Man Vol 18, Number 3, September 1983, pgs. 602-604

Ancestors, sociology and comparative analysis

Professor Keesing's reply to my article on the authority of ancestors raises a number of interesting issues. I concur with his stress on conceptualisations which contribute to comparative analysis, but limit myself here to specifying further a few of our disagreements.

Keesing's analysis remains quite unsociological. By this I mean that he neglects the importance of demography, social relationships and the organisation of corporate groups. When Fortes studies the Tallensi, their population was over 45,000, growing fairly rapidly, and densely settled on land which grew in value as it was manured over the generations. As Keesing described the Kwaio, by contrast, 'settlements are tiny ... scattered, and frequently moved' (1970: 755). There was only some 3000 Kwaio remaining in the interior mountains for him to observe after the depopulation and migrations brought about by colonial rule. Despite Keesing's assertion that Kwaio social organisation

remains 'surprisingly unchanged', one must note that many times more Kwaio live on the coast than in their interior homeland; many work for corporation and government employers. These differences matter in two ways. First, Fortes studied a Taleland that was vital - alive in its continuing confrontations with a variety of internal and external problems, constantly reshaping both cultural and social organisation in response to the exigencies of social action. Keesing studied a Kwaio for whom traditional culture survived far more than traditional social organisation (though missionary activity and outside interventions had presumably affected both). Second, the major issue confronting the Tallensi - as Fortes observed - was one of maintaining boundaries and protecting specialised socio-economic rights. The Tallensi were rooted in their villages and fields to a far greater extent than the Kwaio; they were knit into denser and more stable social networks. The Kwaio seem more to face a need to find relationships among the widely dispersed and highly mobile members of their society. Kwaio fanua, Keesing tells us, were once the spatial loci and principal estates of individual descent groups (1970: 755) but it is clear that the structure of these groups has long since been disrupted.

Keesing's analysis focuses persistently on the categories of relationships derived from an egocentric viewpoint rather than from structures of social relationships. Forte's primary concern is with group membership. not individual statuses, though he does tend to slip without clear distinction from one point of view to the other. In my article I attempted to stress the sociological side of Forte's argument: lineages are the basis for structured social groups, not just conceptual categories. Jural and political groups relate to one another through the recognition of ancestral authority. Despite the introduction of non-agnates (as by adoption), descent provides the medium of discourse for a central part of social activity. In this connexion, I disagree categorically with Keesing's Schefflrian view that descent groups are a 'realisation' of a conceptual system (Man (N.S.), 18, 185-90). This assigns much too much primacy to culture, and even at the cultural level produces a static analysis which obscures the contributions which various specific contexts of social action make to linguistic discourse. Both language and substantive ideas about kinship and descent influence the ways in which descent groups are formed, but this group formation can hardly be explained apart rom social action and material factors. Moreover, while the Kwaio may make relatively little of the agnatic definition of their social groups, the Tallensi take patriliny quite seriously. They do not produce allegedly agnatic lineages in which the majority of members

may be known non-agnates. And Tale sacrifices must pass through specific agnatic descendants; they are not carried out by an undifferentiated class of officiants (preferably but not necessarily agnates) on behalf of an agnatic group.

Keesing rather adamantly refuses to look at social groups as such. Thus he takes Fortes and me to task for contrasting 'agnatic' or 'patrilineal' with 'matrilateral'. He notes that 'a Tale man's nonagnatic ancestors include many that are not matrilineal (in relation to him): his father's mother's lineage ancestors; his father's father's mother's lineage ancestors, etc. They may have been "matrilateral" ancestors to somebody ... but they are patrilateral to him' (p. 186). Fortes and I may have contributed to some semantic confusion, but the substantive issue is that however these relationships may appear 'from ego's point of view' they are important primarily from the point of view of ego's membership in a corporate group - a lineage - and all the listed relationships are matrilateral for the lineage. Discourse focused on social groups has a different content from ego-centric discourse; it refers to different social relationships. It happens that Tallensi use the same kinship terms (informed by context) to describe these different relationships but that should not prevent us from grasping the difference. Though Fortes does recognise both levels, he has obscured the distinction somewhat by following Tale folk practice (which coincides with his own views) and describing the relationships constituted at the level of social groups as extensions of the key interpersonal relationships of the family. He does not indicate any Tale terminological distinction comparable to the Nuer division of but (agnatic corporate group relations) from mar (cognatic interpersonal kin relations) but his analysis is still similar to Evans-Pritchard's (1940: 193-4). Thus his usage of 'matrilateral' to refer to a collective class of relationships (matrilateral to a lineage) follows Tale construction but may confuse literal-minded anthropologists. Unfortunately, even our own professional kinship terminology does not have an effective way of discriminating the two levels of discourse without the introduction of numerous qualifiers.

