Chapter 2 (pt.1)


The Condition of a Static View

The Corporations

The Nuclear Lineage

The Inner Lineage

The Intermediate Lineages

The Maximal Lineage

Larger Collectivities


Political, Jural and Ritual Positions

Lineage Headmen



A Note on Ancestors

There are two varieties of "formal" organization which are important in Tale society: categories and corporations. The former I take to refer to relations as, for example, father/son, but not limited to relations between individual persons. The latter I take to refer to organized and ongoing collectivities which interact with each other as constituted (i.e., established outside the immediate situation), units, independent of the particular individuals who form their constituencies at any particular time. Both categories and corporations I designate as "formal" because they are independent of individuals, and of at least short-term fluctuations, because they can be listed as finite sets (whether or not they are amenable to complete understanding in this manner), and because they are predicative of action throughout the range of their operation; that is, they give to actions the forms in which they are related to other actions.

This is not to say either that formal organization is completely independent of individuals, or that it completely determines their activities. It is, rather, in quantitative relation to the activities of individual persons. Formal organization is one factor which produces, up to a point, a greater tendency for society to dominate individuality when the two are seen as the poles of a variable (see Chapter 6). Here we are concerned with the nature of organization of corporations in Tale society.

The Condition of a Static View

Corporations, as such, are static. They may be viewed diachronically only as beginning to exist, continuing to exist, or ceasing to exist. A modification in the constituency of a corporation - for example, the establishment of a new household within a lineage - may alter the internal relations of the members of the larger corporation, or, if it is large enough, it may affect the power and influence or the economic and demographic needs of the corporation in relation to other corporations, but it does not alter its formal status. It is still the same corporation. Any change in its formal constitution ends the existence of the old corporation. In the case of fission of a lineage, two or more new lineages are created, each a corporation in its own right, and together they replace the corporation from which they were formed. They all remain a part of the next larger incorporative unit, however, whose external status as a corporation is not altered. In the case of fusion, one corporation may replace two or more, either by becoming a new unit of larger scope, or by incorporating some of the old corporations into one of them with no change in its formal status. Whatever ongoing processes - say of demographic change - may necessitate the corporate readjustment, this latter occurs as one corporate event (even if the change transpires in a number of different social situations on different occasions). Before the event corporate relations followed one pattern, and after it they followed another. Thus, at any given time, the organization of corporations presents a static picture, however short a time may elapse before its next alteration.

This static picture is necessitated both by the analytic nature of the concept of corporation as here used, and by the view of the corporate units with which Tallensi themselves operate, and which is central to their social organization. In part, this latter view is intrinsic to the technique of 'identification by contraposition' which is part and parcel of the organization of social intercourse among the Tallensi and between them and neighbouring peoples:

A member of one social group identifies another social group or individual by comparison or contrast with his own social identity, and in terms of the most inclusive grouping which suffices to identify the latter unambiguously. (1945, p. 18)

Obviously such a procedure (which will be discussed in more detail in the fifth chapter) cannot proceed effectively if its references are to constantly changing units. There is only one manifestation of the static view Tallensi hold of their corporate system of clans and lineages. It is reflected in the linking of present-day socio-spatial arrangements to the ancestors and the organization of genealogies.

The structure of lineages clearly varies over time, particularly at the lower levels. Although Tallensi recognize certain aspects of this variation (in certain contexts), they generally maintain a fiction of continuity - or perhaps an atemporal view - which is represented in the linking of genealogies to the hierarchically inclusive segmentation of the lineage. Thus the extension of genealogies into the past represents the unity of each segment in a common ancestor, and its internal differentiation in sets of intervening ancestors.

