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11 The Dynamics of Swahili Culture A Status-Centered View
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Relationship Terms and Cultural Models

One of these processes depends on the cultural models expressed in the standard terms used to characterize social behavior, including, especially, behavior in the multiplex relationships themselves. These evaluative terms serve to promote the common standards essential not only to those relationships but, more generally, to interaction within the community as a whole. The terms do this by bringing these standards to bear on individual behavior in a direct and explicit way, with particular relevance to what the individual himself views as the most important relations.

Lakoff and Johnson's influential work (1980) has shown a similar role for


metaphor, but here the process focuses on the direct use of words in ordinary speech to characterize in a value-laden way how people behave, especially how they behave in social relationships. Through their relatively uniform use when applied to different individuals, these characterizations provide an impetus to uniform standards in similar social relationships.

None of the terms used for these characterizations is neutral. Some are approving, though most Swahili terms concerned with behavior in relations indicate disapproval. But in either case, their applicability to acts and types of behavior is quite unambiguous. The terms as used thus openly and explicitly display for all those exposed to them understandings of what is desirable, acceptable, good, and beautiful, or, more often, the opposite. They apply particularly and directly to relationships with others, including those from the social groups (family, neighborhood, and community) that matter most to most people. They thereby serve as models of the parts of the culture applicable in various key relationships for occupants of particular statuses and, by extension, to other relationships.

The approval—more commonly, disapproval—involved in the terms harnesses, so to speak, the concern people have for the evaluations of those who matter to them and makes them amenable to the pressures for conformity to the common standards they imply. These terms, in other words, serve as cultural models that not only display shared understandings but do so in a way that is conducive to their actually affecting behavior.

Keesing (1987:374), views a "cultural model" as constructed from elements of the same general sort as the relationship terms of interest here:

What . . . makes them models? Presumably, it is their paradigmatic, world-proposing nature. These cultural constructions of the everyday world do not consist of disconnected bits of cultural wisdom, expressed in precepts, parables, proverbs, or pragmatic, probabilistic operating strategies, but of world-proposing . . . models embodied or expressed in these bits.

As chapter 7 makes clear, the relationship terms used in Swahili evaluations concerned with characterizing how people act in social relationships are not "disconnected bits" but unite particular characterizations into overall, integrated models. These models find their most direct and behaviorally effective expression when they are applied to individuals by their partners in multiplex relationships through characterizing them, their general behavior, or their behavior in some limited context according to emotion- and value-rich terms.

These terms differ in their scope, but they always involve evaluation of the performance of their subjects in some of their statuses. Sometimes the statuses to which the terms apply are only situational (e.g., apply only to hosts or guests), and sometimes they are broad, such as "Muslim," "man,"


"woman," or "community member." There are terms that are appropriate only for occupants of particular statuses, but there are others that can be used for everyone. The meanings of some terms are the same regardless of the statuses of those to whom they apply or who uses them, but others vary according to the statuses of the referent and/or the user. Some are uniform in their implied judgments, but many relationship terms entail different judgments according to the statuses of the user and the person referred to.

The existence and, especially, the use of quite standard terms that evoke the understandings of what is and what is not proper behavior in particular statuses direct the universal concern for evaluations into active interpersonal and psychological forces promoting the "common standards" Parsons rightly places at the base of social life. The judgments involved in applying the relationship terms to any community member supplies all those who are aware of the judgments, not just those to whom they are applied, with a compelling opportunity to become aware of common standards for behavior or, more often, to be reminded of the costs or benefits flouting or following them bring. The fact that the standards evoked by the terms are applied to or about a specific person carrying out particular behavior gives the standards a clarity otherwise hard to attain. That the terms clearly entail approval or disapproval is often obvious by the manner of their use and application, and this approval or disapproval is often unambiguously associated with strong positive or negative emotions.

In the same way, the judgments made by those about whom one cares are obviously more compelling than those made by others about whom one cares little, but there is often a transitivity involved. If A cares for B and his judgments and C also cares for B, the possibility that A and C will have common standards is much increased, despite their indifference to or ignorance about one another, by their common concern about B. This calls for A and C each understanding B's judgments of him as being based on the same set of understandings. The likelihood of this is increased when B's judgments of both are expressed in the same relationship terms. The use of the terms in characterizing particular actions of specific individuals, not just their existence, much reduces their ambiguity and is a key base for their part in encouraging common standards.

Similarly, if A's relations with B are very important to A, B's views about A's behavior in the relationship A has with C are likelier to be effective than otherwise. This insertion of a third person's standards in a relationship not involving that third person offers the prospect of a standardization of understandings in such relationships when their participants have important relationships with similar "third persons." If the views of the "middle man" (B) are those often expressed in the ordinary relationship terms, with the common specificity these involve, the likelihood that this standardization will be broader and more generally effective is increased.


The terms that Swahili use to characterize participation in social relationships provide exposure to a constant source of clearly implied—sometimes explicitly stated—understandings about how people should and, more often in actual use, should not behave. They are less often of the "X is a bad person" sort than of the stated or implied "X's having done what he did in his dealings with Y is an mshenzi [uncivilized person]," with the connection to X's behavior, his relationship to Y, and the condemnation as an "mshenzi" being quite clear.

Because of this clarity, the terms often make clear the standards that are used in positive and in negative judgments of easily identified behavior in particular relations.[10] The fact that the terms apply to and are not infrequently made by partners in multiplex relationships enhances their ability to affect behavior.

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