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1 Ethnographic and Theoretical Introduction
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General Expectations, Cultural Sharing, and the Effectiveness of Statuses

Specific expectations are part of the substance of everyday life and must rather often be met if social life is to continue. Knowing that a butcher will accept money in exchange for meat, that those next to you at the mosque will follow the imam's example much as you do, and that a greeting will be returned with either no response or a benign one are all important to those who participate in Swahili social life.

Such specific expectations, however, are only a fraction of what is called for and supplied by social relationships in every enduring society. General expectations must also be met in their own ambiguous way. In Swahili society, for example, children in relationships with mothers expect to be helped and cared for, husbands in relationships with wives expect support, and wives in relationships with husbands expect to be shown love.

What behavior demonstrates help and caring, being supportive, and showing love is far more ambiguous than what is involved in the specific expectations concerning buying, greeting, and praying, but the general expectations are by no means less important because of that. The fact that meeting general expectations depends at least as much on interpretations as on behavior itself gives social life a flexibility and tolerance for differences it would otherwise not have. This flexibility and tolerance serves not only to reduce the need for detailed cultural sharing but also to make relationships effective in new circumstances and domains. The limited cultural sharing found among members of functioning nuclear families described in chapter 5 is partly to be understood as related to the latitude in relationships as a consequence of the importance of general expectations in them.

"Tokens" and "Guides"

The ambiguity of general expectations is by no means the only element in culture's ability to function as a guide for social relationships and individual behavior despite many of its elements being shared by only a limited number of those who are affected by them. Another is rooted in the fact that for some purposes, it is as important for those in a relationship to believe they share some understandings as it is to actually share them. Predictability is indispensable to social relations in that if people do not feel relatively confident that


they know the limits within which others will respond to them, they are unlikely to participate in the relations.

Since members of even groups with the most intense and frequent relationships do not share many of the understandings about those relationships, the basis for predictability cannot be assumed to be the "shared beliefs and values" often invoked to explain social phenomena. In fact, as chapter 6 shows, the appearance of sharing even in the presence of manifest differences can serve to facilitate the predictability essential to social life.

This "appearance" need not be a false one. For some purposes, it is useful to distinguish the functions of cultural elements according to whether they actually guide the behavior they most directly concern or are presented mainly as reassuring symbols to others whom the presenter believes use them as guides. A study of intergenerational relations shows (see chap. 6) that in formal interviews, younger Swahili say that the problems between parents and children and seniors and juniors are mainly due to their, the younger people's, lack of discipline and respect. In these same interviews, older Swahili say that their failure to be firm is the major cause of the intergenerational difficulties.

In more informal settings, however, quite different views appear: the younger people blame the older, who, in turn, blame the younger. In most contexts, it is these latter views, rather than the self-blaming ones, that actually guide behavior. In many social situations, young people tell each other about their parents' (and, in general, elders') conservatism and failure to understand the modern world, and they adopt various behavioral strategies to avoid the consequences of these understood attributes of their seniors. In a complementary way, the older people sometimes comfort each other about what they characterize as the abandoned and irresponsible behavior of their children and the hopeless nature of the younger generation. In fact, much of their behavior concerning young people can be seen to be affected by these last understandings even though that is not what would be expected on the basis of what they told the interviewers.

The understandings suggested by statements in the formal interviews of informants from both age groups are real enough; they do exist in the minds of those who state them. They do not, however, provide much actual guidance for behavior in the relationships with those they concern. The interview statements can be called "tokens," as distinguished from "guides." These tokens are intended, and often serve, to reinforce the belief that the individuals using, often exchanging, them are sufficiently similar to be able to predict one another's behavior.

"Cultural Models" and General Expectations

Another contributor to the effectiveness of nuclear families is connected with the effectiveness of the "cultural models" discussed in chapter 7. These


are symbolic representations of desired or despised behavior that are frequently presented or exchanged in emotional and value-laden ways. They gain force from the fact that they are not general or abstract statements of abstract values and ideals. The terms and characterizations that constitute the models are usually quite unambiguous in either praising or condemning identified actions or sorts of behavior carried out by particular individuals in specific social relationships. The models, therefore, provide quite clear indications of what is positively evaluated behavior for particular kinds of individuals in particular settings and what is not.

