Power in Foraging Societies (was Re: Swyers' questions on Power)

thomas w kavanagh (tkavanag@INDIANA.EDU)
Fri, 15 Mar 1996 12:54:37 -0500

On Thu, 14 Mar 1996, Ruby Rohrlich wrote:

> Holly, if you read the ethnographies of Colin Turnbull, Richard Lee and
> others who have worked with gathering-hunting societies, you discov er
> how these folks prevent anyone from having power over others. These
> anthropologists term such societies "gentle people."

The books Dr. Rohrlich is refering to are Colin Turnbull's "The Forest
People" about the Mbuti of the Ituri Forest, and Elizabeth Thomas' "The
Harmless People" about the !Kung San of the Kalihari. [I don't know about
anyone else, but to me the phrase "the gentle people" has always refered
to the Old Order Amish.]

The question of power in foraging societies is extremely complex. Not the
least of the problems is that for many of the classic anthropological
foraging peoples, the !Kung, Mbuti, Great Basin Shoshones, Sub-Arctic
Athapaskins, the "ethnographic present" ethnographies are just that,
discussions of current --or relatively current--adaptations. But for many
of those peoples, their present conditions are but refuges of a formerly
much more extensive and diverse environment. [At the same time, let us not
forget that there were/are foraging societies who were *not* limited to
environmentally poor refuges at the time of extensive descriptions: to be
specific the NWC peoples, down into northern and central California. ]

Moreover, when we try to "control for" those modern conditions to arrive
at some sort of reconstruction of more "pristine" conditions, our
reconstructions are often--all too often--themselves precoditioned by our
theoretical presuppositions, and needless to say, by our politics.

To the specific: Dr. Rohrlich's phrasing--"how these folks prevent
anyone from having power over others"--is problematic. As this whole
discussion has shown, how "power" is defined will influence how the
situation is intrepreted. There are Mbutis who can, through their own
purposeful actions, *influence* the actions of others [i.e. Turnbull's
"one or two men or women who were more prominent than others" (p 109)]. To
me that is power; it may be personal knowledge (Adam's "skill authority"),
and it may be limited to certain spheres of social life, it may be
personality [just because there are no positions of power in Mbuti
culture did not prevent Cephu from desiring power (p. 28, 106)] and it may
be ephemeral, but it is power nonetheless.

Now, if one wants to define "power" in a way so as to say that in
such and such a society there is no "power" that is fine, but be

Yours, in Tweedledee