INTERVIEW: Turkey’s People’s Houses expose the challenge of state social engineering

INTERVIEW: Turkey’s People’s Houses expose the challenge of state social engineering

William Armstrong -
INTERVIEW: Turkey’s People’s Houses expose the challenge of state social engineering

The People's Houses taught locals music, sports, cinema and theater.

A persistent feature of Turkish political life is the idea that those in control of the state have both the right and the ability to shape society however they wish. In a 1985 book, academic Metin Heper described this as part of Turkey’s overwhelming “state tradition,” in which civil society organizations and economic actors without roots in state-led structures have typically been weak and passive players. 

This dynamic can be traced back to the Ottoman era. The Turkish Republic inherited a strong bureaucratic state from the empire and used it to push through sweeping reforms to try to standardize Turkey’s diverse masses according to a singular ideal. Central to this campaign were the People’s Houses, established to propagate the Kemalist reforms in towns across Turkey. First opened in 1932, they were closed two decades later, after the zeal of the early Kemalist republic started to wane following the beginning of multi-party elections in 1950.

A new book (reviewed here) by Alexandros Lamprou, who teaches in the Faculty of Humanities at Ankara University, looks at the People’s Houses to explore the limits of state social engineering in Turkey. The People’s Houses were set up in 1932 to spread the official ideology of Turkish nationalism and Westernization through novelties like sports, cinema, theater, concerts, and dance parties. The classic idea of the People’s Houses is that they were homogenous impositions transferring Kemalist reforms in a uniform manner, but “Nation-Building in Modern Turkey: The People’s Houses, the State and the Citizen” shows how reality on the ground was far more complex. 

Lamprou spoke to the Hürriyet Daily News about his book, which is full of lessons for today’s Turkey.

Give us a brief outline of the role that the People’s Houses played in the early Turkish Republic’s reform project. What was the single-party regime trying to achieve through them?

Actually the People’s Houses were a continuation of something that previously existed, the Turkish Hearths. At the beginning of the 1930s there was a change in the regime, following the experiment of the Free Republican Party [Serbest Cumhuriyet Fırkası]. Atatürk had tried to establish a loyal opposition but it didn’t work, and after 1930-31 there was a change towards more authoritative measures. This led to a more concerted effort to pass the republic’s reforms to the people. The People’s Houses, established in 1932, were one of the main means to do this. There were similar institutions in other countries at the same time - in Italy, Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, etc.

One difference was that the People’s Houses were not directly linked to a state institution. They were controlled and owned by the Republican People’s Party [CHP], the single party of the period. All others were directly controlled by state ministries, especially the Ministry of Education. For example, the Village Institutes and the Physical Training Directorate in Turkey were directly linked to ministries. 

And they were closed down in 1951, soon after the first open multi-party election.

They were closed down in 1951, together with the Village Institutes, after the CHP was replaced in the 1950 election. The property of the People’s Houses was confiscated and used for other purposes. It was an institution funded for 18 years by state funds but was owned by a private entity, the CHP. So the idea was that all funding should get back to the state. Many of the People’s Houses’ libraries, for example, became local municipal libraries in many places. 

INTERVIEW: Turkey’s People’s Houses expose the challenge of state social engineering
Alexandros Lamprou

You describe in the book how the singular ideal of the People’s Houses did not conform to reality on the ground across Turkey. Could you elaborate? 

Until now, or until 10 years ago, the People’s Houses were depicted as a singular institution, whose branches were created and functioned exactly the same way across Turkey - from Istanbul to the Kurdish-populated east of the country. But of course, practically this was not possible. 

This singular idea of the People’s House prevailed because most of the research was based on sources that depicted the state’s ideal about the Houses - that they worked the same everywhere. What I and other scholars have done over the last 10-15 years is look at the reforms as a process from below, from the bottom up, from local societies, from various provincial towns. The process is quite different if you look at it from below. In the provinces you have local dynamics, various populations who have migrated from different places - perhaps from the Balkans or the Caucasus - who speak different languages and have different cultural identities. In the southeast, of course, there are many people speaking Arabic and Kurdish.

