Centre and Periphery
Shils E., 'Centre and periphery', in The Logic of Personal Knowledge: Essays Presented to Michael
Polanyi, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961, pp. 117-30.
Society has a centre. There is a central zone in the structure of society. This central zone impinges in various ways on those who live within the ecological domain in which the society exists. Membership in the society, in more than the ecological sense of being located in a bounded territory and of adapting to an environment affected or made up by other persons located in the same territory, is constituted by relationship to this central zone.
The central zone is not, as such, a spatially located phenomenon. It almost always has
a more or less definite location within the bounded territory in which the society lives. Its centrality has, however, nothing to do with geometry and little with geography.
The centre, or the central zone, is a phenomenon of the realm of values and beliefs. It is the centre of the order of symbols, of values and beliefs, which govern the society. It is the centre because it is the ultimate and irreducible; and it is felt to be such by many who cannot give explicit articulation to its irreducibility. The central zone partakes of the nature of the sacred. In this sense, every society has an 'official' religion, even when that society or its exponents and interpreters, conceive of it, more or less correctly, as a secular, pluralistic and tolerant society. The principle of the Counter-Reformation: Cuius regio, ejus religio, although
its rigor has been loosened and its harshness mollified, retains a core of permanent truth.
The centre is also a phenomenon of the realm of action. It is a structure of activities, of roles and persons, within the network of institutions. It is in these roles that the values and beliefs which are central are embodied and propounded.
The larger society appears, on a cursory inspection and by the methods of inquiry in current use, to consist of a number of interdependent subsystems - the economy, the status system, the polity, the kinship system and the institutions which have in their special custody the cultivation of cultural values, e.g. the university system, the ecclesiastical system, etc. Each of these subsystems itself comprises a network of organization which are connected, with varying degrees of affirmation, through a common authority, overlapping personnel, personal relationships, contracts, perceived identities of interest, a sense of affinity within a transcendent whole and a territorial location possessing symbolic value. (These subsystems and their constituent bodies are not equally affirmative vis-a-vis each other. Moreover the
degree of affirmation varies through time, and is quite compatible with a certain measure of alienation within each elite and among the elites.)
Each of these organizations has an authority, an elite, which might be either a single individual or a group of individuals, loosely or closely organized. Each of these elites makes decisions, sometimes in consultation with other elites and sometimes, largely on its own initiative, with the intention of maintaining the organization, controlling the conduct of its members and fulfilling its goals. (These decisions are by no means always successful in the achievement of these ends, and the goals are seldom equally or fully shared by the elite and those whose actions are ordained by its decisions.)
The decisions made by the elites contain as major elements certain general standards of judgement and action, and certain concrete values, of which the system as a whole, the society, is one of the most preeminent. The values which are inherent in these standards, and which are espoused and more or less observed by those in authority, we shall call the central
value system of the society. This central value system is the central zone of the society. It is central because of its intimate connexion with what the society holds to be sacred; it is central because it is espoused by the ruling authorities of the society. These two kinds of centrality are vitally related. Each defines and supports the other.
The central value system is not the whole of the order of values and beliefs espoused and observed in the society. The value systems obtaining in any diversified society may be regarded as being distributed along a range. There are variants of the central value system running from hyper affirmation of some of the components of the major, central value system to an extreme denial of some of these major elements in the central value system; the latter tends to but is not inevitably associated with, an affirmation of certain elements denied or subordinated in the central value system. There are also elements of the order of values and beliefs which are as random with respect to the central value system as the value and beliefs of human beings can be.
The central value system is constituted by the values which are pursued and affirmed by the elites of the constituent subsystems and of the organizations which are comprised in the subsystems. By their very possession of authority, they attribute to themselves an essential affinity with the sacred elements of their society, of which they regard themselves as the custodians. By the same token, many members of their society attribute to them that same kind of affinity. The elites of the economy affirm and observe certain values which should govern economic activity. The elites of the polity affirm and observe certain values which should govern political activity. The elites of the university system and the ecclesiastical system affirm and practice certain values which should govern intellectual and religious activities (including beliefs). On the whole, these values are the values embedded in current
activity. The ideals which they affirm do not far transcend the reality which is ruled by those who espouse them. The values of the different elites are clustered into an approximately
1 consensual pattern.
