Hunter-Gatherer Structural Transformations
Riches, David, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute
The theoretical characterization of hunter-gatherer society has been considerably advanced during the past two decades, especially via notions of a unitary 'forager' or 'hunter-gatherer' mode of social life and through dichotomies and other schemata designed to construe the variety of hunter-gatherer social structures (e.g. Bird-David 1992a; 1992b; Gardner 1991; Ingold 1987; Leacock & Lee 1982: 7-13; Testart 1987; Woodburn 1980; 1982). Even if, as some suggest, 'hunter-gatherer' is not a meaningful category (Hunn & Williams 1982; Barnard 1983; Myers 1988; Bird-David 1992b), the study of peoples with foraging economies challenges the anthropologist to grasp a range of social structures on behalf of a better understanding of human social structure in general. This article, written in the spirit of such a perspective, is designed to address transformations of social structure invited by the hunter-gatherer 'laboratory'. In particular, it considers the transformations between three familiar 'types' of hunter-gatherer social structure, whose radical differences in terms of allocations of power (and associated differences in cosmology) are frequently discussed in the literature (e.g. Turner 1985; Layton 1986): the 'Eskimo/Bushman', the 'Northwest Coast Indian' and the 'Australian'.(1) I argue that to approach such transformations it is essential holistically to understand the relations among the distinctive institutional features of each respective type; and that this task may be in part achieved by acknowledging the variety of social structures within each type (for example, the variety of social structures among the various Northwest Coast Indian 'societies'). This is clearly a considerable undertaking and I can outline here only some broad directions, which I shall expose by engaging with existing literature. I am able to capitalize on findings from my main published research, on the subject of variation among Eskimo and interior northern North American Indian social structures (Riches 1982), and also from supplementary papers in which I examine social structure among the Northwest Coast Indian societies, taking in such anthropologically compelling elements as cognatic and matrilineal descent and different types of marriage alliance system (Riches 1979; 1984). Analysis pitched at the level of social structure makes it possible for novel interpretations of the various challenging social structures to be posited quite economically, even if, in order fully to substantiate these interpretations, supplementary accounts incorporating complementary perspectives may be necessary.
The aim of the present article is to demonstrate some of the pay-offs from this approach. First, with reference to the very considerable differences between the three hunter-gatherer 'types', I shall reveal that the transformations are focused on certain specific institutions within the respective total social structures. Second, I shall argue that between the Eskimo/Bushman type on the one hand and Northwest Coast Indian and Australian types on the other, there is, with respect to key social institutions, a profound difference in the very principles of social structuring, which the analysis of the transformations must take into account. Finally (and consequently), I am able to address the processes of the transformations. In sum, such a holistic perspective permits generative accounts of both Northwest Coast Indian and Australian social structures which stand as criticisms of implausible functionalist explanations, whereby (for example) quite complex sociocentric institutions, treated in isolation, are seen as existing because of rather simple economic needs.
I begin with two main sections, on the Northwest Coast Indians and on the Australians. As eponymous representatives of two 'types' of hunter-gatherer society, these peoples have social structures which are strikingly distinct - that is, distinct compared with the generality of contemporary hunter-gatherers (Leacock & Lee 1982: 7; Hunn & Williams 1982; Layton 1986). In the literature this is normally expressed in terms of their social structures comprising institutions which the generality lack. The Eskimo and the Bushman represent the 'generality'. Thus, alongside the resumes of the Northwest Coast Indian and Australian structures, I shall, in these sections, outline the so-called 'flexible' Eskimo/Bushman social structure, with its dearth of sociocentric social institutions. A central goal will be to show that, within the respective Northwest Coast and Australian types, the distinctive institutions are related to one another in a way that reflects the crucial salience of one institution in particular. As between these types the crucial institutions are, as may be expected, quite different, yet they refer to obviously fundamental aspects of social structure, concerning ownership of resources and the organization of territoriality. This analysis then permits matters of transformation between the two types and the Eskimo/Bushman social structure to be addressed. In the first two sections, then, I am able to show that the transformation in the respective instances corresponds with the presence of particular cultural perspectives on resource appropriation (Northwest Coast Indians) and aspects of socio-territorial grouping (Australians). Such cultural perspectives reflect, in different ways, significant enhancements of organizational power.
The transformations are described completely when these particular cultural perspectives are explained. The third section, to get a measure of this task, outlines some contrasting 'principles of social structuring' which reflect different degrees of organizational power. I introduce a dichotomy between hunter-gatherer societies where information structuring predominates and those where the organization of social life is informed more by authority structuring. Thus in Eskimo/Bushman structure I show that key social institutions, especially those concerned with territorial organization and leadership, function to facilitate the dissemination of information, whilst in the other two types (Northwest Coast Indian and Australian), social institutions more prominently articulate the exercise of hierarchy and inclusion/exclusion. This discussion opens the way, in the fourth section, for the cultural differences associated with the transformations finally to be understood.
