Chapter 4 (pt.3)


Father and Son: Fathers and sons are not socially equivalent in the way that brothers are. A number of distinctions enter into the relationship, primarily focused around the inevitability of inheritance and succession which follows on the conjunction of close kinship with generational difference. The issue of inheritance contains an ambivalence, as we have noted, one which reflects the basis contradiction between security and freedom in human affairs (see Conclusion, below). In Fortes' words:

in all aspects of the relations of father and son, Tale custom is ambivalent. After a certain stage of social maturity men desire to be free of paternal restraint, and yet they are glad to leave the bigger responsibilities for their lives in the hands of the father. (1949a, p. 171)

Psychologically, it may be the management of this ambivalence which is the most prominent feature of the authority of ancestors. It should be clear that this ambivalence is associated with fathers not for any necessary biological reason, but because fathers are authority figures with regard to their children. With sons this is especially the case because the authority of the father is never replaced by the authority of a husband. We shall consider below the formalization involved in the vesture of this authority in ancestors.

As we saw to be the case with brothers, there are gradations in the intensity of the relation between father and son.

There is, however, at any given time, only one man who has full paternal authority over a person, child or adult. In the first instance it is the man who begot him or her; and if this man dies, it is the man who takes on his social role, that is, his distinctive rights and duties, by inheritance. The critical rights and duties are those connected with the land and other patrimonial property which the child's father owned or was heir to, and those connected with the cult of the child's father's father. In practice this means the head of the household to which the child belongs, who is also the person who sacrifices to the child's grandfather's spirit; and this limits the range to the child's father's brothers by the same father. (1949a, p. 146)

Actually these criteria do not so limit paternal authority, although it does indeed not extend beyond these boundaries in full strength. An additional qualification is needed: the senior brother never holds paternal authority over his junior brothers, as we noted above. In general, even with a true classificatory father (or real father) the exercise of authority is limited by various norms:

No Tal2n, man, woman, or child, will submit to arbitrary authority without resistance. If any demand made on another person in virtue of superiority of generation, age, or sex is felt to be unreasonable or unjust it will be resisted. Quite small children, obedient as they are, jib at commands from parents or older siblings if they think them unreasonable or unfair. (1949a, p. 258)

Those who see patrimonial authority as arbitrary (cf. Weber, considered in Chapter 6 below) are thus mistaken. A concrete example was given above (Chapter 3) in noting the machinations by which a proxy can be forced (usually through divination) to enable his ward to set up on his own (cf. Fortes, 1949a, p. 176).

Fortes tells us that by the nineteen-thirties, freedom of movement and the multiplicity of options available to young men were undermining parental authority (1949a, p. 206). It does so, however, in accord with the various gradations of parental authority in the traditional system. Thus, the commonest reason given by young men who leave home to seek work abroad is the death of a parent (1949a, p. 140). To be sure, this includes those who leave following a mother's death, but nonetheless, the death of a father, and the subsequent succession of a proxy-father to the headship often means relative material deprivation, as the new head favours his 'own' sons. The identity of son with own father is one of common interests which transcends the various disjunctions we have noted.

A man will often continue to live and farm with his own father until the latter's death. I know men of 40 and over who are still living with their own fathers. But very rarely does this happen with a father's brother. A dead man's sons break away from the parental home when a father's brother inherits it as soon as they are able to. (1949a, p. 140)

And, conversely, sons who have moved away from parental homesteads frequently return to rebuild them. Fortes claims that such moves often involve economic losses (1949a, p. 185) but the frequency of this is debatable. Fortes' main example is the return in 1936 of numerous Talis who had been exiled from the Tong Hills twenty-five years before. He claims they left more fertile lands "in spite of the economic sacrifice this meant for a great many of them" (op. cit.). This suggestion has been brought into serious doubt, most specifically on the point that the lowlying areas have a considerable vulnerability to onchocerciasis (river blindness), thus leading to the concentration of population on the watersheds (Hilton, 1960; Hunter, 1967; Hart, 1974; this latter research supports an earlier belief expressed by Worsley (1956) that there were material advantages for migrants in returning home).

Whatever the changes in mores in progress during Fortes' study, there was still an 'undertone of defence' present in the son's relationship with his father. Authority is not, however, the only component to the father-son relation. There are a number of others also reflecting the disjunction we noted at the outset. There are several of ritual avoidances, such as that of a first-born son against looking into his father's granary (1949a, pp. 57, 223), or the rule that a younger but not oldest son may substitute for his father in ritual affairs (if, say, his father is a tendaana, 1949a, p. 224). What these avoidances stress, Fortes indicates, "is that a child may not be equated with his or her father while he is alive" (1949a, p. 223). It is precisely the conjunction of common interests with social distinction here which makes it important to stress the latter. In other words, the fact that an oldest (and to a lesser extent any) son is close to inheriting is managed by not letting him (symbolically) come any closer. There is another more central application of this disjunction, however. This is the operation of the principle of reciprocity in the father/son relation.

