Chapter 5 (pt.4)
CONTEXT AND IDENTITY
Static Aspects of Individual Identity: Here we are concerned with the atemporal statuses --corporate group identifications for example -- and attributes --e.g., farming skill --which make up each individual's distinct social personality. We have already noted the two major social frameworks of statuses among the Tallensi -- patrilineal descent and cognatic ties. And, although individuals vary on such attributes as their skill at divining or farming (note that many seeming attributes --e.g., number of children --turn out eventually to be or imply statuses, both particularly in relation to the children, and generally, within the lineage). The Tallensi themselves have symbolic expressions of each person's distinct identity, expressions which, though not inherited at birth, are unchanging once acquired. These are, most especially, Destiny ancestors.
Descent and kinship fix a person's place in society, and the rights, duties and capacities consequential to it, in terms of his membership of such groups as the lineage and the family, and of his relations with other kin through his parents, spouses, children. But there is another pole of existence for him. There is the fact of his individuality . . . Meaning is given to this fact too in the ancestor cult. (Fortes, 1959, p. 20)
A man's Destiny ancestors, as we have noted, are an ascending series of both patrilineal and matrilineal ancestors, usually dominated by the latter, and always unique. Women have no distinct set of Destiny ancestors, but fall first under the tutelage of their fathers' and then of their husbands' Destiny (1959, p. 25). A woman (like a man) does have a distinct Prenatal Destiny which is the result of a sort of positive or negative spiritual sponsorship based on the unborn infant's supposed choice (thus the name 'spoken Destiny'). The Yin shrine is the shrine dedicated to a man's Destiny ancestors, and as such its placement is a sign of his growing social individuality or autonomy:
every married man has his Good Destiny (Yin) shrine. While he is still young and dependent on his father, it stands in his mother's quarters. Later, when he has children, it is moved to his wife's quarters. And finally, when he succeeds to his father's place, it is moved outside to show that it owns and guards the whole family group. (1959, p. 25).
Individuality is a variable of progressive differentiation, and this involves particularly the growth of autonomy from the father. Autonomy is not the whole of individuality, however, nor is any other formal characteristic. All of the peculiarities and distinguishing factors which differentiate people contribute to it. Men have different attributes and different sized and qualities of farms, they live long or short lives with many or few children, etc.
Thus each person's total life-history is unique, though the events it is made up of are similar to those of other people's lives; and its particular course depends on his Destiny. That is why an offering to a Yin shrine is often eaten only by the owner and his wife and children, his kin by birth not being allowed to share in it as in his other sacrifices. (1959, p. 26)
Each person's life is unique, but any set of lives may be more or less different. Among the Tallensi the total variance of life-histories -- were there an adequate measure -- would presumably be found to be much less than that of Americans, say, or Englishmen. The fact that essentially similar complexes of ancestors can give voice to the various individual identities is itself a sign of the homogeneity of the society. This is reflected also in the extent to which statuses co-vary, so that one element of a status-set implies with considerable frequency another, as age implies wealth. It should be noted as well, that the system of ancestral authority is able to include the particularities of individual lives under its purview. This is in no small part because ancestors are themselves always 'particular' (1965a, p. 125), and are not an undifferentiated mass for the Tallensi. Lastly, the operation of Destiny ancestors is primarily to account for variations in individual fortunes within an established and relatively clear framework of desires and expectations. Such ancestors do not account for individual choices --except that they punish those who thwart their will -- but for events which distinguish individuals on matters of common or shared preferences. Thus, as Fortes says with regard to Prenatal Destiny:
Proof that it is working itself out in an evil way is the victim's irremediable but involuntary failure to fulfil the roles and achieve the performance regarded as normal for his status in the social structure. (1959, p. 41)
Note also that Fortes usage implies plural roles following on a single status.)
