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When I say that I studied social ethnology, most people don't know what I'm talking about. So to illustrate what a post-graduate student did at the University of Michigan in this science within the department of Anthropology, here is the copy of my essay written in November 1980 for my professor of course 501 of that year.


The study was based on ethnographic data published by Meyer Fortes who was an ethnologist in the 1940s in Ghana. The exercise was to use his data from his observation in the field to analyse what it meant in terms of "power game". It was to show us that a good ethnographer's job consisted of taking down every detail of his observations, even if it did not make sense to him at the time. The ethnologist can then trust the ethnographer's findings in order to analyse them and make sense with them. The ethnographer and the ethnologist are most of the time the one and same person. Our professor wanted us to understand that, if the data is collected correctly, the analyzing can be done by someone else. We had to use Fortes ethnographic data of the 1940s extensively, thus proving that knowledge of past years could still be relevant and analyzed many years later. In this day and age when knowledge is doomed and redundant within the hour, it is a good lesson to hear.

THE POWER GAME   My essay in ethnology course 501, November 1980, as postgraduate at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, USA. 

 The power game at the micro-level of Tale society.


 A "fundamental concept in social science", Bertrand Russell wrote in 1938, "is Power, in the same sense in which Energy is the fundamental concept in physics; (...) power like energy must be regarded as continually passing from any one of its forms into any other, and it should be the business of social science to seek the laws of such transformation". In 1938 B. Russell was thinking of the rise of Hitler in Germany. To-day on the eve of yet another world war, it may be wise to re-examine this statement. For the power game between nations for the domination of economic and ideological control of this planet is reaching a climax and the resort to sheer armed forces is increasingly likely - a transformation of one form of power to another.

 Power, in a primary sense, is the physical, mental or moral ability to act; a capacity for action. In a secondary sense, it is the possession of sway or controlling influence over others. There is power over matter, over environment, and power over human beings. I will only be concerned with the latter in this study. "Powers over human beings may be classified by the manner of influencing individuals, or by the type of organisation involved. An individual may be influenced: A. by direct physical power over his body, e.g. when he is emprisoned or killed; B. by rewards and punishments as inducements, e.g. in giving or withholding employment; C. by influence on opinion, i.e. propaganda in its broadest sense." (B. Russell 1938:36)

 Power of the first kind is embodied in the military and police forces. The second kind can be found in the more diplomatic dealings between nations or in the power struggle between social classes; it is a most common form of power found at the microlevel of social interaction, i.e. between employer and employee, lecturer and student, husband and wife, parent and child. The third kind of power is indirect; it aims at influencing opinion which in turn will induce behavior. Stalin chose the first kind of power while Mao developed the third kind to its maximal effects.

Power of the first and second kind is subject to challenge; it is partially free from the constraints of social order and it "may be as capricious as the actor who wields it and may shift quickly among actors" (C.J.Calhoun 1980). Power of the third kind, on the other hand, because it induces opinion, respect and esteem, can become authority. Authority is power maintained by public opinion; it depends for its strength on common recognition and it is essentially collective and consistent in nature. "Authority in the present usage, refers to the recognized a priori right to determine the nature and outcome of social situations. . It is right which exists distinct from any right, neither contingent nor subject to challenge" (Calhoun 1980). Power can be an agent for social disintegration whereas authority has the opposite effect. When studying social dynamics power is likely to be found when a social order is coming apart; authority, when a social order is settling in or has been settled for a long time.