It should be mentioned here that Fortes himself, while mentioning both reciprocity and mutuality, does not distinguish them specifically as contrasting principles operating in different relations. He regards reciprocity, on the contrary, as a more general principle (although still applying it primarily to the same relations as we do here). As Hart has suggested, Fortes attempts in The Web of Kinship to "reconcile the theoretical approaches of both Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski in relation to a dynamic interpretation of his own ethnographic data" (Hart, 1974, p. 19; cf. Fortes, 1949a, esp. 213). Hart seems at one point to overstate Fortes' dependence on the principle of reciprocity (1974, p. 18), but there are nonetheless problems with his usage, particularly his (occasional) equation of reciprocity with 'equivalent returns' (again, Malinowski meets Radcliffe-Brown). His statement that

the idea that in the long run mutual services or favours should balance is inherent in Tallensi social organization, (1949a, p. 215)

does not tell the whole story. Crucial are the questions: between what units should there be a balance, and how should it be achieved. By the latter I mean not just how important is it or how fine the calculation, but by what mechanisms are (a) totals reckoned, and (b)'exchanges' made.

Far from contrasting reciprocity and mutuality, as I have done, Fortes regards the two as essentially similar. As an item of circumstantial evidence, we may note that (by my reading) he never mentions the principle of reciprocity in his section discussing sibling relations, but mentions it several times in considering parent-child, and also mother's brother/sister's son, relations. Of course I suggest there is good reason for this. Let us first look at his major statement, made in a discussion of parent-child relations:

The principle of reciprocity or, more accurately, of equivalent returns* is implicit in the relations of parents and children . . . Moreover, it applies equally to all members of a household and is implicit in all kinship and affinal relations. It arises out of common interests, mutual rights, and mutual obligations and is a way of giving expression to them. As these interests, rights, and obligations are of different kinds and degrees, corresponding to the differences in quality and degree of the relations involved, so there are different kinds of degrees of reciprocity. But all forms of equivalent returns have the general purpose of keeping social relations on a stable and mutual footing. The greater the field of common interests between persons, the less does deliberate calculation enter into the working of this principle. Hence the closer and more personal the relationship between people, the less formal is the rendering of equivalent returns for services or loans. *footnote to Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski. (1949a, pp. 213-4)

Now, are equivalent returns and reciprocity the same? I suggest not. Reciprocity clearly refers to exchange in an (at least) two-party series of interactions. Equivalent returns, on the other hand implies no inter-party exchange, but includes, for example, the distribution of the products of farm labour. Reciprocity implies a parity between distinct units, which may be seen as a subset of equivalent returns, but the latter also includes instances of an indistinction of units. In other words, equivalent returns may be common returns. It is expected that they will be subdivided either equally or in accord with contribution to their production. In general, among parties to common returns reciprocity does not obtain. Thus brothers (and other domestic family members) are entitled to equal (or labour-equivalent ) shares of farm produce, but do not measure reciprocity inter se (cf. 1949a, p. 102).

The mutual identification of brothers, we noted above, is a function of their common father. Their father has an over-right with regard to the individual property of each of them, as well as over his own property and the patrimonial estate. This over-right is part of a gradation of ownership rights which corresponds to the degree of mutual identification among close agnates:

We said earlier that a father owns all his son's property. This might seem to contradict what was said about the independant ownership by a son of the livestock he acquires be breeding from a gift or by other means. The Tallensi themselves do not admit a contradiction in this. They see it as an instance of the gradation of rights and duties that is distinctive of their whole social organization. A father's over-right entitles him to veto his son's using his own property in ways that seem extravagant; but it would be an injustice rightfully resented by the son if he were stopped from using his fowl or goat or sheep for purposes that public opinion considers legitimate. (1949a, p. 207)

The father has this over-right because (and to the extent that) the son is incorporated into the father's identity. In external affairs, as we know, fathers (and/or lineage heads) represent their constituents; they carry the identity of the group. The element of common identity implied in this may be considerable, as in the case of own father and son, because of the considerable common economic interests and relative weakness of internal distinctions. These latter, it will be remembered are weak particularly in as much as the sub-segments of the domestic family would generally not be economically viable on their own. In sum, then, there is an element of mutuality in the relation of father and son, though it never is comparable to that between brothers, in as much as father and son are not generally socially interchangeable, for example.

