previous chapter
6 Close One of Your Eyes Concealing Differences Between the Generations and the Uses of "Tokens"
next chapter

Close One of Your Eyes
Concealing Differences Between the Generations and the Uses of "Tokens"

Ukenda kwa wenye chongo, fumba lako jicho: [If] you go to the land of the blind, close [one of] your eye[s].


We have seen that the Swahili have far less than universal cultural sharing. This is the same result found in studies of sharing in other groups (e.g., Holland 1987a ; Fernandez 1965; Pelto and Pelto 1975; Pollnac 1975; Sanday 1968; Sankoff 1971; Schwartz 1972). In all cases, there was no evidence of less than adequate group functioning or individual adjustment.

Since culture is the basis for social life and individual adaptation, there can be a question as to whether or not culture "works" despite the absence of uniform sharing. If culture's operation is to be understood, it is clearly necessary to examine the processes involved rather than sweeping them aside with allusions to "shared beliefs and values." This would be useful even if there were all by all sharing of culture's elements. In the absence of such sharing, it is surely not less useful.

The last chapter suggests that some of culture is shared by some group members but not others, while other elements are shared with the latter and not the former. Although there is no evidence to support the notion, there may be some grand, unifying understandings shared by all. Even if there are, the means by which these presumably broad tenets (e.g., "Avoid shame" or "Maintain privacy" are two that might be shared among Swahili) are used to guide particular actions cannot confidently be attributed to uniform sharing of further beliefs and values of greater specificity. Sometimes there is such sharing, but sometimes not.

Culture often affects behavior when the relevant elements are shared by those concerned with the subject(s) of the elements. It also often affects be-


havior, however, when there is little of this sharing, as will be seen in chapters 9 and 10. The basic question is, what are the processes whereby culture has similar effects that, at least sometimes, fall, like the rain, equally on sharers and nonsharers?

The remainder of this study is addressed to this question as it applies to the Swahili community. In this chapter, the process of interest draws its effectiveness from the importance of appearance as contrasted with what is, in important senses, reality. Seeming to share understandings will be shown to have socially cohesive consequences essential to culture's operation even when the understandings that actually guide the behavior in question are by no means shared.

Specifically, data are presented concerning an important class of cultural elements that, although shared, are not connected to behavior in the same ways many other sorts of elements are. The existence of this sort of cultural element is partly recognized in Western folk wisdom by such statements as, "They say it, but they don't do it." The strength of these elements in influencing social relations will be shown to involve actions that suggest people believe that being thought similar to others is worthwhile whether you are truly like them or not. "When in Rome . . ." is surely among the more quoted proverbs in English. It will be suggested that it is less important in some circumstances to do as the Romans do than to seem to.

The creation of the appearance of sharing will be seen to occur through exchanges, indirect as well as direct, involving the passing back and forth of statements and other sorts of symbols that suggest similarity in the beliefs and values of those concerned. The appearances so created may involve actual sharing as established independently from the symbol exchange, but they also may not.

Symbols exchanged in this way will be called "tokens," and it will be shown that it is useful to distinguish their functions from those of another category of cultural elements that will be called "guides." Guides are understandings that affect behavior in ways directly traceable to their content, while tokens—and the same element of culture can serve the same actors as either or both—serve to indicate similarity of understandings. In the generational relations currently of interest, the difference between tokens and guides is strongly marked since they are represented by opposite understandings concerning the same evaluations and action, but this is not always—or, perhaps, even usually—so.

Differences Between Younger and Older Men and Women

In Old Town, men in their thirties or older dress in neat slacks and carefully buttoned sport shirts during working hours. During weekends and after


hours, they wear the ankle-length white gown, kanzu, and embroidered cap, kofia, that are the traditional outer garments. Although few of these mature men follow the practice, common until the 1950s, of shaving the head completely, most still keep their hair very short.[1] In bearing and gait, many mature men remain much as men were said to have been in the last century and, quite possibly, earlier. They walk with measured stride and carry themselves erectly. Sometimes their hands are clasped behind their backs as they go, or, occasionally and more commonly for elderly men, they carry a bakora , the traditional walking stick.

Younger men and boys present quite a different picture. They are rarely to be seen in kanzu, and, if they are not wearing T-shirts bearing the usual assortment of advertisements, slogans, or university names, their shirts are open to the middle of their chests. Many have long hair worn in Afros. Instead of the deliberate step of their fathers and older brothers, some glide along with loose-shouldered lubricity. Instead of the invariably quiet conversations of their elders, the younger men often raise their voices and occasionally make the buildings ring with their shouts and laughter.

Nor are these obvious and immediately striking differences between the young and the old found only among males. The younger women, although still rarely to be seen save when in school or on their way there or back, are very different from their mothers and, even, elder sisters in ways that go beyond manner and dress.

