Adam Kuper

Chosen Primate

Human Nature and Cultural Diversity

Harvard University 1996


Keywords: ORIGIN OF SOCIETY - Thomas Hobbes - Jean Jacques Rousseau - territoriality - Complex societies: constitutional theory - Ordered anarchy - Fission and fusion - Roots of sociality - style of inter-group aggression found among the chimpanzees is absent among the egalitarian hunter-gatherers. - Communities of foragers tend to live in remarkable harmony - The principle of reciprocity - Adam Smith - Marcel Mauss - Power and Authority -


Reflecting on the essential conditions of social existence, the philosophers of the European Enlightenment found it helpful to imagine what human life might have been like without government or society.They thought that before people came together to form civil societies, they must have lived in what they termed a state of nature.

Individuals in the state of nature were free, independent, and equal, but they were also insecure and uncultivated. Granted the capacity to reason, they would have been willing to exchange their rude independence for security and civilization. Yet this choice was not free of risk. Once native freedom was compromised, it might be totally extinguished by a powerful government. Born free, in a state of nature, the individual might end up in chains, in an unjust society. Conservative writers thought that governments should be strong, and accordingly they tended to emphasize the horrors of life in a state of nature.

Hobbes: The life of man: solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short

"In such condition, wrote Thomas Hobbes in 1651, sheltering in exile as the regicide Oliver Cromwell prepared to take power at home, »there knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.« Since the state of nature was a state of war, Hobbes argued that strong government was required to provide order. In return for that great good, people would be prepared to surrender their liberty.

Rousseau: an animal weaker than some, and less agile than others: but, taking him all around, the most advantageously- organized of any.

Liberal and radical writers, concerned to promote individual liberty, were more inclined to celebrate the advantages of life in the state of nature. Jean Jacques Rousseau suffused the natural human condition in a pastoral glow. Writing in 1762, he described natural man as "an animal weaker than some, and less agile than others: but, taking him all around, the most advantageously-organized of any. I see him slaking his thirst at the first brook, finding his bed at the foot of the tree which afforded him a repast; and, with that, all his wants supplied". Above all, he celebrated the individual's enjoyment of freedom and—necessarily—equality in a natural state.

Although Rousseau presented the most persuasive view of the advantages of the state of nature, he extolled the cultural benefitsoffered by society in a famous passage. »And although in civil society man surrenders some of the advantages that belong to the state of nature, he gains in return far greater ones; his faculties are so exercised and developed, his mind is so enlarged,his sentiments so ennobled, and his whole spirit so elevated that he should constantly bless the happy hour that lifted him for ever from the state of nature and from a narrow, stupid animal made a creature of intelligence and a man.«

Philosophers of the Enlightenment. rational individuals had rightly elected to enter society, because membership paid off for them

Whatever their political differences, the philosophers of the Enlightenment agreed that rational individuals had rightly elected to enter society, because membership paid off for them. But once the step was taken, they had to submit to a government. Since a government was instituted by a social contract, a pact between free and equal individuals, acting for their own advantage, the philosophers concluded that legitimate government derives its authority from the consent of its subjects. But equally, once the pact has been sealed the individual is subject to the authority of the state. The balance to be struck between individual and state was the central issue in political debate.

The state of nature, the rationalist alternative to Eden, was a fantasy, a thought experiment. Nevertheless, writers in the Enlightenment tradition more or less seriously imagined that in the course of their voyages European explorers might stumble upon some people still living in that aboriginal condition. »Thus in the beginning,« John Locke wrote in 1690, »all the world was America«. A party of native Americans might still be enjoying the freedoms of our most ancient ancestors.

Darwinian: Early human society was not the product of reason

For a Darwinian, it was simply absurd to think that some early humans had engineered a historic break with an aboriginal state of nature. Early human society was not the product of reason. On the contrary, the earliest human societies must have resembled the societies of other apes. Therefore, some natural social bond must have provided the initial basis of a broader sociability. And this primordial bond, the early anthropologists agreed, could only have been blood relationship.

'The history of political ideas," wrote an English law professor, Henry Maine, in 1861, "begins, in fact, with the assumption that kinship in blood is the sole possible ground of community in political functions."

