Wallace G. Mills Hist. 316 11 Nuer

Stateless Societies

- see Robert O. Collins, ed., Problems in African History, pp.167-209.

- for a long time, many historians ignored stateless societies, preferring centralised states and societies. The latter have recognisable political institutions and often have deeper, more carefully preserved bodies of oral tradition.

- moreover, we often have difficulty understanding stateless societies; we cannot conceive of there being any structure or order, any law in human relations without authorities and formal structures. Without institutions to maintain laws and order, we assume that there is only chaos.

- stateless societies are anarchies. Popularly, these terms, ‘chaos’ and ‘anarchy’, are often treated as synonymous and used interchangeably. Even Collins, in his introduction, uses the term ‘anarchic chaos’; this is not correct. Chaos has no order, no regularities, no law.

- anarchy is turbulent and lacks the authority and structures that we assume are necessary to maintain order; however, there is a ‘society’ (i.e., a recognised community) of which families and individuals are a part. There is a widely accepted body of rules to govern behaviour and relations between members of the society; thus, there is law and a conception of justice. There are mechanisms to maintain the law and which help to regulate behaviour and relations among the people. While we would certainly find these anarchies unacceptably disorderly, they are not lawless and chaotic.

- Collins puts it this way (see The Historian and Stateless Societies; every society requires some rules and laws; these rules and laws must be agreed to by most, if not all, of the constituents. There must be a consensus. Although rules are accepted, they are not necessarily always obeyed. As a result, in most societies, there are authorities who are empowered to enforce the laws and to punish offenders.

- stateless societies have minimal or no government; no one has authority to make decisions about the rules and enforce these on others. In these societies, there is an unwillingness to empower anyone with authority; in fact, they regard any exercise or attempted exercise of authority as tyrannous.

- nevertheless, there is a consensus about the norms and the rules of behaviour and actions towards others; these rules are maintained largely by consensus.

- when a rule or custom is violated, then the injured party or his/her kinsmen can take reprisals as long as public opinion favours the action taken. The reprisals must be considered equal to and not greater than the injury originally inflicted.

- i.e., “an eye for an eye” as in the Bible. However, that means an eye for an eye, but no more than an eye.

- thus, enforcement is a real possibility; deterrence is based on the likelihood of retaliation by the victim or his/her kin group. On the other hand, public opinion sets the limits for the avengers.

- there are also usually provisions for resolving disputes and settling feuds. Compensation from the perpetrator and his/her kin group is one way; public opinion usually brings pressure to bear upon the victim’s kin group to accept. The kin group leaders may hold negotiations, perhaps assisted by individuals who act as mediators, to resolve the conflict.

- these provision allow some stability and order to exist in a society without investing power in the hands of particular officials or offices. Such societies are certainly more turbulent than we would accept (kind of like the mythological wild, wild West of US movies and fiction), but they are not chaotic.

Kinship and Family

- family and family ties are very much more extensive and more carefully maintained in African societies than is the case nowadays in most western societies. Indeed, in our societies, kinship has been diminishing steadily as a significant consideration. Thus, if we are going to understand African societies, we have to gain some understanding and appreciation of the vastly greater importance kinship ties have in Africa.

- this element is important in all African societies, but it is especially important in stateless societies. In the latter, there are virtually no independent political structures; thus, kinship provides both social and political structure in the society. Almost all relationships are understood, at least theoretically, as extensions of the family and kin. What follows are simple definitions of kin relationships and terms:

Nuclear family—generally, a man, his wife or wives and their children.

Extended family—all the descendants of a living or recently deceased relative (i.e., a grandparent or great grandparent). Thus, it includes aunts and uncles and cousins (certainly 1st cousins and 1st cousins once removed, but may also include more distant relations. This is our way of conceptualising; Africans usually do not understand it this way.). Of course, everyone belongs to 2 extended families, that of one's mother and of one's father. In patrilineal societies, the father's is more important; in matrilineal societies, it is more complicated.

Lineage—all descendants of a common ancestor and usually the genealogy of descent is remembered. In many African societies, lineages are exogamous (marriage is forbidden and would be regarded as incest). In some societies, lineages can have a depth of 10-12 generations; in some cases, it is the lineages which control the land and in such cases they are organised and have a corporate identity.

Clan—(there are differences in the way this term is used) Often, the people in this entity claim that all are descended from a common ancestor, but that ancestor may in fact be a mythological figure. Often, there is no genealogy to show the links or relationships between the lineages. Their links are often recognised because they share a common totem and observe some taboos in common. They may also be forbidden to marry (thus, clans may be exogamous).