As recently as the middle 1970s, mothers worried that a daughter might have mato ya nde ("eyes of the outside"), meaning that she often looked out the windows of her home with the intention of catching a glimpse of passing young men. There was no question but that she would remain confined inside the house according to the strict segregation of the sexes and the seclusion of women, but the worry was that she might be so willful as to try to see passing males and somehow arrange meetings.

In fact, this is still a source of concern, but now there is much in addition to worry about with some adolescent and slightly older women going to discos and out-of-the-way "cold houses" (small cafés that serve cold drinks, snacks, and tea) disporting themselves until long after dark. The horrified mothers and fathers forbid such practices, but a minority of young women, usually by subterfuge, do it anyway.

One rarely sees young Swahili women abroad on the streets after dark, but some probably do actually go out in the early evenings, as young men and a few young women say they do. The belief that they do is very common. The older people deplore such behavior, often passionately, but, they say, there is little that can be done to stop it because that is "the way the young people are these days."

Still, daughters and their mothers and fathers usually get along quite well despite the language mothers use on their daughters (see chap. 8 and Swartz 1990a ). However, informants say that it was never really rare for there to be


families where the fathers and sons were at odds, and the fairly recent change has been for conflict to be more serious and to focus on such things as mode of dress, spending too much money, associating with young men of bad reputation, and acting like a mahuni (a gadabout, a disrespectful and willful person). There have always been some young men in the community who were considered mahuni, but now, many older men and women say, all of the young men are.

All of this suggests the existence of a "generation gap" between parents and children and between younger and older people more generally. The actions and statements of those involved show quite clearly that there are real differences in some of the understandings shared among those in the two age groupings. These differences concern such things as dress style, deportment, and restrictions on seeking the sort of entertainment available in contemporary Mombasa, and they extend to differences concerning the assessment of the younger people's behavior and the older people's authority.

Many long conversations with members of the two generational groups and years of associating with them strongly indicates that the members of each cohort guide important parts of their behavior with understandings that are shared among age-mates much more than across generational lines. Puzzlingly, however, interviewing does not seem to confirm this cross-generational cultural difference. Interviews using a standard set of questions (see below) produced data suggesting that as regards some aspects of culture, including some of those concerned with the very areas of life where differences between the generations are most obvious, there is as much sharing across generational lines as within generations.

Differences Between Age Groupings, Uniformity within Them

In addition to the contrasts in dress and public behavior, many of the explicit views and beliefs heard from members of the different generations suggest substantial cultural differences. This can be seen in the sort of people the young men admire. They can fairly often be heard praising the behavior of the American blacks they see in movies, and although the ability, size, and strength of American black athletes are mentioned with great admiration, it is the "superfly" sort of character (a "sharp"-dressing, smooth-talking person who attends little to conventional constraints) or irreverent rock musician seen in American films (and occasionally on Voice of Kenya TV) that is most prominently and admiringly mentioned.

Most or all of the fathers do not share this approval. They view movies in general as suspect and only acceptable when, on an individual basis, they are found not to be possible sources of corruption and avenues for under-


mining proper behavior and the Muslim faith. Television is more broadly accepted, but it too causes unease. Many of the particular traits some of the youth admire in actors, musicians, and athletes—"wise-guy" talk, "sharp" clothes and grooming, swaggering, attendance at discos, contempt for authority—are ones the older men understand as most objectionable and dangerous.

The older men give their admiration to those displaying unusual peity and, especially, religious learning. The young men believe in and practice Islam, and there is no question that they are quite serious about it, but it does not completely dominate their view of the world and of what is admirable as it does for their fathers.

The young admire pious and learned men but not to the extent their fathers do. The term "sheikh," a title of respect used for older men which especially refers to their religious learning and piety, is a mildly derisive sobriquet used by the youths for any of their peers who are particularly zealous in their religious commitment.

More directly concerned with the obvious differences in behavior, each group is quite explicit in its disapproval of the activities and style of the other group and, sometimes only implicitly, in its approval of its own. The older men condemn the behavior of many or most of the young and characterize them, as we have seen, as irresponsible, disrespectful, wastrels. The elders suggest that the sorry state of the contemporary youth is mainly a result of outside influences such as secular schools and association with non-Muslims.

The young men and boys, for their part, say that although their activities are different from those of their parents when they were of the same age, there is nothing wrong with going to discos, behaving informally, and expressing themselves (in clothes and speech) more freely than their parents did. Parental condemnation of their behavior is less due, according to the young people, to reasonably based objections to that behavior than it is to their parents' failure to understand modern ways.

There are, then, substantial differences between the understandings held by the members of the two generations as these understandings apply to guiding and judging the behavior of the young. Both groups have understandings about the same general thing (i.e., the desirability/acceptability of the behavior of own and other groups), but the understandings held by each are at odds with those held by the other.

