Chapter 3 (pt.6)
THE PRINCIPLE OF AGNATIC DESCENT
Events: The events which constitute the 'discrete variables' of segmentation are primarily matters of inheritance, succession and ritual. These three categories are of course closely interrelated. We have already considered the rules of inheritance and succession and the norms of ritual cooperation above, so we may be brief here. What we shall do is imply outline the role which each of these may play in providing the occasion for the rearrangement of corporate relations. The events which we shall consider take place primarily in the intermediate and higher orders of lineage segmentation, where generation differences are no longer recognized and individual social maturity and the dying off of classificatory fathers is no longer the crucial variable. In the lower orders there are still precipitating events such as the deaths of segment heads or divinations such as the one noted above, but the formal acknowledgment of genealogies is seldom at issue. Effective minimal lineages are seen in the natural course of events to segment in the third or fourth generation, that is, when grandchildren or great grandchildren (the former is the stereotype) of the founder reach adulthood. In the lower levels (the nuclear and minimal lineages, where interpersonal agnatic relations prevail) segmentation does not change the formal relations of those involved. In other words, when an effective minimal lineage segments, the members of the new lineages still remain classificatory (or real) brothers or fathers and sons. This pattern disappears as one ascends into and through the intermediate range of lineage segments.
In these intermediate and higher order lineages,
where generation differences no longer count, questions of inheritance and succession turn chiefly on rights to the custody of the shrines of founding ancestors. (1949a, ????? p. 159)
Questions of succession at these levels are generally political as well as formal and jural issues. It is true that
succession ensures that authority and right do not die with the bodily demise of men who have them. Descent ensures that the matrix of social relations remains more or less constant through the passage of generations. (Fortes, 1965a)
But nonetheless, matters of descent and succession may be manipulated in a number of ways. It may be useful here to take a plausible (perhaps paradigmatic) case as an example, and consider the alternatives, and some of the factors involved.
The hypothetical genealogy we shall set out involves three generations of agnates, and as we shall discuss it, would be likely to obtain in an intermediate order lineage segment. A dispute over succession in a higher order corporation could easily follow similar lines, but would not be likely to involve threat of fission. In a segment of the size implied here and lower order, fission would be all but inevitable.
Note: Additional nuclear lineages possible ...
Note: age decreases by number within generations
Click on image to inlarge:
Figure 2: Hypothetical agnatic relations among elders of an intermediate lineage
We may view a series of stages here with either greater likelihood or greater intensity of dispute (or both) at each stage. Let us assume initially two nuclear lineages, with individual I.1 the recently deceased head of one, and II.2 the still living head of the other. I.1 was also head of the more inclusive lineage segment of intermediate order. I.1 and I.2 were related in perhaps a common grandfather. Where I.2 still alive, dispute and/or fission would be much less likely. As it is, it is plausible that II.2 would advance a genealogically tenuous claim to the headship as against II.1. It is unlikely that he would succeed because II.1 is the deceased's own son. However, if I.2 has been dead for some time, II.2 might try to claim his status in precedence. II.1 must counter with a claim to superior age and either the irrelevance or lack of difference in generation. II.2 is in a position of power here, as the head of the larger nuclear lineage, and as a lineage head of longer standing. If the corporation as a whole is widely ramified (and not highly fixed), it is possible that II.2's efforts could lead to fission, but it is unlikely that he could succeed to the headship of the whole group.
Let us assume that II.1 succeeds, but that II.2's contest has accented his ambition and the line of cleavage. When II.1 dies, if II.2 is still alive, he should stand to succeed to the headship. It is here, however, that the most intense dispute and/or active manipulation is likely to take place. On II.1's death, his son stands in for him in ritual affairs until his funeral. This will not take place for at least a year or so, and longer delays are frequent where large amounts of provisions must be raised for a funeral which will draw a large crowd. The actual timetable is in the hands of the deceased's son, in this case III.1., also his ritual stand-in, and now head of the effective minimal lineage. II.3 becomes head of the nuclear lineage and the question is, who will head the whole corporation. II.2's claim is genealogically sound, and probably not contestable on formal grounds, unless II.3 is very close in age and commands a large following. In such a case fission would be more likely than succession. What may well happen, however, is that III.1, the deceased's son, will attempt to stall the funeral of his father, and thus the actual succession as long as possible, in the hope that II.2 will die. Even if the latter does not do so, III.1 is still acting in his father's stead. But if II.2 should die before the funeral, II.3 has a clear road to the headship. In such an eventuality, III.1 will retain a great deal of his power and influence, largely because of his ritual experience in standing in for his father and in assisting him before his death. In addition his youth and inheritance of his father's personal property will enhance his position, as perhaps will his role in effecting the succession. In any case, he stands a much better chance of succeeding to the headship than he would have done had the succession passed into the other nuclear lineage.
