your comments. At the same time, it would be a pity if some fledgling editors were to hold back from offering their services for fear that they weren’t good enough. This isn’t a paid newspaper with the best staff that money could recruit.

    Needless to add, if any of you feel you’ve got editing skills but haven’t been asked, I’m sure Mike Small would love to hear from you, and Leavergirl, thanks for the smile – it makes a difference when wrestling with prickly issues!

    • Thanks for responding and for outlining BC’s approach to editing. My comment about editors protecting authors went beyond fair comment.
      Overall, your reply tends to confirm my feeling that editing is an area where the ‘new media’ is weak.
      (If you think that is harsh, I would point out how much stick has been given out to the ‘old media’, particularly over the referendum.)
      Logically, it might be worth investing in somebody who already has these skills; to train others.
      Successful writers are often so fulsome in their praise of their editor that the latter comes across as a co-creator.

      I doubt that I would be a useful editor for BC since I lack sufficient sympathy for its overall outlook.

  8. As the author of the above piece I thought I might respond to some of the criticisms and observations from some of those who took the time and trouble to comment.
    Firstly, my ‘extravagant’ use of the word integral. I used the word in the article to indicate that in addition to the well-worn themes of class and nation I also looked at other areas such as psychological liberation and the experience of the supernatural (a category many people do not recognise) and the area of the cognitional or intellectual – areas of experience that one doesn’t normally see associated with texts on working class groups and locations. The intention was not to be pretentious or superfluous but just to indicate these areas, so that a sense of a whole or complete account of working class experience and agency could be signalled as being covered in my book. So, instead of listing the various elements (social class, the geo-political, the cognitional, the psychological and the supernatural) I use the word ‘integral’ as a quick way of referring to these five separate areas. The intent was not to be superfluous but to save on words.
    The summary of my article by IAB I think was pretty good. The query about why only Scotland’s Catholic past (and not its Protestant past) was mentioned was just flagging up that the relationship between Catholic Scotland and Scotland’s political independence (once upon a time at least) was quite straightforward, and that its study might be of use to those in favour of independence today. I did not want to get side-tracked by saying for balance’s sake that the relationship between Scottish Protestantism and Scottish independence is more ‘tangled’ to say the least – as per the Referendum findings of Ailsa Henderson which showed Scotland’s Catholics are clearly more pro-independence than Scotland’s Protestants.
    In terms of Peter’s comments (some of which I agree with and others I disagree with) that I claim my book is the only ‘scientific’ study of Scotland’s people and culture, I would never describe my book as scientific at all. I did say it’s the only ethnography on Scottish nationalism that I am aware of. I’d be delighted to be corrected if I am wrong as then I’d be able to go and buy the book(s) and no doubt benefit from reading someone else’s effort. I am also happy to agree there are many great books on contemporary Scotland and probably far more accessible and reader-friendly than mine.
    There were other comments regarding my writing style and the editing procedures of Bella which I won’t address here. My aim in writing the article was essentially to flag up the importance of open public debate as to what might be described as a complete picture of liberation among those who share a pro-independence point of view. I have published my own account. I’d be delighted to read other accounts.

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