In lineages thus constituted an ancestor who has no significance as a focus of differentiation from other co-ordinate lineages loses his structural relevance and has no distinct ancestor shrine. He is merged with a predecessor who still symbolizes the focus of differentiation of the lineage, and often no doubt fades into oblivion. In this way genealogies get telescoped and the ranking of structurally insignificance ancestors gets confused. (1945, p. 35)

It is thus that the Tale maxim, "as you are towards each other so are the spirits of your ancestors towards one another" (1945, p. 98) comes to make sense. Further, this linking of genealogy to social groupings allows for the dominant picture of continuity in Tale society by suggesting that relations at every level are of the same sort. The basic framework is used to describe segmentation within a domestic family - the separation of the matrilocal room from the patrilocal (and lineal) house - is used to describe the segmentation of maximal lineages in ancestral times several generations removed. Though this distant reckoning is frequently rather streamlined and simplified by comparison to more recent cases (there are usually just the right number of sons, for example), Tallensi do not tend to treat this as merely a metaphorical usage, but argue for its historical veracity. Indeed, they may refer to present-day corporate alignments as evidence. Fortes frequently emphasizes this perceived constancy while noting (more occasionally) that it might often be historically questionable (although continuity within change, if not absolute constancy, does seem to be the historical rule for Tale society). Take for example his statement on the definition of the lineage:

From the Tale point of view a lineage is an association of people of both sexes comprising all the known descendants by a known genealogy of a single know and named ancestor in an unbroken male line. From the sociologist's point of view it is an association of people of both sexes comprising all the recognized descendants by an accepted genealogy of a single named ancestor in a putatively continuous male line. (1945, p. 30)

Maine's maxim, cited by Fortes, that "corporations never die" thus seems to hold true for Tale lineages (especially maximal lineages and clans, as we shall see below). It would be possible to multiply examples of either real continuity or pressures for adjustment and/or change. Some of these will appear in the course of our discussion, but the point here is rather that it is the static, and not the processual, elements of lineages which give them their significance qua corporations. It is the facts that they are seen as ongoing units, that membership is ascribed not achieved, that lineage members cannot generally be opted out of, that it determines one's social identity vis-á-vis members of other lineages of the same order, and that in any given social situation the entire structure of extant lineages is relevant, which must be clear before we can deal with the principle of agnatic descent and the corporate structure of Tale society.

Fortes seems at times to wish to have things both ways on this issue. Indeed, it is important both to see the lineage as an atemporal corporation, and to study the actions involving and creating the lineage as temporal processes, but it is important to keep the two viewpoints distinct. For one thing, in order to understand activities involving the lineage or its continual reproduction, one must be aware of its existence as a corporation in a structure of corporations: a structure which, though it may change, may only be seen statically. We must question Fortes, thus, especially on his final sentence, when he says:

We have been analysing the product of social segmentation rather than the process itself. To distinguish between product and process is, however, merely an analytic convenience in dealing with social facts. In reality what we denote as a product is a set of regularities and recurrences of process. A corporate unit is really the sum total of corporate relations and activities occurring amongst a defined group of individuals. (1945, p. 232)

Is it? And if it is, whence comes the definition of the "group of individuals"? And what exactly are "corporate relations and activities" if the "corporate unit" to which they refer is only the sum total of the "corporate relations and activities"? Product and process are different, indeed different because of point of view, if difficult to distinguish because so intimately connected. But, "hunting is not those heads on the wall," in Leroi Jones' memorable phrase. To be sure, lineages as corporations are the product of an important process of construction (which we shall consider in the third chapter) both in the phenomenological and the material senses of the term. Their importance cannot be adequately considered, however, without reference to the construct as well as the construction, which is no doubt the reason for the existence of the bulk of the first volume of Fortes ethnography of the Tallensi. There are two basic aspects to this importance: One is that Tae actors plan with reference to the lineages as static, essentially given corporations (and this is all the more true of clans). This is significant as providing for the mechanics of social intercourse, the mutual identification of social actors, and so forth, and is pervasive, as Fortes notes in this passage:

The notions of the continuity, persistence, and stability of their culture and social organization, so vital for the Tale outlook on life, have their roots in the lineage system. The whole social system of the Tallensi hinges on their lineage system with its religious counterpart; an elaborate ancestor cult. Unbroken continuity of descent, persistence of self-identical corporate units, stability of settlement - these are the intrinsic characteristics of the Tale lineage system. It requires the assumption, which the ancestor cult places beyond question, that the social structure of to-day is the same as it was in the past. (1945, p. 26)

This requirement, in a number of its ramifications, is one reason why it is so important for Tallensi to regard the social relations of their larger units as a direct extension - via the same principle of the social relations of their smaller units (see also Chapter 5). As Fortes says,

