Kate Fox’s Watching the English

By | May 11, 2006

Letter to the Editor, Anthropology Today

Kate Fox’s best-seller, Watching the English, is guaranteed to stir academic prejudices, because her style of writing is self-consciously designed to wind us up. David Mills’ editorial (AT 22[2]) is predictably dismissive:

“Since when have the linguistic conventions and social rituals around alcohol consumption offered insight into national character, whatever that is?”

But, for all her anti-academic bravado, Kate Fox did devote the first 22 pages of her book to explaining her aims and methods. This introduction raises some serious issues and deserves to be treated as such, even if the author seems to be indifferent to the possibility. Despite her self-satirizing, sometimes facetious tone, Fox is not just a wacky deviation from the professional norm. She poses a challenge to the guilds of late academia, and to British social anthropology in particular, that we need to meet. Mills’ review tells us more about the author’s personal history on the margins of academia than the contents of her book. So I hope to redress this omission here by summarizing her introduction before indicating briefly why this book should enter into professional discussions of the future of anthropology.

“The object was to identify the commonalities in rules governing English behaviour – the unofficial codes of conduct that cut across class, age, sex, region, sub-cultures and other social boundaries…[B]y looking beyond the ‘ethnographic dazzle’ of superficial differences, I found that Women’s Institute members and bikers, and other groups, all behave in accordance with the same unwritten rules – rules that identify our national identity and character. I would also maintain, with George Orwell, that this identity ‘is continuous, it stretches into the future and the past, there is something in it that persists, as in a living creature’. My aim, if you like, was to provide a grammar of English behaviour… ” (Fox 2004:2)

Fox contrasts her own previous tactic of “borrowing the language of self-help psychobabble and expressing the problem as an ongoing battle between my Inner Participant and my Inner Observer” with the usual “tortured self-flagellating disquisition on the ethical and methodological difficulties of participant observation” and concludes that:

“…the ritual chapter agonizing over the role of the participant-observer tends to be mind-numbingly tedious, so I will forgo whatever pre-emptive absolution might be gained by this, and simply say that while participant observation has its limitations, this rather uneasy combination of involvement and detachment is still the best method we have for exploring the complexities of human cultures, so it will have to do.” (Ibid: 3-4)

Eschewing any claim to professional authority, she attributes her competence as an ethnographer to her father’s bizarre child-raising techniques and ‘a rather erratic education at a random sample of schools in America, Ireland and France’ (Ibid: 6-7). In this way, she became a ‘rule-hunter’. Although she has written this book about ‘the rules of Englishness’ for ‘the intelligent layman’,

“My non-academic approach cannot be used as a convenient excuse for woolly thinking, sloppy use of language, or failing to define my terms.” (Ibid: 9)

She goes on, without ever using words like ‘structuralism’ or ‘functionalism’, to define her terms in quite a rigorous way. She cites Robin Fox and G.P. Murdock at length in support of her approach to ‘culture’ as ‘rule-making’. Her line on the threat posed to nations by ‘globalization’ has its adherents in academic anthropology, even if they would be unlikely to express it this way:

“As a fairly typical Guardian-reading left-liberal product of the anti-Thatcher generation, I have no natural sympathy for corporate imperialists, but as a professional observer of sociocultural trends, I am obliged to report that their influence has been exaggerated – or rather misinterpreted. The principal effect of globalization, as far as I can tell, has been an increase in nationalism and tribalism, a proliferation of struggles for independence, devolution and self-determination and a resurgence of concern about ethnicity and cultural identity in almost all parts of the world, including the so-called United Kingdom.” (Ibid: 14)

Fox qualifies this cheery assertion, then gives her considered opinion on class and race, the relationship between being ‘British’ and ‘English’ and the pitfalls of stereotyping, before concluding with a back-handed reference to her father’s socio-biological bent:

“Hmm, yes, Sequencing the English Cultural Genome – that sounds like a big, serious, ambitious and impressively scientific project. The sort of thing that might well take three times longer than the period originally agreed in the publisher’s contract, especially if you allow for all the tea-breaks.” (Ibid: 22)

I hope I have shown that, however irritating Kate Fox’s style may be to some, she is smart and has worked out her argument. I take a very different view from hers on British national identity (e.g. my editorial on the London bombings, AT 21[5], 1-2) and have been known to come up with lines like, ‘I’m not English, I’m from Manchester’. But, in my last ‘Letter from Europe’ (AT 22[2], 18), I suggested that “anthropology deserves to flourish as the broadest possible framework for general education, helping individuals to place themselves more effectively in a connected world”. This requires a rethinking of the discipline’s object, theory and method that should not be restricted to what goes on within the academy. Fox has astutely lined herself up to take a leading position in such a rethink.

1. She has refurbished some of the classical assumptions of an early twentieth-century social anthropology of ‘customs’ and, by insisting on the timeless nature of a homogenous English identity, has made explicit the nationalist premises of the ethnographic approach.

2. She makes no claim to a collective or impersonal authority derived from membership of a professional guild, attributing her competences, if any, to a life-time of idiosyncratic personal engagement.

3. This leaves her free to indulge in irony, humour and self-deprecation, thereby allowing for a more egalitarian and humane relationship with her readers (sales 200,000 so far and rising) than most academic anthropologists can manage.

I hope that the guild she so enjoys baiting will engage with her on these grounds.

2 thoughts on “Kate Fox’s Watching the English

  1. Charles Kirke

    I couldn’t make up my mind if I loved this book or hated it. It was lit up with occasional observations of great power and entertainment value but suffered from being too general and too unfocused. I have not read any of her other work, referred to often in the text, so I do not know if she has more consistent insights when her field is smaller.

    But I am glad that this book was written. Anything that brings Anthropology out of the academic library where nobody else reads it is fine by me


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