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'All the common rules of social life' : the reconstruction of social and political identities by the Dorset Gentry, c.1790-c.1834

By Michael John Flame


This case-history explores the governing purposes of the Dorset gentry from the\ud early 1790's until the mid 1830's. It is not a conventional political and\ud administrative history. It seeks rather to reveal the gentry's governing purposes\ud through the processes and contexts of their construction of social and political\ud identities. It takes as its starting point the idea of the materiality of language itself\ud The idea that language does not reflect or refer to a pre-existing anterior reality but\ud creates meaning by distinguishing explicitly or implicitly what something is from\ud what it is not. This case-history explores the gentry's construction of the terms of an\ud overarching discourse I have called the 'common rules of social life'. In particular\ud the evolving narrative terms of patriarchal oeconomy, political economy and\ud paternalism. It does so to answer the question: 'By what means and for what\ud purposes did this form of discourse and its narrative traditions become established\ud by the gentry to prevail at this time in the past? ' The answers are found in the ways\ud and the contexts in which the gentry used this discourse.\ud First, how did the gentry exercise their power so that this discourse might come\ud into being. Here the structures and institutions of the Commission of the Peace are\ud significant. In particular the ways in which power was monopolised and used by a\ud small fraction of active magistrates. This fraction was active in the committees of\ud the Commission of the Peace and at quarter and petty sessions. Their power came to\ud be deployed to reform county government and poor relief to impose 'natural' moral\ud market relations on Dorset society.\ud Second, how was the discourse and its constituent elements exercised by the gentry\ud to constitute identities, and how did they determine how people thought and acted?\ud Here the case-history reveals the gentry's construction of identities for Dorset, the\ud parish and the poor. In particular the construction of an identity of Dorset as an\ud arena of natural economic laws and moral endeavour. These identities were taught\ud to rich and poor alike as part of the gentry's purpose to remoralise Dorset society

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