2BA Group B Seminar: Predestined to hard work? Boer Farmers, Calvinist Work ethic and South African Development.

Image is open source from wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Daniell_Trekboer.jpg

It shows an 1804 painting representing the original community of semi-nomadic Dutch settlers in South Africa, who later became the Boer farming class who form the subject matter of the reading.

Today’s topic takes us off to South Africa, but in fact the subject matter remains rather general: to what extent can we generalize about a given culture to the extent that we can predict how they will behave, and how socially and economically they may evolve? Do cultural explanations work well or even at all?

In fact the actual question is : “why, compared to European Calvinism as discussed by Max Weber, did Afrikaner Calvinism have a different impact on economic action in South Africa?”

As usual you need to read the piece quite closely to answer the question, and note the question is WHY and not a description merely of HOW Calvinism had a different impact in the South African setting.

First up, one needs to be clear what the impact of Calvinism actually was in South Africa: it played a role as a hostile conservative force against the development of a pre-modern colony and later a series of colonial states, and hostile to mining and industrial activity. The puzzle for the author is that Calvinism in Europe is associated with developing industries, trade and commerce. According to Stokes, it then had the opposite effect in South Africa.

Note, this argument is interesting and works insofar as one is prepared to believe him and Max Weber that Calvinism really was supportive of industrial capitalist development in Europe, and one could actually quibble with that given that forms of capitalism may have developed well before the Calvinist epoch. However, the essay title does NOT ask you to challenge the assumption that Calvinism had a supporting role in furthering modern Capitalism is Europe.

In this regard why did Webber think Calvinism support a strong work ethic? How important was the idea of earthly duty and calling?

What does Stokes mean when he says Webber’s account of Calvinism shows to us that the understanding of any religious culture should be cultural rather than literal and that we should focus on ‘the meaning of religion as it emerges in daily action’?

What does Stokes  mean by ‘operant religion’ and how is it different from a theological or simple historical understanding of a given religious culture?

How did the Great Trek (1835-40) embody the values of the traditional ‘good life’ of the Boers?

How did the Boers engage with the mining and diamond boom that emerged in the late 1800s? And to what extent did the Boers remain overwhelming rural?

How important was the myth of the Boers as God’s Chosen People is explaining divergence between the impact of Calvinism in Europe and South Africa…what impact did it have on the Boers? Was it possible in a European context to sustain a myth of sharp differences-a chosen people, and if not what impact did this have on European Calvinist viz their personal economic standing?

How did the belief in sanctification further a thorough going conservatism? To what extent then were Boers acting out a religious way of life rather than living their lives in accordance with their religion?

Why did the rural agrarian nature of Boer Calvinism lead to sharp differences from the Urban basis of European Calvinism?

Moreover, how did the Boer’s view the concept of a ‘calling’?

For this essay notice that there is a tension between describing how Stokes lists examples of where and how Afrikaner Calvinism led to different social and economic outcomes from those in Europe, and tracing the logic of his argument as to why these changes emerged. To what extent is much of the argument here a type of reductionist socio-psychological account? Is this alone really adequate to explain social outcomes? Also note how much of the detailed argumentation depends on the account of ‘sanctification’. Yet might this word actually be describing a community mentality which was as much a product of local environmental factors-notably the siege like conditions the Boers lived under surrounded by enemies? In other words, by stressing the importance of context in understanding the cultural impact of religious belief systems might Stokes actually be suggesting that religious ideas and doctrines by themselves have little explanatory power, bur rather the true locus of explanation lies in local and historical contingencies?



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