Chapter 5 (pt.1)


Identification by Contraposition

The Social Situation

Hierarchical Inclusivity

The Social Individual

Static Aspects of Individual Identity

Temporal Dimensions of Individual Identity

The identities of social actors are established primarily through contraposition with other actors. That this is the case for the Tallensi should be apparent from the preceding three chapters. I suggest that it is also a general principle of at least formal social relations. This has not been taken as being as obvious as it might seem, particularly by sociologists and anthropologists writing on the concepts of status and role. Many of these seem to reify social positions (statuses) into independent units operating outside of actual social situations and interaction; similarly they tend to take roles as given concomitants of statuses rather than the actions of an actor. Certainly on one level this is just a terminological dispute, and relatively uninteresting as such. It is also, though, a real problem in social theory, and in the rest of this chapter I shall attempt to show, in light of the Tallensi material, how a reconceptualization can provide improved understanding and greater analytic clarity.

I said above that identification through contraposition was general to 'at least formal' social relations. In fact I would argue that the principle is operative in all social relations. The specification of formal for the present discussion is made because two different analytic approaches are involved, only one within the scope of this study. In informal relations identities are formed both by processes of mutual construction and by contraposition. The former refers simply to the fact that actors, in order to have a relationship, must follow at least some common perceptions and anticipations of each other's behaviour. To the extent that their interaction is 'new' they must construct new identities within it. To the extent that it is not, that is, to the extent that it is carried on in terms of pre-established categories of action and expectation, the relation is formal and mutual construction is not taking place. To be sure, some element of such construction is always necessary, if only the mutual recognition of the salient categories; this may, however, be quite minimal. The reader should be aware that my usage here is slightly deviant from recent 'phenomenological sociology' which frequently assumes mutual construction to be a universal property of interaction. I contrast 'construction' with 'acceptance' in order to accent the difference between informal and formal, new and established, patterns of interaction. (It should also be emphasized again that I mean formal from a social perspective; a relation here designated informal may well create or maintain forms for an individual). There is, to take an example at a basic level, a difference between asking a question of routine fact which does not alter the definition of a relationship (although one sometimes could): e.g. 'has your wife had her baby yet?'; and asking a question which directly involves the definition of the relationship: e.g. 'do you want to marry me?'.

As to the extension of 'identification by contraposition', I suggest that a necessary condition of any identity is distinction from 'other', from non-identity, or at the highest level, from nothingness. This, of course, is hardly a new suggestion. It is most especially Hegel's argument, and since we will be treating Hegel more in the next chapter it is worth citing his discussion of this here. There are two primary aspects to Hegel's treatment. This first is the matter of contraposition which we have noted; the second is the temporal character of concrete identity, its quality of becoming, of movement:

And experience is called this very process by which the element that is immediate, unexperienced, i.e. abstract - whether it be in the form of sense or of a bare thought - externalizes itself, and then comes back to itself from this state of estrangement, and by so doing is at length set forth in its concrete nature and real truth, and becomes too a possession of consciousness. (1807, p. 96)

There are, to be sure, many things implied in this passage which we cannot stop to sort out here, and indeed we cannot much further pursue the experiential aspect of the importance of contraposition. It is the aspect of movement which largely distinguishes Hegel's idealism from its predecessors (such as Fichte's and Schelling's). This necessity of the other implies as well the importance of the definiteness of the other, a central part of the argument of this thesis, expressed especially in the distinction between the formal and informal of which we have made much. An identification by contraposition can only be as secure and as specific as each of the parties is to its counterpart.

No identity (social or otherwise), then, exists at once, in itself, as an immediate unity. An actor's social identity can only be achieved/expressed in terms of other social identities, and, further, this interrelation of identities is temporal. It occurs as extant and given at no one point in time, but is both determined and created over time.

True reality is merely this process of reinstating self-identity, of reflecting into its own self in and from its other, and is not an original and primal unity as such. It is the process of its own becoming, the circle which presupposes its end as its purpose, and has its end for its beginning; it becomes concrete and actual only by being carried out, and by the end it involves. (Hegel, 1807, pp. 80-1)

The great question of evolutionary theory, of course, is whether this end is indeed implicit in the beginning, and, if implicit, knowable. The easiest (and perhaps indeed most satisfying) resolution to be had at this point is to posit a simple negative answer to the second part of the question thus rendering the first practically irrelevant. Relation would be as necessary here as to any god (cf. Kolakowski, 1971, pp. 31-58). Leaving this last aside, the point of the reciprocal involvement of social elements with each other in the process of establishing their respective identities is clear.

As Fortes notes, this is the key to a segmentary lineage organization:

A segmentary relationship between lineages or any other social units implies the existence of specificities and cleavages which have the effect of making each unit a determining factor in the emergence of other units. (1945, p. 233)

The social 'elements' for which this is the case include all the symbolic units of social intercourse, even such 'material' ones as commodities (bear in mind that it is their symbolic not material nature that is involved). As Marx observed, value-relations are such that the 'bodily' or material form of one object (actually, at least one, a matter of logical necessity) becomes the value-form of another. In other words, a commodity's value cannot be expressed in and of itself but is a matter of comparison.