 Given these definitions, I shall now describe the power game at the micro-level of Tale society as it can be inferred from Fortes' monographs: 1. between men (2. between men and women 3. between women)


The struggle over ritual affairs 

In an article on "The Authority of Ancestors", C.J. Calhoun writes that "in traditional Tale social thought, all authority is vested in ancestors, fathers of at least two generations removed, dead, and significant in being points of genealogical unification and differentiation." The major point here is that ancestors are dead. A characteristic of authority is that is cannot be preserved without the establishment and the maintenance of distance between those who command and those who obey. This can be seen in the organisation of castes, social classes or color classes. Closer to us, the father in the traditional nuclear family has lost much of his authority since he has reduced the distance between himself and his wife and children. Children can now challenge him. In Tale society, "the authority of living persons is partial and subject to challenge; that of ancestors is pervasive and absolute" (Calhoun) because they are dead and removed from direct physical environment. A king who would allow himself to walk in the streets and shake hands with his subjects would commit social suicide. Presidents can do it because they have power, not authority; they are subject to challenge and indeed are challenged. Many presidents certainly dream of transforming their power int authority. President Giscard d'Estaing forbade masks of his face to be used at the Nice carnival (in France) and this would show that in order to acquire authority he felt necessary to induce respect and therefore impose distance. One cannot respect people - be it a mask - with whom one spends the night drinking and dancing. Tale ancestors are dead and their authority is absolute.

Another means of preserving authority is the symbol which forms a ling between the masses and the distant personal or impersonal authority which the symbol represents. Banners, emblems, coats of arms and flags are such symbols.. The shrine of the lineage ancestors is the symbol which links the ancestors with the living members of Tale society.. Such symbols have strong powers over people. The sight of a flag can arouse unfailing courage in the heart of a tired soldier subject to doubts over the authority that sent him fighting. It arouses metaphysical fears among Tale woman. "If a woman is suspected of adultery she is subjected to the ordeal of entering the lineage zong (...) Women are terrified of this ordeal, which rarely fails to produce a confession" (Fortes 1949:56) The sing is the sanctuary for the lineage ancestor spirits of the male head of the house. A woman prefers "confessing" adultery rather than facing the symbol of the ancestors' authority.

If authority is vested on ancestors and if the ancestors' shrine is its symbol, it can be expected that those who have direct access to and manipulate the symbol will have some sort of power by devolution. Calhoun writes: "Though living persons do have authority in some matters, it is never absolute. (...) It is authority given by assumed devolution from ancestors" and I would add, through manipulation of the ancestors' shrine. It is quite clear from Fortes' monographs that the seat of power for the Tallensi lies in the jural and ritual affairs. To start with, quite a number of people are kept away form jural and ritual affairs, which involves manipulation of the symbol of authority. "Ritual office can be held only by men who are legitimate members of the lineage in which these offices are vested" (1949:28). This eliminates married women who belong to a "foreign" patrilineage through the rules of exogamy and patrilocality. Male members of accessory (assimilated) lineages, i.e. descendents of slaves, are also barred from ritual affairs. "A slave or a refugee can never acquire the one right which is conferred exclusively by the tie of blood (...) the tight to offer sacrifice directly" (1945:52). The fact that jural and ritual affairs are indeed the seat of power for the Tallensi is illustrated in the example given by Fortes (1945:53-54) where the chief fo Tongo took upon himself to invite the male members of assimilated lineages to take part in a great thanksgiving sacrifice to his hounding ancestors. Fortes writes: "One of the chief's most intimate and influential elders commented to me afterwards, cautiously but with a hint of regret, that soon it would become impossible to withhold the chiefship from accessory lineages now that they had practically won the right to participate in the most esoteric ritual cult of the true agnatic sodality" (1945:55). Fortes' interpretation of the episode is that the ancestral graves and shrines are the symbol of a clan's unity and identity and that including members of an accessory lineage to the rituals is a sign for forces of social integration at work. I would rather interpret it as a political manouver from the part of the chief of Tongo. Without further information on the power game partaining to this particular episode, a more elaborate political interpretation is not possible. The chief of Tongo may have wanted to scare some opponent by pretending he was going to include slaves in his ritual affairs and therefore into his power. Slave elders were not fooled by this, they did not turn up tor the ceremony.