The alternative to blood loyalties was local patriotism, but this, they thought, had evolved much later. It was taken for granted that early humans were nomadic. Territorially based associations hadbecome significant only at a late stage in human history. According to Maine, a great revolution occurred, perhaps the greatest revolutionary moment in the political history of our species, when territorial loyalties became more important than kinship ties.

Kinship and territory: Even nomadic groups had a local identity

Kinship and territory, blood and soil, were antithetical principles of association. However, as reliable studies began to be made of simple, small-scale human societies, it became evident that these principles could be combined. Ethnographers reported that territory, local rootedness, was by no means unimportant even among foragers and pastoralists. Even nomadic groups had a local identity.

According to the ethologists, moreover, “territoriality” was based on an instinct shared with other species. Nevertheless, it was generally agreed that in small scale, technologically simple communities, descent—Maine's blood relationships—was ideologically more important than local loyalties. And such societies, it was thought, provided clues to the conditions of life of early human communities. The type-case of small-scale societies, living from hunting and gathering, was, as ever, taken to be the Australian aborigines.

The British anthropologist A. R Radcliffe-Brown characterized the social structure of these societies in an influential monograph in 1931. Reviewing two generations of field research, he concluded that the basic unit of Australian society was the "band".

The Australians had two kinds of descent groups, matrilineal and patrilineal, but it was the patrilineal grouping that formed a local band. Bands were therefore made up of groups of men related in the male line, with their wives and children. Each band was also associated with a particular territory. and this territory was sacred, being identified with totemic spirits.

This model was generalized by the American scholars Julian Steward and Elman Service. In an article published in 1936, Steward argued that the most common form of band society was ordered by patrilineal descent: descent traced through males only to a common ancestor. Each band was made up of a single patrilineal lineage (that is, all the descendants in the male line of one ancestor). Such patrilineal bands were "politically autonomous, communally landowning, exogamous, patrilocal, patrilineal in land inheritance. and consisting theoretically or actually of a single lineage, which, however, comprises several households or elemental bilateral families."

Complex societies: constitutional theory

The implication was that early human societies had been patrilineal bands associated with specific territories. How, then, were more complex societies ordered? In the first half of the twentieth century. ethnographers produced fascinating accounts of African societies in which hundreds of thousands of people were organized into political communities, yet without any centralized authority. Pastoralists or agriculturalists rather than hunters and gatherers, these people nevertheless managed to engage in long-term economic projects without the benefit of government or courts of law. Moreover, even these large-scale societies were apparently constructed on the same primordial principle of blood relationship. As among hunter-gatherers, the basic unit was a patrilineal group.

In the more complex societies, local patrilineal bands were joined together in a sort of federation. The most famous of these studies of headless federations was carried out in the 1930s by the leading British ethnographer of his generation, E.E.Evans-Pritchard, working among the Nuer people of the Southern Sudan. The Nuer occupied small settlements strung along the lower Nile, moving between agricultural settlements on the banks of the river to cattle camps on the uplands as the season demanded. They made a living from their large and highly valued herds of cattle, and also from agriculture and fishing, but their lives were regulated particularly by the demands of their herds.

Ordered anarchy - Fission and fusion

According to the constitutional theory of the Nuer, each tier of political association was built around a patrilineal descent group. Most men in any one village or district could trace a common ancestry. In the tribe itself, the majority could claim a (possibly fictive) descent from a founding ancestor who was supposed to have lived many generations ago. No political authority ordered relations between these camps and villages. If a young man in one village stole an ox—or a wife—from another, then the two villages would mobilize their fighting men and confront each other, perhaps actually fighting until the debt was repaid, or compensation extracted for the loss.

They did so because every man recognized that he had to support his close kinsmen against more distant relatives. When conflict arose with a still more distant village, then the previous quarrel would be abandoned and all would combine against the outsiders. Neighboring villages would contribute fighting men to take on the men of the other district, and in such a battle lives might be lost. The local units, therefore, united and divided depending on what they were up against. "Fission and fusion," Evans-Pritchard remarked, were the principles of political action.

The calculus for alliance and opposition was provided by genealogies: people allied with close patrilineal kin against more distantly related lineages. Fission and fusion yielded an automatic balance of power, in a system of ordered anarchy.