As Fortes is concerned to point out, there are important psychological functions attendant on this organization:
The result is that the Tallensi can accept responsibility on a personal level for the good and ill in their lives without feeling morbidly guilty or having guilt fixed on them by jural and religious sanctions. (1959, p. 37)
We are more concerned here with the sociological functions, however, among which the most central is the incorporation of (limited) individual variance as normal in the social order. Each person's distinct complex of identities in the hierarchically inclusive social order makes him unique, without violating any commonality at the largest level. Thus --and this is a point Merton does not grasp well (1957, p.287) -- sub-groups do not necessarily pull larger groups apart, but may provide for incorporation into larger groups. A social individual's statuses, among the Tallensi, are not simply distinct but tend to imply each other at different levels of the hierarchy, with greater or lesser specificity. Thus patrilineal statuses imply each other very closely, but imply many cognatic statuses only through proscriptions on certain marriages. A matter of related significance is the particular conjunction of statuses in any given individual's social personality. Thus -- as is obvious - a lineage head will have a different relationship to a man if he is also that man's father.
The static aspects of the identity of social individuals provide them, then, with a social personality by which they may identify themselves and through which others identify them. This has obvious formal effects on social relations, and personal effects on the conceptualization of appropriate behaviour, but it does not fully explain -- even sociologically -- choices. Choices in three ways involve temporal dimensions: they take place in temporal contexts, that is, before, during and after other events; they take place over time, that is, in situations of various durations; and they involve recollection and anticipation. We shall take up time-spans and social plans in more detail and more specifically in Chapter 7, but here let us look at the temporal dimensions of social identities, not simply status-sequences, but roles, taken as the actions of status-occupants, and thus as temporal in character.
Temporal Dimensions of Individual Identity: We are here concerned with the social identities of individuals, that is, their identities as actors in inter-relationship with other actors. (For a more psychological treatment of the significance of time in individual experiential identity see Calhoun, 1976). We shall first consider two 'analytical' perspectives on this matter: the contextually focused relevance of social personalities, and the frequency of status activation. Then we shall note an 'actor' perspective to which we have already alluded: the significance of potential as a determinant of social identity.
The various statuses and attributes which make up each social personality are focused differently in each social situation. This is so because, first of all, each situation involves either a different set of actors or changes in the same set. Thus the actions which an individual takes in one social situation will have different meanings and effects as they relate differently to other actors; they will be chosen with different anticipations (based on different recollections); they will be differently received based on the different relations which others have with the actor. In short, people will construct the roles they see in their own behaviour and that of others differently depending on the social situation in which it takes place. Any evaluation, of course, depends on the construction of the situation which is made. Thus if members of an accessory lineage are treated without differentiation from their 'sponsor lineage' in a formal ritual situation involving a wide range of social actors, this has different implications -- say for use as a precedent -- than does the same treatment by the same people in a less formal and less public situation. More generally, in discussing identification by contraposition we have noted that the group of individual identity which is salient always varies with the situation -- and thus the definition of the situation -- in which it is brought to the fore. Some reference -- and this will necessarily involve temporal boundaries -- to social situations is necessary in addition to the status-sets, role-sets, and status sequences which Merton sees as the context of reference group behaviour (1957, p.368). Merton considers this as the 'structural context', and this it is, if one considers status-sequences in his static sense, that is as established patterns, and does not choose to look at structures in time. Social situations are important not only in the general sense of each one being differently constituted as to actors and significance, but also in that each may be differently constructed with respect to duration. An encounter, as we have noted, may be a moment on its own or one hour in a play lasting days or years. A youth may seek, in an otherwise similar situation, a lover for a night or a wife for a lifetime.