In addition to holding what amounts to opposed understandings of this sort, members of one generation have understandings that are simply absent among members of the other. In 1978, for example, boys and young men had elaborate understandings about platform shoes: how to walk in them, how to judge them as regards price and beauty, and what sorts of people did and did not have them. Older men simply did not possess such understandings. All platform shoes were understood identically by them as both expensive and as a sign of the decadence and intrusion of Western culture they deplored.


There is, then, substantial evidence indicating material differences between young and old in the understandings held regarding general deportment, acceptance of parental restriction versus personal freedom, and, for boys and men, such things as clothing, the sort of man to be admired, and personal demeanor. There is also evidence showing that despite the differences between the age groups, there is substantial sharing within each of them.

Attempting to Measure Generation Gap Differences

Having found differences between the generations in behavior and in those aspects of culture that seemed quite closely connected to that behavior, I decided to try to determine how broad in scope and general the differences between the bodies of understandings shared by the generations were.

The members of both generations almost always mentioned family relations in their discussions of differences between the younger and older people. As has been shown, the nuclear family is uniquely important for the vast majority of community members and plays an undeniably central role in the social life of the group. Although extended family kin are fairly important, children are primarily responsible to their parents and parents are far more concerned about the actions of their own sons and daughters than about others' actions.[2]

When discussing generational differences, statements always focused on parent-child relations rather than those between younger and older people generally. Remembering the Swahili emphasis on privacy, it is not surprising to find that parents did not all refer specifically to their own children, but some did, and all focused their attention on relations within the family more than on general community relations. Similarly, younger people phrased their comments about generational differences almost entirely in terms of parent-child relations, with rather more discussion of personal relations within their own families than was heard from the more restrained, older informants. Older men quite often made statements such as, "There is no controlling children these days; they will not listen to their parents." Young men said things such as, "No matter how much I explain, my father pays no attention."

Because of this focus on family relationships and because of the importance of the nuclear family in Swahili social life, I designed a survey interview form concerned with the nature and quality of family life and family relationships. I asked about ideal and actual qualities associated with the statuses father, mother, son, and daughter. The questions produced a wealth of material that was quite parallel to but, as will be seen, remarkably different from what I gathered in being present during general discussions of generational differences and in my informal conversations with both older and younger men.


The Survey Study of Generational Differences in Sharing Understandings Concerning the Generation Gap

Given the uniformity of findings from observation and informal discussion, my hypothesis was that more formal techniques would produce similar results. A main objective of the use of formal techniques was to discover the extent to which sharing within generations was similar to or different from the sharing among members of the other social groupings reported in chapter 5.

My expectation (which, as will become clear, has been proved incorrect) was that the members of each generation would share far more with one another than they would with members of the other generation, so that intragenerational sharing indexes would be significantly higher than cross-generational indexes. It seemed so obvious that this would be so that the survey-based study of generational sharing was undertaken more to provide a measure of the extent and nature of the differences between the generations than a test of whether or not such differences were present. The latter would be tested, of course, but I viewed it as pro forma more than anything else.

There was another aim in doing this study. The findings regarding the sharing of family culture were based on results obtained with a multiple choice answer format, and it seemed possible that this distorted the results. In the study of sharing in generational groupings, the interview form (see Appendix) used in the survey did not ask informants to answer questions by choosing a single, prepared response from among a few alternate responses. It proposed fairly broad questions and the informants answered them in their own words and as they chose. The first question on the form can serve as one example of the sorts of questions asked: "In your experience and for the families in your immediate neighborhood, how do the family members get on these days? Would you say they get along as well as they did in the past, less well, or better?"

Two further examples may help give the flavor of the interviews. The examples are chosen to give some idea of the scope of the questionnaire.

Thinking about your own family and others you know well, how is it with the father? What are the contributions he makes in your family and in others?

Tell me about relations between mothers and daughters. In what ways are those relations similar to those between mothers and sons and between fathers and daughters?

The interview forms were administered by four Swahili assistants, two males and two females, all in their late teens and early twenties. The questions were translated into Swahili by me and then checked by both the assistants


and by my friend and colleague, Yahya Ali Omar, who is credited in the community as being the leading scholar of the language. It is quite possible, of course, that the fact that the formal interviews were all carried out by young Swahili influenced the results, but since it is impossible to get older Swahili to serve as interviewers and since any outsider administering the interview, including me, would be unable to get many individuals to participate, there was no choice but to proceed as I did. In the analysis of results given below, the effect of the questions being asked only by younger community members known to be working for me (as they were) is considered at length.

