One: The Social Order

The Social Order: Categories, Groups, Relationships

Our aim is neither to separate social morphology from social representations, nor to view one as the reflection of the other, but to order all social facts according to a society’s values, to achieve an understanding of a particular society and to compare it with others.

Cecile Barraud (1990, 216)

This chapter is intended to describe the Gadaba’s social order, that is, the social relationships, groups, and categories on which this society is founded and in which it is embedded. A separate morphological description of this kind may give the impression that entities like the house or the lineage exist - perhaps timelessly - on their own and can be isolated from the rest of the culture, as mere social forms. The opposite is the case, since this morphology is continuously generated by means of social life and economic and ritual activities. Gadaba rituals shape and make real the social order in an ongoing process and thereby also alter that order.

To this extent, it would therefore be logical to let the description of the social order follow that of the rituals, in order to articulate this fact through the organization of the text as well. This sequence would also correspond to the process by which knowledge is acquired in the field. Although appropriate to the subject matter, however, this approach creates great difficulties for the reader, since it only gradually becomes possible to recognize the basic patterns of social organization. For this reason, this chapter will sketch the social context in which the rituals take place, even though it is the rituals that first reveal the social relationships, groups, and categories and lend them significance.

My description of the Gadaba social order moves from the microlevel, the smallest social units, to the macrolevel, the more encompassing configurations. This egocentric perspective comes closest to the Gadaba’s indigenous viewpoint, since “society” for them is not a sociocentric unit with sharply defined borders; rather, each village is situated at the center of a network of relationships, the peripheries of which are not clearly delimited.[1] As Sahlins (1968) describes in ref?erence to tribal societies in general, the smallest social units show the greatest cohesion and the highest degree of cooperation, while higher-level organizational units are characterized by increasing vagueness and have decreasing functional relevance. From the indigenous perspective, the “tribe” is often nearly meaningless (16), and among the Desia, membership in a specific tribal group is often less important for ritual relationships than membership in a particular descent category or local group.

As explained in the introduction, tribal societies are distinguished by a generalized structure in which a single institution - a dance or a ritual - touches on a variety of political, economic, or religious themes. In the same way, the relationships and social units described in this chapter affect the most varied realms of social life. A “house” is a work unit, a commensal group, and a ritual community; it has a spatial organization and a particular manner of construction, one that articulates fundamental values in its turn. All relevant aspects will be discussed with the necessary brevity in connection with the relevant social units. Separate chapters on, for example, “the economy” or “the pantheon” will be omitted, since the economy, spatial structure, and relationship to the gods are parts of a single social order.

Social relationships and units are described both on the level of indigenous conceptualizations of society (cf. Pfeffer 1991, 1997a) and on that of observed practice, since only by taking both levels into account can something close to social reality be depicted. The corresponding frame of reference is made clear in the text in each case.2

  • [1] Sahlins (1968) contrasts this perspective, a series of concentric circles that indicate the different sectors of social or kinship ties (from the “household” to the “tribe”), to the sociocentricand non-specific perspective that views the segmentary structure as a family tree of branching,subordinate units (from the “tribe” to the “household”). The author calls the latter “levels of
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