One of the major elements in any central value system is an affirmative attitude towards established authority. This is present in the central value systems of all societies, however much these might differ from each other in their appreciation of authority. There is something like a 'floor', a minimum of appreciation of authority in every society, however liberal that society might be. Even the most libertarian and equalitarian societies that have ever existed possess at least this minimum appreciation of authority. Authority enjoys appreciation because it arouses sentiments of sacredness. Sacredness by its nature is authoritative. Those persons, offices or symbols endowed with it, however indirectly and remotely, are therewith endowed with some measure of authoritativeness.
The appreciation of authority entails the appreciation of the institutions through which authority works and the rules which it enunciates. The central value system in all societies asserts and recommends the appreciation of these authoritative institutions.
Implicitly, the central value system rotates on a centre more fundamental even than its espousal by and embodiment in authority. Authority is the agent of order, an order which
may be largely embodied in authority or which might transcend authority and regulate it, or at least provide a standard by which existing authority itself is judged and even claims to judge itself. This order, which is implicit in the central value system, and in the light of which the central value system legitimates itself, is endowed with dynamic potentialities. It contains, above all, the potentiality of critical judgement on the central value system and the central institutional system. The dynamic potentiality derives from the inevitable tendency of every concrete society to fall short of the order which is implicit in its central value system.
Closely connected with the appreciation of authority and the institutions in which it is exercised, is an appreciation of the qualities which qualify persons for the exercise of
authority or which are characteristic of those who exercise authority. These qualities, which we shall call secondary values, can be ethnic, educational, familial, economic, professional; they may be ascribed to individuals by virtue of their relationships or they may be acquired
1 The degree of consensuality differs among societies and times. There are societies in which the predominant elite demands a complete consensus with its own more specific values and beliefs. Such is the case in modern totalitarian societies. Absolutist r6gimes in past epochs, which were rather indifferent about whether the mass of the population was party to a consensus, were quite insistent on consensus among the elites of their society.
through study and experience. But whatever they are, they enjoy the appreciation of the central value system simply because of their connexion with the exercise of authority. (Despite their ultimately derivative nature, each of them is capable of possessing an autonomous status in the central zone, in the realm of the sacred; consequently, severe conflicts can be engendered.)
The central value system thus comprises secondary as well as primary values. It legitimates the existing distribution of roles and rewards to persons possessing the appropriate qualities which in various ways symbolize degrees of proximity to authority. It legitimates these distributions by praising the properties of those who occupy authoritative roles in the society, by stressing the legitimacy of their incumbency of those roles, and the appropriateness of the rewards they receive. By implication, and explicitly as well, it legitimates the smaller rewards received by those who live at various distances from the circles in which authority is exercised.
The central institutional system may thus be described as the set of institutions which is legitimated by the central value system. Less circularly, however, it may be described as those institutions which, through the radiation of their authority, give some form to the life of a considerable section of the population of the society. The economic, political, ecclesiastical and cultural institutions impinge compellingly at many points on the conduct of much of the population in any society through the actual exercise of authority and the potential exercise of coercion, through the provision of persuasive models of action, and through a partial control of the allocation of rewards. The kinship and family systems, although they have much smaller radii, are microcosms of the central institutional system, and do much to buttress its efficacy.
The existence of a central value system rests, in a fundamental way, on the need which human beings have for incorporation into something which transcends and transfigures their concrete individual existence. They have a need to be in contact with symbols of an order which is larger in its dimensions than their own bodies and more central in the 'ultimate' structure of reality than is their routine everyday life. Just as friendship exists because human beings must transcend their own selflimiting individuality in personal communion with another personality, so membership in a political society is a necessity of man's nature. There is need to belong to a polity just as there is a need for conviviality. Just as a person shrivels, contracts and corrupts when separated from all persons or from those persons who have entered into a formed and vital communion with him, so the man with political needs is
crippled and numbed by his isolation from a polity or by his membership in a political order which cannot claim his loyalty.
