The Parochial Polis. Localism and the Ancient Greek City-State
Responsible Researcher: Hans Beck, in cooperation with Peter Funke from WWU Münster.
Upcoming Research Event: Localism in the Hellenistic World (Waterloo Institute for Hellenistic Studies, April 26-28, 2018)
The local is a courted space. Communal activist groups call for local consumer behavior rather than the long-distance shipment of agricultural produce. Radio stations promise their listeners local news that "really matters" to them. Local congregations of faith mushroom in a spirit of neighbourly care. Global organizations attempt to jump on the bandwagon. Investment companies decoy clients with reference to their local knowledge and expertise in local trade conditions; one giant institution labels itself as "the world's local bank". In business administration and politics, the call for front-line responsibility and sustainability is a standard response to the challenges of the day. The European Union recently advertised the rally for a "local democracy week" to raise awareness of how local authorities operate, and inform citizens of the opportunities available for taking part in decision-making at the local level.
Advocacy for the local is a response to global change. As a transhistorical phenomenon, the local brings order to the reassessment of changing circumstances in the world. It offers a meaningful frame of reference, allowing members in society to pursue their aspirations within a manageable realm. Along the way, it provides people with a robust set of convictions, beliefs, and patterns of reasoning. The local is more than a firm footing from which to struggle forward and tackle the challenge of global change. It is the glue that binds people together in the comfortable familiarity of established everyday practices. The study of the local, in relation to a world that grows larger and faster, is a scholarly endeavour with self-evident contemporary resonance.
Theorizing the local. The local is usually referenced as a descriptive category, referring to, for instance, local traditions and tastes, the study of local elites, or the writing of local history. But the local is also an ontological force that impacts humans in their everyday exchanges. This discursive quality of the local to imprint on society is largely underresearched. Conceptual debates, which have added so much to the understanding of related notions such as ethnic or national identities, are just about to emerge.
The study of localism calls for the exploration of all forms, features, and facets of the local. It has been pointed out by scholars that the opposition of the local and the global presents a difficult binary because each thoroughly infiltrates the other; both categories are intertwined. Also, the relation between the local and the global is never static but exposed to adaptation and change. This is how, and why, the terms 'glocal' and 'glocalization' have entered the debate. According to a prominent cycle of cross-fertilization between the local and the global, globalization triggers an increasing sense of disconnect from the local, or delocalization. This fuels a new need of locality. In its most immediate variant, this need leads to the rise of a new localism which, in turn, challenges the basic tenets of globalization.
All the while, the local comprises distinct parameters that allow for a meaningful analysis. In this approach, the local has a twofold meaning. The local is both a physical and a metaphorical realm. As actual place, the local is the manageable, accessible space which individuals experience as they navigate through their everyday lives. It is a locale. The next physical realm beyond the local is the regional. This meaning of the term is close to the concept of neighbourhood, a place in which social relations are realized. As a metaphorical place, the local is a relational or contextual category. It becomes a point of reference for those who share a joint locality. In their conversations about cultural practices and social meaning, they constitute a series of links to their locality; the local is invoked as a figure that binds them together in their imagined community. Locality, beyond its everyday meaning of having a location, denotes the long-standing patterns that emerge from the association with the local. The term subsumes all expressions of local culture, knowledge production, and communal conviction, each one in relation to the local horizon that inspires them. Localism is the mindset that prioritizes the sum of these expressions from within over alternative and competing sources of social meaning from outside the community.
Global change in the ancient Greek world. Ancient Greece was a world of accelerated change. From the Great Colonization through the Classical Period to the Hellenistic Age, the Greeks experienced the sensation of expansion. In a nutshell, from the 8th century BCE the Greek world grew larger and larger. As their world expanded, communication within this world intensified. Growing networks of exchange facilitated new modes of connectivity. Almost every generation saw people, goods, and ideas travel further, faster. New arteries of traffic once again increased communication, making everything closer. As their mental map of the world widened, Greek polis societies also grew closer in cultural, political, economic, and religious terms.
