History and Social Structure: A Study of the Sefwi Residential System (Ghana)

By Boni, Stefano | Ethnology, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview
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History and Social Structure: A Study of the Sefwi Residential System (Ghana)

Boni, Stefano, Ethnology

The article reviews studies concerning the Akan (Ghana) residential system with particular reference to Fortes's Time and Social Structure. Fortes's work is criticized for its lack of historical perspective, for assuming the structural identity of kin groups, and for ignoring the political and economic importance of the father-child relationship. The author presents a survey of the Sefwi residential system in which domestic units are differentiated according to their historical role. The economic and political importance of the father-child relationship is acknowledged in the transmission of and rights and in the dynamics of household foundation. (Matrilineal kinship, residential system, history, Akan, Ghana)

The above title, a paraphrase of Fortes's famous Time and Social Structure: An Ashanti Case Study, was chosen because it expresses the main purposes of this article. The aim is twofold: to review the literature concerning the residential pattern of the Akan, centered on Fortes's (1949) work and assumptions, and to propose a different framework through the introduction of a historical perspective.

An analysis of Fortes's kinship studies of the Akan, with particular reference to their residential system, enables one to point out certain theoretical shortfalls common to British social anthropology in the 1940s and early 1950s. This is important for several reasons. The accepted theoretical framework in Time and Social Structure is particularly clear and its consequences are symptomatic. Moreover, this article may also be relevant to students of the Akan area since the theoretical assumptions and results of Fortes's work (particularly Time and Social Structure) have often been accepted uncritically in many of the studies which followed. Finally, the principal aim here is to propose a different theoretical framework and offer insights which will shed new light on the residential pattern of the Akan.

The first two parts of this essay analyze Fortes's theoretical framework and his publications on the Asante. In the third section, Fortes's theoretical framework is criticized and a different methodological and theoretical procedure is proposed. Finally, the revised approach will be applied to the study of the residential pattern of the Sefwi.


Fortes's theoretical assumptions and methodology have been clearly and repeatedly specified in his work and have been applied in his fieldwork among the Asante. It is therefore essential to examine briefly some of the main features of his kinship theory and methodology to understand his description of the Asante residential system. Fortes's fundamental assumption is that there are a few simple norms on which society is forged. These rules create a structure, a "social structure." The rules derive from the one law which gives society its structure: the principle of descent. Rights regulating access to land, the criterion of political citizenship, the system of inheritance, and everyday social relations all derive from the descent principle (Fortes 1953, 1958, 1959).

The residential pattern is not a direct product of the descent principle. Fortes admits the importance of affinity and time in determining the "form" and "structure" of the residential system.

[T]ies of kinship, marriage, and affinity regulate the structure of domestic and family groups, which have no permanent existence in time. Each domestic group comes into being, grows and expands, and finally dissolves. But the institutions it embodies, and the mode of organization it exhibits, are essential features of the social structure. Domestic organization has two aspects. Its form derives from a paradigm or cultural "norm" sanctioned by law, religion and moral values. Its structure is governed by internal changes as well as by changing relations, from year to year, with society at large. (Fortes 1949:7, cf. 1950:261, 1953:91)

The descent principle also determines the unit of study of the social structure: the lineage.

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