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"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.

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