Whites Writing & Change

Whites Writing & Change

Whites Writing Whiteness: Letters, Domestic Figurations and Representations of Whiteness in South Africa from the 1770s to the 1970s

Please reference as: Whites Writing Whiteness (2014) ‘Whites Writing & Change’ Whites Writing Whiteness www.whiteswritingwhiteness.ed.ac.uk/overviews/whiteswritingchange/ and provide the paragraph number as appropriate when quoting.

1. How and why did social change in South Africa take the form it did? In what ways was this experienced, from the early colonial period of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, through major imperialist intervention, to the 1948 National Party election victory and apartheid, to Sharpeville, the 1970s and the winds of change? What resistances and accommodations occurred in different areas of the country, and from which individuals and networks of different political, economic and religious standing did this come? 

2. South African society and its changes over time is of particular interest for sociology and the other social sciences, because it provides a fascinating crucible for exploring the mechanisms of social change, including the eventuation of what became its distinctive overlapping hierarchies of racialised, gendered and classed inequalities, organised around segregation and then institutionalised apartheid. Latterly, democratic transition in South Africa has been seen as a model for social transformation. But focusing just on the recent period glosses a constant process of more fragmentary changes: away from ‘high’ politics, ordinary people of all skin colours and language groups have lived out its racial formations in different ways over time.

3. The ‘Whites Writing Whiteness’ project explores these complex matters concerning social change by focusing on one aspect of this which has been particularly associated with South Africa. This is that it is investigating ‘whites writing’ and ‘writing whiteness’ in letter-writing and correspondences from the 1770s to the 1970s, a crucial period in South African history. How did people represent the changes occurring in their letters, correspondences and other ‘documents of life’ such as diaries and memoirs? This attention to epistolary exchanges—to writing and replying to letters in long-term correspondences—of course gives focus onto the small white population, and through this it enables exploration of changing representations of whiteness as a social category and the related creation of racialised hierarchies of people perceived as ‘Other’ within what over time became its highly racialised social system.

4. The ‘Whites Writing Whiteness’ research investigates and theorises changing representations of whiteness in South Africa in the context of social, economic and political change from the 1770s to the 1970s in order to address these important questions. By doing so, it puts the spotlight on the activities and concerns of different domestic ‘figurations’—not families, not households, not networks, but more complex living arrangements that often involve a variety of both kin and others and the composition of which changes over time—at a micro level, including as these connect (closely, loosely, or not) with the macro level of social change that has been the focus of most mainstream historiography, including that of historical sociology.

5. Letters and correspondences are everyday documents of life that are strongly characterised by seriality and succession—their ‘one thing after another’ temporal aspect—and consequently they provide, not only a humanly rich data-source, but one particularly suitable for investigating changes over time. Certainly epistolary scholarship recognises the strongly performative features of letters, but they also have a complex referentiality regarding the social and material world outside of textuality without which they would not exist. W.I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki’s foundational work in The Polish Peasant In Europe and America emphasises that letters are a powerful index of social change because their content and also their form or structure is porous and flexible and so registers the changing ‘moment of writing’. Letters and correspondences consequently provide particularly appropriate sources for tracing and analysing the unfolding processes of change, for they are longitudinal data par excellence, with epistolary exchanges occurring in a temporal momentum or succession and with both ‘sides’ in turn writing, sending, reading and replying.

6. A strong case exists, then, for using letter-writing as an appropriate and effective source for investigating social change, and indeed Thomas & Znaniecki’s The Polish Peasant… saw it as the most suitable form of data for investigating it. This is because it is a relational activity which brings together affective and material aspects of social life, it is a communicative form which is highly responsive to changing social mores and conventions, and consequently it provides a lens on the changing ways in which white people perceived and represented whiteness, and by implication blackness, to each other over this momentous 200 year time period. South African archives contain rich resources in the form of very large collections with contents spanning from two or three up to seven generations of letter-writing, supporting a Qualitative Longitudinal Research (QLR) approach which is investigating, mapping and analysing how racialised and other hierarchies have been configured and represented and changed from the 1770s to the 1970s.

