Chapter 1 (pt.2)


The Units of Social Organization. The key to my presentation of the empirical data with which we shall be dealing is a conception of the units of social organization. By and large, the argument that the choice of units is arbitrary may be tenable on abstract grounds. I of course think that my choice is best. The reader will form his own opinion of the adequacy of its usage. The basic units treated I have called corporations, relations, culture and social individual. All of these units I consider sociological, indeed all macro-sociological. None are psychological, none are concerned with the minutiae of particular interactions, none can be reduced to instincts and none can be done without. I do not think it is possible to derive any of the units from the others; corporations are not the sum of relations, for example. Certainly the four are interrelated and they vary in common response to external factors; this does not mean that they are identical.

By corporations I refer to ongoing, constituted social groups. How long they must go on is indeterminate; they must be treated as existing in their own right, external to any partial membership. In general, they will be seen to outlast their members but this is not a defining criterion. In referring to corporations as necessarily 'constituted' I define them as having explicit self-identification. They will thus be recognized as such by their members. I do not define either the function or agency of leadership into the concept of corporation (as does Weber). This would in particular be misleading with regard to the patrilineages which are the whole of Tale corporate structure. As will be discussed in the second chapter, I regard a static viewpoint as essential to social action in relation to corporations, and to analysis of corporations. This justifies, one one dimension, referring to a population's corporate structure. The extent of such structure is furthered by the interrelationship, and still further the stability of interrelationship among corporations.

Corporations, it will be seen, are not simply populations, they are not defined as categories of any sort. They either take action as wholes, as units, or others take action with reference to them as units. They clearly cannot be defined by such criteria as the frequency of in-group/out-group association (cf. Blau, 1974). The "parameters of social structure" which Blau defines have no necessary existence i concrete social action. Where they do have such existence, it is as ideas. They would have as much relevance for action if they were purely imagined as they would if quantitatively ascertainable. Studying them along Blau's paradigm is likely, therefore, to increase understanding of or information about social action only to the extent that a population's ideas approximate to their action, in particular, their action along dimensions defined by the analyst. The parameters are simply categorical, and the exercise resolves to an attempt to ascertain the influence of interaction frequencies on action, but with an essential step missing. This is the phenomenological understanding of the way in which the categories on which people take action are formed. Such an understanding is not necessary to all inquiries in sociology, but it would be necessary to the one Blau describes, if it were to be relevant to social action.

Corporations are a vital category for a related person (among others). They are units by reference to which people take action. Persons identify themselves and others as members of corporations, and the corporate structure provides an ongoing framework for planning. A central variable in our analysis is the relative length of terms of planning. It is suggested that as people plan over longer periods of anticipation, that is, plan for more distant ends, social order is enhanced. Put in a simple example: a stock market will be more stable as more investors plan for long-term gains (i.e., retirement or a legacy for grand-children), as opposed to speculating or attempting to achieve short-term capital gains. In any situation of social action, the more units are seen as stable, the more possible (and more likely) it becomes for actors to plan for long-term ends. Corporations are such stable units. Social individuals and the relations among social individuals tend to be shorter term. At the very most, they are bounded by human life spans.

Relations, in the present usage, are continuing interaction sequences. The key element is anticipation. That is, the parties to the relationship (in the limiting case at least one party to the relationship) must anticipate its continuity and plan accordingly. By convention, in the rest of this treatise I shall use 'relation' to refer to the category and 'relationship' for the particular case, thus: the father/son relation and the relationship between a father and a son (unless context renders this usage unusually awkward). The relations which we discuss are divided into formal and informal. Though simple, this distinction is important. It divides the relations which are formed by the operation of given principle and which thus carry obligations and are external to particular relates from those which exist only in particular. These latter, such as friendship, may be governed by social norms, but they are primarily open to negotiation by the interacting parties. Formal relationships create other formal relationships, and give enduring form to social interaction. Relations, of course vary greatly in ephemerality. They also vary greatly in the extent to which individuals are invested in them, or more accurately, are likely to be invested in them. Within any given society (that is, range of sociation and culture) it is relations which will be the most apparently changing unit of organization from the point of view of an individual member. The changing solidarity of a corporation will not affect its formal status, but will be manifest in the changing density of relationships among its members.