The difficulties in getting Swahili to participate in these interviews were predictably substantial, and it was quite impossible to get anything approximating a random sample. The interviewers got their informants where they could find them, which doubtless led to an overrepresentation of their kin and friends. Since the four were from three different neighborhoods and unrelated, however, this was not too serious. The interviewers drew their informants from all of Old Town's neighborhoods and from the different educational and socioeconomic strata, so there is a fair representation of the whole community in the study.

The results of the interviews were coded by a research assistant whose code-recode reliability was above 0.80.[3] Informants were taken to agree in their answers to a question when the coding for their answers was the same, and this agreement (what is called "sharing" here) was used as the basis for computing sharing scores.

These were calculated in exactly the same way the scores discussed in chapter 5 were. That is, overall scores were obtained by comparing the scoring of responses of each individual in the sample with every other (i.e., the members of all possible pairs were compared to each other) and using the results of the comparison in the same formula used for calculating the sharing coefficient in chapter 5. Using this formula, if two informants agreed on every one of the twenty questions they were asked, they would have a sharing coefficient of 1.00 (i.e., 20/40 - 20 = 1.00).

By averaging the resulting scores for pairs, it was possible to get scores for the groups of which the pairs were members. Thus, averaging the scores for pair agreement when all the pairs were members of the same families gave "same family" scores, and averaging the scores for pairs whose members belong to different generations gave "different generation" scores.

The sample was made up of forty-eight individuals chosen so that every person has either a same sex parent or a same sex child from his or her own family in the sample, with none of the "children" being married. Thus, everyone in the sample is unambiguously in one or the other of the two generations studied and has a parent or child of the same sex in the sample. That is, the sample is made up of twenty-four parents and twenty-four children with no cross-sex parent-child pairs from the same family.


Before going into the generation gap results, it is worth noting that the open interviewing with scores derived from an evaluation of the informants' own answers are not radically different from the results of the multiple choice questionnaire study of family and community sharing of nuclear family understandings as reported in chapter 4. Sharing on the "open response questions" is higher, as would be expected from the lessened need to take a clear position on the open interviews (what might be called the "waffle factor"), but in both cases, the sharing within the family (and family membership was not known to the scorer in the generational study) is substantially higher than in the community at large. The level of sharing in both is substantially higher for the members of the same nuclear family than for those from different families (see table 11).

Interpreting this roughly in percentages, the open questions show a sharing of about 70 percent within the family, while the multiple choice questions yield an estimate of sharing at around 65 percent, and, for those from different families, open questions indicate 62 percent sharing, while multiple choice gives 48 percent. Since the questions, not just the kind of reply informants are asked to give, are different in the two assessments of sharing, the differences between the two sets of findings are less striking than their similarities.

As table 12 shows, contrary to my hypothesis, there is substantial cross-generational uniformity with respect to the questions in general (table 12A) and with respect to the questions divided into groups according to their subject matter (table 12B). This is true both within families and across family lines.

It appears that there may be differences between gender categories such that males agree with males more than males with females and females with females more than females with males, but this holds across generational lines as well as in the same generation. Similarly, members of the same family share more with one another than nonrelatives. However, it is important to note that the internal family sharing reported here is between members of different generations since every family interviewed is represented, but only by a parent and a child, never by siblings or both parents.

In short, despite the evidence for a generation gap that can hardly be avoided in observing public behavior as well as with respect to the understandings concerned with public behavior expressed in informal settings, the survey data suggest that there is no such gap concerning such things as the nature of family life, the nature of family relationships, and the sources of responsibility for the tension in family life.

Since parents deplore their children's public behavior in conversations with one another and in casual discussions with me and since, in the same sorts of contexts, children make it clear that they believe that their parents' views of proper public behavior are outmoded and inappropriate, the absence of differences between the two groups in the results of the survey interviews is striking. It is true that the topics of the two sorts of data—those resulting from


Table 11. Sharing on All "Open Questions" versus Multiple Choice Questions on Different Samples

Means sharing

On multiple choice

On open questions

Within nuclear family



Within total sample



the scheduled interview and those resulting from conversations among informants and between them and me—are slightly different, but they are unquestionably closely related. The scheduled interviews focused on the nature of family relationships and the sources of the quality of these relationships, while the informally obtained data focused on overall behavior with an emphasis on public behavior. Still, the two foci are closely associated in informants' views as well as according to connections outsiders can readily appreciate.

An examination of the contents of the survey interviews summarized numerically in table 12 illuminates the "sharing" between generations and makes the issue of the culture gap—or its absence—sharper. These interviews show that without regard to generation, informants agree that family relationships are characterized by tension and conflict and that this is particularly, but not uniquely, true of the father-son relationship.

