The Hamlet as Mediator

By Cancian, Frank | Ethnology, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

The Hamlet as Mediator


Cancian, Frank, Ethnology


Our focus on "the customary social unit that mediates relations between household .. and community in Mesoamerican Indian and rural society" (Mulhare 1996:93) leads to a rich conceptual space. A mediator is expected to do more than carry clear messages from one party to another. A mediator must somehow shape the connection, transform the message, and enhance or buffer the force of the exchange. And mediation itself is complex, especially because it varies with the relative power of the (minimally three) parties involved. These aspects of mediation raise interesting questions about small rural social forms and their relations to their contexts. This article explores some of those questions by describing hamlets in Zinacantin, Chiapas (Mexico) over recent decades and comparing them with similar social units in Chinese peasant communities during earlier periods. In both places hamlets have been important mediators between households and the larger community through which households are connected to the state.

The goals here are to identify characteristics of hamlets that signal their mediating role, and to explore the conditions under which these characteristics change. In abstract terms, the hamlet of concern is territorially delimited and has a population between several dozen and about 200 households. It has two characteristics that are central to its role as a mediating social form.

First, the hamlet is socially incomplete. That is, the social and public life of its residents extends beyond its boundaries in important ways. For example, marriage partners may be sought from outside the hamlet, and/or public roles taken by hamlet residents may be played out in a larger sociopolitical unit. In Mesoamerica this often means that religious offices (cargos) are served at the municipio (township) level, not in the hamlet. It means much the same thing in the world described by fat dictionaries, where a hamlet is defined as "a group of houses or a small village, esp. one without a church" (Brown 1993). Thus, the incompleteness of social and public life in hamlets is a distinctive characteristic of their social form. Given current ideas about the incompleteness of most aspects of life as we see them, I should emphasize that I mean to characterize hamlets relative to other social forms, not in an absolute way (Cancian 1992:205-08). For example, in Mesoamerica, the municipio is a more complete social form than the hamlet.

Second, the hamlet's public life is not formally organized, and the hamlet is not fully articulated with the larger unit of which it is a part. This often means t) that its most powerful leaders are called traditional from the point of view of the encompassing state, and/or 2) that relations with the outside world are mediated through residents who are of low status and powerless within the hamlet. Political life in the hamlet is only loosely and/or informally connected with the larger system--in the Mesoamerican case with officials at the municipio level and beyond.

This kind of hamlet virtually disappeared from Zinacantin between the 1960s and the 1980s. At the beginning of the period Zinacantin's hamlets closely resembled the idealized one just characterized. By the end, they were much more socially complete, formally organized, and closely articulated with the world outside them. Independence based on distance from the municipio's political and religious center and detachment from higher levels of government was replaced by full formal status in a local system organized by local officials and subject to rules dictated from above. Seen from the local and from the household point of view, the hamlet no longer mediated relations with the world outside. In many ways it became a local outpost of that world.

To document this transition in Zinacantin I will 1) give a brief overview of the earlier form of hamlets and of the changes and their proximate causes; 2) review in detail the recent history of formal roles in one hamlet; and 3) summarize a survey of similar transitions in all the other hamlets of the municipio.

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