The value of A, thus expressed in the use-value of B, has taken the form of relative value (1867, p. 59)

In a note, Marx even notes the analogous form of human identity (not only demonstrating a continuing affinity with Hegel, but anticipating in an aside a key insight of such modern psychologists as Erikson):

In a sort of way, it is with man as with commodities. Since he comes into the world neither with a looking glass in his hand, nor as a Fichtian philosopher, to whom "I am I" is sufficient, man first sees and recognizes himself in other men (op. cit.)

Not only does 'man' do this, and not only vis-á-vis other individual persons. Not only is this the means of 'first' sight or initial identity. Social actors of all varieties including both individuals and groups have their identities only in relation to others. And just as for themselves counterparts are necessary so are they to outside analysts. Although this is always true, it obtains in varying quantities. Thus, in a stable society with a close-knit fabric of social integration (e.g., the Tallensi) identification by contraposition is elaborate and highly specific; the extent of abstract identity is minimal. In our 'modern' society (America is the most extreme example) a much greater part of the definition of social identities is abstract; contraposition is both more amorphous and more variable. In this indefiniteness others are still implicated, but to a very low extent.

Each is indeed certain of its own self, but not of the other, and hence its own certainty of itself is still without truth. (Hegel, 1807, p. 232)

The major characteristic (mechanism) of identity is thus weakened at the same time that social integration is weakened. Individuality destroys the means of individuality. This (as we shall show formally further in Chapter 8) is a central paradox of society.

Social units (of which ancestors are a subset) are thus defined only relatively: relative to other units and relative to the continuities and changes of time. The rest of this chapter will be devoted to an examination of these two factors of identity. These are in essence the social space and time in which social units are constituted and yet given their limits. We shall look first at the technique of identification by contraposition among the Tallensi, both in general and in the social situation, the variably defined context of social action. Then we shall consider hierarchical inclusivity of social stability. Next we shall turn to the social individual, considering both the static aspects of individual identity and the temporal dimensions which action creates.

Identification by Contraposition : As we observed above, contraposition is the key feature of identification of social actors in segmentary lineage organizations. A lineage segment, as Fortes puts it, is not a structure of 'brick and wood', always present in the same way.

It emerges when certain social processes and activities are in play; it is potential when they are not in play. (1945, pp. 232-3)

We emphasized in Chapter 2 the 'timeless' quality of the corporation; in discussing identification by contraposition Fortes suggests that the corporation is reducible to an 'analytic convenience' used in describing '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)

We have already expressed our disagreement with this view and given arguments for our own, particularly stressing the fact that the treatment of a corporation by a social actor follows not this rule, but rather a view of it as a single ongoing identity. Here we will develop another view, but it by no means requires us to discard out previous one. It is necessary to look at social organization from these different perspectives.
Contraposition is essentially a process, however it gains a static aspect when people so perceive its products. Although lineage segments only 'emerge' when they are brought into active relation to other segments of a like order, people neither always forget past actualizations nor fail to anticipate future ones. Fortes states the basic rule of contraposition for the Tallensi as follows:

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)

Within lineage groups of the lower orders, individuals' social personalities are the salient identities; in relations between groups this identity is submerged in the corporate identity of the group (1945, p. 137). Thus it is the relation which is determinate, not simply an egocentric comparison based on a given individual identity. Any given contraposition fits into a hierarchical system of successive inclusivities of which the major manifestation is the order of ancestral authority:

Each segment has its focus of unity, and an index of its corporate identity, in the ancestor by reference to whom it is differentiated from other segments of the same order in the hierarchically organized set of lineages. Sacrifices of the shrine of this ancestor require the presence of representatives of every segment of the next lower order; and this rule applies to all corporate action of a ceremonial or jural kind of any lineage. This is the fundamental rule of the lineage organization. (1945, p. 31)

It is this identification through ancestors and the authority which devolves from them onto living elders that Fortes refers to when he speaks of corporate solidarity being a function of a "differentiated constitution sustained by definite sanctions" (1949a, p. 251).

This 'differentiated constitution' is crucial to the maintenance of social order among the Tallensi:

Tale society is highly homogenous and integrated. But this is a resultant of the balanced interplay of a number of functionally discrete factors and of the inter-articulation of many clearly defined social units. (1945, p. 143)

Smith suggests that

Contraposition reflects the implicitly political substance of the segmentary processes, and involves units of co-ordinate status. (1956, p. 19)

He sees the relation of contraposition as being essentially one of competition between the corporate groups so identified, a view which I think is by no means necessary. Even an exchange relation - such as that involving women in marriage (and bride-wealth and labour in direct return) - has other major components, and indeed may be wholly other than competitive. Political competition is only one of the substantial areas in which structural balance is of importance.

Identification through contraposition helps to ensure that there will be some parity between the units which interact in any given social situation. Coupled with hierarchical inclusivity, it means that social identities are established by a single system for almost all situations, thus promoting an overall coherence and unity, as well as solidarity within any of the particular units.

The degree of unity, coherence, autonomy, or singularity of a socio-geographic segment of society is a function of its segmentary relations to other like regions and to more inclusive regions, up to the limit of the widest frame of social reference relevant for the region. In consequence, social groups are identified in relation to one another by a technique of contraposition. This is very clearly seen among the Tallensi. (1945, pp. 16-7)


Identification by Contraposition - The Social Situation - Hierarchical Inclusivity - The Social Individual - Static Aspects of Individual Identity - Temporal Dimensions of Individual Identity

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