Without respect to the generation they belong to, informants agree that there are two main causes for the tension found in family relationships. One of these is the undesirable, undisciplined, and unconventional behavior of children, especially, but not uniquely, of sons. Another cause for family discord agreed to by both parents and children is the weakness of parents and their refusal or failure to exercise the authority that is theirs as a consequence of their occupancy of the parental statuses. Fathers, members of both generations agree, are more culpable than mothers, but mothers are also said to be at fault. It is agreed that in the rather rare families where children behave more nearly as they should and (not or) where parents are forceful, family life is "better" (again the characterization is that of the informants) and its constituent relationships more nearly free of conflict and tension.

What the survey interviews indicate, then, is that parents agree with their children that their, the parents', weakness plays a key part—many in both generations say it is the most important one—in producing the troubled state of family life and the tension characteristic of most or all family relationships. Children, in turn, agree with parents that the children's behavior is deplorable and that although parents are at fault for not controlling it, the children must accept responsibility for their own actions. This acceptance is particularly striking in that members of both generations characterize these actions in the survey interviews with such terms as "undesirable," "bad," "wild," and "hopeless."


Table 12. Sharing of Responses Concerning Family Statuses and Relationships between Members of Same Family and Members of Different Families (n = 48)

A. Sharing Coefficients for All Questions Calculated Together as Found between Statuses as Indicated


Same family

Different families























B. Sharing Coefficients for Questions Concerning the Family as a Group, Family Statuses, and Family Relationships






































































Apparent Differences Between Culture and Behavior

It is initially quite puzzling to see that in the survey interviews parents and children agree that the members of their own, as well as the other, generation are failing to act as they should according to their own standards. It is not unusual for individuals to see themselves as wrong in particular instances and as personally responsible for specific, undesirable events or states. Still, to characterize themselves as behaving badly over a length of time and across the spectrum of training children or growing up is surely remarkable.

Karen Horney (1937) held that neurosis was characterized by continuing behavior contrary to the values of those who displayed the behavior. Since the Swahili survey interviews show that those interviewed do condemn what they say is their own behavior, the possibility must be considered that they are neurotics in Horney's terms.

Another possibility, of course, is that although informants say that a crucial factor in producing the family life and child behavior they themselves condemn is their own behavior, they do not "really" mean what they say. It is less than startling to observe that people in a wide variety of societies say things for reasons other than that they believe them to be true.

If we must choose between characterizing the Mombasa Swahili informants as neurotics who cannot restrain themselves from acting in ways they themselves find objectionable or as characterizing their statements as reflecting something other than a straightforward expression of the understandings they hold, it would seem that there is more support for doubting the full and complete accuracy of their statements than for doubting their mental health.

Taking the members of the Swahili group in general, I have no evidence indicating that neurotic tendencies among them are beyond what is found in other groups. They make their livings, raise their children to become functioning adults, carry on many reasonably gratifying social relationships, and give no signs of suffering more than the rest of humanity. However, members of this group have shown themselves to be no less willing to bend the truth, exaggerate, omit, and plain fabricate when it serves their purposes than do members of other groups I am familiar with.

This is not to say that informants were not telling the truth in their responses to the survey. A statement made independently by a substantial proportion of a group's members surely takes on a special status even if it is ultimately judged to be one that those who make it know to be other than an accurate representation of reality. What can be said about the survey interview data is that they are at odds with the informally gathered information about the same issues and that they do not seem to be in accord with observed behavior.

The statements in the survey must have some significance for those who


make them; otherwise, why would so many different people independently say the same things? They cannot, however, be taken as straightforward statements of "real" beliefs and evaluations. If the elders blame themselves as much as they blame the younger generation, as their statements in the survey indicate they do, why do their informal statements and observed behavior only manifest disapproval of the young and no effort to change their own actions?

Similarly, if the younger people recognize their own behavior as "bad" and accept at least part of the responsibility for it being that, why is there no evidence that they attempt to abandon their current patterns of behavior? The responses in the survey are shared, as the statistics in table 12 show, but they do not seem related to the behavior they address in any straightforward and observable way.

What people say concerning the behavior of the younger generation in the informal discussions of that behavior is consistent with what they are observed to do, in that each group deplores the activity of the other and implies or states a view of itself as blameless. Unlike the implications of the responses given in the survey interviews, the understandings inferred from the informal discussions are entirely consistent with the behavior that the members of each generation manifests. What explains this seeming contradiction between what is said in the interviews and what actually guides behavior?

"Phatic Communion," Interpersonal Relations, and Questionnaires

Decades ago, Malinowski (1960) formulated a description that can serve as the basis for understanding such things as the Swahili assertion of responsibility at the same time that there is no behavioral evidence to support this assertion. He wrote of a kind of use of speech he called "phatic communion," which he characterized as fulfilling "a social function and that is [its] principal aim. . . . Each utterance is an act serving the direct aim of binding hearer and speaker to speaker by a tie of some social sentiment or other" (ibid., 315).