Such concepts as the social network (which perhaps finds its source in Fortes, though it only became a stylized rubric with Barnes, Mitchell and others, (see discussion in Mitchell, 1969) refer in this scheme to relations. Most analyses of networks in recent years have concentrated on informal relations; the concept has been used as a substitute for corporate groups as the latter have declined in significance through processes such as urbanization and migration. The second volume of Fortes' study of the Tallensi (1949a,the first volume is primarily on corporations, 1945) is in fact largely devoted to a study of networks of quite formal relationships. One of the key factors which promotes social order among the Tallensi is the extent to which relationships imply other relationships. This is what is denoted by Gluckman's term 'multiplexity' of relationships (1955). However, I suggest it is a characteristic, most properly, of social individuals (still macrosociologically, as a matter of aggregated frequency) since it affects sociation through its influence on social actors. It is treated accordingly below.

By culture I have designated the socially organizing ideas of a population. This is culture insofar as it pertains directly to the model of social order. To be sure, all varieties of a people's thought may have influence on their social relationships and action, and can quite acceptably be termed culture. Here I merely designate a fraction of them. These are of two major kinds: principles and categories. The former refers especially to principles of the establishment and transformation of units of social organization: in Tale society the principle of patrilineal descent is the most important. (Matrilateral proliferation may be seen as a counter-principle, but is not strictly comparable). Categories are the constructed units into which actors group social objects: brothers, households, cooperative farms and the like. For the present discussion principles are by far the more important aspect of culture.

A crucial sociological variable is the extent to which the principles on which a pattern of sociation are organized are 'consistent' (the terms is Sorokin's, 1957). By this is meant the extent to which they logically cohere in the production of social effects or contradict each other. Any assessment of contradiction aside, the pluralism of social principles represents a tendency away from social order as opposed to relatively 'monistic' organization. Patrilineal descent is the only principle by which Tale corporations may be constituted, and it is the core principle of the construction of social relations of almost all varieties. In this sense the Tallensi have a very nearly monistic organization. There is no other principle in competition with patrilineality. Its rules range from inheritance to lineage membership to the procedure for identifying the level of lineage segment salient in any given situation.

The last major unit of social organization is the social individual. The emphasis here is clearly on the 'social'. I am not concerned with the individual as personal, creative or affective actor, but as the locus of a set of statuses and social action in a variety of situations. In this the individual may well be unique, but the extent of variance among individuals is a variable. Social individuals represent nodes of relationships, but the set of persons to which any individual relates may be characterized by a varying density of other relationships inter se. Thus, in Merton's (1957) term, a 'role-set' may have differing degrees of cohesiveness, may involve more or less confliction demands, and may be more or less organized to enforce its demands. The social individual is the identity in which the actor must negotiate these relationships. His formal statuses and such of his characteristics as are known are the information on the basis of which other actors plan their dealings with him. Similarly, he conducts his affairs with a range of reference which relates them across social situations. In other words, he considers the effects that what he does now ill have on what he does later. The sequences of statuses, relationships and situations in which he is involved are an important part of the social individual. At any given time, his identity implies temporal dimensions. It is this which moves the concept a step beyond Radcliffe-Brown's "social personality" (1992).

One of the characteristics of the multiplexity of social bonds and the density of interpersonal networks is that they indicate a corresponding decrease in social individuality. In other words, as the bonds of any individual are similar to the bonds of the members of his role-set, so he is less socially distinctive (viewed, remember, macroscopically). At the same time, however, he may be more socially important, for the set of relationships in which he is involved are not isolate and cannot be filled by a multiplicity of new individuals. It should be remembered that even in the densest network among the most homogenous set of individuals, there is social differentiation. The Tale are far from that limiting case and even in a tightly integrated community there are fathers and sons and brothers and affines, etc. Further discussion of the workings of multiplexity is found in Chapters 5 and 8.

A word should be said here about the conceptualization of social action which underlies this thesis. I reject arguments based on reduction to postulated 'human nature', and yet I am concerned not to let society and culture think for individuals (a phrase borrowed from Nadel, 1953, p. 276). I should not like to see men (or women) be kicked back out of sociology by sociologists' determination to be autonomous, nor should men be brushed like dust off a conception of man. Human nature, psychologism, is not the solution. It has been central to the ultimate failure of works as disparate as Homans' and (the more recent of) Parsons', figuring explicitly in the former and implicitly in the latter. Such statements of human nature are hardly to be called psychology; they are a simplistic philosophical anthropology done by amateurs. For the purpose of this treatise at least, I do not believe in human nature.

