reply to Whitehead

Mike Lieber (U28550@UICVM.BITNET)
Sun, 8 Jan 1995 15:09:49 CST

Ah, Harriet, I knew I could count on you. So let's boogie.

> Mike is urging Dwight and the rest of us to notice the ambiguity in our
> use of the word hierarchy, stating that the scientific (taxonomic) sense
> of hierarchy, a part-to-whole relationship, as in MAN = men and women, is
> "very different" from an inequality of rank relationship, eg. sargeant and
> corporal. But in social life, this "very differentness" has a way of
> vanishing, don't you think? And this is the very good reason so many
> social scientists use the term ambiguously. Take sargeant and corporal.
> There is a nested, taxonomic level to their relationship.

Surely you are not excusing the ambiguity or defending it? Just pointing out
why the ambiguity might be perpetuated. It is our job as anthropologists to
clarify the on-the-ground complexities, not to cover them up or mystify them,
> The sargeant
> heads/represents/commands a larger military unit than the corporal and
> one that will include coporals within it. Similarly a family "head",
> lineage "head," etc. in kinship systems; village "head," etc. in
> geo-residential social forms and so on. I would venture to argue that in
> social life the encompassed/encompassing relationship almost always
> implies a recognized rank difference.

Indeed this is true. The problem is how the implication is handled
analytically. When the sargeant gives an order to attack or fall back or
whatever, we're looking at the coordination of a group that he commands. The
hierarchical relation is one of squadron (or whatever) to its members, not
sargeant to corporal. Same for lineage head, of course. But these
subtleties lead to some incredibly sloppy, almost mystical thinking, e.g.,
the lineage forces its members to share food, the community acts to constrain
deviance, society says that we're not supposed to ..., etc.. The lineage in
fact does nothing. The community in fact does nothing. Society in fact does
nothing. Its members think and act. Its agents think and act. Rank
differences implement the hierarchical relation between a group and its
members. That heriarchical relation is the CONTEXT of which rank asymmetries
are PART. The failure to distinguish these levels of difference promotes
the paradoxes of community being reduced to its members and then taking on
properties which are true only of people. These logical absurdities have been
with us for so long that a lot of us have gotten used to them. They continue
to dominate discussions of the concept of society and of culture and continue
to promote and perpetuate conceptual muddles. What I'm interested in is
finding a way out of the muddles. Disambiguating rank from hierarchy and then
working out their relationship, as you are doing, is a very good start.

> Someone may respond that this is
> not true of class relationships. The upper-classes do not include or
> encompass the lower classes. And indeed they do not, outside of very
> delimited contexts, have command rights over the lower classes. But at a
> very pan-societal level, "upper classes" are seen as "representing" or
> "speaking for" their nation-as-a-whole, as being in some sense "ruling
> classes," so even hear the relationship between rank and representation
> of the whole asserts itself.

Yes indeed, and it is specifically this representation of the whole that
contextualizes the competition for rank. There are all sorts of interesting
permutations of this rank/hierarchy relation, some of which Eve Pinsker
pointed out in her citation of Taylor's "politics of recognition." I'll
just cite a couple others. One that comes to mind is Tom Wolf's "Maumauing
the flak-catchers", where he talked about how political wannabes created the
image of group=constituency to get a share of the federal pie. When I first
came to Chicago, I worked with a man who was a past-master at this sort of
manipulation: the Rev. Iberus Hacker, a Baptist minister-community organizer
whose Old Country Church in Uptown in the Appalachian section of Chicago's
north side was the site of a good deal of political activity, mainly
concentrating on food distribution and scaring the hell out of the elder
Daley. Iberus was able to do this because he became very adept at being able
to put 1500 welfare mothers and their children on the street with about 2 hours
notice. One of his great successes was the formation of an umbrella
organization of community groups (that included Operation Push). This
organization had an office and stationery, but was no more than a paper
organization whose board of directors met only over the telephone. Yet Iberus
was able to use his chairmanship of the board to get lots of concessions from
the Daley administration. The organization died after Iberus left Chicago
(and was killed in a car crash shortly thereafter), but its name survives in
its use by one of its former board members--the Rainbow Coalition.

One of the places you can see this hierarchy/rank relation being played out is
in the current battles over what are going to be categories of minority/ethnic
groups in the 2000 census. There is a fascinating account of this in the
August issue of the _Atlantic Monthly_, "One Drop of Blood." It isn't just
the upper class or the ruling class playing this game. Nor is it confined to
the west. Bob Kiste gives an interesting example of Bikinian family heads
padding the membership of their families by including the names of genealogical
"members" who lived on other atolls in the Marshalls in had in fact never set
foot on Bikini, Kili, or Jaluit land owned by Bikinians. This was a cute
political strategy if and only if all those folks decided to stay where they
were, which they did not.

I don't think we're at odds here. I do think that this particular issue of
the relation between rank and hierarchy is one of the best arguments I can
think of for a serious consideration of incorporating a rigorous concept of
*context* into anthropological thought and training. One can do no better
than Gregory Bateson's definition and use of context. I'm surprised that so
few anthropologists have adopted it.

Mike Lieber