7. In South African archival locations, there are extensive family letter collections, some of them with contents spanning two, three and sometimes five generations of letter-writing, others one or two generations. Their contents are replete in ‘documents of life’ terms; they frequently include diaries and memoirs as well as family, friendship and business letters; they were written by people of very different backgrounds, European origins, language groups, economic and social circumstances; and they lived in very different geographical locations too. Consequently investigating these extensive letter-writing networks enables whites writing whiteness, and changes in this over time, to be mapped in detail by tracing out epistolary structures and content over the lengthy time-period from the 1770s to the 1970s being researched. Broad patterns and changes over this period are being investigated across a large group of such collections, with a sub-set of in-depth case studies involving detailed textual analysis of many composing documents.

8. QLR is an approach to researching social life which takes sociogenesis, the processes of social becoming, as axiomatic and argues that a snapshot or cross-sectional investigation cuts into this at one moment only and assumes a social stasis that does not actually exist. Good cross-sectional research grapples with this by carrying out two or more repeats of a cross-sectional investigation. However, QLR deals with the issue in a different way, firstly by making use of series, secondly by highlighting duration, and thirdly by reducing or obviating interval. In relation to ‘Whites Writing Whiteness’ research, the epistolary data it is researching are composed by temporally extended series of linked data: that is, letter-writing and letter-exchanging within a number of domestic figurations extending over very long periods of time, with each of the collections investigated forming a long interconnected series of data. These data series are strongly characterised by their duration, in some cases extending over sis or so generations, around a two hundred year period. And in addition, these series of letter-writings are in the main characterised by closed intervals – that is, the letters by and large follow each other, they are not sporadic and disconnected, and ‘one follows another’ in closed succession in the series.

9. Momentous changes occurred over the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, represented in the diverse responses by white traders, missionaries and settlers to the different African peoples who lived across southern Africa, to early twentieth century segregation and then the rise and seemingly monolithic character of apartheid post-1948. But was this change as monolithic as homogenising terms like ‘segregation’ and ‘apartheid’ imply? What were significant points of transition? Were these the same in the different provinces with rather different histories which formed the Union of South Africa in 1910? Did all whites in a particular locality respond similarly, and if not what were the sources of difference and what changes occurred over time?

10. ‘White writing’ is not just writing whiteness but also the relationship between self and its various Others; it has characteristic silences and elisions, focuses and absences; and occurs in casual and ‘fabric of life’ ways as well as in people’s stated attitudes and views. Precisely how is whiteness and its Others understood, represented and re/configured in letters and correspondences written by these differently situated sets of people over the research period? Rather than taking individuals or families or organisations as its unit of analysis, the project draws on Norbert Elias’ ideas about figuration and develops this as domestic figuration. A domestic figuration encompassies family, other household members and a wider group of familiars, with its composition changing over time. In the historical South African context, immediate family lived cheek by jowl with other household members such as tutors, governesses and domestic and other servants. Consequently domestic figuration more accurately reflects how people lived and also the contents of the collections researched, although these are typically described as “family” ones in archival finding aids.

11. How then is social change in South Africa to be explored using the documents of life, the letters and correspondences, that the project is concerned with? The unfolding usages, variations and changes in whites writing whiteness and its Others is the focus, analysing this around the fundamentally serial and longitudinal character of letter-writing in inscribing the processes of social becoming or sociogenesis. Temporality and seriality fundamentally mark the longitudinal exchanges occurring in networks of letter-writing; in addition, letters are not simply representations of the social world but are in themselves a form of social engagement and relationship. Consequently sociogenesis can be tracked through comparisons of different letter-writers within a figuration and changes in their letter-writing practices over time; changes regarding a whole figuration over time; and comparisons across figurations at different temporal points. ‘Whites Writing Whiteness’ therefore investigates ‘as it happens’ as this was viewed and written about in an unfolding way, by people in a range of fiterations and over an extensive time-period, using this to address that key question of how a small number of whites imposed itself on a far greater number of African peoples.

12. This raises the complicated relationship between things as they happened and changed at an everyday, interpersonal and local micro level, and the macro level of ‘the history’ of how it turned out (that is, what historiography represents as the salient or definitional events of the past). Norbert Elias sees the micro and the macro aspects of sociogenesis as inseparably intertwined; indeed, more strongly, he proposes that the accretion of micro becomings result in and produce the macro. This is a gauntlet thrown at the feet of structural approaches in sociology which subsume social life within categorical monoliths like industrialisation, capitalism, globalization and so on, and it accords with “new history” approaches following Edward Thompson’s dictum that capitalism should be seen, not as a structure, but a relationship. However, while the point made about not imposing static homogenising categories on complex changing contexts and events is well taken, nonetheless many examples from preliminary project research indicate that the micro/macro relationship is more complicated and analytically more taxing than this ‘micro adds up to macro’ stance suggests.