In this landscape the state tried to create a homogenous society, through institutions like the People’s Houses. But the reality of the situation on the ground changed how these projects operated. There was a huge difference between the ideal and the reality. The reality changed the state’s project in a number of ways.

Also, the capacity of the state to carry out its wishes was also fairly limited at the time. It’s not like we’re talking about a highly developed industrial state. The effectiveness of the center in urban centers like Adana, Istanbul or Ankara, where the state had large presence and where a higher proportion of the population was literate, was very different from its effectiveness in more remote places. This difference was immediately obvious in the output of projects like the People’s Houses.

What sources did you use to research the book? 

The work was mainly based on the archives of the CHP, which can be found in the Turkish State Archives in Ankara. This part of the State Archives opened up in the late 1990s and early 2000s.  These archives contain the correspondence between People’s Houses in the provinces and the center, Ankara, which was trying to direct them. The emergence of these sources allowed new perspectives on the People’s Houses. Scholars who worked on the subject before did not have access to them; their research was limited to state publications or bureaucrats’ memoirs. 

In what specific ways did locals participate in changing the activities of the People’s Houses? Could you give a few examples of how this happened on the ground? 

There were also a lot of new habits or activities that the People’s Houses were trying to introduce, which local people did not accept. Locals would alter these novelties, without explicitly negating the reforms. This is particularly clear regarding the presence of women in the public space, which the Houses aimed to increase. For example, amateur theaters were supported by the People’s Houses and local women were expected to act in front of the public. But this was not seen as “proper” in most places in Turkey at the time. So many locals who worked at the People’s Houses simply limited the number of people who could enter to watch theater performances. They essentially created a kind of private space of local elites that could not be entered by local people, and in this way safeguarded the “honor” or “proper behavior” of their women. In addition, men would occasionally dress up to play women’s roles in the theaters, even though this was forbidden by the party. 

The People’s Houses administrators also tried to make women take part in balls where they would dance. But this was also not appreciated by many locals, who disapproved of women and men dancing together in public and found ways to get around it.

But we cannot argue that all such practices were conscious acts of resistance to state policies. The People’s Houses operated in local societies and were directed by local branches of the CHP. These local party branches were manned and controlled by local elites, in combination with bureaucrats and civil servants who were sent to the provinces from the center. So the People’s Houses were enmeshed within the local politics of various places. Local elites competed for senior positions within the Houses, just as they competed for positions in other local power structures like municipalities. 

Was there any reaction from the regime to innovations in the application of the People’s Houses? Did state inspectors from Ankara respond negatively? Or did they just not notice?

Of course they noticed. In the beginning they would send communiques to People’s Houses heads reminding them that they must work according to the ideals of the project. For example, the center immediately sensed the innovations in the case of the theaters. But its response was necessarily limited. What could it do in practice? 

The fundamental limit of social engineering projects seems to be one of the broader lessons we can draw from the book. That lesson can be applied to a broader context than that of the early Turkish Republic. 

There were similar institutions in Greece at the same time, from which we can draw similar conclusions. From 1937 to 1941 a youth organization was established by the dictator at the time, General Ioannis Metaxas. This institution also demonstrated the limits of the state in propagating reforms exactly how it wants in the periphery and the center. Similar to the People’s Housses in Turkey, the way people participated in the activities of this youth organization in Greece actually subverted the idea and aims of the project. 

The broader lesson is that in places where the state has limited capacity, the effect of social engineering projects is also limited. Their success is commensurate to the state’s infrastructural ability to impose its aims, and both in Greece and Turkey they were limited in the 1930s. 

Hürriyet Daily News readers can order this book from for the special offer price of £20. To claim the discount, enter the code NATIONBUILDING at the checkout stage. Offer valid till June 28, 2015. Customers are responsible for clearing all local import taxes and duties on all orders.