Preferred Citation: Swartz, Marc J. The Way the World Is: Cultural Processes and Social Relations among the Mombasa Swahili. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1991 1991.

7 Liking Only Those in Your Eye Relationship Terms, Statuses, and Cultural Models

Cultural Models, Language, and Statuses

The expectations and salience understandings vital to statuses' functioning are by no means completely shared, but there are "cultural models" of these embedded in the terms that are used to characterize individuals and relationships. These models play a role in promoting social life and individual satisfaction. As Roy D'Andrade (1985:321) notes, the use of what he calls "character terms," which are included among the relationship terms dealt with below, is an important element in learning the complexes of cultural elements involved in social life.

Keesing argues persuasively for the view that knowledge of a language is contingent on knowledge of "a culturally defined model of the universe" (1979:15) and that cultural assumptions are at the very heart of language use (ibid., 25). His focus is on the usefulness of a knowledge of the group's culture in describing language, while the approach here employs the same nexus but focuses on language use as a means group members use to present each other with cultural models and to promote conformity with them. The Swahili are by no means unusual in this usage, as indicated by Holland and Skinner (1987:79) who found a similar one among American college students, but its universality remains to be established.


The existence of these models does not, naturally, assure conformity with their constituent understandings, but they do provide a basis for sharing, a sort of ongoing socialization in what is acceptable and desirable behavior in interpersonal relations. By characterizing the behavior of particular individuals in strongly evaluative ways, they offer the prospect of encouraging conformity. Such encouragement extends not only to the individuals characterized, if they learn of or anticipate the characterization, but to others who are reminded of the constant evaluation of their behavior according to the understandings that are contained in the models.

D'Andrade has examined another aspect of this same phenomenon. He says that "[a] cultural model is a cognitive schema which is intersubjectively shared by a social group" (n.d.:18). This sharing itself, he argues, imparts a force that would otherwise not be present. As he puts it, "Because cultural models are intersubjectively shared, interpretations made about the world on the basis of a cultural model are experienced as obvious facts of the world" (ibid., 18–19).

What is encouraged by the models implicit in Swahili relationship terms is mainly behavior differentiated according to status differences. The ways young men are encouraged to act by the terms concerning their participation in relationships is quite different from the ways senior men are encouraged to act by the terms applying to them, for example. The main force of the models is to promote conformity, but this is less a conformity to a general culture that applies equally to everyone than it is a conformity to the expectations and salience understandings distinctive of particular statuses. Statuses are the basis for distributing culture among group members and across situations (see Schwartz 1972, 1978, 1989), and the models provided by the relationship terms encourage conformity to the different understandings applicable to different actors in the varying situations they are involved in.

The existence of substantial cultural conformity in the Swahili community is obvious. The sources for this conformity, however, can usefully be examined. The Swahili community works because its members act in ways they find more often and more nearly mutually acceptable than not. Men, for example, who have spent time working in Saudi Arabia recount at length their dissatisfaction with almost every aspect of life there save their pay and their association with the fellow Swahili with whom they share quarters. Their reports always involve accounts of the unacceptable behavior of the Saudis and the Saudis' failure to respond properly to the Swahilis' behavior. These accounts imply, and sometimes explicitly involve, comparisons with their home community, which is, at least relatively, pictured as the desirable standard.

Other examples could be adduced of the Swahili view that proper behavior and desirable relationships are characteristic, even uniquely so, of their community. Such evidence of ethnocentrism, however, is hardly problematic in


any functioning group and needs only to be brought out to emphasize the general acceptability to community members of much of what their fellow members do.

There is only one possible basis for the community's effective operation and for its members' satisfaction with it, and that is, of course, a shared culture. Chapters 5 and 6 show that an appeal to a general sharing of beliefs and values is factually unacceptable and theoretically blinding. Even occupants of a common status are shown to share only partially understandings concerned with that status.

Here the aim is to take statuses as the foundations of social life and, recognizing the absence of complete sharing even in these, to try to contribute to an understanding of how statuses actually operate in Swahili society. Specifically, attention will be directed to two issues: first, the difficult question of how people identify one another as members of particular statuses in various circumstances, and second, and at greater length, how terms characterizing behavior in social relationships provide representations (or models) of the expectations and saliences of a variety of statuses, thereby encouraging their sharing and promoting conformity to them.

7 Liking Only Those in Your Eye Relationship Terms, Statuses, and Cultural Models

Preferred Citation: Swartz, Marc J. The Way the World Is: Cultural Processes and Social Relations among the Mombasa Swahili. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1991 1991.