The amount of sharing needed for the understandings that constitute statuses to be effective as guides for behavior, then, is reduced by lessening the ambiguity concerning what the expectations associated with the statuses actually call for. Further, the models not only make clear what behaviors are well received but do so in a way that promotes those behaviors by presenting them in an emotionally charged and value-laden way.

Goodenough and Keesing present pictures of society in which what I call statuses are occupied by individuals who are taken as sharing with their status mates the understandings that are central to those statuses. For these two theorists, many of the most crucial issues deal with how these shared understandings are related to and interact with one another. Their main concern is with developing a "grammar" of culture using statuses as a key means for discovering the rules. This, however, is contrary to the data presented in chapter 5 as well as the data in Keesing's own 1978 study. If, as these data suggest, culture is quite imperfectly shared even within statuses, their linguistics-based model is not as compelling as it otherwise would be. In language, people employ a vocabulary whose more obvious references, at least, are shared and whose use is according to universally shared rules.

If statuses are taken as central to society's operation and if those statuses actually depend on relatively complete sharing of their elements among those categorized in them, it seems reasonable to infer that in a society functioning well enough to continue, the more central statuses are to relations and group activity, the more the understandings central to those statuses' functioning will be shared. The Swahili data, however, indicate that this is by no means clearly so.

Specifically, the data in chapter 4 show the nuclear family in this community to be functioning at least adequately, but, despite this, cultural sharing within family statuses is distinctly limited. This limited sharing is most clearly characteristic of the understandings about what specific sorts of things status occupants can and should do and how they can and should do them.

These data do not contradict the importance of cultural sharing within statuses. The necessity of having some actual and dependable sharing remains, but that necessity brings us back again to the importance of general, as opposed to specific, understandings. Statuses are quite as important to cul-


ture's functioning as Goodenough and Keesing have maintained, and they do function by distributing cultural elements among group members and, mainly through their salience understandings, among situations. A key to their ability to do this is not complete sharing within statuses, however, but the distinctive quality of general expectations concerning different statuses augmented by the efficacy of readily displayed cultural models that teach and encourage behavioral conformity. What is shared in the most limited way are specific understandings, while those with less easily identified behavioral manifestations are more broadly held and more central to the functioning of the sorts of statuses central to nuclear families and other intimate groups.

Still another source of the efficacy of statuses is found in the apparently thorough sharing (discussed in chapter 4) of status identifiers. The agreement about the assignment of people to statuses seems higher than many other sorts of agreement. There are fairly unambiguous, explicit understandings about status assignment of the "stethoscope wearer = doctor" sort. But such explicit understandings are not necessary in many reciprocal assignments, since the process is one that works itself out in interaction. In actually relating to one another, participants in interaction each adjust to the partner until agreement is reached about the category to which the other is assigned. This is a failure-proof process in that when agreement is not reached, relationships are ended before they really begin.

Identifiers, General Expectations, and More on Models

In communities like the Swahili where a limited number of people spend their lives in the same small area, status assignment is even less fraught with difficulties. When the various status memberships of those around one are well known, the meeting of expectations is simplified. Since the statuses important to much of life in such a community have mainly general, rather than specific, expectations, only limited sharing (in a quantitative sense) is needed for the relationship to proceed fruitfully, that is, the participants meet one another's expectations sufficiently often for them to continue.

There are, in fact, culturally constituted means for encouraging the sort of limited conformity that is called for to meet general expectations. To be competent as judged by peers, a surgeon has to conform quite closely to the technical understandings concerning the work associated with his status, but for a man or a woman to have haya (modesty and concern for the rights of others) calls for no such close agreement between actions and shared understandings. By praising haya, conformity to a variety of distant expectations that are important to the evaluation of individuals in a considerable variety of statuses is encouraged. I will show (chap. 7) that there are a considerable variety of terms in the Swahili language that encourage conformity with the


distant expectations of a range of statuses by providing emotionally potent models of the virtues of conformity and the costs of nonconformity.

It is not that status members in vital statuses such as "mother," "respected man," or "proper child" are led to conform to direct expectations in what they do and how they react but rather that they are encouraged in such general and diffuse conformity as these distant statuses call for.[5] An examination of the Mombasa Swahili terms most applied to admired and, more often, disapproved behavior shows that not only are these terms almost always general in their reference but they are also almost always concerned with social relationships.