The need for personal communion is a common quality among human beings who have reached a certain level of individuation. Those who lack the need and the capacity impress us by their incompleteness. The political need is not so widely spread or highly developed in the mass of the population of any society as the need and capacity for conviviality. Those who lack it impress by their 'idiocy'. Those who possess it add the possibility of civility to the capacity for conviviality, which we think a fully developed human being must possess.
The political need is of course nurtured by tradition but it cannot be accounted for by the adduction of tradition. The political need is a capacity like certain kinds of imagination, reasoning, perceptiveness or sensitivity. It is neither instinctual nor learned. It is not simply the product of the displacement of personal affects on to public objects, although much political activity is impelled by such displacement. It is not learned by teaching or traditional transmission, though much political activity is guided by the reception of tradition. The pursuit of a political career and the performance of civil obligations gains much from the impulsion of tradition. None the less, tradition is not the seed of this inclination to attach oneself to a political order.
The political need, which may be designated as the need for civility, entails sensitivity to an order of being where 'creative power' has its seat. This creative centre which attracts the minds of those who are sensitive to it is manifested in authority operating over territory. Both authority and territory convey the idea of potency, of 'authorship', of the capacity to do vital things, of a connexion with events which are intrinsically important. Authority is thought, by those with the political or civil need, to possess this vital relationship to the centre from which a right order emanates. Those who are closely and positively connected with authority, through its exercise or through personal ties, are thought, in consequence of this connexion, to possess a vital relationship to the centre, the locus of the sacred, the order which confers legitimacy. Land - 'territoritiality' - has similar properties, and those who exercise authority through control of land have always been felt to enjoy a special status in relation to the core of the central value system. Those who live within given territorial boundaries come to share in these properties and thus become the objects of political sentiments. Residence within certain territorial boundaries, and rule by common authority are the properties which define citizenship and establish its obligations and claims.
It must be stressed that the political need is not by any means equally distributed in any society, even the most democratic. There are human beings whose sensitivity to the ultimate is meagre, although there is perhaps no human being from whom it is entirely absent. Nor does sensitivity to remote events which are expressive of the centre always focus on their manifestations in the polity.
Apolitical scientists who seek the laws of nature but are indifferent, except on grounds of prudence, to the laws of society are one instance of this uneven development of sensitivity to ultimate things. Religious persons who are attached to transcendent symbols without embodiment in civil polity or in ecclesiastical organization represent another variant. In addition to these, there are very many persons whose sensitivity is exhausted long before it reaches so far into the core of the central value system. Some have a need for such contact only in crises and on special periodic occasions, at the moment of birth or marriage or death, or on holidays. Like the intermittent, occasional and unintense religious sensibility, the political sensibility, too, can be intermittent and unintense. It might come into operation only on particular occasions, e.g. at election time, or in periods of severe economic deprivation or during a war or after a military defeat. Beyond this there are some persons who are never stirred, who have practically no sensibility as far as events of the political order are concerned.
Finally, there are persons, not many in any society but often of great importance, who have a very intense and active connexion with the centre, with the symbols of the central value system, but whose connexion is passionately negative. Equally important are those who have a positive but no less intense and active connexion with the symbols of the centre, a connexion so acute, so pure and vital that it cannot tolerate any falling short in daily observance such as characterizes the elites of the central institutional system. These are often the persons around whom a sharp opposition to the central value system and even more to the central institutional system is organized. From the ranks of these come prophets, revolutionaries, doctrinaire ideologists for whom nothing less than perfection is tolerable.
The need for established and created order, the respect for creativity and the need to be connected with the 'centre' do not exhaust the forces which engender central value systems. To fill out the list, we must consider the nature of authority itself. Authority has an expansive tendency. It has a tendency to expand the order which it represents towards the saturation of territorial space. The acceptance of the validity of that order entails a tendency towards its universalization within the society over which authority rules. Ruling indeed consists in the universalization within the boundaries of society, of the rules inherent in the order. Rulers, simply out of their possession of authority and the impulses which it generates, wish to be
obeyed and they wish to obtain assent to the order which they symbolically embody. The symbolization or order in offices of authority has a compelling effect on those to whom authority is directed; it has an even more compelling effect on those who occupy those offices.