A useful social theory must be based on the diversity - and similarity - of men, and more particularly of their sociation. The patterned ways in which people are confronted with social 'objects' not only make them different, but make them different in different degrees. Central to the present arguments, therefore, is a common conceptualization of individuation/sociation as a variable. This is very clearly a rejection of Durkheim's early suggestion that greater individuality and greater social solidarity will be found to co-vary (and reach a peak in Paris, 1893). I assume that morally, both individuality and social solidarity may be positive values; the elegance of a freedom from contradictions is, unfortunately perhaps, not to be had inhuman life. A more statement about this variable must be relative, that is, it must have a baseline against which greater or less individuality is recommended. However much sociology may be an inadequate platform for moral philosophy, the moral nature of society is important to it empirically and theoretically. Contradictions like that between society and the individual (better phrased perhaps: polar variables) are crucial to an understanding of social change. In particular they are a key to the way in which social action influences and social change.

We are concerned, we have said following Merton, with identifying social mechanisms which operate to produce a greater degree of social order than would obtain if these mechanisms were not in operation. Functional theory has sometimes seemed to assume that society (anthropomorphised and given a will) has the same goal and chooses social characteristics on this basis. This it does not do. People, however, have goals and make choices, and the nature of society influences them greatly in this. People have their own personal and more or less varying anthropologies and sociologies based on learning, experience, etc. As Fortes commented:

Individuals who have the same or nearly the same field of social relations tend to have the same picture of their society; and individuals who have different fields of social relations tend to interpret their social behaviour and the structure of their society by the same concepts and along the same lines insofar as the same principles determine Tale social structure in every sector of the society. (1945, p. 116)

One function of this is to make people predictable to each other, to increase the incidence of common definitions of the social situations in which they interact. But "the same principles determine Tale social structure" also by directly influencing the values of social actors. The collective moral value of agnatic solidarity and the personal value of individual or familial prosperity are both part and parcel of the social organization.

How people identify themselves and their 'self-interest', the groups which they regard as extensions of themselves, and the moral values to which they adhere all have influences on the processes through which people plan their social action. They influence, centrally, the extent to which persons plan for long-or short-term ends. Planning for long-term ends is necessarily a sociated action. Individuals cannot confidently expect to reap the material benefits of these ends. They may expect to reap moral benefits or to in some sense outlive their morality and thus see the results of their actions. But they may also, in a tightly sociated order have their immediate material rewards conditioned by their participation in long-term planning. This is the essence of a 'social consequence'. For a Tale farmer to treat those of his kin who respond to a call for framing assistance as 'rationalized labour' would be sheer 'business' lunacy as well as contrary to long-term social values on stability and immediate ones on moral relationships. The traditional social order of the Tallensi necessitates that kin and labour be facets of the same concrete relationship, and this puts constraints on the way in which the individual carries out both aspects of the relationship.

It is this patterned interlinking of the aspects of social life which is the manifestation of sociation from the point of view of the actor. As contingencies interact upon one another, the scope of options for action is narrowed. This, as much as any lock or systematicity of analysis or 'open' inquiry and search for knowledge (cf. Horton, 1967), is what brings 'closure' to some societies. When Fortes refers to kinship as 'axiomatic' or discusses the influence of kinship morality on society he is not engaged in a process of reification. Tale actors may take the values of kinship as given in much the same way we take the values of individuality. Tallensi also strive for independence and autonomy; we also strive to overcome alienation and find community, love, and brotherhood. We are struck by the limitations that 'primitive society' imposes, but also sometimes by the surfeit of options available in modern non-society. There are values enough to move in different directions depending on the mechanisms of social order and change, and the baseline from which movement is reckoned.

This thesis is about the mechanisms of social order. It is not an essay in their defence or criticism. Its attempt is to identify - empirically in the Tale case, and theoretically in general - the ways in which social variables interact to realize social continuity and change. In contrast to many perspectives change is taken here as normative, and I attempt to explain continuity. The relative stability of Tale society also gears the empirical analysis to a consideration of the mechanisms of order. Disorder receives considerable treatment in the later chapters, but it is not the main theme. Throughout, this study builds a model of social order aimed at enabling us to understand the authority of ancestors, which is the key to the traditional social order of the Tallensi.

Next chapter

The Question of Ancestral Authority - A Traditional Social Order - The Evidence for Stability - The Units of Social Organization

Previous chapter - Return to Contents - Next chapter- Return to Ancestors Page- Go to The Virtual Institute of Mambila Studies -online