Thus, for example, everyone is concerned with fakhri (which can be glossed as "honor"), and it is a main dimension of evaluation and assessment both of how a person acts and of how that person is treated. How people in different statuses, particularly men as contrasted with women, get fakhri and behave to show fakhri, however, depends on the different statuses they occupy. The ways group members use such value-laden terms exerts a pressure for behavior in conformity with expectations that are status specific and, at the same time, of the distant sort that is met by a considerable range of behavior, lessening the need for a full and detailed sharing of understandings between actors and evaluators.

"Shame" and Its Agents

In chapter 8, shame (aibu in Swahili) is seen to operate in some ways similarly to the terms concerning social relationships. On the one hand, there are a small number of specific understandings that are used as the basis for evaluating all group members as such, regardless of the other statuses they occupy. These universal values are closely associated with the community's most respected and prestigious men whom I call "the arbiters." The concern with being positively assessed with respect to these understandings leads to considerable homogeneity of behavior in certain public domains despite the undoubted differences that exist among those involved. The specific understandings that lie behind these instances of conformity (e.g., that public nakedness is possible only for psychotics and is deeply shameful even for them) are universally shared and almost never violated.

An important thing about this limited but public and ongoing conformity is that it implies a broader and more general agreement concerning understandings than may, in fact, exist. By following a few, limited understandings whose behavioral manifestations are obvious, group members reassure one another that they are quite similar in the things that matter most.

This reassurance is important because, in fact, group members differ both in the understandings that guide their own behavior and in those that serve as the basis for evaluating that of others. By following a few universally


shared understandings, the implication is transmitted that similar agreement exists as concerns the foundations for all behavior. In fact, a far more substantial number of understandings than the few that are universally shared serves not only as a guide to one's own behavior but as the basis for judging most of what others do. Which of this larger number of understandings is used to guide behavior and assessment of others' behavior depends both on the statuses of the evaluators and the statuses of the evaluated. It is fairly obvious that how an individual acts toward another depends on both of their statuses. The same is true of how individuals evaluate one another.

Everyone in the society serves as what I call a "sanctioner," and the judgments of these sanctioners depend on the relationship between them and the individuals who are the targets of their evaluations. This leads to the same behavior being quite differently evaluated depending on who performs it and who is evaluating it. The evaluated suffer shame if they are negatively judged by either arbiters or sanctioners, so that shame serves, as the values attached to and expressed in relationship terms do, to encourage conformity both to generally held and universally applicable understandings and to those that apply quite specifically to particular statuses.

It is important to note that the understandings underlying evaluations by sanctioners are often general rather than specific. The broad and nonspecific nature of the understandings used in these judgments limits the amount of sharing required and, at the same time, encourages flexibility. Further, since these general understandings are part of statuses, they apply differentially to the same individuals as they move from one situation or relationship to another with the changes in statuses such moves often entail. This protean applicability of general understandings promotes both the maintenance of status differentiation and the distribution of culture among actors and across situations while requiring a minimum of sharing of specifics.

"Role" as a Part of Status

The usefulness of the status concept is increased when a distinction is introduced between "status" and "role."[6] A role is a subunit of the set of understandings that constitute a status including only the understandings concerning relations with others according to the status those others occupy. Thus, if one takes the "arbiter" status, an examination of the behavior of its occupants acting in that status (as indicated by their meeting its identifying understandings) will show that different understandings are involved in guiding the behavior of arbiters in "arbiter-arbiter" interactions as compared to those involved in "arbiter-junior person"[7] interactions. The "arbiter" status, then, is seen to be involved in two distinct roles and may be involved in others provided only that membership in the arbiter, rather than some other, status is what is salient for at least one participant in the relationship.


Turning to arbiters' function in promoting conformity and group operations, it is important to understand that the individuals categorized together as what I am calling "arbiters" rarely, in fact, can be seen to make judgments. As a matter of fairly explicit policy, those categorized in this status almost never say or do anything that might indicate what their assessment of acts or individuals may be. They serve, in fact, as a sort of culturally constituted Rorschach; they are the embodiment of the famous "they" who appear in the "what will they think" heard in many societies.

Chapter 8 makes clear that the arbiters' imagined judgments are not as frequently of concern as are the judgments of what I call the "sanctioners," but the arbiters play a central part in promoting conformity nevertheless. The sanctioners' judgments are concerned with detailed and specific aspects of what one does in quotidian statuses such as spouse, neighbor, or fellow employee, while the arbiters are mainly taken as concerned with one's standing as a group member, man, women, or human being.

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1 Ethnographic and Theoretical Introduction
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