This distinction between mutuality and reciprocity in father/son relations is clear at points in Fortes, especially when he considers the vicissitudes of particular relationships over time:

In step with his growing social maturity a boy's field of social relations increases in range and in depth. His father's authority begins to loom larger, but at the same time his father's responsibilities on his behalf also increase and his own self-differentiation advances, and a theme that was a minor effect in their relationship hitherto comes into prominence. This is the principle of reciprocity. (1949a, p. 199)

The statement that the father's responsibilities increase is actually a bit misleading. The father's proportionate responsibility decreases as his son becomes less dependent on him. The occasions for responsibility to be at issue may be more numerous, however, and certainly are more varied and of greater material impact. It should be remembered, however, that these new demands of the son on his father's jural and ritual responsibility are a function of the son's growing differentiation.

Briefly, then from the point of view of the social order,

the relations of father and son are a balance between their ties of solidarity and mutual identification, which form the central link of the lineage system, and the cleavage due to their belonging to successive generations. (1949a, p. 230)

From the point of view of individual actors, it seems more plausible to characterize the relation in terms of a struggle instead of a balance, and to stress the changing nature of the tension over time. Changes are of both social and maturation and interests, but they are not simply lineal, for the relevance of the parent figure is continued in his role as an ancestor, but along with formalization, the parent's conceptualization comes closer to the parent of childhood (1949a, p. 235). This modification has not only the psychological significance which Fortes notes, but reveals the close social identification and dependence which is emphasized alike in the relation of young child to living parent and adult child to parent's spirit. This dependence and identification is its weakest in the relation of an adult son to a living father, especially if the former has set up on his own in another location.

The progressive independence of a son from a living father may even be accompanied by a dependence of the father on the son.

As Fortes notes:

a native's chief economic asset in old age (and this applies to sickness too) lies in the possession of sons, best of all own sons, but also proxy sons, that is, all those who have an interest in the patrimonial land which is for the time being in his keeping. (1949a, p. 217)

The obligation of sons to fathers (aged or otherwise) is emphasized in Fortes' concept of filial piety. This refers to the formal respect and deference owed to a parent (or ancestor) by a child (or descendant):

Filial piety is a parents' unquestioned and inalienable right because he begot you - or, in the mother's case, she bore you. Character and conduct do not come into it. Bad parents are just as much entitled to filial piety as good parents. It is an absolute moral rule. (1961, p. 177)

It becomes particularly easy to apply such a formal concept to ancestors, as opposed to living parents. It may indeed be this distinction which lies behind the Tale maxim 'fear the dead and do not fear the living' (1949a, p. 173; see also below). With living parents, Fortes indicates, one can always rely on being forgiven (actually one can sometimes appease a dead ancestor as well). Indeed, the importance of sons to a father makes forgiveness likely. In this sense we see that the father does not 'hold all the cards' in the struggle for independence (even without the son's option of migration) since his need for the son causes him to make certain concessions. Reciprocity alone, we may note, would imply that the father should counter injury with injury. Though he may still do so, his identification with his son provides for an aspect of mutuality which militates against it.

This is primarily the case with natural fathers, since proxy fathers and sons are not lineally related. A proxy father does not (without a process of fusion) become an ancestor to the line of his proxy sons. The formal aspects of the father/son relation tend to be predominant in the proxy relation, while they are interfused with a closer emotional bond in the natural relation (1949a, p. 142). Even beyond emotion, however, sons must adhere to their own fathers as their link to the ancestors. No rupture can be allowed to sever this bond. The proxy relation is much more expendable:

The fact that a man can only sacrifice directly to the spirits of his own parents and to antecedent ancestors through his own parents, and not to or through the spirits of proxy parents, is as important a factor in the unique bond of parent and child as the fact that a child is usually brought up by his own parents. (1949a, p. 144)

Individual relations between fathers and sons are thus characterized by an increasing struggle for autonomy on the part of the son, which is countered in part by the father's own efforts, and which is always limited (in the case of own sons) to economic affairs. A son's economic differentiation is counterposed by his interest in his father's status as holder of the patrimonial land, but no matter how successful the son, he still remains jurally and ritually dependent on his father. As Fortes puts it:

In this social system, jural and ritual authority is vested in the men who have the status of fathers. Until a man's father dies, he himself has no jural independence and cannot directly bring a sacrifice to a lineage ancestor. He is, as it were, merged in his father's status. (1959, p. 17)

The element of reciprocity in the father/son relation seems, in conclusion, a result of the differentiation imposed by the rule of inheritance over successive generations, the fact that the status of each is a function of that of the other, and the authority of the father. There is also an element of mutuality, however, although it does not include social equivalence. It is this close linkage coupled with differentiation which forms the key element in the Tale authority system.


Inter-Personal Categories of Relations - Agnatic Relations - Brothers - Father and Son - Grandfather and Grandson - Ancestor and Descendant - Women in the Lineage - Cognatic Relations - Marriage - Affines - Mother's Brother and Sister's Son - Maternal Grandparents - Ancestors - Cognatic Relations - Informal Relations - Social Interaction - The Influence of Locality - The Operation of Formal Relations - The Influence of Personal Preference

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