The concept of social structure essentially implies ordered extension in time as well as ordered articulation at a given time. (1945, p. 224)

The other important (here more significant for analyst than actor) aspect of a static view of the lineage structure is more directly related to a consideration of its continuity and change in time. Fortes sums this up in Collingwood's concept of "incapsulation":

We see how the lineage structure at a given time incapsulates all that is structurally relevant of its past phases and at the same time continually thrusts its growing-points forward. 91945, p. 224)

In other words, the growth and change of the lineage is not entirely to be understood by reference to external factors, be they population, economy, or ecology. Any or all of these may have an influence, of course, but only in combination with the structure of the lineage. Past processes of construction have relevance only to the extent to which they are contained in present forms and practices or in the memories of men. In a society of this sort, history is significant not qua history, but rather as it is incapsulated in the present formal and informal organization of corporations and relations, (including lacunae and weaknesses of this organization).

The Corporations

If we visualize the social structure as a sum of processes in time, then the lineage system, which embodies the patrilineal principle, emerges as the source of the enduring pattern, the relatively fixed form of Tale social organization, and matrilateral kinship is seen to be the source of the variability and flexibility in the groups or in the standard inter-personal relations that make up the social structure. The lineage system unites the ancestors, the living, and the yet unborn in a uniform integrated sequence actualized at a given time in determinate corporate groups. (1949a, p. 342)

In the fourth chapter we shall deal with inter-personal relations, both standard and idiosyncratic; in the third chapter we shall examine the patrilineal principle itself more closely, and we shall look at some of the "processes in time" which involve lineage organization. Here let us look at the "determinate corporate groups" and secondarily, at the political, ritual and jural positions which constitute the reference points of their boundaries.

As we noted above, the Tale lineage is "a strictly unilineal, agnatic descent group". 91945, p. 30). It is, further, a segmentary patrilineal descent group, indeed one of the classic cases of segmentary descent. This means, in essence, that the lineage, from its broadcast to its narrowest extent, is a series of hierarchically incorporated groups all of which are constituted by the same principle(s). Patrilineality, putative or real, thus creates and defines not only one variety or one level, but all the corporate groups in Tale social organization:

The corporate units that compose Tale society are not a casual agglomerate of discrete bodies, but are socially articulated and interconnected wit one another; and they are thus interrelated in a segmentary series ... Furthermore, the principles according to which the associations occur are either uniform for a whole series of segments of increasing dimension or are so related to one another that principles operating on one level presuppose the principles operating on a lower level. (1945, p. 232)

The only case of the latter sort of 'presupposition' among the Tallensi is the leap from maximal lineages to clans, where reckoning of membership ceases to be on the basis of known genealogies and becomes rather a matter of undifferentiated putative common descent. The patrilineal principle (see below) is thus common to and constitutive of all corporate groups which we shall call lineages and, with some modification and attenuation to clans as well. There are two basic variables by which lineages are differentiated: span and order. The former refers to the number of generations encompassed by a given language, the latter to the generation at which one lineage is differentiated from others as coordinate segments of a larger lineage, which will be the common generation of their founders:

The span of a lineage being a function of its internal genealogical constitution, a three generation lineage has a wider span than a two generation lineage. But the order of a lineage is determined by its segmentary relationship to other lineages which are complementary to it -brother (sunzo) segments - in a greater, inclusive lineage. Lineages are differentiated from each other in terms of their genealogical distance from one another within their common agnatic descent. 91945, p. 194-5)

Thus, lineages of the same order of segmentation are not all of equal span. 91945, p. 36) In other words, lineages achieve their primary external identity (a matter of order within the entire patrilineal group) through contraposition to one another. As we shall consider below (in Chapter 5), lineage members also gain their primary identities in social situations from their various lineage segments through a similar process of contraposition at the level of equal order and least distance. According to Fortes, this process yields six levels of corporate groups within the lineages:

We have thus a hierarchy of lineage segments: the effective minimal lineage or segment, the nuclear lineage or segment, the inner lineage or segment, the medial lineage or segment, the section or major segment, the maximal lineage. 91945, p. 205)

He suggests that these levels of corporate groups are common to all Taleland, and we shall, for the most part, follow his terminology in referring to them throughout this thesis, questioning the universality of definition only in the case of inner and medial lineages or segments. The effective minimal lineage is the smallest type of corporate group among the Tallensi; we shall also consider clans in this section, as the somewhat ambiguous and non-universal category of the largest corporate groups among the Tallensi, and we shall also look briefly at the quasi-corporate organization above the level of clanship. Let us turn to look briefly at each of these, noting in particular some ramifications of the principle of agantic descent - inheritance, exogamy, collective responsibility and cooperative action - as they operate in each level of corporation. We shall later consider these various branches of the principle of agnatic descent as such. Here we attempt, somewhat less analytically, to identify the corporations involved (which we shall treat in ascending order).