Further research, however, tended to undermine the view that simple political systems were based on patrilineal blood ties. Although members of small-scale hunter-gatherer communities were as a rule related in some way to one another, it was not necessary to trace unilineal descent back to a founding ancestor in order to be accepted as a band member. Relatives did enjoy privileged access to band membership, and people generally felt a moral duty to help even quite distant kin, but the band was not just a patriarchal family-writ large.

There were various routes to becoming a band member. A claim through a mother or father, a husband or wife, a brother or sister would serve. Even an unrelated exchange partner of a band member could usually be accommodated. Often a person would be a member of several bands during a lifetime.

Some individuals lived a peripatetic existence. And while crucial resources—a fountain, a grove of fruit trees—might be claimed by a band, the band members did not have a monopoly on the resources of a clearly defined territory. In sum, it was not the case that the small-scale communities of hunter-gatherers were generally organized into patrilineal bands.

The lineage model also provided an inadequate guide to the operation of larger headless political systems. The everyday organization of real-life Nuer communities was not, as it turned out, neatly governed by rules of descent. Local communities, even among the Nuer were actually constituted rather like real-life hunter-gatherer bands.They included a wide variety of relatives. Individuals lived with mother's or father's kin, husband s or wife's, as it suited them. Many cattle camps and villages included several families unrelated to eachother. The patrilineal principle apparently operated as an ideology, rather than as a law governing everyday choices.

Evans-Prichard did not deny this, but he argued that the lineage system nevertheless provided the constitutional basis for the society.There was flexibility in practice, but "it is the clear, consistent, and deeply rooted lineage structure of the Nuer which permits persons and families to move about and attach themselves so freely, for shorter or longer periods, to whatever community they choose by whatever cognatic or affinal tie they find it convenient to emphasize."Yet even at the level of ideology, the Nuer were not down-the-line practitioners of blood-tie politics. Evans-Pritchard himself provided evidence which indicated that the Nuer paid more attention to local interests than to abstract ideas about lineages.

Local loyalties

When pressed, a Nuer would explain politics in terms of local loyalties rather than genealogies. In a revealing passage, Evans-Pritchard admitted: A Nuer rarely talks about his lineage as distinct from his community, and in contrast to other lineages which form part of it, outside a ceremonial context. I have watched a Nuer who knew precisely what I wanted, trying on my behalf to discover from a stranger the name of his lineage. He often found great initial difficulty in making the man understand the information required of him, for Nuer think generally in terms of local divisions and of the relationships between them. Attempts to apply the lineage model to tribes without rulers in other parts of the world also tripped over discrepancies betweent he elegant model of the anthropologists and the messy realities.

Ethnographers working in the New Guinea Highlands tested out the model with particular thoroughness. One summary account listed their doubts: "We find that people are more mobile than any rules of descent and residence should warrant, that genealogies are too short to be helpful...that local and descent groups are fragmented and change their alignments." In New Guinea, local communities are based on a complex mix of ideas about locality and kinship. Some New Guineans believe that if people eat crops grown in one territory they become kin, for their bodies are formed by the same substances. Authority is not based on genealogical claims, but has more to do with entrepreneufial talents and skills in oratory and mediation.

To sum up, Maine's thesis—indeed, the apparently commonsense view of most Victorians—was that the political community must have emerged in the first place from natural kinship relationships. This assumption was built into the more elaborate models of the first field anthropologists. To a Darwinian, it seemed natural that blood ties would motivate respect for social institutions and inspire political loyalties. Yet these confident assumptions eventually dissipated inthe light of ethnographic reports. Societies without government are not ordered simply on the basis of kinship or descent.

Roots of sociality

Kinship is important in all sorts of ways, but no human community has ever been discovered that is based on kinship groupings alone, or even ordered primarily by kinship principles. The roots of sociality would have to be sought elsewhere.

Hobbes: The state of nature was a state of war

Another candidate for that original organizing principle of social life was suggested by a classic philosophical source. Writing during the English civil war, Hobbes had reasoned that the lives of people living in ancient human communities were dominated by concerns about war and peace, violence and security. The state of nature was a state of war. The inference was therefore that civil society had been established to secure order and guarantee the means of iivelihood.