This issue lies behind numerous arguments Keesing picks with Fortes (and/or my interpretation of Fortes). He suggests that the nonagnates who attend a Tale sacrifice comprise an 'array' defined by their common descent status, neglecting to point out that this array, however conceptually defined, is not a corporate group but still a collection of individuals. He tries to argue that Fortes should have referred to the descendant of a man linked matrilaterally to a Tale clan as than clan's classifactory 'grandson' (!) rather than 'sister's son' without considering that the individual in question was not a member

of the corporate lineage group (Man (N.S.), 18, 186; cf. Fortes 1949: 150). In short, Keesing reasonably points out a distinction between kinship and descent, but then unreasonably assumes that ego-centric descent analysis supersedes socially focused analysis of corporate kinship groups. The definition of descent under which Fortes and I have worked may be problematic; I will accept Scheffler's (1966) point that descent should not be understood as referring necessarily to a unilineal rule of corporate group membership. Alterations in vocabulary will not help analyses, however, unless we still have a way to stress which relations define corporate groups and which do not.

As long as Keesing treats kinship as referring solely to ego-centric analysis, he will have to come up with another term to denote the relationships which organise people in corporate groups, of he will most likely continue to neglect them. It is no doubt true that conceptual constructions need to be distinguished from social groups, but that need not involve granting them an ontological status independent of (and apparently prior to) social action and organisation. It is no accident that Keesing's ego-centred mode of analysis ends up with a special stress on cognatic descent; both his field situation and his theoretical orientation suggest it. It is impressive to recall, however, that Forte's Tallensi monographs took as one of their major points and organisational features the distinction between the social structural analysis of agnatic groupings and the analysis of interpersonal relationships appropriate to what Keesing would have us call cognatic descent.

Craig Calhoun
University of North Carolina,
Chapel Hill
I am grateful to Lee Schlesinger and Edward LiPuma for helpful discussions of this comment.

Evans-Pritchard, E.E. 1940. The Nuer. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Keesing, R. 1970. Shrines, ancestors, and cognatic descent: The Kwaio and Tallensi . Am Anthrop. 72, 755-75.
- 1983. Ancestors, sociology and comparative analysis. Man (N.S.), 18, 185-90.
Scheffler, H.W. 1966. Ancestor worship in anthropology: reflections on descent and descent groups. Curr. anthrop. 7, 541-51.

Further debate here on the Tallensi would be unproductive. However, on the modern Kwaio, Calhoun is simply wrong. I was able to reconstruct a highly detailed and very accurate picture of Kwaio social organisation in late 1927, on the eve of pacification (see Keesing and Corris 1980; Keesing 1983).

These data, and twenty years of ethnographic evidence, allow detailed assessment of continuity and change in Kwaio social organisation. While Christianisation and the 1927 punitive expedition did thin population and leave empty spaces (Keesing & Corris 1980; Keesing 1983), there is clear evidence that in the 1920's (if settlements were tiny, scattered and shifting (1927 mean population 9.95; 1963 mean 8.9): (2) descent groups were tiny (3-15 adult men, in 1927); (3) these descent groups were contextually defined and corporate only in limited contexts (Keesing 1971); and (4) cognatic descent and kinship were crucial at the level of individual and intergroup relations. In 1983, both social structure and ancestral religion remain substantially intact: reports of the death of Kwaio society are greatly exaggerated.
Roger M. Keesing

Australian National University
Keesing, R.M.
- 1971. Descent, residence and cultural codes. Anthropology in Oceania (eds) L.R. Hiatt & C. Jayawardena, Sydney: Anges & Robertson.
- 1983. Kwaio religion: the living and the dead in a Solomon Island society. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.
- & P. Corris. 1980. Lightning meets the west wind: the Malaita massacre. Melbourne: Oxford Univ. Press.

This correspondence is now closed - EDITOR

Go to the main Ancestors in Africa page Go to the main Experience Rich Anthropology page Go to the CSAC Anthropology Pages - online