Edmund Leach

  • Nomads and the Outside World by A.M. Khazanov, translated by Julia Crookenden
    Cambridge, 369 pp, £37.50, February 1984, ISBN 0 521 23813 7
  • The House of Si Abd Allah: The Oral History of a Moroccan Family edited by Henry Munson
    Yale, 320 pp, £17.95, April 1984, ISBN 0 300 03084 3
  • Ruth Benedict: Patterns of a Life by Judith Modell
    Chatto, 255 pp, £15.00, February 1984, ISBN 0 7011 2771 6

Khazanov’s global comparative study of pastoral nomadism is unique. The level of erudition may be indicated by the bare statistic that the bibliography runs to 48 closely printed pages of which 23 refer exclusively to works in Russian. For those who are not specialists in the field at this level of intensity, and perhaps even for those who are, the 16 pages of Ernest Gellner’s ‘Foreword’ provide essential reading. Khazanov’s book takes for granted a general framework of Russian Marxist ideas which will be unfamiliar to most English readers. Within that framework it makes a contribution to a long-standing theoretical debate about whether or not Pastoral Nomadism rates as a form of Feudalism, or of the Asiatic Mode of Production, or of something quite other. Gellner explains all this with great skill and warns the reader of some of the pitfalls that may be encountered in Khazanov’s terminology. Gellner himself steers clear of the controversy but is an interested party since he claims that Khazanov, and more particularly his older colleague G.E. Markov, have arrived independently at a view of nomadism which is closely related to that of Gellner’s own sociological hero, Ibn Khaldun.

In British social anthropology the dominant academic ideology during most of the last fifty years has been that of Functionalism, which, following Durkheim, assumed that human societies are more or less discrete, closed ‘organisms’ in homeostatic equilibrium, in that any disturbance to ‘normality’ will automatically generate social forces which will tend to bring things back again to a state very similar to that prevailing at the outset. The problem for the Functionalists has always been, therefore, that empirical history is mostly concerned with social change rather than with social stability.

Marxist anthropologists are faced with a converse problem. Dogma assures them that ‘in the Beginning’ there was an idyllic stage of primitive society in which land and property were communally-owned, but that thereafter the dialectical processes of history have repeatedly generated contradictions in the social fabric which result in social change. How then should they account for empirical social systems which appear to be in homeostatic equilibrium? Pastoral nomadism, at any rate in the view of some authorities, has this changeless quality, and Russian anthropologists have long disputed among themselves with almost religious fervour about how such a pattern of social organisation is to be fitted to the standard Marxist categories of stages in human social evolution.

The societies discussed by Khazanov are distributed over much of Eurasia, Arabia and Africa, and for a non-Marxist such as myself it is far from obvious why the single cultural characteristic which they share, their ‘pastoral nomadism’, should lead to their being considered societies of a single type when in most other respects they are entirely different. Khazanov is alert to the possibility of such a comment and justifies his classification by the following interesting, though somewhat unexpected thesis: ‘the gradually diminishing specific significance of pastoralism in the general food-producing economy of traditional societies forms the basis of the classification proposed. I attach much greater importance to the ratio of pastoralism and agriculture in an economic system than, for example, to degree of mobility for the very reason that apart from mobile pastoralism, there are mobile forms of agriculture.’

Whatever one may think of such an argument, this quotation makes it apparent that Khazanov approaches his materials with great sophistication. But some readers may share my feeling that his cross-cultural comparisons are on such a grand scale, and so far removed from the detailed facts on the ground, that the end result is like an exercise in the Frazerian ‘comparative method’. The severely truncated evidence is not the source of the theory; it simply serves to illustrate theoretical arguments which have been arrived at a-priori or derived from dogmatic axioms. But that is the comment of a functionalist empiricist. The grand theorists of sociology would all be on Khazanov’s side. He himself refers with respect, not only to Marx and Ibn Khaldun, but also to Max Weber. Versions of the arguments concerning the circulation of élites that are to be found in Vico and Pareto are not far below the surface.

All the same, the level of Khazanov’s generalisations is such that much of the ethnographic evidence that ought to be of interest to Marxists either gets ruled out of consideration altogether or else is severely distorted. Consider, for example, the flat statement that ‘the economic relations which exist in nomadic societies are based on two important foundations: private ownership of livestock and corporative ownership of pastures.’ A score or so of examples are then cited to illustrate this proposition. In quite another part of the book there is extensive discussion of the political dependence of nomads on sedentary societies and vice versa. Now one area where the grand theorists of pastoral nomadism and the nose-to-the-ground empiricists come together is that they are both inclined to argue that pastoralist economies are never autonomous and self-contained. In practice, pastoral economies and agricultural economies are nearly always interdigitated. But it seems that Marxist ideology requires Khazanov to treat ownership as a unitary concept. Resources are either owned collectively or they are owned individually. By contrast, my own functionalist background leads me to think of ownership as a ‘bundle’ of separable rights. These two attitudes to ownership lead to entirely different views about sedentary/nomadic interdependence. For Khazanov, the relationship must be political: one group is dominant over the other. My worm’s-eye view rejects this proposition.