Like married women and slaves, an illegitimate boy "has no right to sacrifice directly to his (quasi father's patrilineage) spirit, or consequently, to the lineage ancestors" (1949:24). An illegitimate boy is brought up as the foster-child of his mother's father or brother. He will grow up as a full member of his mother's clan, but he will never have access to the seat of power. He will in turn become the ancestor of an accessory (attached) lineage, male members of which will be for ever debarred from join in in sacrifices to the founding ancestor of the authentic lineage-segment. (1945:52)

Men who are eligible to taking part in ritual affairs are only those living males, heirs of the said ancestor through true patrilineal descent. They are thus all related by agnatic kinship ties. Power could thus be said to be hereditary among the Tallensi. These men are organized in a hierarchy according to seniority, seniority of generation having precedence over seniority of age. The oldest member of a nuclear lineage is the only man who in fact has access to the manipulation of the lineage ancestor's shrine. Why power is this vested on older male members of the community, is a question I will not attempt to answer. It is a fact in Tale society just as it is in the Soviet Union to-day, to give but one other random example. "Men under middle age (...) have but little voice in the jural and ceremonial affairs of the community", Fortes says and adds that young men can therefore come and go, or migrate abroad, without disrupting social order.

Now if we come closer to the scene, we might be able to observe a certain amount of struggle for power between those who have it and those about to have it, between the aging father in power and the eldest son eligible to it, for instance, or between the younger by age but older by generation in power and his classificatory brother older by age but younger by generation wanting power. Fission of the joint family between father and oldest son or between older and younger brothers is given economic reasons by Fortes. "When a joint family splits up, the commonest pretext is friction over grain supplies" (1949:57) But we are also told that "a joint family is an organized economic and jural unit forming a single household under the authority of the oldest by age or generation of the group of agnates upon which it is based (...). As the younger male members grow up, marry, and have children of their own, inner tensions begin to assert themselves and a tendency to split up appears". Are the "inner tensions" only due to grain supplies? or are they due to the fact that younger members who cannot challenge their elders on jural and ritual affairs, prefer to quit for a time? "The oldest son of the family head 'goes out on his own' or 'cuts his own gateway' in the family homestead, during his father's lifetime (...). But when the old man dies, he frequently returns to the parental home, and the joint family is reconstituted under his authority" (1949:67). I am tempted to interpret the oldest son's return to the parental home, not in terms if resuming a former economic unit, but of taking up his place as the legal heir to the seat of power. Fortes does write "...and the joint family is reconstituted under his authority". He also talks of "tension (being) admitted by custom to exist between a man and his first-born son" (1945:23). If tension was only due to psychological or economical factors, it would not specifically occur between a man and his first-born son.

Similarly when the joint family is constituted of (classificatory) brothers, friction arises between the older and younger one. "Each man is the head of his own relatively independent household, working its particular fields and having its own granary; but the older brother has authority over the whole yir in jural and ritual matters" (1949:68). Fortes writes then that "in time, the combined effects of economic needs, structural cleavages and personal tensions lead to a further stage of separation (...). The younger man cuts another gateway for himself". I would interpret "personal tensions" as due to the social impossibility felt by the younger members to challenge the power held by their elder brothers and their own reluctance to obey.

Finally Fortes tells us that since the advent of British rule in Northern Ghana, a number of Tale men regularly leave Taleland and go "abroad" to work for wages. These emigrants again are "mostly young men" and quickly return home to get married and "play (their) part in community affairs" (1949:73). Fortes concluded that "economic needs and structural cleavages are chiefly responsible for fission in the joint family and religious and jural sanctions for the reintegration of an expanded family" (1949:77). I would rather say that the cause to both effects - of fission and reintegration - is a single one and it is the struggle between eligible men for access to the seat of power.

