Academic journal article Africa

Lineage Organisation of the Tallensi Compound: The Social Logic of Domestic Space in Northern Ghana

Academic journal article Africa

Lineage Organisation of the Tallensi Compound: The Social Logic of Domestic Space in Northern Ghana

Article excerpt


Houses frequently embody culturally specific principles of social organisation. In this article Tallensi compounds in the Upper East Region of Ghana are examined in terms of compound layout and the kinship relations of their occupants. By comparing the patrilineal descent patterns of occupants with the topological organisation of multi-courtyard compounds, it is proposed that there is a correlation between these two variables. Further multidimensional scaling analysis shows that proximity in kinship space is reflected in proximate living arrangements. For students of material culture, this investigation demonstrates that lineage solidarity and politics can be played out in architectural form on the micro-scale of the domestic scene. From the standpoint of ethnoarchaeology, the processes governing the social logic of compound design can also assist archaeologists in interpreting house features in the remains of similarly constituted settlements.


La maison incarne frequemment des principes d'organisation sociale culturellement specifiques. Cet article etudie des campements tallensi du nord-est du Ghana en termes de configuration spatiale et de rapports de parente. En comparant les modeles de descendance patrilineaire des habitants avec l'organisation topologique des campements a cours multiples, l'article suggere qu'il existe une correlation entre ces deux variables. Une autre analyse multidimensionnelle en relativite d'echelle montre qu'une proximite de parente se reflete dans la proximite des habitats. Pour ceux qui etudient la culture materielle, cette etude montre que la solidarite de lignage et la politique peuvent se manifester sous une forme architecturale a la micro-echelle de la scene domestique. D'un point de vue ethnoarcheologique, les processus regissant la logique sociale du type de campement peuvent aussi aider les archeologues a interpreter les caracteristiques des maisons situees sur d'anciens sites, dont la configuration est comparable.

   Looking round with a sudden thought, from a terrace on which I rested 
   for a 
   while, I realized that there were no small houses to be seen. 
   Apparently the 
   single house, and possibly even the household, had vanished. Here and 
   among the greenery were palace-like buildings, but the house and the 
   cottage, which form such characteristic features of our own English 
   landscape, had disappeared. 
   'Communism,' said I to myself. 
   H. G. Wells, The Time Machine, 1895 

The purpose of this investigation is to elucidate the relationship between the composition of the domestic group and patterns of coresidence in the house, particularly with respect to large houses occupied by extended families. A deep understanding of this relationship can enhance archaeologists' inferences about life in houses from house remains. One can ask, how does the composition of domestic groups vary and how is this reflected in dwelling form? To what extent do the social facts of kinship and descent constrain the organisation of the dwelling unit? To address this, the layout of Tallensi compounds in northern Ghana will be examined. The Tallensi are strongly patrilineal in their descent pattern and patrilocal in their residence pattern, and this influences the spatial organisation of courtyards in extended family compounds. The manner in which lineage solidarity serves politicojural-ritual ends has been emphasised by Fortes (1940, 1945, 1949) in terms of the activation of lineage and clan ties on the macro-scale when lineage interests are at stake. Fortes was also concerned with the operation of lineage ties on the micro-scale, such as relations within the compound, and he provides insights that may have utility to archaeologists concerned with extrapolating from material remains of houses to life within the houses. This article investigates how lineage organisation strongly determines the character of the compound and its layout. …

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