In consequence of this, rulers seek to establish a universal diffusion of the acceptance and observance of the values and beliefs of which they are the custodians through incumbency in those offices. They use their powers to punish those who deviate and to reward with their favour those who conform. Thus, the mere existence of authority in society imposes
2 a central value system on that society.
Not all persons who come into positions of authority possess the same responsiveness to the inherently dynamic and expansive tendency in authority. Some are more attuned to it; others are more capable of resisting it. Tradition, furthermore, acts as a powerful brake upon expansiveness, as does the degree of differentiation of the structure of elites and of the society as a whole.
The central institutional system, probably even in revolutionary crises, is the object of a substantial amount of consensus. The central value system which legitimates the central institutional system is widely shared, but the consensus is never perfect. There are differences within even the most consensual society about the appreciability of authority, the institutions within which it resides, the elites which exercise it and the justice of its allocation of rewards.
Even those who share in the consensus, do so with different degrees of intensity, whole-heartedness and devotion. As we move from the centre of society, the centre in which authority is possessed, to the hinterland or the periphery, over which authority is exercised, attachment to the central value system becomes attenuated. The central institutional system is neither unitary nor homogeneous, and some levels have more majesty than others. The lower one goes in the hierarchy, or the further one moves territorially from the locus of authority, the less likely is the authority to be appreciated. Likewise, the further one moves from those possessing the secondary traits associated with the exercise of authority into sectors of the population which do not equally possess those qualities, the less affirmative is the attitude towards the reigning authority, and the less intense is that of affirmation which does exist.
2 I would regret an easy misunderstanding to which the sentences above might give rise. There is much empirical truth in the common observations that rulers 'look after their own', that they are only interested in remaining in authority, in reinforcing their possession of authority and in enhancing their security of tenure through the establishment of a consensus built around their own values and beliefs. None the less these observations seem to me to be too superficial. They fail to discern the dynamic property of authority as such, and particularly of authority over society.
Active rejection of the central value system is, of course, not the sole alternative to its affirmation. Much more widespread, in the course of history and in any particular society, is an intermittent, partial and attenuated affirmation in the central value system.
For the most part, the mass of the population in pre-modern societies has been far removed from the immediate impact of the central value system. It has possessed its own value systems which were occasionally and fragmentarily articulated with the central value
system. These pockets of approximate independence have not, however, been completely incompatible with isolated occasions of articulation and of intermittent affirmation. Nor have these intermittent occasions of participation been incompatible with occasions of active rejection and antagonism to the central institutional system, to the elite which sits at its centre, and to the central value system which that elite puts forward for its own legitimation.
The more territorially dispersed the institutional system, the less the likelihood of an intense affirmation of the central value system. The more inegalitarian the society, the less the likelihood of an intense affirmation of the central value system, especially where, as in most steeply hierarchical societies, there is a large and discontinuous gap between those at the top and those below them. Indeed, it might be said that the degree of affirmation inevitably shades off from the centre of the exercise of authority and of the promulgation of values.
As long as societies were loosely coordinated, as long as authority lacked the means of intensive control and as long as much of the economic life of the society was carried on outside any market or almost exclusively in local markets, the central value system invariably became attenuated in the outlying reaches. With the growth of the market, and the administrative and technological strengthening of authority, contact with the central value system increased.
When, as in modern society, a more unified economic system, political democracy, urbanization and education have brought the different sections of the population into more frequent contact with each other and created even greater mutual awareness, the central value system has found a wider acceptance than in other periods of the history of society. At the same time these changes have also increased the extent, if not the intensity, of active 'dissensus' or rejection of the central value system.
The same objects which previously engaged the attention and aroused the sentiments of a very restricted minority of the population have in modern societies become concerns of much broader strata of the population. At the same time that increased contact with authority has led to a generally deferential attitude, it has also run up against the tenacity of prior attachments and a reluctance to accept strange gods. Class conflict in the most advanced
modern societies is probably more open and more continuous than in pre-modern societies but
3it is also more domesticated and restricted by attachments to the central value system.