The struggle over economic affairs

This statement does not imply, however, that Tale men do not struggle over economic affairs. Power over economic affairs is perhaps less centralized, although still in the hands of the elders who control ritual affairs. The evidence that ritual and economic affairs go hand in hand is visual; plate 4 (1949:48) shows the central granary in the homestead of an elder, and it is encircled by an array of ancestor shrines at its base. It has also the shape of a phallic symbol and psychologists could certainly give interesting interpretations on that. "The granary belongs to the head of the house (...). The contents of the granary are formally the property of the head of the household (...). There is no other place in the homestead which is so rigorously private to him" (1949:57). Yet when brothers or father and son argue over grain supply, the younger one sets up his own granary and becomes economically independent. Fortes gives the example of three brothers and writes: "Economically the three domestic families are wholly independent of one another, but Saandi exercises a certain degree of jural and ritual authority over the whole yir" (1949:69)

Property of land and cattle, however, is only held by elders in power and is transmitted in the same way as ritual power. Matrilateral kin and adopted slaves are "barred from rights of inheritance and succession that are confined to the agnatic line" (1945:52). Elders' power over land ownership, although formally absolute, is tempered and challenged by other lineage members who can boycott him. "The utilisation of the land is at (the elder's) discretion; he disposes of the crops, and in some settlements he is nominally free to pledge or to sell the land. But he is subject to restraints which observation shows to be very effective. He is bound to provide fairly for the wants of those who share the labour of farming with him (...). A man who deals meanly or unscrupulously with his younger brothers, sons, or brother's sons will find that they leave him at the first opportunity (...). In accordance with this obligation a lineage head always consults his dependants about the disposal of land, crops, or other patrimonial property." (1945:178)

 Fortes further writes that other lineage members "will use every legitimate means to prevent (an elder) from selling or pledging land that is due to come to them on his death."

The struggle over the possession of women

Apart from their power struggle over ritual and economic affairs, men also fight over the possession of women. This can be given various interpretations. I will here only attempt to show how this happens and how it is a part of the power game between men. Male members of a clan own all females born in that clan. More precisely the elder of a nuclear lineage is entitled to receive a bride-price for any female of his lineage when she is married. The man acquiring a wife may pay the bride-price by instalments, in which case the elder can and does use his powers as creditor. He may reclaim the girl from her husband in case of late payment. He cannot however reclaim a girl when she is pregnant because of the taboo for a child to be born in its mother's father's house. "Instances are known of men who, defying convention and the ancestor spirits, have taken daughters from their husbands, owing to non-payment of bride-price, just before they were due to bear (...). Many a man wins a respite from his father-in-law's importunity on account of his wife's pregnancy" (1949:30). 

Another aspect of ownership and transactions of females is the 'satisfaction-or-your-money-back' policy. C. Obbo (1976) gives an example among the Kamba people in East Africa: "Jane, with the support of her mother, decided not to marry a man. Her father put indirect pressure on her by presenting suitors, but he was careful not to put himself in a position where his daughter would contract an unsuccessful marriage for then he would be required to repay the bridewealth." Although Forbes does not put it quite that way, similar examples are to be found in Tale society.

An elder's power over the women of his lineage is in fact far from absolute. He sometimes has to resort to tricks in order to assert his will. "A common trick of fathers who object to a daughter's marrying a particular man is to allege a remote kinship tie of this sort (matrilineal) between the girl and her suitor. The latter and his family head may be sceptical of the alleged evidence for this but they can do nothing about it" (1949:43). The outcome of such power game over the possession of women is not always predictable. For instance, "when Mansami, Omara's own father's brother's son ran away with the wife of Omara's father's soog's son (i.e. matrilineal kin) at Nkoog, there was a bitter quarrel between them. Omara accused Mansami of disgracing his (Omara's) kinship ties and ordered him either to give up the girl or leave the homestead. Mansami, obstinately insisting that he and the girl's husband were not related, made this the pretext for keeping her and went off so stay with his mother's brother." (1949:43). Here the old man's authority was challenged and his younger kinsman won the case through sheer obstination. Other instances are reported by Fortes where elders' authority in these matters is completely ignored. "About a generation ago a Sakpee man married a daughter of Pulien biis in defiance of the exogamic ban. The protests of the elders of both lineages were fruitless (...). The matter was allowed to slide, and left to the arbitrament fo the ancestor spirits. The marriage, said the elders, would be sterile, or all the children would die. In the end, however, the offending couple reared a large and successful family; so apparently this breach of kinship was not a sin after all." (1945:84)