13. It is a truism that sociology came into existence to investigate and understand the processes of social change. While terms such as globalisation, late modernity and postmodernity operate something of a closure on the ‘what’ of social change, the ‘Whites Writing Whiteness’ project is concerned with the detailed ‘how’ of what happened, where and when it happened, and how people wrote about this from within sociogenesis or the unfolding processes of social becoming. It is relatedly concerned with the ‘lumpiness’ of this, the variations between people and places, the lags between ‘big events’ and changes on the ground, and the complexities about their everyday lives that people wrote to each other about in situations of interrupted presence (someone being away for a short period, for a trip, to go on holiday and so on) and longer term absence (someone living in a far distant area of the country, or going to another country for a period of years or permanently).

14. The things outlined here rather abstractly, such as ‘change’, ‘race’, ‘domestic figuration’, ‘segregation’ and so on, are deeply fascinating when explored in detail, in relation to particular groups of letters, written at specific times, by people of diverse kinds and backgrounds, living in different areas of South Africa. Some of the initial work on the project has found that the racial order as depicted in history and sociology is by no means straight-forwardly to be found in people’s letter-writing over time. Close attention to what people wrote, how they wrote and who they wrote to suggests a more diverse and complex picture of race matters —-

  • Some letter-writing represents the world in which the writers lived over the period of the 1870s to the 1900s as entirely white, with no black or coloured people mentioned in letters over very long periods of time, so that houses are cleaned, food cooked, roads build, land worked, seemingly by themselves.
  • Some letter-writing during the 1910s to the 1930s incrementally refers to the processes of ‘creeping nationalism’ occurring in the fabric of life, with English-speakers becoming aware that segregation could happen ethnically, as well as racially around skin-colour.
  • In the 1850s to the 1870s, some letter-writing records various trading and land dealing relationships with African groups, with these later in the 1880s, 90s and after taking new meaning as land-grabbing because of mineral discoveries.
  • Some letter-writing in the 1850s and 60s tells of keen rivalries between different settler families and communities, including concerning deeply opposed views about ‘race’ and racism.
  • Particular ‘big events’ of the 1860s to 70s, such as like wars and other events which are seen in history writing as significant in terms of black / white relationships in South Africa, are barely discernible in some letter-writing while other more local occurrences take centre-stage and propel events and changes.
  • During the 1920s and 30s some letter-writing of tells of longstanding loving relationships of former servants with the white people they had worked for, and some letter-writing of the 1850s to 70s also tells of similar loving bonds.
  • Missionaries often lived ‘beyond the frontier’ among ‘raw’ African groups living in ways still fairly untouched by colonisation by white settlers, and some of their letter-writing from the 1850s to the 1900s tells of considerable variations as well as changes in how they saw and depicted the African people they lives among.
  • Some letter-writing evidences a sea-change in racialising missionary thinking and action around the Matabelelamd and Mashonaland invasions and war.
  • Some letter-writers are part of networks that seem to have routinely used negative racial terms as part of membership attributes, while other networks and their members never do so.
  • Some letter-writers  were involved in networks around mining specifically which encouraged the use of highly racialised and dismissive terminology which appears to have been ‘imported’ by miners from the USA in particular.

15. These are interesting findings in themselves, particularly when examined around letters with fascinating content which provide rich glimpses of lives and times gone by. But how do they enable changes over time to be investigated and written about? The short answer is that in themselves they are interesting and suggestive but no more than this, and that being able to speak confidently and authoritatively about such matters, rather than just about interesting specific details, requires a more systematic approach.

16. What is meant by this ‘more systematic approach’ is spelled out in more detail in the discussion on the page concerned with ‘What We Do’ and also in many WWW Blogs. But, succinctly, it involves looking in detail at every letter and any other documents in each of the archive collections that the ‘Whites Writing Whiteness’ project is investigating, to explore how whiteness and its ‘Others’ is depicted over the time-period and the letter-writers its contents over, and then making comparisons across the different collections.

17. This takes time and much activity, as well as being about time and activity! At regular intervals, project blogs provide an update for readers and visitors on things that have been done, fieldwork trips completed, findings made, problems and challenges faced, views and opinions about what we’ve been doing and thinking, and other things we think other people might find interesting. Please read on.

Last updated: 21 February 2017.


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