The only case of nomadism with which I have personally had close contact was that of the sheepherding Kurdish Harki. In more peaceful, less nationalistic days the Harki pastured their flocks in Iran during the hot summer months and in the plains of Iraq near Irbil during the winter. The land on which they grazed during the winter was used by the local sedentary Arab peasants for raising wheat. The two usages were interlocked: the sheep fed on the stubble and weeds of the wheat field and in turn fertilised the land. The tribal chiefs of the Harki claimed to ‘own’ the land over which they had grazing rights; the peasants claimed to ‘own’ the land on which they grew their wheat. Neither group was politically dominant over the other. Things had apparently been operated that way for centuries and no one seemed to be seriously worried by the resulting inconsistencies. But such on-the-ground, face-to-face, relationships are not Khazanov’s concern. The focus of his attention is on events of a much grander geographical and temporal scale. When he talks about the interdependence of the nomads and the sedentaries he is mainly concerned with long-distance trading relationships, or with the politics and market economies of cities and the politics of ‘nomadic states’ within which they may be embedded.

It was perhaps his personal sympathy for Khazanov’s views about such matters which led Ernest Gellner to persuade Khazanov to write his book in the first place. If so, it was a most rewarding initiative. I agree with Gellner ‘that it is a quite outstanding scholarly achievement,’ which will probably never again be closely matched: but I very much hope that no Anglophone anthropologist will take it as a model. There is a place for grand-scale theories of historical process both Marxist and other, but the value of research in social and cultural anthropology is in what it can tell us about person-to-person relations at a much more intimate level.

A strikingly successful example of such intimate reporting is provided by The House of Si Abd Allah. Henry Munson presents his story in a most original manner and it deserves to be read and enjoyed by all sorts of people who have no professional interest in anthropology. There are really three authors. The two principal narrators, both born in Tangier, are first cousins but separated by 18 years in age and several centuries in general outlook. Al-Hajj Muhammad (born 1932) is a peddler. In 1977 he still lived in Tangier and had been married nine times. Fatima Zohra (born 1950) had been married once (to a university professor in the United States), had two children, and was herself a part-time university student. Both narrators have made extensive tape-recordings for Munson in which they discuss their past lives, their general views of religion and society, and their kinsfolk. The third author is of course Munson himself, who provides an edited translation and a long and lucid Introduction.

The Si Abd Allah of the title-page lived from 1870 to 1932. The characters referred to in the tape-recordings are nearly all Si Abd Allah’s children, children’s spouses, grandchildren (and their spouses), and sundry great-grandchildren. A skeleton genealogy shows how all these individuals are linked into a single kinship network. The text is arranged so that a separate chapter is devoted to each of the families of the seven younger children of Si Abd Allah (the eldest died childless in 1932). In each case we get a separate account of the same events and the same people, first from the uneducated (male) Muslim fundamentalist peddler, and then from the articulate, part-‘Westernised’, relatively youthful Fatima Zohra, who still considers herself a Moroccan and a Muslim, but is in rebellion against the low status traditionally accorded to members of her sex in Islamic society. The blurb claims that her ‘comments, in counterpoint to those of Al-Hajj Muhammad, make a fascinating narrative that provides a key to understanding the Islamic world’. That perhaps is an exaggeration, but I certainly found the whole exercise compulsive reading.

All recent Anglophone anthropological discussions of Islam in modern Morocco have been indebted to the antithetical views of Clifford Geertz in Islam Observed (1968) and Ernest Gellner in Saints of the Atlas (1969). Geertz perceives Islam as a system of cultural symbols and is concerned to show us how individual Muslims think and feel about their religion and their society; Gellner writes in the tradition of Ibn Khaldun, Max Weber and Pareto and interprets the history of pre-colonial North African Islam as a long-term circulation of élites in which, although at any one time power is concentrated among the wealthy, literate but corruptible cadres of the city, pressures for religious and political reform repeatedly emerge from the puritanical tribesmen of the rural periphery. Both authors have tended to polarise the distinction between the orthodox religion of scripture and the ‘popular’ religion of the countryside, even though in other respects their treatment of the evidence has been very different.

