Structure and Function in Primitive Society, Essays and Addresses

By A. R. Radcliffe-Brown | Go to book overview
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PROFESS0R GRIAULE article on "L'Alliance cathartique" in Africa of October 1948 raises a methodological point of considerable importance. If we wish to understand a custom or institution that we find in a particular society there are two ways of dealing with it. One is to examine the part it plays in the system or complex of customs and institutions in which it is found and the meaning that it has within this complex for the people themselves. Professor Griaule deals in this way with the custom by which the Bozo and the Dogon exchange insults with each other. He considers it as an element in a complex of customs, institutions, myths, and ideas to which the Dogon themselves refer by the term mangou. He shows us also what meaning the natives themselves attribute to this exchange of insults (p. 253) As a piece of analysis the article is admirable, and is a most important contribution to our growing knowledge of West African society.

But there is another method open to us, namely, to make a wide comparative study of' all those types of social relationship in which two persons are by custom permitted, or even required, to use speech or behaviour which in other relationships would be grievously offensive. To the use of this method it would seem that Professor Griaule objects. Referring to what has already been written on the comparative study of what are called 'joking relationships' or parentés à plaisanterie he writes: 'Nous adoptons, vis--vis travaux parus sur cette question, une attitude négative.'

Ethnographers had reported from North America, Oceania, and Africa instances of a custom by which persons standing in certain relationships resulting either from kinship, or more usually from marriage, were permitted or required to behave towards one another in a disrespectful or insulting way at which no offence might be taken. Such relationships came to be called 'joking relationships', admittedly not a very good name. The most

Reprinted from Africa, Vol. XIX, 1949, pp. 133-140.


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