Re: Power in Foraging Societies (was Re:

Sun, 17 Mar 1996 16:57:00 PST

Kavanagh quotes a quote from Rohrlich:

> > ... 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."

and comments

"... it seems hard to describe the !Kung as "gentle people." "

For whatever reason, hunting/gathering societies seem to bring out a
Rousseauian like notion of an idyllic state; a kind of garden of eden prior
to the fall of humankind. Do we try to view the !Kung San as "gentle people"
because they, unlike ourselves, have truly escaped/avoieded the venalities we
see in ourselves? Or because we would like to believe that the venalities we
see in ourselves are due to our particular circumstances and are not
characteristic of us, as a species? I suspect that latter and if so we are
denying to "the other" their humanity when we attribute to them our beliefs
of what we would like our species to be like. I have worked with the !kung
san and my view is that they are people with all the virtues and sins that
people anywhere have. They can be kind, they can be mean, they can be fair,
they can be unjust, they can be helpful to one another, they can try to
control others--the differences lie, I would suggest, in what becomes
institutionalized or given cultural recognition, not in their state as human
beings. When we say "they are gentle people" and in so doing ignore their
reality as people who can be both good and bad, are we not thereby denying
them their humanness? We may believe that being "gentle people" is a virtue,
an idyllic state we would prefer as a characterization of our species, but if
this idyllic state is our creation and not their reality then no matter how
idyllic our characterization may be, it denies their right to be
seen has humans with whatever foiles, frailties, and the like that they may
share with us.

Let my also make a brief comment about power as it relates to groups such as
the !Kung san. In my view (which is probably not very perceptive and
is certainly overly simplistic), to say that B has power over A involves not
only the status of B but that of A as well. A must, in some sense, acquiesce
in that claim of power by B, and that seems to relate to whether or not A (1)
has no viable alternative but to acquiesce or (2) believes that s(he) has no
viable alternative. Control over resources either needed by A (or believed
to be necesssary by A) is one way in which power is expressed. IF the
resource is food, then the nature of foraging societies is such that it is
difficult for B to gain control over A in foraging societies through
control of food resources by virtue of the fact that A may have access to
food resources merely by moving to another location. However, the ultimate
expression of this "freedom" is social isolation and the "desire" not to be
socially isolated becomes a basis for "power relationships" of a different
kind; e.g., the control of the behavior of others through the threat of
removal of social relationships.

D. Read