Darwinian: All nature is engaged in a struggle for survival

This struck a chord with Darwinians. All nature was engaged in a struggle for survival. Early humans must have been obliged to fight off predators and to compete with each other for scarce resources.The most convinced Hobbesians among modern human scientists were the ethologists, who tended to interpret animal behavior in terms of status competition and the aggressive defense of resources. In their view, the fundamental political mechanism was an instinctive drive to defend a territory. If anything, this drive was yet stronger among humans than among other primates. Konrad Lorenz had suggested that only among humans did the territorial imperative result in acts of murderous aggression even against members of the same species. Society was a fighting machine, territory the prize.

But primatologists reported that murderous violence against members of one's own species is by no means a human monopoly. What is perhaps most intriguing, the closest primate relatives of humanity, the chimpanzees, go in for murderous attacks on their neighbors. On the other hand, it turns out that organized violence is in fact rare among contemporary hunter-gatherer communities. Indeed, these people often profess an ethic of non-violence and cooperation. At tempts to dominate others are strongly censured. There are seldom strong leaders who can boss others around; decisions generally follow extended debate that eventually produces a consensus.

The style of inter-group aggression found among the chimpanzees is absent among the egalitarian hunter-gatherers.

Violent attacks upon neighboring communities rarely occur. Violence is more usual within the band, and in sudden bursts of anger people kill rivals in love or even lash out in a wild, random homicidal frenzy. The conditions of close living and interdependence seem to stoke up destructive anger: but the violent individual is isolated, rejected even by close relatives, finally expelled from the community. According to the American anthropologist Bruce Knauft, who has investigated this issue, the style of inter-group aggression found among the chimpanzees is absent among the egalitarian hunter-gatherers.

Systematic feuding and warfare are characteristic rather of more complex societies. As technology develops; as communities settle down, tied to their investments in particular landscapes; as, perhaps in consequence, population density increases, so systematichostility between groups becomes more common.

The Nuer feuding relationships are therefore characteristic of relatively populous societies, with valuable resources like the cattle of the Nuer themselves, the camels of the Bedouin, or the horses of the Native American Plains Indians. Some small-scale societies in the Amazon forests or the Highlands of New Guinea are extremely warlike. They tend to practice a mix of horticulture and foraging in conditions of shortage, and competition for land is one common reason for conflict.

Communities of foragers tend to live in remarkable harmony

In contrast, contemporary communities of foragers tend to live in remarkable harmony, and there is no reason to suppose that this was not true of many early human communities as well. Inter-group violence seems to grow with the sophistication of economic and political arrangements. Hobbes, it seems, was quite wrong: if human beings organized themselves into strong political communities in order to avoid war, even civil war, they were making a very bad mistake. Hobbes himself had suggested that there was another basis for social relationships: people might make a bet on the principle of reciprocity.

The Market - The principle of reciprocity

Hobbes identified the principle of fair exchange as one of his Laws of Nature. Every rational person was bound to agree: "That a man which receiveth Benefit from another of meer Grace, Endeavour that he which giveth it, have no reasonable case to repent him of his good wil." One good turn deserves another. Or as Hobbes himself saw it, rational people accepted the biblical principle that one should do unto others as one would wish to be done by.

The greatest theorist of the market, Adam Smith (1723-1790), professor of moral philosophy at Glasgow University, suggested that a system of exchange based on the principle of reciprocity could bind naturally selfish and amoral individuals into harmonious communities.

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages."

Smith pointed out that a market stimulates specialization and the division of labor. After markets had been established, it was no longer profitable for every person to make everything that he needed for himself. It was more efficient to concentrate, to produce one thing that was needed by others, and to enter into exchanges in the market to supply one's wants. The market therefore fostered and rewarded individual enterprise, but in doing so it bound individuals together in a system of exchanges.

The hidden hand of the market aggregates a myriad of individual selfish actions and magically redirects them to serve public ends. Adam Smith's market is made up of hard-headed business people making canny deals about goods and services. He suggested that society itself may be constituted on similar principles: "Society may subsist among different men, as among different merchants, from a sense of its utility, without any mutual love or affection: and though no man in it should owe any obligation, or be bound in gratitude to any other, it may still be upheld by a mercenary exchange of good offices according to an agreed valuation."

