Will descending from Welsh Sheep Farmers prevent you collaborating?

Back in the mid 1800’s a group of Welsh emigrants were being rescued from an island where they been shipwrecked.  Before they left, they modestly showed their rescuers what they had achieved during their years of isolation. “These are our houses, this is the school, this is the reading room, this is the rugby field, and these are the two chapels”. “Why two chapels?” asks a rescuer.  The reply, “Oh, that’s the one we don’t go to…….”.

We have a long history of not getting along with our neighbours in Wales, but maybe we aren’t that different to lots of peoples who have descended from animal herders (sheep farmers). That’s the theory offered by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers in the chapter on Harlan County, Kentucky.

The theory is that cultures that have developed around animal farming on marginal land (eg upland sheep farmers) are inherently more confrontational than those where there has been a strong requirement to collaborate (lowland arable farmers). If you are a shepherd looking after a flock of sheep you constantly need to be on your guard against predators, of the animal or most commonly the human variety. Preventing people stealing your sheep requires some demonstration of your physical prowess and a evidence you will take action to prevent your flock being pilfered. This has led to a ‘culture of honor’ (prevalent in the Southern United States) as Gladwell describes it, or ‘getting a bit chesty’ as we like to say in South Wales.

Gladwell illustrates how this has been carried forward into the modern age and across continents by using the example of the violent family feuds that took place in Harlan County in the early 19th century. He argues that the roots of this ‘honor code’ behaviour can be traced back many generations to the culture of the herdsmen who farmed the marginal uplands.  Many of these people emigrated to America and ended up in the rural areas of the Appalachians and places like Harlan County. He identifies the North of England and Scotland as the areas where these people originally came from, but there’s probably just as much as a case to be made for Welsh immigrants.

It’s an interesting theory that has been backed up by some research done at the University of Michigan, where certain groups of people (young men from the Southern States) were far more likely to ‘get a bit chesty’ if you insulted their honor. Have a look at the work of psychologists Cohen and Nisbett for more detail (Nisbett, R.E., & Cohen, D. (1996). Culture of honor: The psychology of violence in the South).

With the current emphasis upon collaboration between public services in Wales I wonder if we need to think about where our ancestors came from before we start? If they were (or still are) sheep farmers from the uplands are we starting at a disadvantage, particularly if we insult someone’s honor? This will be an interesting one to observe at the next committee meeting on collaboration………, ‘who gets a bit chesty’ and why?

The other great joy of reading Malcolm Gladwells book was that he does describe Harlan County in detail. Harlan interests me a lot as it seems very familiar. Not only is it the setting for Justified (a brilliant bit of TV based on books by a favourite author Elmore Leonard), they also have a strong coal mining tradition. As if it couldn’t get better, Steve Earle (another favourite) has even sung about the place, Harlan Man. Harlan might be in Kentucky but for me there are many similarities with bits of South Wales; feuding, coal mining, the general struggle to prosper and ‘getting chesty’. Maybe it is all to do with some common ancestry and descending from the same bunch of sheep farmers and miners?

So, what’s the PONT?

  1. Our ancestors might have more of an influence upon our behaviours than we realise (have a read of Outliers).
  2. Collaboration may not be the default position for some people; it depends upon where they come from.
  3. At your next collaboration committee meeting, avoid insulting someone’s honor if you don’t want them getting all ‘chesty’ with you.

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here: https://whatsthepont.com/churchill-fellowship/

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