Segmentation: Reality or Myth?

By Gellner, Ernest; Munson Jr., Henry | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, December 1995 | Go to article overview

Segmentation: Reality or Myth?


Gellner, Ernest, Munson Jr., Henry, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


A most determined and sustained critique of my use of the notion of segmentation has been made by Henry Munson Jr (Man (N.S.) 28, 267-80). Perhaps I should begin by saying that at a more general or methodological level, he and I are in agreement (at least I like to think so): we both believe that there is an objective ethnographic reality, available out there and accessible to investigation, and that our job is to say what it is. Objectivity is not a misguided aspiration, still less a form of domination, and subjectivism and obscurity are not forms of liberation.

In other words, where some other critics have argued on largely abstract grounds (and, no doubt, merit consideration at that level), Munson believes the segmentary theory to be false in fact, rather than being misguided in principle and politically incorrect. As far as I know, he does not consider it flawed on some a priori and/or political grounds. It could be true, but as it so happens, it is not.

The first point to make concerning Munson's criticism is that I wrote a book called 'Saints of the Atlas' (Gellner 1969) but never wrote one called 'Lay tribes of the Atlas'. Readers of his article might easily form the opposite impression: namely, that the organization of the lay tribes, who constituted and constitute the clientele of the saints of Ahansal, were at the centre of my attention, and that I was putting forward a thesis about them. This is not so. They were at the edge of my field of vision or attention, whilst I was actually focusing on the saints.

This does not mean, of course, that I did not make assertions concerning the lay tribes (I did), and that these were not an essential part of my argument (they were), and thus legitimate objects of criticism. But it endows those statements with a rather different status: the lay tribes and their organization was not under investigation; it was part of the background.

To put it concretely: I lived with the saints continuously for months on end (and the months so spent added up to well over a year), and I very frequently visited the surrounding tribes for a day and sometimes for weeks: but they were not, to repeat, under scrutiny. Their organization was observed but not investigated.

Now the standing of ethnographic observation which is in this sense at the edge rather than the centre of one's field of vision is interesting. In one very important sense, it is of course inferior: being at the edge of one's field of vision, one is passively observing, whereas at the centre, one is actively checking one's ideas. At the centre, one is under an obligation to worry persistently concerning any possible discrepancy between fact and idea; at the edge, one must note discrepancies, but they need to be at least moderately visible. One does not dig up the ground so as to find them, even if they should be well hidden. On the other hand, the fact that one has no intellectual investment in the backcloth, and least of all in its details, endows one's ideas in that area with a certain innocence and a claim to prima facie consideration (though not, of course, to authority).

I did develop a set of ideas concerning Berber and Maghrebin sanctity, and these ideas I checked with all the thoroughness I could muster. These ideas concern the services which the saints perform for the surrounding segmentary society, and the manner in which segmentation was, amongst them, distorted and overlaid by the practices of sanctity. Segmentation is connected with diffusion of power and with equality, it works just because the participants resemble each other and so are equal, whereas sanctity by contrast requires the concentration of the saintly potency.

To turu to the Ait cAtta, the tribe on which Munson has focused: I was indeed convinced (and remain fully convinced) that they are segmentary, but the additional and very interesting illustrations of this fact came my way not because I was systematically testing this idea, but because they as it were fell into my lap, without my seeking them out.

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