From this example it should be clear that there are a number of chances for fissiparous tendencies to give rise to disputes in the course of a series of successions to lineage headships. There are three major factors determining the chances of fission or the success of rival claimants: one is public opinion, which generally favours lineage solidarity. The second is the extent of backing which a claimant can muster, including particularly the extent of ramification in the sub-group he leads and that of his opponent. The third factor is chance, expressed in such eventualities as who among rival claimants is the first to die, a matter only partially reducible to differences in age, for example. It is impossible to give any simple ranking of importance to the three. Political manipulation is no doubt crucial both directly and in the effect of chance, although Fortes lays greater stress on public opinion:
Public opinion, the point of view of the majority, which always favours the greater solidarity as the source of stability and normality in corporate relations, becomes critical. In due time one of the opponants of the dispute dies; and according to custom the mystical cause of his death is sought by divination. The technique and social setting of the divining session make it a reflection of public sentiment. The diviner brings the simmering conflict in the lineage into the open and relates the death to it. His verdict, coming ostensibly from the ancestors, concludes with commands from them to put the situation right by means of sacrifices and a ritual reconciliation. This is the commonest way in which the ancestor cult emerges as a sanction of reintegration in the lineage order. (1945, p. 248)
It is worth noting in passing, Fortes' definition of 'public opinion' as "the point of view of the majority". Just how much a simple majority is able to exert political influence or even gain expression of an 'opinion' is a question which we shall look into in more detail as we go on. Suffice it to say here that the equivalence of 'public' and 'majority' is by no means obvious, and is in fact probably incorrect in the Tallensi case in view of differential resources for effectuation and expression - on lines of social maturity, to take only one dimension as an example.
Succession is not markedly dissimilar from disputes over the extent of obligations to ritual cooperation, say, or the subordination of one ritual functionary to another. In both cases the extent of internal growth and ramification for the relevant segments is of prime importance in determining the relations they will have. Also in each case there is one or a series of events in which these issues come to the fore, and in which their resolution marks the formal status quo, for the time being. It is seldom simply a matter of 'right' (or a matter of simple right) which decides the issue. As Tallensi note, both 'what used to be' and 'what is now' are valid grounds for a stance in such affairs. It is also recognized, however, that in the end current alignments of social relations, especially corporate relations, will win out over appeals to traditional alignments or practices built upon them (1945, p. 248). Tradition lags behind, and is a conservative force, but it is not so fragile that it does not change before it is proved wrong. That is, it may only appear timeless by changing at such a rate that its flexibility is invincible.
Fusion: By fusion we denote not those processes of reintegration which Fortes discusses, in which groups segmented at one level are united at another. Rather, we refer to the more linear or cumulative processes and events through which groups hitherto discrete are merged. A prototype of this is the telescoping of genealogies in the range of intermediate segments, in which ancestors who are not structurally significant as foci or corporate differentiation are dropped from genealogical reckonings (1945, p. 35). Thus the factors which at one time made groups morphologically discrete are forgotten. At the other extreme is the incorporation of accessory lineages by steps into their 'sponsor' lineages (1945, pp. 54-5). In this instance, as in case of fission, there may be disputes at any of the steps in the process. Both the norm (and 'public opinion') favour solidarity and unity, according to Fortes, but equally either traditionalists or those with opposed political interests may take issue with the fusion. Demographic alignments as well as interlinked social bonds presumably play a role in the process.
Demographic changes are certainly in the processes of fusion involving the incorporation of either fragments or the whole of one group of agnates into another. Usually two such groups are linked by cognatic or clanship ties, and the process of fusion begins with a shortage of land in the area of one of the groups. Some of its members may move to join their relations who can spare them land in the locality of the other group. If they stay long enough, their residential proximity, and the social bonds which follow on it are likely to lead to their fusion into the largest corporations of the host group. Such a process was in progress when Fortes studied the Tallensi:
It is evident, also, from the recognition by leading men of both groups that they are now more closely united than in the days of their fathers. They describe this as part of the general trend towards political consolidation, both within clans and between neighbouring communities, 'since the white man tamed us (...)'. (1945, p. 162)
The maxim "A ten is not a ten if there are no people in it|" sums up the Tale feeling of obligation to accept immigrants, and the likelihood of their eventual incorporation (1945, p. 163). Such a process of fusion would also seem likely to be underway when a maximal lineage dwindles in numbers to such an extent that it is treated as structurally coordinate to units of lower order. It is likely then to be absorbed as a segment of intermediate order into a lineage with whom it has clan links. Fortes in fact says that "territorial dispersion does not break the lineage tie, even after many generations" (1945, p. 201), but it is apparent throughout that it does eventually do so. It is only from the point of view of individuals that "lineage ties cannot lapse or be renounced" (op. cit.), and even then individuals may try (1945, pp. 248-9), presumably with differing levels of success. Not surprisingly, fusion, other than that which is handled through genealogical telescoping in the intermediate range (the flip side of fission), is rare. The principle of agnatic descent is pervasive enough in its incorporation of the Tallensi to make differentiation rather than unification the primary problematic of the social organization. As Fortes has suggested, by way of contrast, the Tallensi must strive to maintain distinctions; the Nuer must strive to maintain relations (1975, personal conversation).
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