The old gods have fallen, religious faith has become much more attenuated in the educated classes and suspicion of authority is much more overt than it has ever been. None the less in the modern societies of the West, the central value system has gone much more deeply into the heart of their members than it has ever succeeded in doing in any earlier society. The 'masses' have responded to their contact with a striking measure of acceptance. The power of the ruling class derives from its incumbency of certain key positions in the central institutional system. Societies vary in the extent to which the ruling class is unitary or relatively segmental. Even where the ruling class is relatively segmental, there is, because of centralized control of appointment to the most crucial of the key positions or because of personal ties or because of overlapping personnel, some sense of affinity which, more or less, unites the different sectors of the elite.
This sense of affinity rests ultimately on the high degree of proximity to the centre which is shared by all these different sectors of the ruling class. They have, it is true, a common vested interest in their position. It is not, however, simply the product of a perception of a coalescent interest; it contains a substantial component of mutual regard arising from a feeling of a common relationship to the central value system.
The different sectors of the elite, even in a highly pluralistic society where the elite is relatively segmental in its structure, are never equal. One or two usually predominate, to varying degrees, over the others, even in situations where there is much mutual respect and a genuine sense of affinity. Regardless, however, of whether they are equal or unequal, unitary or segmental, there is usually a fairly large amount of consensus among the elites of the central institutional system. This consensus has its ultimate root in their common feeling for the transcendent order which they believe they embody or for which they think themselves.
3 Violent revolutions and bloody civil wars are much less characteristic of modern societies than of pre-modern societies. Revolutionary parties are feeble in modern societies which have moved towards widespread popular education, a greater equality of status, etc. The strength of revolutionary parties in France and Italy is a measure of the extent to which French and Italian societies have not become modernized. The inertness, from a revolutionary point of view, of their rank and file is partially indicative of the extent to which, despite their revolutionary affiliations, the working class has become assimilated into the central value system of their respective societies.
The mass of the population in all large societies stand at some distance from authority. This is true both with respect to the distribution of authority and the distribution of the secondary qualities associated with the exercise of authority.
The functional and symbolic necessities of authority require some degree of concentration. Even the most genuinely democratic society, above a certain very small size, requires some concentration of authority for the performance of elaborate tasks. It goes without saying that nondemocratic societies have a high concentration of authority. Furthermore, whether the society is democratic or oligarchical, the access to the key positions in the central institutional system tends to be confined to persons possessing a distinctive constellation of properties, such as age, educational, ethnic, regional and class provenance, etc.
The section of the population which does not share in the exercise of authority and which is differentiated in secondary properties from the exercisers of authority, is usually more intermittent in its 'possession' by the central value system. For one thing, the distribution of sensitivity to remote, central symbols is unequal, and there is a greater concentration of such sensitivity in the elites of the central institutional system. Furthermore, where there is a more marginal participation in the central institutional system, attachment to the central value system is more attenuated. Where the central institutional system becomes more comprehensive and inclusive so that a larger proportion of the life of the population comes within its scope, the tension between the centre and the periphery, as well as the consensus, tends to increase,
The mass of the population in most pre-modern and non-Western societies have in a sense lived outside society and have not felt their remoteness from the centre to be a perpetual injury to themselves. Their low position in the hierarchy of authority has been injurious to them, and the consequent alienation has been accentuated by their remoteness from the central value system. The alienation has not however been active or intense, because, for the most part, their convivial, spiritual and moral centre of gravity has lain closer to their own round of life. They have been far from full-fledged members of their societies and they have very seldom been citizens.
Among the most intensely sensitive or the more alertly intelligent, their distance from the centre accompanied by their greater concern with the centre, has led to an acute sense of being on 'the outside', to a painful feeling of being excluded from the vital zone which surrounds 'the centre' of society (which is the vehicle of 'the centre of the universe'). Alternatively these more sensitive and more intelligent persons have, as a result of their distinctiveness, often gained access to some layer of the centre by becoming school-teachers,