Another important temporal dimension to social situations is their relations of contiguity to or separation from each other. In one aspect the continuity of events figures prominently in Malinowski's conception of the genesis of magical notions and certainly temporal proximity figures in Tale ideas of propitious and unpropitious signs. More generally, attitudes are shaped by associations based on temporal contiguity. We are all familiar with the experience of 'having a bad day' in which our tolerance for each successive disturbance is lessened by the accumulation of nuisances in a short period of time. Similar effects may be observed on a social level. Crises occur from time to time, but when the spaces between times become shorter the ability to deal with each crisis -- or to take it in stride -- is reduced. Several political demonstrations occurring in rapid succession, for example, may do more to produce a 'movement' than any movement did to create them. They may also do much more to provoke governmental repression than an equal number set temporally apart. This is in part become their contiguity makes it more difficult to treat them as simply 'deviant'. For a period, at least, they are not out of the ordinary, and thus not as readily dismissed.
As an actor considers his involvement in or observation of a succession of social situations, he becomes able to formulate pictures of trends. He thus sees things getting better or worse, more stable or less stable, and then plans accordingly. He invests for long-term growth or speculates for short-term profit -- and these terms are as applicable to the decisions of Tale youth regarding their careers and the possibility of migration as they are to commodity and share exchanges. Temporally disconnected situations are not readily combined into trends. Temporal contiguity is of the greatest use (or misuse) in establishing trends where actual relations are not apparent. Thus it is that political parties are quick to assert their predecessors' blame when problems follow rapidly on their election but are happy to accept credit for any windfalls. Neither problems nor windfalls are as likely to be ascribed to them where more accurate and detailed information on their sources is available.
The extent of contiguity of social situations also provides for greater or lesser confrontation between the various static aspects -- statuses and attributes -- of an individual's social personality. This is not a major issue for the Tallensi (at least in the traditional social order) since there are relatively few opportunities for statuses to conflict, or in Merton's terms for the members of a role-set to place conflicting demands on an actor (Merton's discussion is very good; 1957, exp. pp.370-1). In the case of migrants, we may note, it would seem likely that there are many fewer instances of role-conflicts than there would be if the two contexts -- urban centers and Taleland -- were not as temporally distinct as they are for migrants. If these were commuters instead of migrants (even migrants who return periodically or permanently,the situation would be quite different.
Another temporal dimension of individual identity is similar to this in some ways. This is the frequency with which various statuses are activated -- either by the 'occupant' or his role-set. It is obvious that even when a man ostensibly acts as 'foster-father' an additional status of lineage head in relation to the 'son' makes a difference. At a higher level, it is clearly progressive infrequence of status activation which spells the eventual fusion of intermediate lineages. As members cease to have dealings which counterpose them as 'others' to members of coordinate segments, the segments gradually lose their salience and their identity. This happens, as we have indicated, as one passes beyond the range of differentiated inter-personal relations until one reaches the level of patrilineal units involved in relations of clanship (cf. Chapters 2 and 3).
Lastly, let us indicate the considerable importance of potential in the determination of role-relations. This refers to both potential continuity and potential change in the social individual considered, and hence in relationships with him. Potential is limited, quite simply, by the extent to which the individual is seen as capable (in prospect) of doing anything, affecting anything. It implies thus extent in time and extent in variability. In the case of the statement that a youth has more potential than an old man one indicates (a) that he will likely live longer, (b) that his efficacy will likely increase, and (c) that he may take effective action in new ways or contexts. Potential clearly affects role relations directly through the anticipations which each party has of the other(s). Indeed, since potential is by definition unactualized it can only enter actors' consciousnesses as anticipation. It can, however, be a factor on either retrospective or prospective sociological constructions on the part of an outsider. It is, for example, a part of the analysis we gave in Chapter 2 of the significance of wealth being vested in chiefs selected on the basis of genealogical seniority or age, viz. "when the holders of wealth are very old, they will not hold it for very long." This refers only, of course, to the human holders of wealth bounded by the constraints of the life-cycle.
