Evaluation as the Foundation of Social Life, Status as the Foundation of Evaluation
The distribution of understandings by statuses is both central to their effectiveness and unavoidable. It is only by understanding what people (and what sorts of people) do what under what circumstances that social life is possible and at least a minimum of one's needs and interests are attended to. Nor are statuses limited to their vital function as guides for social relationships and interactions. In fact, it is the evaluative functioning of statuses, more than any other single factor, that lies at the heart of culture's effectiveness. Hamlet's "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so" would be a fuller, if less lyrical, characterization if it were clear that "thinking" is closely tied to the understandings in the statuses to whose categories we assign ourselves and to the understandings in the statuses whose occupants we evaluate and understand to be evaluating us.
The evaluations embedded in statuses are the bedrock of social life. As concerns actual behavior, interaction cannot proceed without those involved understanding each others' behavior as being within the limits set by the expectations of the statuses they assign to each other and themselves. It is in interaction that the basis for evaluation is manifested, and it is the statuses of both the evaluator and the evaluated (with all parties being both) which provide the standards for evaluation. Multiplex relationships depend more on inclusive evaluations of overall performance and less directly on particular behavior in specific contexts than simplex relationships do, but the evaluation process is central to both types of relations.
In the discussions of cultural models (chap. 7) and of shame (chap. 8), there was substantial evidence to show that the Swahili, like everyone else, are nonstop evaluators of everything they encounter, especially of the people (including themselves) they deal with. At the same time, everyone is very much alive to the fact that he or she is being evaluated by those same people.
Given the importance of the evaluations of those with whom one has ongoing relationships, there is a powerful impetus to act in ways understood as likely to win approval (or, at least, avoid disapproval) from partners in those relations. Putting this in terms of the status complex of understandings, those in interaction come to some agreement as to which statuses are salient and to meet, to some degree at least, what they take to be the expectations in those statuses.
In order for this to happen, the agreement must include what statuses each party occupies. This agreement emerges from and is confirmed by signs (actually symbols) of acceptable evaluations of the behavior that each participant gives the others. Such evaluation usually derives from at least partially shared understandings about what is acceptable and what is not. In other words, it is in social life that shared understandings (culture's elements) become "visible" as such through the behavior they guide and its acceptance. The acceptance of behavior as demonstrated by positive symbols from partners seems to be taken as acceptance of at least some of the understandings that guide that behavior.
The direct and immediate importance of social relationships to group members and the central part played by mutual evaluation in those relationships puts the understandings actors take as the base for evaluation at the center of culture's ability to operate. This is a point long emphasized by social theorists (e.g., Hallowell 1955:105–110, Durkheim 1961:52–55). Because of the central contribution of morality to cultural dynamics, I first proposed a definition of "culture" as "the sum of the morally forceful understandings acquired through learning and shared by the members of . . . [a] group" (Swartz and Jordan 1976:46). It is now clear, however, that this definition is seriously flawed in that it requires shared understandings to be "morally forceful" if they are to be included as part of a culture. This directs attention away (technically, it precludes it) from the empirical study of the presence or absence of moral force in shared understandings when such study is clearly worthwhile.