I wish to dispense with three technical points before beginning - concerning 'structure', 'ownership' and history. By 'social structure' I have in mind the institutional articulation of social relations in nexuses of power and authority and/or inclusion and exclusion (manifest as leadership, territoriality, sodality, resource ownership, etc.). Appropriate to this, discussion will attend to matters of rules and values, and of categories and groups. It is unnecessary to dwell on the ontological standing of such elements, except to recognize that in this article the individual actor is largely mute and matters of social strategy are, in the main, left implicit. It follows that accounts of, say, Northwest Coast Indian social structures cannot be regarded as complete descriptions of these societies' social organizations (for example, important non-institutionalized patterns of social action are disregarded).
By 'ownership' I refer to rules conferring on individuals or groups the right of exclusive appropriation of specified resources (including religious resources) or territorial areas. It is important that this definition is laid down, since discussion in the literature has long been dominated by the question of whether or not (or to what extent) hunter-gatherers exercise 'economic' ownership over ungarnered resources and/or territory. Matters of ownership will be mentioned in this article, and it is convenient to establish at the outset a position which may be taken as read. For me, ownership, connoting exclusive rights, may be said to exist if (and only if) people are observed denying others access to the resources concerned. Understood as such, economic ownership is less prevalent among hunter-gatherers than much anthropological writing suggests (see also Leacock & Lee 1982: 8; Woodburn 1982: 437). In contrast, ownership is sometimes construed as meaning that others (i.e. non-owners) who desire to harvest or use the resources in question must first 'ask permission' (e.g. Verdon & Jorion 1981: 95). This is worthy of comment, since in many hunter-gatherer societies (Eskimo, Bushman, Australian) there are 'asking for permission' conventions which outsiders moving into certain types of socially delimited area must observe. I insist elsewhere that such conventions are not in themselves indicative of ownership (on the part of those from whom the permission is asked). These conventions are simply the means by which friendly intentions (between newcomers and the area's 'customary occupants' or 'guardians') may be expressed: no one may be refused 'entry' who respects the conventions (Riches 1982: 114-17).
Finally, on the matter of history, I am able to indicate what the article does not achieve. First, as the notion of transformation implies, I am concerned here with the logical relations among institutions; through comparison with Eskimo/Bushman, proposals will be offered as to the processes by which Northwest Coast Indian and Australian social structures emerged. But an evolutionary scenario, from Eskimo/Bushman to Australian or Northwest Coast, is not implied (however, see Riches 1979; Layton 1992: ch. 8). Secondly, I focus in this article on the social relations of production and not primarily on the historical and ecological conditions in which particular social structures in particular settings arose. Historical and ecological accounts of a social structure are only so good as the understanding of that social structure in its own terms. Thus discussion in what follows, on the 'emergence' of Northwest Coast Indian and Australian social structures, is intended merely to identify the key institutions and generative processes, fundamental to such structures, to which, in other research, known ecological and historical exigencies may be matched. Lastly, I must refer to the validity of treating the various social structures as if they are exclusively hunter-gatherer entities, that is, as if they exist independently of external influences from a non-hunter-gatherer world. This is a tricky issue, particularly in the light of the recent revisionist views about Eskimo/Bushman social structure. I will attend to the issue in the final section, saying here only that I am confident that one can treat such structures as corresponding to historically valid societies.
Northwest Coast Indian social structure
The Northwest Coast Indian type of social structure is marked by an institutionalized system of stratification (e.g. nobles/commoners/slaves) and ranking (e.g. degrees of nobility), descent sodalities, notions of ownership over territory and ungarnered resources (e.g. hunting territories, fishing stations, berrying grounds), and extensive systems of inter-group alliances.(2) Within this type the several Northwest Coast Indian societies display a remarkable array of specific social structures whose variation I have interpreted elsewhere (Riches 1979; 1984; cf. Rosman & Rubel 1971; Mitchell & Donald 1988), offering, in particular, suggestive accounts of Nootka and Kwakiutl cognatic descent and Tsimshian, Tlingit and Haida matrilineal descent and marriage alliance structures. In this section I draw on these accounts, concentrating on the middle and northern latitude Northwest Coast Indian societies where the distinctive features of the Northwest Coast Indian type of social structure are exemplified most clearly.(3) Concerning these Northwest Coast Indian societies, it is important to note that: notions of rank (interpersonal and/or intergroup) are prominently elaborated in the middle-latitude societies (e.g. Nootka, Kwakiutl of the Canadian west coast) but somewhat less developed in the more northern societies (Tsimshian, Tlingit, Haida of the Canadian north-west coast and southern Alaska); people are subsumed in corporate, resource owning groups, seldom larger than 150 residents; between local groups, food is given in exchange for wealth objects and competitive potlatch feasting and distribution occurs, normally on occasions called to mark the death of a prominent noble or else the coming-of-age of the heir.
Among the generality of contemporary hunter-gatherers (leaving aside the Australians, obviously) such institutional features are conspicuously absent. These …
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Publication information: Article title: Hunter-Gatherer Structural Transformations. Contributors: Riches, David - Author. Journal title: Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Volume: 1. Issue: 4 Publication date: December 1995. Page number: 679+. © 1999 Royal Anthropological Institute. COPYRIGHT 1995 Gale Group.
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