Kinship Tropes as Critique of Patronage in Postwar Sierra Leone

William P Murphy


This chapter begins with a methodological principle: the social scientists’ explanatory tropes are often constructed, whether implicitly or explicitly, from the ethnographic data of tropes used by the members of a community to represent their culturally significant social identities, relations, norms, and sentiments. Consider a central problem in the study of Upper Guinea Coast societies: namely, patronage. This research problem is stimulated by, and would be theoretically impoverished without, the local discourse that is richly filled with cultural tropes representing the institution of patronage in this region of West Africa. Key analytical terms, such as “big man” for the role of patron (and “bigmanity” [Utas 2012], for the institution), derive from the local cultural terms for this institutional role and its normative expectations (in the Kpelle language of Liberia, one phrase for ‘big man’ is nuu-krt? meaning “big person”) circumflex over the first ? vowel in the Kpelle compound word.1 Anthropologists learn to recognize the social reality of patronage in the life of Upper Guinea Coast communities because they overhear talk of praise and blame for the behavior of big men, including complaints about the difficulties, challenges, and injustices of clientelist social dependency.

W.P. Murphy (H)

Department of Anthropology, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, USA © The Author(s) 2017

C.K. H0jbjerg et al. (eds.), Politics and Policies in Upper Guinea Coast Societies, DOI 10.1057/978-1-349-95013-3_5

Kin terms provide an important moral vocabulary for this talk. Patrons and clients can be construed, normatively, as similar to “fathers” and “sons.” When combined with tropes of size, a cultural equation emerges: a big man is also the “father” of the social group or community. Other kin categories, besides father, are frequently used as metaphors in the patriarchal model of a patron, such as “older brother.” Alternatively, a matriarchal model serves to legitimate a “big woman” as the powerful “mother” of a social group, or even a country—for example, the case of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as “mother” of the country of Liberia. Even matrilateral kinship provides patronage metaphors in the sense that the MB (mother’s brother) models a maternally solicitous patron, while the ZS (sister’s son) is a trope for a client as like a loyal nephew. Marriage categories also can be a language of patronage. The social categories of “wife-giver” or “wife-receiver” can index patron and client relations: for example, in the early history of the Upper Guinea Coast, the wife-giver group (and often firstcomer group to the territory) became the MB patrons of the wifereceiving group (and latecomer group) (see Murphy and Bledsoe 1987).2

The examples above of kinship tropes of patron-client asymmetrical reciprocity exemplify the idea of patronage as a kind of exchange process in which there is a “vertical dyadic alliance ... between two persons of unequal status, power or resources each of whom finds it useful to have as an ally someone superior or inferior” (Lande 1977, xx). A client is looking for economic security and political protection, while the patron is expecting personal loyalty, obedience, and faithful service (see also Stokes 2007, 606, on the analytical significance of “exchange” between patrons and clients). This view of patron-client ties implies a methodology: namely, the need to pay close attention to sociopolitical encounters involving the exchange of goods and services between patrons and clients. Moreover, what makes an exchange between patrons and clients socially significant is the language used to mediate and constitute the normative meaning of those exchanges, including norms implicated by tropes.3

The argument pursued here reframes the question of a rich language of kinship tropes for legitimating reciprocal relations between patrons and clients to a question of using this same language for criticizing failures in that reciprocity. The focus is on the transformation of tropes from models of social life to models for criticizing moral failures in that life. For example, tropes of the political leader as weaver or artist (or physician)—as found in Plato’s political philosophy—models the duty to instill political life with aesthetic qualities, such as harmony, proportion, and moderation (Wolin 2004, 43); but those same tropes can be used to criticize the ruler’s failures to achieve harmonious qualities in political life.4

Postwar Sierra Leone provides another example of political critique fashioned with tropes that symbolically represent political authority, but also provide cultural resources for criticizing specific forms of moral (or aesthetic) failure in that authority. In this postwar public sphere of debate, kinship offers a metaphorical language for a different moral vision of politics by reinterpreting and valorizing a normative order of familial mutual care, solicitude, and social welfare—as part of political advocacy for different emergent values of citizenship during postwar reconstruction.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >