Academic journal article Africa

The Talk Goes Outside: Argument, Privacy and Power in Mambila Society towards a Sociology of Embedded Praxis

Academic journal article Africa

The Talk Goes Outside: Argument, Privacy and Power in Mambila Society towards a Sociology of Embedded Praxis

Article excerpt


In this paper the sociological implications of loud argument are considered, by taking a case study from the Mambila in Cameroon. Meetings of rotating credit societies are non-traditional forums where power and status are in dispute. These meetings contrast with both domestic arguments and with disputes held in the Chief's court. Rotating credit society meetings usually include arguments but these are dismissed as being unimportant by local informants. They pose a challenge for anthropological analysis since they are such a regular but disregarded--and disparaged--occurrence. Raised voices increase the range of bystanders as witnesses, so to argue loudly is a very social act.


This paper is a small contribution to the study of the ineffable, to the study of small scale but extremely social events that form the bedrock of ordinary life. That very ordinariness makes such events difficult to conceptualise or discuss.

A heated dispute, i.e. an argument, is an essentially ambiguous social practice. On the one hand it is specific, being tied to the issue in dispute: the sparks and context unite in disharmony those who argue. On the other hand it is a universal social act. By definition, an argument involves more than one person--solipsists do not argue--and the paths of argument, mediation or resolution trace the patterns of power and authority, the structures that comprise society. Small wonder then that anthropologists seem endlessly fascinated by, possibly even obsessed with, quarrels and disputes. As John Haviland (1997: 568-9) puts it, 'argument is a particularly potent arena for doing ethnography, in part because the language of argument directs us to people's hearts', and later, 'fights are an appropriate place to look because they are similarly ubiquitous, and because they are passionate--when arguing we frequently "forget ourselves".' Professionally, we really are 'looking for trouble'. Such an orientation carries its own problems. It is hard to explain why one is so interested in the small, messy and private problems of one's neighbours. It is difficult to explain why and how their words and actions transcend the local. For they do, but in complex and subtle ways. The words spoken in the heat of an argument, the forms and the means of argument point to deep and widely distributed ways of organising society. (1) Briggs (1996, 1997) discusses some of the wider ramifications of disputes and pragmatic research. Haviland (1997) raises the question whether Gricean co-operation and orderly turn-taking are idealistic social aspirations rather than observed features, although, as Brown and Levinson (1978: 100) observe, the maxims are honoured mainly in the breach.


Some quarrels happen in the privacy of the home, others in public. Of the public quarrels, some are more serious than others. In this paper I consider the quarrels that often accompany the meetings of rotating credit societies (dasis). These are far less serious than those heard at the Chief's court, where arguments are concluded by ritual oath taking (extensively analysed in Zeitlyn, 1994) which provides a definite conclusion to an argument, since its ultimate resolution is thereby taken out of human hands.

In many, if not most, rural communities the norm is that one lives near the place where one was born and where one will die. Privacy is therefore a scarce resource which is highly prized and which people labour to achieve (see Haviland and Haviland, 1983, for a Mexican parallel). In Mambila villages much of social life takes place outdoors in the sight of passers-by, who may be casual visitors, but are more likely to be siblings, cousins or lifelong friends or enemies. The management of social relations in such an environment reflects these basic facts (a similar European case has been documented by Rapport, 1983). Houses in Mambila villages are built close together. …

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