Chapter 3 (pt.5)


Economic and Demographic Pressures: We shan't here attempt any catalogue of possible pressures underlying segmentation, but rather merely note the kinds of pressures, defining them with regard to our guiding interest in Tale social organization itself (as opposed to either its material basis or ecological conditions). Worsley has attempted in more detail to produce an 'economic, or more accurately, materialist explanation and 'revaluation' of Tale kinship (1956, see esp. pp. 54-8 on fission). There are essentially two arguments in his analysis, though they are not always distinguished. The first is that Tale social organization is a conditioned adjustment or response to "economic needs, given the equipment and technique available to the Tallensi as a result of their historical development" (1956, p. 57). The second is that the action of individuals and groups is to be understood in terms of material needs or benefits. In other words he argues both that the system itself is economically or materially determined, and that action within it is directly determined economically or materially. He does not suggest, for example, that the social structure as a whole is a response to economic needs, and that individual action is shaped by the social structure (i.e., distinguish between 'determinate' and 'dominant' structures, cf. Godelier, 1972). It is largely this failure to distinguish between material self-interest and the economic organization of society which leaves him open to a charge of 'vulgar materialism'.

The fission which Worsley considers is entirely that of the domestic family an the effective minimal lineage, and he treats it primarily in terms of the growing economic differentiation of son from father. This, he indicates, is largely a matter of conflicting interests, as, for example, when the son wishes to devote more of his time to his own crops and his father wishes him to work as much as possible on the family farm. Tale agriculture is primarily labour intensive, with production increasing according to quality of land and quantity of labour. Large families are effective production units, so the issue turns to a matter of distribution of products. "Thus", Worsley tells us,

where there are many sons, the likelihood of conflict of interests is greater, both between father and sons and between the sons themselves. The eldest son is in a position of greater independence, and will be the first to inherit . . . For only sons, the process is mitigated, since there will be more rapid inheritance and there is less pressure on household resources. (1956, p. 54)

There is, then a greater conflict of interests where each son has a proportionately lower interest in the welfare of the patrimonial unit as a whole. All of this is, however, organized through the kinship system as Fortes describes it. Worsley introduces no new explanation of processes of fission here; he only emphasizes one necessary condition: that independence and material benefit should be valued.

Worsley is further correct in noting that due to the various demographically and/or ecologically necessitated rearrangements of the lineages, "the system is thus far from being eternally self-repetitive" (there are of course systems much farther yet). He is also correct in noting (as we have done above) that matricentrality is not an adequate explanation for fission, since it does not provide the motive force to it. He is, however, unjust in implying that Fortes took such to be the case. As we have seen, Fortes frequently notes the 'canalizing' impact of the kinship structure in dealing with economic, ecological and demographic changes. Interestingly, as Hart has observed, this is more true of Fortes' earlier writings, perhaps in part because he over-reacted to Worsley's (and other's) criticism (Hart, 1974, p. 20).

Worsley goes on in his discussion by taking up Fortes' diagrammatic representation of the developmental cycle of the joint family (1949a, p. 76, see next page). Now, what Worsley does is to reproduce only the first four stages from Fortes' original diagram, and then to argue that

these diagrams reveal the incorrectness of the analysis of fission in the lineage in terms of conflict between the 'principles' of matricentrality and patricentrality. (1956, p. 57)

They in fact do nothing of the sort. As can be seen from Fortes' outline of some of the possibilities for fission and reintegration in stage five, matricentral identities may play a crucial role. It depends on such factors as the order of death among family heads, the size of families, etc. Homesteads are kept within the range of economically viable groups, to be sure, but this is done through the mechanism of, and in the framework of, descent. Worsley actually goes so far as to separate the ancestor-cult from 'these two concepts of descent', and to suggest that the fact that the Tallensi rationalize lineage readjustments in terms of the latter indicates that they 'do not necessarily see the process in the same terms', i.e., of matrilineal and patrilineal descent (1956, p. 57).

Click on image to inlarge:

Figure 1: Diagram Showing the Developmental Cycle of the Joint Family (from 1949a, p. 76)

He takes up Gluckman's argument that Fortes is mistaken to consider matrilateral origin of importance in segmentation. In Gluckman's words:

It is contradicted by his own facts. Basically, it is irrelevant if one segment is divided from another by different matrilateral origin. He himself shows that when a man A, whether he is a monogamist or polygynist, has more than one son, the lineage centring on A always splits into new subordinate lineages centring in each son. And if A was a polygynist, and had sons by each wife, each single son founds a new lineage. (1947, p. 61)

Gluckman here is very ambiguous in his use of the word 'splits'. Indeed, each son marks the formation of a new morphological minimal lineage, and a potential effective minimal lineage. There is, however, a great difference in probability as to which sons will ever be genealogically salient ancestors for distinguishing corporate groups. This is evident in symbol from the fact that each ancestral shrine (except the External Bogar) is the shrine of an ancestor and his mother. The shrines of full brothers will be nearly identical, therefore, as will be their matrilateral kin, which further reduces their differentiation. Gluckman suggests only that

common matrilateral origin merely unites two or more of these lineages as against lineages whose founders were born of different mothers. But the former do not form lineages of a different order from the latter: all are coordinate. (op. cit., original emphasis)

First off, order is not really a directly salient issue. Secondly, Gluckman (and Worsley following him) seems to operate with the assumption that every possible line of fission results in eventual segmentation, which is not the case. What is crucial about matrilateral origin and ties is the extent to which they determine which of the incipient patri-segments will be realized in a corporate group. Worsley endorses Gluckman's position, and continues its confusion of 'may take place' statements with probabilities:

It is clear here that preoccupation with 'principles' and a proclivity towards a dichtomization has led Fortes astray. As the diagrams given above show, fission may take place through any son's breaking off from the lineage, whether he be a full-brother, half-brother or only son, and even so, we must look further than "principles of polarity" to give an accurate analysis of the process. (Worsley, 1956, p. 57)

To be sure we must, but Worsley ends his discussion of fission by adding only two paragraphs of somewhat irrelevant comparison with the Gusii, which overall seem to support Fortes' argument, more than Worsley's criticism.

