| Social-Scientific Criticism
criticism is an exegetical method which attempts to explore the
original social and cultural setting of a text through clues in
the textís content and rhetoric and through the analysis of other
ancient evidence. The critic assumes that the world
in which these texts were written is very different from our contemporary
world; therefore, a modern interpreter cannot simply make claims
about the textís meaning without first understanding the social
conventions and assumptions of the authorís world. Emphasis
in this method is less on the individual author, as it would be
Criticism, and more on the social community within which
s/he lived and communicated, because meaning is understood as
a socially-constructed phenomenon.
examine a text as a social-scientific critic would, first assume
the posture of a "respectful traveler" visiting a foreign
country. Accept that the customs and social organization
of the text you are visiting are foreign; prepare yourself to
suspend judgment until you have observed the new phenomenon and
tried to understand it in its own social context.
choose an institution in which you are interested (family/kinship,
economics, politics, religion) and read some social scientific
analysis of how such institutions were constructed in antiquity.
Social-scientific critics build models of the dynamics of such
institutions. Choose such a model, and then apply it
to your text.
alternative approach would be to choose a social dynamic rather
than an institution, and examine its relevance for your text. Some
such dynamics are offered below.
- Honor and Shame
- Honor is a claim to worth that is socially
acknowledged. It is gained or lost in the social struggle
for power, in the exercise of gender roles and relations,
and in the relationship between oneís god(s) and oneself.
Honor can either be ascribed to a person if they had nothing
to do with its acquisition (being born into a good family,
for example) or it can be acquired by a person during
their life. For men in antiquity, honor was usually acquired
through regular occasions of social challenge and successful
defense (someone makes a false charge against you and
loses; you gain honor, and the other person loses it).
For women in antiquity, honor was gained by the successful
completion of oneís matrimonial obligation - the birth
of a male heir.
- Men and women are usually defined in opposite terms on
the honor/shame axis. For men, honor is asserted in the
public sphere. For women, honor is preserved in the private
sphere; that is, women are to be kept at home, and their
bodies are to be reserved for the exclusive use of their
husbands. For women, forays into the public sphere are
regulated through the restriction of clothing and behavior.
If a woman is "shamed" (through rape, for example),
ancient cultures generally considered her husband or father
to be the true victim.
- Group Identity vs. Individual Identity
- Ancient peoples did not equate individual identity
with adulthood, as we moderns living in the U.S. do. Their
honor and self-identity was bound up quite consciously
in the opinion others had of them, and in the social groups
to which they were party. Since there was less emphasis
on the individual, there was less emphasis on oneís psychology
and personal development. Instead, people defined themselves
by the groups in which they were embedded, or to which
they belonged. Whatever characteristics were associated
with your group(s), they were also assigned to you as
part of that group - automatically.
- The importance of group identity helps to explain why
honor was as much collective as individual. Social groups
and whole nations vied for honor. They would do this by
asserting the antiquity of their origins, defending themselves
against the slurs of others, reconstituting themselves
as a purified people, and discerning the hand of God in
- Social Status and the Limited Good
- In antiquity, social status was determined
by where one fell on the social hierarchy. The ruler was
on top, followed by the retainer class (scribes, soldiers),
the priests and the merchants. Together, these groups
represented only about 2-5 % of the population. The other
95-98% were artisans, peasants and marginal people (slaves,
prostitutes, beggars, cripples). Literacy was limited
to the top levels (scribes, priests, ruler), as was most
of the wealth. In order to preserve their status, rulers
would naturally consider themselves responsible for the
populace in times of crisis; it was common, for example,
for rulers to distribute bread and to hear the cases of
the destitute who had no other legal recourse. Such magnanimity
ingratiated the wealthy to their local subordinates and
kept potential social tensions to a minimum. There was
a whole web of such social interrelations between relatively
wealthy benefactors and their social clients.
- In contrast to the modern American myth, it was not assumed
in antiquity that you could rise from rags to riches very
easily. If you did manage to improve your status, it was
usually at the expense of someone else. This was because
commodities and honor itself were limited in antiquity;
and when the goods are finite, someone is bound to lose
when you gain. People as a result generally sought to
maintain their status rather than to gain or lose.
- Purity and Pollution
- Just as society was structured rather rigidly,
reality was also imagined to have a particular arrangement
or order. When that order was compromised, when matter
was dislodged from its proper place, the result was "impurity"
or pollution. Ancients devised ways to restore order after
such pollution, through purification rituals, validation
of authentic genealogical lines, scrutiny of sacred texts
to determine the proper order anew. Consider modern social
analogues: purification after a period of illness, blood
tests to determine paternity, examination of our foundational
political documents to discern future courses of legal
action. We are still today concerned with order and the
maintenance of proper social boundaries.
- In antiquity, pollution could be contracted from exposure
to disease or a diseased person and from occasions of
natural bodily emissions; one could become defiled by
sin and by the sin of others; one could pollute oneself
and the nation by marriage to a foreigner or by exile
in a foreign land; the temple could become unclean if
a statue of a foreign god was put within its walls. Notice
that the boundaries being violated can be either bodily
(disease, emission), social (marriage), or geographical
(exile, the temple as the preeminent sacred space).
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