His idea was that phatic communion bound people together through the uses of statements whose external or empirical accuracy was mainly irrelevant. He believed, as many did in the 1920s, that "primitives" were different from other sorts of humans and that they used phatic communion more than "civilized" people did but that, nevertheless,

the binding tissue of words which unites the crew of a ship in bad weather, the verbal concomitants of a company of soldiers in action, the technical language running parallel to some practical work or sporting pursuit . . . serves to establish bonds of personal union between people brought together by the mere need of companionship and does not serve any purpose of communicating ideas. (ibid., 315–316)


Although Malinowski did not limit phatic communion to greetings, he thought it particularly noteworthy and common in them. Reisman (1977) reports the meaning of greetings among the Fulani group with which he worked as follows:

When two people greet each other, each reveals to the other two important facts, namely, that he knows the formulas and that he is ready to participate in the ritual of saying them. . . . They express for the speakers, then, the sharing of group life (gondal ) and the desire to maintain it. (ibid., 171–172)

What I am suggesting is that the Swahili response to the survey questionnaires can usefully be viewed as a phatic communion that is similar to the greetings Reisman reports for the Fulani in Jelgoji. The members of the two generations express responsibility for the situation they deplore not (or not mainly) because they actually see themselves as responsible but because they wish to assert a social bond with other members of their group. This bond may well include the interviewers, who were, it will be remembered, young Swahili, or it may be that the bond was with the members of the other generation who might become aware of the contents of the interview.

The basic idea here is that members of a social group assert solidarity with one another by averring or implying similarity, especially in public contexts, when relatively low-cost opportunities present themselves to do that. One such kind of opportunity is the utterance of greetings, but assertions of solidarity are not limited to the kind of greetings Reisman discusses.

The sort of thing I am suggesting as occurring when the Swahili are interviewed about generational differences also takes place in ritual performances, as becomes clear when the absence of sharing among participants regarding the significance of these performances is revealed. This can be seen in Fernandez's important work among the Fang of northern Gabon. In examining the principal subcult of the Bwiti cult, Fernandez found that the ordinary participants in the ritual all carried out the activities appropriate to them as performers but that they had extremely limited agreement about such things as the meaning of the cult's symbolism and what it was intended to accomplish.

. . . it appears that the cult in the eyes of the members queried had a number of manifest functions and that these members differ in assigning priorities to, or even recognizing, these various functions. Of the 20 cult members, seven said that the main purpose of the ritual was to find and establish proper relationship with the Christian God, who lies beyond death and of whom the Fang had no traditional knowledge. Eight said that the main purpose of the cult was to establish contact with the abandoned ancestors and regain their tutelary blessing. The remaining three declared the purpose of the cult ritual to be various. (Fernandez 1965:906)

Fernandez's important paper (see also his recent book, 1982) makes the point that people can carry out activities without sharing the meaning of those


activities. They share only the understandings of what is to be done, when, and how but not what the meanings are. He interprets this as a "solidarity in the forms of cultural interaction . . . so that they need no longer seek it in cultural forms" (ibid., 912). He goes on to say that the participants in the ritual hold in abeyance their differing understandings of what they are doing in the ritual. He writes, "They do so for the sake of a social-satisfaction—the satisfaction of orienting their activity towards each other with the resulting psychobiological benefits whatever they may be—the security of acceptance, exaltation, esprit de corps , morale, we-feeling, enthusiasm, exstasis" (ibid., 913).

Fernandez's main concern in examining the Bwiti cult ritual is very similar to the one that is the focus here: to understand how people can act as though they share understandings when, in fact, their sharing is much less than it might seem to be. The cult members know how to act in the ritual, but they do not share the meanings attached to those actions; the Swahili informants know what responses to give in a survey interview, but they give every evidence of holding quite different views that are masked by those answers.

The survey interviews were public situations in that the interviewers were not only all young people but also known employees of an outsider (i.e., the anthropologist) whom everyone knew to be concerned with gaining an understanding of the community. In that situation, as in the Bwiti rituals and Reisman's Fang greetings, the actors took unified action (i.e., common answers) as the proper way to behave. None knew how the others had responded, but that presented no difficulty since the regnant understanding here—as in many other contacts with outsiders—was to present a face of unity to affirm solidarity. The answers the informants gave the survey interviewers were tokens just as ritual actions and greetings are in the two instances just discussed. It is generally true of tokens that their exact content matters less than that they be of a nature that asserts unity or similarity.

The informants gave these tokens with, I hypothesize, the aim (not necessarily fully or consciously articulated) of giving a good impression of their group and themselves to the young interviewers and "the professor" for whom the latter worked. The responses also showed the informants to be truly integrated members of the community who shared the views of the other group members as they imagined those would be. They did not have to know what views others expressed to know that putting all the blame on "the others" (i.e., the young blaming the old and vice versa) would set them apart from the others and would suggest that they did not share important understandings with them.