It is curious that in endorsing Gluckman's position in this discussion Worsley seems almost to give up his materialist argument. He and Gluckman both seem to suggest here that the principle of patrilineal descent is absolutely determinant, something Fortes clearly knows not to be true (cf. 1949a, p. 61). Not every son, or even every son by a separate mother forms a new corporate segment because this would produce too narrow a fragmentation of groups, one which would not be either productively or socially viable. In fact, interestingly, there is a strong material reason for the likelihood of segmentation following lines of matrilateral origin which both Worsley and Gluckman overlook. Tale man tend to use such wealth as they may acquire to accumulate wives. Thus the largest polygynous households are generally also the most prosperous (a tendency enhanced as we have noted by the availability of labour in large families). In such a prosperous household, it is most likely to be possible for there to be a multiplicity of groups which are viable, both in size and economic strength. This link between wealth and polygyny means that the sons of different mothers can segment. There is, for example, likely to be sufficient livestock for all sons, and not just the oldest, to marry fairly early on, and thus enhance their independence. Last, but not least, since wives are accumulated with age, there is likely to be a considerable variation of age within the single generation of sons of a polygynous family, a variation which will partially correspond to different wives/mothers. The conflicts which are likely to ensue between the oldest and youngest half-brothers (as, for example, over the tendency of the former to favour his own sons over his younger brothers) are likely to lead to segmentation. Or, there may be conflicts when a younger brother (son) succeeds to a headship over his brother's son (grandson) not much different in age. As always, these conflicts, however material their roots may be, tend to be played out in the language of ancestral authority. Thus, a proxy parent may not be forthcoming in allowing or enabling a young man to set up on his own:

The usual corners of events is that something goes wrong with the young man's affairs. It may be a trivial mishap, such as a hen being caught by a hyena, or something more serious, such as the sickness of wife or child. The young man goes with his proxy father to consult a diviner; and the diviner declares that the trouble was caused by the young man's own father, because the young man has not yet built his own homestead. The dead father lets it be known that he wants to go directly to his son's own house to accept sacrifices and not have to go to his brother's house as a mere guest. (1949a, p. 176)

These readjustments of structural relations through fission and reintegration fit into the economic framework of Tale society in another way as well. We shall simply note it briefly here: it is the linkage between security of land tenure and stability of settlement.

The keystone of the institutional framework of Tale agriculture is security of land tenure. (1945, p. 180)

This security is linked to the relationship between corporate units and residential (and agricultural) association. And,

the stability of a settlement rests on the equilibrium of its sections with one another, and this depends upon their being precisely differentiated from one another. 91945, p. 167)

There are, then, pressures which are not structurally determined - such as those which come from population expansion - but which are nonetheless organized in form by the principle of agnatic descent (cf. 1945, pp. 33 and 161). These changes occur in the first instance in the lower orders of the lineage hierarchy, but, in some instances directly, and more often through the accumulation of changes in component segments, they affect the larger corporations. Generally the significance of these changes is seen in the different political claims which the larger segment makes, and in the ability which it has to enforce or realize them in such events as inheritance or succession to headships:

But very often the underlying pressure comes from a change in the internal constitution of the lineage that has been taking place gradually with the passage of the generations and is not yet recognized. In the course of two or three generations an inner lineage may ramify so widely that its members claim the status of a medial lineage when it comes to succeeding to the headship of a more inclusive lineage, and this claim may be resisted by the other branches of the more inclusive lineage. It is such conflicts that eventually get resolved by the setting up of a new equilibrium in which the change is recognized by the redistribution of reciprocal rights and obligations (1945, p. 247)

We shall look further shortly at the events in which these political disputes come to the fore. Here, leaving aside the issue of the extent of 'equilibrium' established, we may note that both the orders of lineage cited by Fortes are part of the range we have termed 'intermediate' segments. It seems to be in this range that the process of adjusting the continual and frequent variation of the lower order segments with the relative stability of the higher orders takes place. It is here that genealogies may be both telescoped and, conversely, have an additional generation added to the standard reckoning, depending on the requirements of the situation and the (success of) claims put forward by various parties.

It is primarily the common principle of agnatic descent, giving relative identity to all the corporate groups, which links the processes of fission and fusion which take place at the lower levels in response to individual desires for independence or material benefit to the broader underlying pressures for demographic rearrangement.

The natives are well aware, of course, that these processes of dispersion and reintegration in the nuclear lineage arise directly out of the genealogical cleavages and economic needs of its component segments. But the chief sanction for each defined stage in the process is, in their eyes, filial piety. Objectively, it appears to the anthropologist as a socially accepted rationalization or pretext covering a rearrangement of property and jural relations made necessary by economic needs and the logic of the social structure; subjectively, it is felt by those concerned as an irresistable ritual sanction, crystallized as a command from the father's spirit. It works consistently in the direction of keeping the lineage intact in relation to its local and spiritual focus. Economic necessity is undoubtedly the chief incentive to fission in the joint family, but the process of reintegration is as much or more the result of ritual and affective forces. (1949a, pp. 184-5)


nheritance - The Extent of Agnatic Bonds - Exogamy - Representation and Collective Responsibility - Cooperative Action - Fission and Fusion - Fission - Social Maturity and the Domestic Family - Matrifocal Identification and Matrilateral Kinship - Economic and Demographic Pressures - Events - Constructing the Corporations - The Salience of Ancestors

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