Munson is familiar with both styles of argument but his PhD is from Chicago and he has a Geertzian background. Like Geertz, he is concerned to show us how his Muslim actors think and feel, rather than to discuss the overall structure of Moslem Society as something which encompasses the lives of all its members. But Munson is by no means uncritical of his mentor, compared with whom he has the great merit of writing in a clear uncluttered style. His remarks about contemporary Islam in North Africa, and his wider reflections on the nature of Muslim fundamentalism, have a confidence which is very impressive.

But the real strength of his book lies in his demonstration that such very different ‘kinds’ of Muslim as are exemplified by the two individuals Al-Hajj Muhammad and Fatima Zohra should have come from exactly the same domestic background among the impoverished lumpenproletariat of urban Tangier. He also shows that the differences can still encompass shared values. From Al-Hajj Muhammad’s point of view Fatima Zohra is virtually an infidel, but the two cousins clearly share many family affections as well as a deeply felt conviction that all the misfortunes of Morocco as they know it derive from the colonial experience and from the Moroccan élite (Fassis) who imitate a Christian colonialist style of life.

In the main body of the text, the two narrators are given approximately the same amount of space, but in his Introduction Munson devotes much more attention to Al-Hajj Muhammad. This is not surprising, for he is addressing an American audience, and many Americans are still mystified as to how the Iranian masses could have preferred the fundamentalist tyranny of the Ayatollah Khomeini to the corrupt but Westernised (and therefore comprehensible) tyranny of the Shah. As an anthropologist, I find it relatively easy to understand the orthodox, scriptural conservativism of Al-Hajj Muhammad. But it is the partly-Westernised Fatima Zohra who arouses my interest and my sympathy, because of the clash of values that is expressed in her Westernised life-style. Her outlook conflicts both with the demands of Moroccan nationalism, which she would like to espouse, and with the dictates of Muslim orthodoxy which she has rejected, even though she still feels herself to be a Muslim. It is not just the contrast between the conservative orthodoxy of Al-Hajj Muhammad and the liberal modernism of Fatima Zohra that calls for attention: there are also the inconsistencies that stand out in each of their individual points of view but more especially in that of Fatima Zohra. For her, religion provides a trap from which there is no escape: yet it is noticeable that the values of Moroccan kinship and sexual morality come to the surface in both stories. Despite her sophistication, Fatima Zohra is still very much a member of the House of Si Abd Allah.

The third of these books, the biography of an anthropologist, is also concerned with family relationships, but not in any anthropological manner. Ruth Benedict, who died in 1948 at the age of 61, resembled her best-known pupil Margaret Mead, in that her work was more highly regarded by non-anthropologists than by academic professionals in her field. Her celebrity rested mainly on two works. The first of these, Patterns of Culture (1934), is a highly reductionist, psychologistic account of three cultural systems (Pueblo, Kwakiutl, Dobu) concerning two of which Benedict had no first-hand experience. Its simplifications made it a convenient textbook for uninquisitive undergraduates, and it later came to be considered a classic contribution to the literature of ‘Culture and Personality’ to which Margaret Mead likewise made a number of unfortunate contributions, such as Sex and Temperament in Three New Guinea Societies (1935). Benedict’s other claim to academic fame was her authorship of The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946), a contribution to America’s war effort which developed the convenient theory that a skilled anthropologist could learn all that needed to be known about the Japanese and their culture by interviewing expatriate Japanese and asking intimate questions about child-rearing practices.

All this now seems very curious and long-ago stuff. A fair amount of biographical material concerning Ruth Benedict, including an autobiography, is quite readily available, and most inquirers will find that the judicious assessment provided by Margaret Mead in Volume Two of the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (1968) will tell them all they need to know. However, Judith Modell’s book is the first ‘full-scale’ biography. It started out as a PhD dissertation completed in 1978 and retains the hallmarks of its origin. The scholarly apparatus is massively comprehensive, but Ruth Benedict (née Fulton) does not show through as an individual of any particular interest. Much of the time Modell gives the impression of being rather bored with her heroine and her text is cluttered up with a great deal of trivial anecdote. She respects the confidences of her informants concerning Ruth Benedict’s private life even if they are now dead. This is a worthy attitude but it adds to the general dullness. Ruth’s marriage seems to have been a non-event, though it lasted for a considerable time. There were other sexual passions, by implication of a homo rather than hetero kind, about which we are given no details. A sealed box of papers kept in the Vassar archives, which will become accessible in 1998, will presumably reveal all. Publication in the UK at a moderate price seems to presume a non-anthropological readership. This is possible. Benedict is presented as a feminist born out of her time. As early as 1914, not yet an academic, she was planning to write a biography of Mary Wollstonecraft, and we encounter references to a draft of this unpublished work throughout the present book. But Modell’s very partisan account of Benedict’s petty battles with her male academic associates makes thin reading. After getting to the end of her story I felt that I knew less about the original flesh-and-blood Ruth Fulton Benedict than I thought I knew at the beginning.