Local response to connectivity and change. It is fashionable to study the modes of interconnectivity in the ancient Greek world. Recent interest in network theories, fueled by social media communication on the internet, adds much to this approach. The research project The Parochial Polis turns to the flip side of hyper-connectivity. How did polis societies respond to the changes in the world around them? It appears that in their assessment of the world, polis societies were largely autoreferential and sociocentric: autoreferential because their traditions clustered around themselves, with the citizens and their forefathers being the exclusive subject of their worldview; and sociocentric because their views relied on readings that were innately inward-looking, conceived of, and sanctioned by, the predominant understanding of the community itself.
Starting with Hesiod and Phokylides, there were many voices that resented the 'glamour of globalization'. The local was paramount to them. But how did they ground their claims? And how much did the inhabitants of an average Central Greek or Peloponnesian city actually know about the world around them? More importantly, how much did this knowledge matter in their everyday lives? The issue of the dissemination of news illustrates the force of the local. Whatever news arrived in their polis was appropriated by the community of citizens and translated into their local discourse. In order to be communicable, the knowledge from connectivity and exchange was fused with local patterns of reasoning. The study of localism is thus not simply an exercise in local history. The Parochial Polis breaks into the communicative realm of societies that were much less worldly than the study of transregional networks and exchange suggests.
The idea of localism expresses itself in the full breadth of the human experience. Reference to the local is ubiquitous, but the concept has only rarely been theorized. It is both a real and an imagined space filled with social meaning. The local overlaps at times with notions of ethnic identity and belief, but it is by no means tied to them; and it impacts society in a much broader sense. The small scale polis settlements in Classical Greece, for instance, were prone to a peculiar form of localism, or parochialism. Their inhabitants prided themselves, for instance, in local distinctions (arts, crafts, culture, success in non-violent competition), and they valued their crops; they treasured their diets and cuisines. And they cherished customary forms of behavior as expressed in clothing, hair styles, dances, and music, all of which are considered proper only if in accordance with society’s prevailing tastes and traditions - its "regime of truth", in Foucault's terms. From there, it was only a small step to their understanding of history and politics, both of which were locally encoded, reinforcing the ties between the people and the land. The Parochial Polis calls for a local turn. It explores the force of localism in an extensive sense. The project draws on the methodologies and discoveries from various disciplines, including Classics, Historical Studies, Archaeology, Anthropology, Sociology, and Neuroscience.
“About meals among the Thebans, Kleitarchos ... says that they were stingy and greedy when it came to food, cooking for their meals stuffed fig leaves, gobies, anchovies, sausages, beef ribs, and bean soup.” (Athenaios, Deipnosophistai 148d)
Several research operations are currently under way. The various modes of the delivery of results include a monograph on Localism and the Ancient Greek City-State as well as other published formats (edited volumes, articles). In 2016, two focused case-study workshops were held: Megarian Moments. The Local World of an Ancient Greek City-State (proceedings will be published in Teiresias Supplements Online) and Taras: Greek Localism Overseas. In 2017, a graduate student workshop took place in March (Beyond the Binary. Rethinking the Local and the Global in the Ancient World) and an international symposium on The Dancing Floor of Ares. Local Conflict and Regional Violence in Central Greece in November. For 2018, an international conference on 'Localism in the Hellenistic World' (Waterloo Institute for Hellenistic Studies, April 26-28) and another one on 'Local Horizons of Ancient Greek Religion' (University of Sydney, November 21-22) are currently in planning.
There is also a growing number of graduate student projects that contribute to the program. See below for a list of student projects at McGill that are a part of the research network.
Associated graduate student research projects:
Alex McAuley, Basking in the Shadow of Kings: Local Culture in the Hellenistic Greek Mainland (PhD thesis, completed)
Alexandra Bilhete, Beyond Sparta. In Quest for the Local in Laconia (MA thesis, completed)
Vincent Pichelli, The Rise of the Local in Dark Age Greece. The Case of Nichoria (MA thesis, completed)
Emilie Lucas, The Local Women of Archaic Greece (MA thesis, completed)
Wentian Fu, Globalization in the Ancient Worlds of Rome and China (PhD thesis, under way)
Chandra Giroux, Plutarch's Chaironeia. The Local Horizon of World Empire (PhD thesis, under way)
Salvatore Tufano, Between Local and Regional History: the Boiotian Historiographers (postdoc, under way)