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Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33.1 (2002) 113-114

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British Clubs and Societies 1580-1800:
The Origins of an Associational World

British Clubs and Societies 1580-1800: The Origins of an Associational World. By Peter Clark (New York, Oxford University Press, 2000) 516 pp. $48.00

According to current apprehensive observations, Americans are now bowling alone—that is, Americans are ceasing to create the voluntary associations that constitute civil society. Perhaps it is because the continued vitality of England's associational life distinguishes the English from Americans, and because the extent to which associational life is ingrained in their society distinguishes the English from other members of the European Economic Community, that Clark's British Clubs and Societies focuses on the ecology of voluntary associations—on the environmental conditions and organizational structures that enabled these associations to appear and then flourish.

As an ecological study, Clubs and Societies pays close attention to the places in which clubs appear. Indeed, Clark tests every generalization about these clubs for variation not only among England's regions but also in Scotland, Ireland, and Britain's eighteenth-century empire. Similarly, Clubs and Societies presents a chronology of most of the phenomena that it examines. As a result, this book rests on an amazingly wide-ranging investigation of sources, and not only of printed sources—of newspapers, pamphlets, county histories, and sermons—but also of manuscript diaries, letters, and submissions to the central government. Clark establishes that these associations were mostly urban phenomena, and that, while the first association—the Society of Antiquaries— appeared in 1586, associations did not flourish until after the civil war. After the glorious revolution, they multiplied exponentially. By 1800, Clark estimates, one in three of the adult male residents of England's towns was a member of a club or society.

Clark therefore emphasizes these associations' function in an urban environment: They integrated visiting landowners into urban society; they enabled urban residents to construct the networks essential to establishing their trade; and they assimilated newcomers, both youths and immigrants, to adult urban society. Although many clubs and societies proclaimed themselves to be dedicated to philanthropy or to social improvement, Clark does not believe that they appreciably altered the conditions that they sought to alleviate. Nonetheless, he concludes that all associations effected political development through the organizational experience that they provided to their members. As their members belonged [End Page 113] to all strata of urban society except the lowest—even urban benefit clubs excluded laborers—these associations must have had a marked influence on the interaction of urban English men.

Clark distinguishes between what he terms "old-style" socializing, centered on feasts, and "new-style" socializing, characterized by new occasions for assembly, such as concerts, as well as clubs. Nonetheless, he does not make use of concepts developed by the social sciences either to delineate distinctions among different forms of social interaction or to portray the ways in which these clubs and societies affected the behavior of their members. This research strategy may explain why Clubs and Societies contains relatively little consideration of such matters. As a result, this book impels the reader to wonder about the ways in which this new associational world affected its inhabitants.


Norma Landau
University of California, Davis



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