Chapter 5 (pt.2)


The Social Situation: Social action takes place in contexts more specific than the overall and general 'society' or social organization. These contexts are the results of temporal and social limits, and appear differently when seen through different foci. Though any social situation implies, ultimately, the entirety of the social world of its participants, it organizes the relevance of this agglomeration of information, making it distinct from other situations. Thus two people, meeting each other at the same place on the same path on two very similar social situations, distinguished only by the events of the intervening hours. These latter of course may be of greater or lesser impact. But even such a objectively similar pair of situations might differ dramatically in another way: in the subjective constructions which their participants give to them. Since the situations with which we are concerned are all situations of action, this is of the utmost significance. Recognizing the importance of subjective constructions gives rise to the observation that different actors may or may not give the same boundaries to a social situation. That is, they may regard it as an episode in an ongoing interaction, part of the same situation; or they may regard it as an entity in and of itself. It is not primarily their reflective opinions with which we are concerned, but rather the way in which their identifications influence their action, their expectations and decisions with regard to the social situation. Very simply, two subjects interacting before a two-way mirror may have different definitions of the situation, stemming from the fact that one of them - but not the other - knows that they are being observed.

Any analyst may, to be sure, apply whatever external boundaries to social situations as are useful in the treatment of the problems he poses for himself. To be meaningful in terms of social action, however, definition should be based on actor identifications of the range of impingement and effect, that is, the range beyond which influences are not taken account of and results not planned for. Such a boundary is often neither conscious nor distinct, but it is nonetheless vital to international action (see Chapter 7). Social situations are thus contexts in which events, influences and effects are considered. They are social because, at the very least, they involve one social actor and his/her/its expectations about others. They are limited by the durations of anticipation/decision/action, and by the range of other units which they implicate.

Among the Tallensi, the preponderance of formal relations and (especially at one time) the relative social stability make for a rather highly conscribed set of elements to social situations. Further, the relatively homogenous culture implies highly similar, or at least congruent, constructions on the part of all the actors involved. As Fortes has noted:

Individuals who have the same or nearly the same field of social relations tend to have the same picture of their society; and individuals who have different fields of social relations tend to interpret their social behaviour and the structure of their society by the same concepts and along the same lines insofar as the same principles determine Tale social structure in every sector of the society. (1945, p. 116)

The concrete manifestations of social relations are in social situations (although these latter may also include interactions more ephemeral than what we have been terming relations). Even with the limited set of 'types' of social situations among the Tallensi, the situations are 'multi-dimensional'. That is, the same social actors may be involved in many action/decision situations, and several actors may be involved in any one situation. The latter amounts to little more than noting that everyone sees things from his own perspective, although the extent of difference may be an important variable. The former implies something a bit more complex, however. In essence, this is the body of connections which subjects may make regarding objects (particularly other actors) which they encounter in multiple situations. In other words, they observe that the same people appear recurrently, and they construct social identifications of them. In addition, be it noted, subjects make the same sort of observations about themselves, and, even where unobserved, contiguities of social situations may have effects (see below). These various identities which people construct for each other depend, crucially, on the extent to which social situations overlap in their sets of actors. This is clearly a central part of the 'multiplexity' of social relations by which Gluckman characterized small-scale highly integrated societies (1955, pp. 19, 156 and 1962, p. 26). This overlap is very great for the Tallensi, although it lessens in accordance with the ascent of the hierarchical scale of ancestors and corporations. It is a virtually direct measure of social distance.

Hierarchical Inclusivity: An important aspect of the classification of patrilineal (and patrilineally extended) relations among the Tallensi is that a single organizing principle governs all levels of classification. This is done, further, in such a way that all groups of any given level between the smallest and the largest are grouped together into the units of the next higher (larger) level. Thus nuclear lineages are made up of minimal lineages and so forth; all are ordered by the same principle, with the rules of transformation from one level to the next implicit. One function of such a system is that while in any particular social situation one level may be the focus of actors' identities, all other levels are presupposed in the organization of action. The simplest and smallest imply the largest and most complex, and vice versa (cf. 1945, p. 139).

In traditional Tale social order, this is the only system of corporate identities, the only organization of actors of larger scale than individual persons. There is no competing alignment of social groups; no groups fall outside this structure. We may term such an organization 'monistic', meaning that it can be generated from a single set of non-competitive rules, all applying to all situations. Among the Tallensi this social organization is crucially linked to a monistic ideological organization: the hierarchy of ancestral authority. As we shall see in the next two chapters, such a system minimizes discontinuities in the social order, and is central to the stability of Tale society over time. We have already shown the way in which the system of hierarchical inclusivity governs the process of contraposition of coordinate segments and makes social distance a direct reflex of social identity. It is this monistic system which ensures that conflicts and disputes will recurrently follow lines of cleavage (and thus identity) in the social organization without ever producing an irreparable rupture in the social fabric. No group, in other words, is incorporated into the society at only the highest level, and no group is made up merely of individuals. Fortes notes this when he says:

A lineage of any span emerges in any of its activities as a system of aliquot parts, not as a mere collection of individuals of common ancestry. (1945, p. 31)

Such a hierarchically inclusive system is much like the pre-democratic ideal of Toqueville, the French conservatives, and other late eighteenth and early nineteenth century writers, at least on one dimension. This is the dominant significance of 'intermediate associations' that is, social groups falling between the individual and the whole. These were seen to be counterforces to the absolute strength of the authorities at the highest levels. As Nisbet has emphasized, however, these were primarily 'pluralist' theories, in which social groups were formed on the basis of authority coming from a number of different sources - viz. church, state, family, region (1973, esp. pp. 385-442). Where in his earlier work Nisbet placed more stress on the aspect of intermediate associations in these writers, notably Toqueville (cf. Nisbet, 1952), he has lately taken up the other side, in some ways confusingly (as, for example, when he groups Weber with Durkheim as essentially 'sociological pluralists, op. cit.). I suggest that for intermediate associations to be a counterforce to absolute authority and/or power, they need not be plurally organized. The monistic system of the Tallensi worked quit as well; indeed, from all we know, it proved more stable, and it never gave rise to an indigenous autocrat.

What makes intermediate associations so effective is the way in which they link social individuals to each other in a variety of differentiated and long-term multiple commitments. They reduce the role of pure egoism or individualism in social life. At the same time that they do this, they reduce the propensity of alienated individuals for participation in mass movements. Though related to it, this is more than just a matter of the socio-psychological importance of primary group affiliation (cf. Cooley, 1902, 1909). It is an overridingly and directly sociological statement: that hierarchically incorporated social groups make for a stable social order. In the Tallensi case their link with tradition through the ancestors is obvious. Since this is a central theme of the rest of this thesis, I shall not belabour it here. Let it simply be noted that (a) the social situation is never defined simply in terms of a set of isolated individual actors among the Tallensi, and (b) the primary rules of transformation of one social situation into another (i.e., the expansion of disputes) are always implicit. In the next chapter (especially) we shall look at the social significance of authority, including its relation to social group identity. Before moving on to that, however, something does need to be said about the nature of the social individual, personality and role among the Tallensi.


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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