Smith also speculated about the division of labor and forms of exchange in hunter-gatherer and pastoralist societies, and he suggested that even in the absence of the market there would be a natural tendency to make exchanges. From practical experience, people would come to appreciate the benefits of reciprocity and the consequent necessity of mutual dependence.

TheTrobrianders recognized a simple and universal premise: to receive,it is necessary first to give

This was much the same conclusion that Bronislaw Malinowski reached in his classic ethnographic study of the Trobriand Islanders. Far from being passive slaves of custom, the Trobrianders, accordingto Malinowski, were calculating individualists who recognized an unconditional loyalty only to their families. Love of tradition, conformism and the sway of custom," he reported, "account but to avery partial extent for obedience to rules." Whenever a person could evade his obligations without the loss of prestige, or without the prospective loss of gain, he does so, exactly as a civilized businessman would do," What then kept the wheels of society oiled? TheTrobrianders recognized a simple and universal premise: to receive,it is necessary first to give. Persistent miscreants were excluded from exchange relationships; that was tantamount to expulsion from society. The Trobrianders engage in a great deal of trade, some of it utilitarian (yams for fish, for example), some of it not obviously economicat all.

Most spectacular was the Kula exchange system, described by Malinowski in the first of his famous Trobriarid monographs, ”Argonauts of the Western Pacific”, published in 1922. Partners from a chain of islands visited one another in festive and often dangerous canoe journeys, and exchanged ceremonial tokens: necklaces and bracelets. These had no ulterior value, and could not be exchanged again for anything of obvious utility. The most famous necklaces and bracelets were nevertheless much prized, and their possession brought prestige. But one could not hang on to the precious trophy that one had wheedled from an exchange partner.

The temporary owner was obliged to pass it along fairly quickly to another Kula-player. This was, in the end, a system of exchange that operated for its own sake—a game of social life, whose payoff, if any, was perhapsthe stimulus it gave to foreign social contacts, which might ultimately serve useful purposes. The Kula, however, dramatically brought out—ritualized even—the basis of Trobriand society. The rule of reciprocal exchange was the elementary social rule.

The most important modern contribution to the theory of reciprocity was made by a French sociologist, Marcel Mauss. In direct opposition to Adam Smith, Mauss argued that reciprocity was not to beconfused with the operations of entrepreneurs in a market. Indeed,with money and markets the ancient principle of reciprocity had been fatally diluted. It was, in origin, a moral idea, not simply an accounting principle; and it could be seen most clearly in operation in societies that were not dependent on market exchanges.

Gift exchange

Mauss challenged Malinowski's image of the Trobriander as a sort of antipodean businessman. Malinowski had represented the Kula as a mixture of calculated deal-making and ritualized, irrational tradition. To Mauss, however, the Kula was an instance of the ancient form of gift exchange. In a study published in 1925, Essay on the Gift, Mauss argued that traditional societies were based on relationships of give-and-take from which the profit motive was absent. In ancient times every gift was charged with the personality of the giver,and gift exchanges were the currency of social relationships, creatingand sustaining them. Nor were exchanges truly voluntary; there was no escape from the twin obligations to give and to receive. The sanctions against those who did not play the game could culminate in the last resort in exclusion from society, or, between communities, in warfare.

Mauss also emphasized that the exchanges that shaped social relations were not exclusively or even predominantly exchanges of goods and wealth. "In the systems of the past, Mauss wrote, "they exchanged rather courtesies, entertainments, ritual, military assistance, women, children, dances and feasts."

Perhaps Mauss's most potent suggestion was that the exchange of women between groups was one of the basic forms of exchange.This was the central premise of Levi-Strauss's “alliance theory”. For Levi-Strauss, following Mauss, exchange was the basis of all social relationships, and the exchange of women in marriage was the foundation of the social order. The incest taboo had been instituted inorder to enforce this exchange: it marked the foundation of human society because it inaugurated relationships of marriage alliance. The supergift, women and children, defined the social relationships between families. Mauss believed that in modern, market societies, these collective exchange relationships had been undermined by the individual, impersonal, profit-seeking deals of capitalism. The market, and money, had broken down traditional structures of reciprocity and threatened to replace them with moral anarchy, or at best with the dog-eat-dog society of capitalism.

