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.

11 The Dynamics of Swahili Culture A Status-Centered View

How Cultural Elements Affect Those Who Do Not Share Them: Statuses, Cultural Distribution, and Prediction

The importance of the processes whereby cultural elements affect those who do not share them is rooted in the fact that some, possibly many, of the understandings that serve to provide means for dealing with crucial problems are shared among only a relative few group members. Since it is true that despite this the culture serves the needs and interests of all group members a considerable proportion of the time, an examination of these processes is clearly vital to any adequate understanding of culture's functioning.

As Schwartz (1978) was first to point out, cultural elements are unevenly distributed even among those who are directly affected by them. Less than universal sharing of elements within a group is not necessarily a hindrance to the effectiveness of those elements or of the culture as a whole. In fact,


Wallace (1970) has argued persuasively that the simple—and undeniable—fact of incomplete sharing of culture's elements does not hinder the ability of culture to serve as the basis for social life and personal adaptation. Incomplete sharing, in fact, has quite positive functions.

Many a social subsystem simply would not "work" if all participants share common knowledge of the system. . . . [C]ognitive nonuniformity subserves two important functions: 1) it permits a more complex system to arise than most or any of its participants comprehend; 2) it liberates the participants—from the heavy burden of learning and knowing each other's motivations and cognitions (ibid., 35).

Wallace's well-known solution to the explanatory problems presented by the recognition of the incomplete sharing of culture's elements is what he calls "the organization of diversity." This guarantees orderly relationships "not by the sharing of uniformity, but by [the participants in the relationships] . . . capacity for mutual prediction" (ibid., 24). There are difficulties with Wallace's view of culture as "policy" as developed in his classic Culture and Personality , but there is a substantial basis for agreeing that mutual prediction plays a key role in culture's functioning.

Part of this mutual ability to predict the other's behavior is based in beliefs and values actually shared by those in interaction. However, even setting aside the fact that the universal sharing of cultural elements is not a necessary condition for their effective functioning, it is also true that when such sharing is present, it may not be sufficient for that functioning. Cultural sharing only affects what people do directly when the shared understandings are used as active guides for behavior. Sharing without sometimes conforming to some of what is shared makes some contributions to social life, but this only sets the stage, as tokens do, for the influence of understandings that are both shared and serve as effective guides. What is needed for many results is quite clear guidance, allowing people to accomplish their ends and to provide the limited predictability essential to social relations.

But the specific understandings that might provide such guidance are often inadequate. On the one hand, the understandings that are shared by all, or nearly all, community members are usually so coarse in their behavioral guidance as to preclude their effectiveness as a basis for predicting behavior or, even, accomplishing ends save in the most familiar circumstances. More directly to the point, these widely shared understandings are usually very broad and following them does not necessarily instill the needed confidence that behavior can be predicted, especially in the multiplex relationships that are crucial to individual and community life.

In chapter 8, it was noted that all interviewed community members mentioned a few of the same activities as shameful, and this suggested that they


all agreed that avoiding these behaviors was desirable or essential. Included among these prohibitions—and they all were that—was not being seen naked in public, not stealing, not using or selling alcohol, and not begging for food. These are undoubtedly important prohibitions and may add a significant, though sharply limited, element of predictability to relations among community members. However, they hardly qualify as a basis for making the predictions on which social life depends, especially not in the relations among kin, neighbors, and friends on which many aspects of community life depend.

The necessary predictability, however, can be based on the sharing, limited even in multiplex relationships, that seems to be characteristic of humans provided either that the relations are strictly limited in their scope or that they are mainly based on general expectations. In the first case, one needs few expectations to deal with bus conductors, and, in the second, those fundamental to relations with parents, spouses, and neighbors may be effective even though they are vague and general.

What is important about this is that culture's functioning as the basis for social relationships can depend on mainly specific understandings when only a few are involved, but in wider scope relations, the functioning can proceed on the basis of only a few, broad cultural elements. In either simplex or multiplex relations, then, limited sharing is quite sufficient for the relationships to proceed. Group members' belief in broad sharing may be useful, and may be provided by tokens, but in reality such unanimity of understanding is not called for.

11 The Dynamics of Swahili Culture A Status-Centered View

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.