Tribe—(this term too is used in different ways by different anthropologists) Evans-Pritchard used it to describe the segment of Nuer society that recognised that war was not an appropriate activity internally.

Nation—all those who share a common language and culture, but who may be divided politically. Thus, links may be limited (and war may be a normal condition). They do distinguish between those who share the same language and culture and those people who do not; they treat these two categories differently.

- in our society, it is at the level of the extended family that family ties tend to disintegrate; they are maintained less and less all the time. This is facilitated when siblings are often widely dispersed after they become adults. Their families (cousins) often have little or nothing to do with each other. Even ties with parents and grandparents may be limited. Of course, with the prevalence of divorce, even the nuclear family is not being maintained in the traditional way in a growing percentage of cases.

- in Collins, there are 3 separate approaches to cataloguing and understanding stateless societies; we shall discuss only 2 of them.

Paul Bohannan, Africa and the Africans. (excerpt in Collins, pp. 170-3)

- he divides stateless societies into 2 categories in both of which kinship ties are very important.

“One of these is the maintenance of justice and of cultural and territorial integrity through the extended family organisations and the invocation of kinship behaviour not only in domestic but in wider spheres. The other answer is a system of checks and balances in which a principle very like that in international law—two power centres instead of one—can be applied at all levels of the community.”

- there are examples in the Bible to illustrate both of these models.

- Bohannan calls this 2nd type “the international law solution” because the principles underlying it are almost the same as those which seem to govern international relations (the latter is correctly often labelled ‘anarchy’ even though there is a considerable body of international law and even institutions such as the world court and the United Nations; these institutions have little power to enforce the law except as member nations take action).

- he presents the following model to illustrate and explain his theory.

- in the model, you may think of the different segments in the hierarchy as different levels in the kinship hierarchy. Please do not confuse this as a political hierarchy; as stateless societies, there are no political structures or hierarchies.

- Bohannan says it is based upon widely observed phenomena—(a) 2 brothers may quarrel, but if a outsider becomes involved with either, the brothers combine to oppose the outsider. (b) Though brothers fight, there are usually limitations to their fighting and their actions against each other as they will have to compose their differences later. However, where relationships are remote or non-existent, actions may be much less restrained.

- if a and b have a quarrel, it is contained within segment 1, but if a and d are involved, then a and b (segment 1) will be ranged against c and d (segment 2).

- if a and h are involved, then all of segment A will be united against segment B; similarly, a quarrel between a and p will result in all of segment I being united against everyone in segment II.

- such a system depends a good deal upon a (theoretical at least) balance of power and equivalence at all levels. In theory, all conflict is between relatively equal groups.

- also, until one reaches the highest levels, 3rd parties are usually peacemakers rather than joiners in the fray as this kinship framework means that they are related to both parties. Disputes are frequently resolved by the elders getting together to discuss the issue and compose differences.

- Bohannan even argues that in some senses, each settlement is more like a treaty than a court decision.

- Evans-Pritchard’s model to explain the same system (“The Nuer of the Southern Sudan,” African Political Systems, p. 282) is different from Bohannan’s. He uses squares and rectangles to show the segments of the kinship system. Its main advantage is that there is less danger of interpreting it as a political hierarchy than in Bohannan’s model.

- this ‘international law’ approach to maintaining order has advantages over the patrilineal approach:

Lucy Mair: Primitive Government

- Mair approaches the problem from a slightly different point-of-view. She is concerned to describe ‘minimal government’ and to determine the degree of political authority. In doing this, she includes some societies which do have a state structure, but in which political authority is so weak that it is hardly stronger than in societies without any state structure. An example is the Shilluk (also in the Sudan) who do have an embryonic ‘divine king’, but he has virtually no political power.

- she defines 3 classifications:

  1. Those societies in which the numbers who accept a common source of authority may be small. This is practically the same as Bohannan’s first group.

  2. Societies in which the positions of authority are few and informal.
    - the Nuer are probably the best example. Although there is a leader (‘village bull’) in each village, he has influence only; the rest of the village are free to follow his lead or not as they wish. There are also ritual leaders, including the leopard-skinned chiefs, but these also lead by influence rather than by authority.

  3. Societies in which the actual power of authorities is small.

    - the Dinka (the Sudan) are an example of this type where there are institutionalised authorities who hold hereditary positions (through the dominant lineage in each area), but the authorities have very little power.

- by looking at more than one analysis (Collins has a third by Middleton and Tait, pp. 173-84) we can see more aspects and dimensions; however, the conclusions are not very different.

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