The Organization of Culture by Statuses
Chapter 11 brings together my findings and interpretations to summarize what has been found for the Mombasa Swahili and to propose a generally applicable status-based theory of culture's functioning. One of the theory's
main propositions concerns how culture's parts are related to one another, that is, how they are organized, to form an effective guide to action. One source of this cultural organization is "organizing understandings" that explicitly indicate the relationship between other understandings, as in "better safe than sorry."
The relationships among elements may be ones of relative importance as in the example just cited, but they may also concern sequence, dependence or independence, or other sorts of relations. Whichever sort of relationship may be involved, organization is an indispensable part of culture's functioning. Although explicit organizing understandings can contribute to the relations among cultural elements, such understandings are by no means the only or, necessarily, the most common or effective contributors. Organization may, and often does, result from understandings that have no intrinsic relations with the issues to be acted on. Put simply, the relationship between cultural elements is mediated by, even sometimes produced by, the understandings that guide the relationships between people.
Organization is vital because it directs the unavoidable choices that must be made among the understandings that might be useful guides in particular contexts and situations. This choice is often on the basis of actors' status-guided relationships to other people concerned with the action at issue rather than on the basis of intrinsic relationships among the usually numerous alternative understandings that are more or less applicable to that action. That is, actor X follows understanding A rather than understanding B not because A is more important, urgent, or virtuous than B but because the relationships with actor Y makes A more appropriate. Status-guided organization of this sort results from at least three somewhat different sorts of processes.
One is the type involved in the previously described spouse relationship. Stated generally, participation in one relationship is affected by the involvement of the participants in other relationships. This leads some understandings available in the relationship to be given precedence over others of similar sorts, as in the husbands withholding their power to refuse their wives' requests for finery and expensive ceremonies.
A related but different social process that serves to organize cultural elements is described in chapter 9. Here it is seen that many individuals decide what medical care to seek on the basis of the general expectation in a relationship—typically with the mother—that is not primarily medical in nature but that involves wide-scope trust. The understanding that leads to action is not one concerned specifically with illness and treatment but rather with the adviser's commitment to the patient's welfare. Similarly, the adviser's recommendation is rather often based on her trust of still a third person in a relationship with her which is not primarily medical. Fairly often, such links form a chain of nonmedical relationships that influence or determine decisions about medical problems despite few of the participants sharing even basic understandings about medical issues.
In this way, the effects of cultural elements shared among a few members of a group are "passed" from relationship to relationship and affect people who may be quite ignorant of the particular understandings that directly bear on, and may be crucial to dealing with, the problem or issue concerning them.
Somewhat similarly, the expectations in one relationship are transmitted to another through their effects on the person who is involved in them both. The person with dual involvement transmits the effects of the expectations in one relationship to his partner in the other with that partner's reaction depending not on the provenance of the expectations but, rather, on the latter's commitment to the relationship itself. The partner may transmit those effects to still another relationship, thus continuing the "chain reaction." This organization of elements involving bringing understandings into some kind of sequence need not be itself based on culture since it does not depend on those involved having any understanding of the overall interlocking network of expectations that actually produces the organization. A whole series of understandings can be linked together in this way, with the vital connection between them being their involvement in relationships with participants who have relationships with others "higher" in the chain rather than any intrinsic relations among the understandings themselves.
The main hypotheses in this book were developed through work in the Mombasa Swahili community, but they are proposed as being universally applicable. It is not part of the proposal that the processes found among the Swahili are the sole means for promoting culture's effectiveness. It is, however, a contention that these processes are found in all groups. The status-based organization of culture may be only one of a variety of solutions to the problem of culture's ability to function despite limited sharing within groups and, even, within statuses. Similarly, it may be that it can be shown that the nature of general expectations is less central to social life than it appears to be in Old Town and that the use of cultural models embedded in relationship terms is only one of myriad devices that teach understandings to adults while, at the same time, giving those understandings an emotional and evaluative weight that makes them harder to flout. It may even be that the importance of evaluation and its dual dependence on status is overstated and that other processes play a greater part in differential cultural conformity and the maintenance of social structure in other communities. Still, all of these processes are being presented as universal even though the data presented here are from the Mombasa Swahili community alone.
And now it is time to turn to those data. To put flesh on the conceptual bones and to provide a basis for assessing the claimed significance of the cultural processes described here, we begin with a consideration of the rise of the Mombasa Swahili community and its evolution over time.