The Minimal Lineage

Here we must first make Fortes' distinction between the effective minimal lineage, and the minimal lineage as a morphological unit:

the effective minimal lineage, that is, the lineage of the smallest span which emerges as a corporate unit in economic, jural, and ritual activities and is differentiated from other units of a like sort. It is not, it should be noted, an amorphous, internally undifferentiated unit; differences of generation, age, and maternal origin regulate the relations between its members. What is more important, the germs of a further segmentation by agnatic lines is [sic] present in this unit ... The effective minimal lineage, which is functionally the corporate unit of lowest order, may, and here does, comprise several morphologically lower minimal lineages ... (1945, pp. 192-3)

The minimal lineage as the smallest corporate group acts with a great deal of internal unity and cohesiveness partly because, though its members may have divergent interests, and though their internal differentiations may prefigure eventual new corporations, they have no independent static references to smaller inclusive corporations. In other words, though the effective minimal lineage is split on various lines, none of its component parts form a complete microcosm of the whole until they approach the stage of immanent separation. Such separation must, in every case, involve a series of steps (to be discussed in Chapter 3) which redefine both the points of static reference (lineage heads) and ritual cooperation and sever (in some part) the bonds of economic interdependence. This is because the effective minimal lineage is so closely linked to the joint family:

A joint family consists of two or more close agnates, members of a single effective minimal lineage in all but exceptional cases, and often comprising all the members of a particular effective minimal lineage, together with their wives, children, and other dependants, if any, occupying a single homestead. (1949a, pp. 64-5)

The constitution of an effective minimal lineage, then, differs from that of a morphological minimal lineage in that the latter is strictly formally defined on the rules of agnatic descent, while the former is the result, in part, of the vicissitudes of inter-personal relations among close agnatic kin. These vicissitudes are of course influenced by the size and prosperity of the units concerned.

One of the essential variables in the corporate organization of effective minimal lineages is the life span of the head or 'father' of the joint family which is its core. This is not only because of his personal influence in keeping his sons with him, but because of his genealogical significance as the point of reference by which the corporate group is defined. The effective minimal lineage is the only corporate group among the Tallensi in which the genealogically significant differentiator of the lineage may also be its living head. This is not to say that size and personal relation lose their influence here; an effective minimal lineage may, in some cases, be headed by an eldest brother rather than a father, but this is infrequent and usually occurs only in the case of full (soog) brothers, as we shall discuss below. It is important, though, that corporate organization at this level is at its most dependant on particular people. This makes it a primary point of flexibility and change in the corporate structure. As Fortes notes

the stratification of the effective minimal lineage into generations automatically splits it into patri-segments. (1945, p. 199)

This usually happens with reference to groups of a span of three generations. Thus, normally, as long as one of a set of brothers is alive, the effective minimal lineage will be defined by reference to their father, and the oldest living brother will be its head, including both his own sons and his classificatory sons (brother's sons) under his preview. On his death, however, assuming the lineage to be of sufficient size to be viable, each emergent patri-segment, that is, the sons and grandsons of each of the brothers, will identify itself (themselves) as a new effective minimal lineage, with reference to their father or grandfather, one of the deceased brothers. The effective minimal lineage is, then, seldom an ongoing corporate group for more than a few years. It is, however, the smallest group which is able to act as a statically defined unit in social situations.


The Condition of a Static View-The Corporations-The Nuclear Lineage - The Inner Lineage - The Intermediate Lineages - The Maximal Lineage - Larger Collectivities - Summary - Political, Jural and Ritual Positions - Lineage Headmen - Tendaanas - Chiefs - A Note on Ancestors

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