We have also considered above (in Chapter 3) unactualized relations, that is, relations which exist on the basis of a kin tie (usually cognatic) but which have not as yet resulted in interaction between the linked parties. These relationships are available as potential to an actor in much the same way that there is potential in his active relations. The comparison also serves to stress the importance of potential in planning as well as in active treatment of role-partners. The significance of the influence of potential on plans should become more apparent when we consider time-spans and plans generally in Chapter 7. As to active relations, we may conclude by merely suggesting the wide range of almost obvious ways in which perceived potential influences interaction. Commitment to or investment in another individual or group is, for example, frequently though not completely or always the result of evaluations of the 'alter's' potential. Though we are by no means purely rational or purely evaluative in our selection of interpersonal relations and behaviour within them, we are significantly so. And the characteristics up for evaluation are not limited to personal attributes of the prospective role-partner either; potential afines are an important matter to be considered in choosing a bride. And, among the Tallensi, we might note, potential is by no means exhausted with death. Ancestors have considerable potential for action in social relations with their descendants, potential, indeed, the potential to produce all the vicissitudes, fortunes and misfortunes which come to an individual or group and are not brought about by his/its other role partners. Their potential is in fact unlimited.
This unlimited extent, intensity and variability of action make ancestors most important partners in role relations. They must be planned for, but such planning is always bound to be insufficient. Tradition is important in delimiting the number of ways in which one relates to the ancestors and the number of alternatives which need to be brought into account. The transactions are always, however, one-sided and the very absoluteness of the ancestor's potential is inescapable. These facts are of course inextricably connected to the authority of ancestors. This authority is pervasive and unlimited; it forms an adjunct to every other relationship in Tale society. In other words, the ancestors are involved in every one of the individual's role-sets, although they are most conspicuously concerned with his agnatic relations. Their concern moreover is focused explicitly on the quality of an individual's performance according to their expectations (that is, traditional/consensual expectations) in every relationship he has. As Fortes notes, in Tale society virtue " is a question of moral relationships, not of good deeds" (1959, p. 33). The relationship which can be the most moral, it should be emphasized, are those of kinship, and among them agnatic ties predominate.
The social individual, in sum, exists in traditional Tale society only in the context of his particular constellation of relationships. It is how he behaves within them which matters, how he behaves in terms of any abstract ideals. The individual plans his behaviour taking his relations into account; his roles thus reflect his relations indirectly as well as directly. As a social individual his behaviour depends on his sociality as much as his uniqueness or 'individuality' (conceived more anomically, cf. de Maistre's "l'esprit particuler". 1821). He is at once one and many. He is many disparate aspects and actions only superficially integrated with regard to his continuity, or he is essentially one in contradistinction from what he is not. As Hegel considered the matter in his discussion of perception:
we see that consciousness alternately makes itself, as well as the thing, into both a pure atomic many-less "one", and an "also" resolved into independent constituent elements (materials or matters). Consciousness thus finds through this comparison that not only its way of taking the truth contains the diverse moments of apprehension and return upon itself, but that the truth itself, the thing, manifests itself in this twofold matter. (1807, p. 172)
The social individual is thus in a sense misnamed, for he can be divided. It is only in one of his two inevitable aspects that he is 'individual'. In the other he is made up of myriad attributes and involvements. And, among the Tallensi, it is his social involvements which most especially make him, for little exists in the Tale world which is not seen as social as soon as one recognizes the essential sociality of ancestors. A person is not only 'less different' than in other socio-cultural instances, but he is more incorporated into defined social relations (including inter-corporate relations at their secondary level from the individual). He is one in relations to any other one, and he is many in considering his manifold elements (especially, the many ways in which he may be socially 'sensed'), but it is important that his multiplicity exists primarily in terms of other social units and not of the potentially greater number and idiosyncracy of abstract fragments of identity. A Talen is individual primarily in terms of the way he is social.
Identification by Contraposition - The Social Situation - Hierarchical Inclusivity - The Social Individual - Static Aspects of Individual Identity - Temporal Dimensions of Individual Identity