Where they still operated, traditional systems of reciprocity were very different from markets. And even in the most thoroughgoing industrial system there were still islands of traditional, non-market reciprocity. The family, the club, the church congregation, the regiment are all collectivities based on a notion of exchange which is not governed by a profit and loss account. Christmas may be seen as a celebration of this ancient moral economy based on the gift, even in the commercial society in which we live.

Field studies of hunter-gatherer peoples have yielded the richest accounts of the importance of reciprocity in social life. One of the most humane of these ethnographies was produced by an American family, the Marshalls. Laurence Marshall retired in 1950 from asuccessful career in engineering and business, during which he had they usually yield readly to expressed group opinion and reform their ways.

Richard Lee corrected this slightly idealized picture, recording that fights were in fact not uncommon. On some measures, the IKung homicide rate compares unfavorably with that In the worst American urban areas though for such tiny communities these comparisonsare not necessarily significant, since the homicide rate must be extrapolated from a very small number of cases. Lee noted that a high proportion of homicides were crimes of passion, and remarked that !Kung fighting seems to be "a kind of temporary insanity or running amok rather than ... an instrumental act in a means-end framework." He agreed with Lorna Marshall that the !Kung fear violence, and that they have developed a variety of mechanisms to defuse quarrels and to control the expression of aggression. One means is talking, and the !Kung are great talkers. They are "the most loquacious people I know," reported Lorna Marshall. The San do not fight much,"Richard Lee agreed, but they do talk a great deal." The !Kung are great singers too, and Lorna Marshall wrote that a song composedspecifically about someone's behaviour and sung to express disapproval, perhaps from the deepest shadow of the encampment at night, is a very effective means of bringing people who deviate back into the pattern of approved behaviour."

Direct criticism was even more common, and it characteristically sparked off an intense debate in the camp. Above all else, however, social peace is achieved among the IKung through sharing and giving. Meat is always shared, with everyone in the camp, if possible, getting a share. Other possessions are claimed and passed on in a continuous cycle, from weapons to items of clothing and decoration. The main topic of their constant conversation, Lorna Marshall reported, is food; but perhaps next most common is talk about gift-giving: “Men and women speak of the persons to whom they have given or propose to give gifts. They express satisfaction or dissatlsfaction with what they have received.

If someone has delayed unexpectedly long in making are turn gift, the people discuss this. One man was excused by his friends because his wife, they said, had got things into her hands and made him poor, so that he now had nothing suitable to give. Sometimes, on the other hand, people were blamed for being ungenerous (“fair hearted”) or not very capable in managing their lives, and no one defended them for these defects or asked others to have patience with them”.

Gifts are not only exchanged with neighbors and close relatives; they are traded between partners over a distance of hundreds of miles. Many adults have a number of partners, sometimes dozens spread over a great area. !Kung adults spend a great deal of time and energy traveling across the desert to visit relatives and exchange-partners, depending on their hospitality and exchanging gifts with them.

Exchange is clearly at the heart of their social being, and they recognize this very well. As a !Kung informant told Lorna Marshall:”The worst thing is not giving presents. If people do not like eachother but one gives a gift and the other must accept, this brings a peace between them. We give to one another always. We give what we have. This is the way we live together”. This obsession with giving and reciprocity is characteristic especially of small-scale societies—today, mostly people who live largely by foraging.

The Israeli anthropologist Nurit Bird-David has pointed out that such people also often have a theory about their relationship with the natural environment and with the spirit world that assumes the same principles of sharing and reciprocity. A French ethnographer, Philippe Descola, has provided two fascinating, contrasting instances from the Amazon region. Among the people of the Tukano linguistic family, wives are exchanged between groups. Specialist goods are also traded between rival bands. Relationships between bands are therefore ordered on principles of reciprocal exchange. These people believe that similar principles rule the relationships between human beings and animals, and govern their relationship with the rulers of the natural world. After death, the souls of human beings go to the underground storehouses of gods.The souls of the animals of the forest and the fish of the rivers are stored in the same places. A shaman, in a drug-induced state of trance, regularly visits the Master of Animals and negotiates for the release of some animals into the forest, where his people will hunt them. However, compensation must be offered: the soul of a person,which will be transformed into an animal to replace the animal that has been hunted. In short, concludes Descola, "the Tukano social domain is entirely ruled by a logic of reciprocity."