When it comes to abduct a woman, however, a young man is wise to have the elders on his side. They seem to have more decisive power in this matter. They may shield the man or "peremptorily send the woman home to her former husband". (1945:91)

Indeed possession of women is a passionate ground for battle. Tricks and obstination may yield results. Resort to physical force is not excluded. "It is an essential consequence of the leviratic right that if a man from one of the sub-clans should succeed in marrying a young widow of a member of another, no reprisals could be publicly undertaken against him, whereas anyone outside the range of clanship would be counting armed vengeance by such an act." (1945:41) Fortes adds that "some forty years ago, a Tongo man married a Zoo widow and his son was shot dead in revenge."

Finally "a man who married the former wife of another, even if the marriage was severed for just and accepted reasons, incurs the hostility of the first husband's entire lineage both towards himself personally and towards his clanmen as a group. Reprisals will be taken when an opportunity occurs". (1945:42). The policy here of: I don't want it but you can't have it, is applied and maintained with the aid of physical force.


 We see that:
- "In ideology, everything in Tale society is subject to the authority of ancestors" (Calhoun 1980:314) - "The primary means of binging the ancestral voice into the affairs of the living, and this rendering an authoritative decision, is through divination." (idem)
- But "divination is not final, and may be ignored or questioned." (idem) Fortes writes: "There are no jural sanctions compelling a man to abide by custom (...) and as the Tallensi often say, men do not fear to defy even the ancestor spirits, when THEIR property or POWER IS AT STAKE." (1945:249; emphasis mine)

Tale elders have Tale public opinion, respect and esteem vested on them as representatives of ancestors' authority. But they are not mere executives of their ancestors' will and can impose their own will on their kinsmen. The power game between Tale men clearly show that "traditional authority is NOT the timeless existence of a set of norms to which all adhere" (Calhoun 1980:306; emphasis his). It can be viewed as a dynamic social mechanism for the inter-play of strong individual forces that would otherwise run wild and cause social disintegration.

This does not mean, however, that the ancestors' cult is to be regarded simply as instrumental and as primarily the object of manipulations based on immediate individual self-interest. "Authority among the living comes only by transmission and assumed devolution from ancestors" (Calhoun, p315). Indeed it would not occur to anyone to 'take' power. A man must occupy a definite social place for his power to be effective. Outside devolution there is no power feasible. This is further shown in the example given by Fortes of the Golibdaana of Tenzugu "whose political and economic privileges are wholly dependent on the white man's rule". (1949:49) This "wealthy, ambitious, upstart headman" acquired status and presumably power, through what may have been regarded by the Tallensi as a new type of devolution. Fortes could have predicted that the day Tallensi men realize that power can be obtained independently of any devolution, the African political scene would look different. This is happening now.

We have seen that any Tale man can, in varying degrees, use the three forms of power described by B. Russell either to impose his will or to challenge that of others. Physical force, rewards and punishments, influence on opinion are all in truth put into play. The next question to ask is: Is there any pattern in the way Tale men use those three forms of power? An answer to this question may help in understanding some of the social and political changes occurring today in Africa. To quote Bertrand Russell again: "The men who cause social changes are, as a rule, men who strongly desire to do so. Love of power, therefore, is a characteristic of the men who are causally important. We should, of course, be mistaken if we regarded it as the sole human motive, but this mistake would not lead us so much astray as might be expected in the search for causal laws in social science, since love of power is the chief motive producing the changes which social science has to study. The laws of social dynamics are - so I shall contend - only capable of being stated in terms of power in its various forms." (1938:15)

End of essay. 4500 words.

I got marked A for this essay by a guest professor from Cambridge

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