"Tokens" and "Guides"

This would explain the disparity between the presence of important differences between the members of different generations as seen in various be-


haviors such as dress and demeanor and the absence of evidence of these differences in formal interviews. It suggests that shared understandings need not be related to behavior only or mainly as guides for that behavior. The responses in formal interviews can serve as symbols whose exact reference is relatively unimportant but whose proper production (i.e., when to produce them and who to give them to) is crucial. This is a point that the ethnomethodologists in sociology have examined in many important studies (e.g., Cicourel 1987).

It is not that these—or most—symbolic expressions of understandings, that is, tokens, have no relation to behavior. Rather, it is that the relationship is not necessarily what it might appear to be. Saying that one is responsible for generational tensions is not the statement of an understanding that guides behavior in intergenerational relations. Instead, it is the production of a symbol seen as important in their relationship with the interviewers, the anthropologist who employs the interviewers, and their community as a whole. In effect, they are asserting that they share with their fellow group members vital understandings about aspects of group life, and this assertion is by means of tokens—in this case, statements about behavior—given to those with whom they are speaking.

In fact, the use of tokens is by no means limited to responses to interview questions. One of the consequences of successfully passing tokens is the affirmation of various memberships and commitments. Swahili of all ages, for example, exclaim Hamdulila (God be praised) when things go well and Allahuakbar (God is great) when surprised, and begin most undertakings by asserting Besmilla (In God's name). This asserts their unity with other Muslims and separates them from Christians and others, just as their dialect of the Swahili language differentiates them from Swahili speakers belonging to other groups. Carol Eastman has argued that language is "culture loaded" (1979) and that it serves to establish social identity (1984, 1985). This applies to the Swahili, with whom she has worked, as well as to speakers of other languages.

More than asserting identities and commitments, however, exchanging tokens also provides confidence that those exchanging them share important understandings. The parents who say they are responsible for their children's behavior are asserting the existence of common ground with those children and anyone who sides with them, and, mutatis mutandis, the children's assertion of responsibility for themselves does the same with their parents and their allies.

The distinction between cultural elements serving as tokens and as guides is useful in understanding how culture works despite the quite incomplete sharing of many of its constituent parts. Malinowski, Fernandez, and, probably, many others saw the importance of this distinction in accounting for some aspects of culture's functioning. Surely, although Reisman is an unusually accomplished and sensitive field-worker, he is not the only one who has


noted the importance of tokens and their frequency of use in particular areas of life.

Swahili men, to take another example, wear kanzu and kofia as other Muslims do. But Swahili men, and no others, wear white kanzu embroidered with small beige designs on the placket and kofia that are white with white embroidery. These are tokens presented to all who see them which will be understood by those who matter most as what they are: assertions of group membership and acceptance of group understandings.

Some tokens, then, are purely communicative symbols as well as statements of understandings that do not actually reflect guides for behavior but, rather, serve to assert the existence of sharing. It is doubtlessly also true that some guides are also tokens. Among the Swahili, for example, proper performance of the daily prayers is a crucial token that community members give one another every time they pray publicly.[4] The understandings that lie behind this token are, so far as I can tell, nearly completely shared.

Every Swahili more or less fully shares the Sunni view of how to pray and the meaning of the movements in prayer taught him or her as a child. Using informal evidence, the understandings about the meanings, unlike the understandings about the Bwiti cult ritual, are nearly universally shared. These shared understandings about prayer actually guide people in the way they pray. Nevertheless, the way praying is done serves as a token of group membership, joint and shared belief, and a raft of common values and beliefs about the supernatural, humanity, and the world. It is not sufficient to pray properly to be recognized as a Swahili—various Muslims of Indian origin and from other African groups also do it—but it is a necessary token.

Understandings need not be divorced from the activities they concern in order to serve as the basis for tokens. They may, in other words, be both guides and the basis for tokens. The willingness of group members to use and to accept tokens, in fact, probably rests in considerable part on the fact that some tokens are also guides. Since they sometimes are, it is not groundless to take symbolic expressions of agreement, unity, and solidarity as at least possibly reflecting the true (i.e., active and effective) condition. The understandings that are not, in fact, guides for the behavior they address might be; others are. The fact that Swahili prayer behavior actually symbolizes understandings that are guides for other behaviors and beliefs, together with other behaviors that both assert sharing and actually guide activity, contributes to the appeal of making such statements as those about intergenerational relations.

Tokens may be consciously intended as such or not, but they always serve to indicate the presence of particular understandings. Sometimes tokens can be recognized because, as with the responses to the survey interviews, they are clearly not guides, but they can also be recognized by finding out what significance others attach to what people say, do, and otherwise communicate.

The basic distinction between "guides" and "tokens" is a functional one.