Among the Jivaro tribes of the UpperAmazon. however, reciprocity is differently ordered. They do not imagine that humans and animals are linked in an ecological system regulated by exchanges. In their system there are only a limited number of human souls available, but a community can augment its numbers by capturing another soul. This is done through head-hunting and cannibalism.

“Head-hunting," remarks Descola, "is a predatory process of accumulation which deliberately excludes reciprocity. However, the compensation for a head is always exacted forcefully in the long term, since the laws of revenge require that a killing never be left unpunished. The benefit brought by the taking of a head is always temporary, and the captured identity is later redistributed in an endless dialectic of violence." Similarly, when a man is killed in these feuds, his wife and children are normally abducted: so even marriage is often predatory—but once again the act of abduction invites reciprocation, initiating a fresh cycle of revenge. There is thus a sort of reciprocity in the feud itself, though now it takes a negative form.

What might be called the principle of negative reciprocity underlies very widespread ideas of justice. In most societies there are two sorts of crime: one is against the individual, the other against the society.The more powerful the central authority, the more likely it is that offenses against the law will be treated as offenses against authority,and punished by fines, beatings, mutilations, imprisonment, exile,or even execution. Most societies, however, insist rather on reciprocal loss. "And thine eye shall not pity," the Book of Deuteronomy instructs us, "but life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, handfor hand, foot for foot”. This is also the rule that governs the feud, though in practice a payment may be accepted in settlement of a blood debt. Among the Nuer, for instance, compensation for a life may be made by a transfer of cattle that is equivalent to a bride-wealth payment. It is a chilling thought, perhaps, but the same logic governs the friendly, ceremonial exchange of the Kula cycle and the relentless exchanges of the feud. Both are driven by the principle of reciprocity, which is the nearest thing to a universally recognized canon of justice. One has a right to even the score, to get even.

Power and Authority

Yet our lives are not governed just by considerations of reciprocal exchange. Mauss thought that the moral basis of reciprocity was eroded by the development of money and markets, but it seems that its place has been taken by the development of powerful central authorities which play by different rules, and which are more concerned with control and power than with the personal satisfactions of balanced reciprocity.

Relations between rulers and ruled are governed by unequal exchanges. Between communities too, relative power tends to be more important than ideas about fair exchange. This suggests that it is somewhat naive to base a sociology on a calculus of individual choice. The fact is that governments bind individuals to them. Even in societies without government, individual relations of reciprocity may be subordinated to the claims of the group.

Adam Smith began with the individual, and explained what bound him to society. Societies were associations of individuals, and their selfish interests meshed to create workable associations. In his view, governments should interfere as little as possible in the self-regulating work of the market. Individuals would behave themselves because they recognized the logic of enlightened self-interest. But according to another tradition of social thought, it makes little sense to argue about why individuals live in groups. There are no pre-social individuals who have to be tempted into the group. Human beings are essentially social, and each society creates the individuals it requires.

Religious Beliefs

Individual consciousness is a product of social forces. Not all individuals everywhere behave like Adam Smiths butcher, brewer, and baker, whose commercial habits were formed by theCalvinism of Glasgow and Edinburgh. According to the collectivists, simple, small-scale societies, in particular, were happily totalitarian. Once again, the classic account of such a society was based on reports about the Australian aborigines. This was “The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life”, published in1912 by the founding father of French sociology, Emile Durkheim.

Citing descriptions of Australian aboriginal ritual. Durkheim suggested that each community came together from time to time to worship a god that was, in effect, a projection of the group itself into the heavens. The rituals whipped up feelings of loyalty and inspired every individual to subordinate his or her wishes to the community. More subtly, the very concepts that people unconsciously used— ideas about space or time or causality—were derived from social experience.

