Academic journal article Ethnology

Domestic Space, Habitus, and Xhosa Ritual Beer-Drinking (1)

Academic journal article Ethnology

Domestic Space, Habitus, and Xhosa Ritual Beer-Drinking (1)

Article excerpt

Xhosa beer-drinking rituals are structured according to several principles, among which the spatial order of domestic settings features prominently. An analysis of beer-drink rituals, however, requires that abstract notions of how they are structured spatially be understood in conjunction with practice, in which the spatial norms are applied in specific events and vary in meaning according to the particular variant of the ritual. Spatial symbolism also may be manipulated, modified, or subverted, according to specific circumstances affecting the participants. In addition, every beer-drink ritual (and thus the meaning of its spatial symbolism) has to be understood in relation to both previous and forthcoming events. (Xhosa beer-drink rituals, domestic space, habitus)


Among rural Xhosa-speakers in South Africa's Eastern Province, ritual commonly takes the form of highly stylized, communal beer-drinking, held for a variety of purposes. These are public events that take place in individual homes, and their characteristics are closely related to the way in which Xhosa people design and use their homesteads. This article examines the way in which domestic space is used in beer-drinking rituals and the way in which this use of space is related to everyday social practice and to past practices; namely, certain historical developments influencing contemporary social life.

The literature on the ritual use of domestic space in southern Africa is sparse, but there have been some prominent structuralist analyses of the spatial organization of southern Bantu homesteads, notably by Adam Kuper (1982, 1993). Structuralist and structural-functionalist analyses of spatial symbolism are limited by their static and formal nature, and this becomes apparent in the case of Xhosa beer-drink rituals once they are viewed as a form of practice, in Bourdieu's sense of the word, rather than as a manifestation of a structural order (Bourdieu 1977, 1990).

The Nguni residential unit occupied by a family, argues Kuper, is a basic economic, kinship, territorial, and political unit, and its physical layout is not only closely related to the way in which the domestic group is organized, but is also "a symbolic representation of principles of the socio-cosmic system ... [and] corresponds very generally with indigenous ideas about social organisation" (Kuper 1993:473). In his view, the organization of domestic space has been relatively constant for a thousand years and is based chiefly on a set of binary oppositions such as left and right, above and below, inside and outside, through which normative social principles based on agnation, genealogical seniority, gender, order of marriage, and the ranking of wives are expressed and reinforced. The model is also a general one, extending beyond the domestic unit, encompassing "ideas about the organization of the world ... [and] the organization of the state" (Kuper 1993:472-73). So the social principles in terms of which domestic space is structured, such as the allocation of certain huts to wives in terms of their ranked order, are the same principles that govern the political structure (e.g., the ranking of territorial divisions of the chiefdom). Kuper's structuralist approach receives support from archaeologists, such as Huffman (1982), who have identified a general southern Bantu "culture system" expressed in settlement pattern.

While providing useful insights into Nguni social structural principles and the ways in which these are relevant in the political sphere, this kind of approach has been criticized for its limitations in analyzing the everyday use and meaning of space (Moore 1986). Similar criticisms have been leveled at Bourdieu's analysis of the Berber house (Bourdieu 1973), which he described as "perhaps the last work I wrote as a blissful structuralist" (1990:9). To be brought to life, a focus on an enduring structural and abstract order or a set of organizing principles needs attention to the everyday social practices through which meaning emerges. …

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