Guides are understandings applied as determinants of behavior in the areas indicated by the statements. The Swahili understanding that the left hand is not properly used in eating is readily expressed and often heard being directed to small children and anthropologists. Observing the Swahili eat, one sees the left hand kept out of action even for rather difficult one-handed tasks such as breaking a piece off the flat, pancake-shaped breads the Swahili often eat. Seeing the eating, one concludes that the expressed understandings about using the right hand and avoiding the left hand are guides. They also serve as tokens, of course, but they are quite redundant ones in most contexts where group membership and the sharing of understandings about eating are symbolized by the way the people sit, the food they prepare and eat, and so on.

Regarding the behavior that was the focus of much of the discussion of intergenerational relations in the interviews, young people report in informal conversations that there is nothing wrong with how they act in public. Difficulty, they say, arises from the fact that older people use inappropriate standards for judging them. Taking their statements as representing understandings concerning their evaluation of their own behavior, these understandings are clearly guides. This view of the understandings is confirmed by the fact that they continue to behave in the ways they say are unobjectionable without changing what they do to take account of the objections of the older people.

Guides, to put this generally, are understandings whose effects can always be seen in behavior beyond (in addition to) statements about what is or should be. Tokens may or may not be linked to observable activity beyond communication. The existence and use of tokens is an important support for social life and for those cultural processes, to be examined in subsequent chapters, that depend on social life.

Recognizing the possibility that understandings can be shared but connected to behavior only as tokens rather than as guides, or guides that are also tokens, appears to have analytic usefulness. It suggests an explanation for phenomena such as the two sets of data concerning the Swahili generation gap. As will be seen below, it also seems to make easier the recognition of a process that plays an important role in culture's ability, despite its quite incomplete sharing, to serve as effectively as it does as the basis for social life.

Sharing, Nonsharing, and Social Life: Predictability

A key social function of sharing understandings is that they provide a basis for interaction. As noted in chapters 1 and 5 and as Parsons (1964 [1951]:27–28) and others have observed, group members must have at least some ability to predict one anothers' behavior if they are to continue in interaction with one another. However, the group members need not share every understand-


ing about everything to have this predictability. The existence of different understandings as concerns music, food, or sports need not interfere with social relations and usually will not, if the differences are not brought to the fore. The same is true of differences in views about the evaluation of and responsibility for the behavior of young people.

The absence of sharing of understandings can disrupt social life, of course, but the disruption is not automatic. One of the ways disruption can result is from those involved recognizing what they take to be serious differences between them. Such recognition hardly promotes confidence in one's ability to believe one can accept or even predict what they are likely to do. When differences are not displayed, this source of social disruption (but, of course, not all sources) deriving from this is diminished in its effects.

Concealing differences by avoiding the issues involving them is a way of promoting confidence, and denying the existence of these differences by asserting common understandings is another that is at least as effective. It is noteworthy that intergenerational relations came up in a public sort of way because of the interviews. I have not heard Swahili discuss these relations with fellow group members of different generations in public settings. Parents and children do this in private, of course, and the results are rarely to make relations between them easier. Since the interviews made it difficult to conceal differences, another route was taken by most participants in the study: the use of tokens implying a sharing of views when, from the point of view of guides for some kinds of action, they do not exist.

But tokens can accomplish something further. They actively indicate sharing. Predictability is essential to continued interaction, but it is not sufficient by itself. It is easy enough to predict the behavior of a hungry lion, but nevertheless one does not willingly interact with him. The anticipation of acceptable behavior in the areas of mutual involvement is also needed if interaction is to proceed. Tokens can, and in this case do, indicate the existence of the sort of sharing that supports this type of anticipation.

It is worthwhile to note that tokens can do this given either of two interpretations of them by those using them. On the one hand, they can be taken to indicate the actual sharing of the understandings they concern. Tokens, after all, are in many cases also guides. In the area of intergenerational relations, however, it seems likely that many members of both generations are aware that at least some of those who express the understandings in the interviews do not employ them as guides. In this case, the tokens can be taken to indicate a willingness to avoid the expression of behavior that is unacceptable even if understandings that would lead to such behavior are known to be present. In the land of the blind, as the proverb quoted at the beginning of this chapter advises, one does not really become blind. By closing a single eye, one partly feigns blindness, thereby signaling a willingness to make concessions and be agreeable with limited cost.


Despite the importance of tokens,[5] it is not my view that their existence is enough to explain how culture is able to serve as the foundation of social life, despite the absence of universal sharing or, even, complete sharing within statuses. Tokens are vital elements in social life, but so are some kinds of fairly extensive sharing of actual guides among members of the same status. The next chapter concerns some of the issues in this sharing among members of the same status.


previous chapter
6 Close One of Your Eyes Concealing Differences Between the Generations and the Uses of "Tokens"
next chapter