The campsite, with its sacred and profane sites, its customary layout, served also as a map of the world, giving a socially relevant meaning to topography and even to the planetary system. The individual literally did not think to act except as a member of a group. Despite the relatively impoverished ethnographic reports available to him. Durkheim s view has worn well. Later reports have brought out the complex way in which initiation rituals, marriage arrangements, and gift exchanges combined to weave a social fabric that guided individual activity and ultimately maintained the extraordinary conservatism of Australian aboriginal technology and social arrangements.

But it is too simple to oppose traditional, collective societies and modern societies based on an individualist ethic. This was apparent to the pioneer sociologists around Durkheim, and his nephew Marcel Mauss had explored this issue in 1906 in an essay entitled “Seasonal Variations of the Eskimo”. Mauss pointed out that among the Eskimo (or Inuit, as they generally prefer to be called today) the year was divided into two seasons of economic and social activity. In their small summer camps the Eskimo lived in individual family groups, and pursued individual economic strategies. In the winter, however, they came together in large communities, and it was here that the ceremonies and exchanges of a more social existence flourished. "In the dense concentrations of the winter, a genuine community of ideas and material interests is formed. Its strong moral, mental and religious unity contrasts sharply with the isolation, social fragmentation and dearth of moral and religious life that occurs when everyone has scattered during the summer. This insight has been confirmed by later studies among societies such as the Kalahari Bushmen and the Australian aborigines. Even among the most apparently collectivist societies, there are seasons of individualism. And even among ourselves, living as we do in societies that stress individual achievement and competition, there are times when we celebrate a more collective ethic, based on reciprocity.Thanksgiving and Christmas are festivals of solidarity, when we exchange gifts, eat and drink together, care for the needy, and turn our backs on the business of the market.

Individualism is a peculiarly Western ideology. It takes for granted a specific notion of the "person". The idea of a self-conscious personality, formed by a unique psychic history, living by his or her own rules—the “character” of a novel or a film, or the hero of a history,or the subject of psychoanalysis—is both modern and culturally specific. (It is also, incidentally, under recurrent attack from avant-garde novelists. who question the continuity of individual identities, and from sociologists who believe that the social role has precedence over the individual.)

Extreme individualists take our conventions for granted. The individual is not only real, but the only realistic point of reference for social analysis. The community has a shadowy presence in their accounts; it may even be regarded as an illusion. "There is no such thing as society, Margaret Thatcher once observed robustly (adding, with fidelity to her particular intellectual tradition, "there are only individual men and women, and families").But even in modern capitalist societies, extreme individualism is an inadequate basis for political theory. Conservative individualists find that they have to combine their basic tenet with a patriotic call to serve the national cause.

There is a similar contradiction in the ideas of thinkers on the left, who would like to argue the case both for social solidarity and for inviolable individual rights. It is hard to be unwaveringly individualist or consistently collectivist in politics. Similarly, the extreme sociological standpoints are unconvincing. There are no presocial individuals, but equally there are no—or mercifully few—totalitarian communities that consume all individual choice.

The most ancient societies were perhaps not much more, or less, individualistic than our own. They seem to have been open, transient, fragile associations. Yet they may well have constituted powerful moral communitles, shaping individual goals, constraining cholces, imbuing actions with particular meanings. The best guess is that early societies, like all those we know today, had somehow to accommodate the divergent pressures generated by common interests and individual goals, communal institutions and entrepreneurial strategies.

There is no simple, natural, universal primal constitution of human society, no single motive for sociality. The family was probably the universal basis of domestic organization, and the principle of reciprocity always had a greater or lesser role in regulating relationships; but ancient forms of social life were surely very various. A great many mechanisms have been developed that persuade individuals, generally speaking, to behave as good citizens. We are unlikely ever to discover through empirical research the first—or fundamental —form of citizenship. Nor has it proved possible to identify a principle of legitimate authority that is accepted across the spectrum of cultural traditions.We cannot specify a universally accepted human right. In any case, even if all hitherto-known societies recognized a particular law, we might nevertheless decide not to abide by it any longer. What laws should prevail will not be settled by empirical research; it is a matterfor political debate. Nor is there any inevitable progression in the forms of government. The future is a different story.


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