Opposites in Social Organization—
by Arnold Perey, Ph.D.,
Columbia University, 1973
An Aesthetic Realism Discussion of Oksapmin, Papua New Guinea
Chapter 3 of
Oksapmin Society and World View
Dissertation for Degree of Doctor of Philosophy
Every society is at once firm and flexible--orderly and free--and it must be. No society can be so rigid it can't adapt to changing circumstances. No society can be so flexible that it has no organization. Every society must have both opposites. Meanwhile, freedom and order are opposites which are made one in a beautiful painting, poem, even landscape: "Does every instance of beauty in nature and beauty as the artist presents it," asks Eli Siegel,
have something unrestricted, unexpected, uncontrolled?—and does this beautiful thing in nature or beautiful thing coming from the artist's mind have, too, something accurate, sensible, logically justifiable, which can be called order?
[Siegel, Is Beauty the Making One of Opposites? http://www.terraingallery.org/IsBeauty.html Terrain Gallery, New York: 1955]
It surprised me that a society has the same elemental structure that a work of art has. But it is a logical explanation for the feeling scientists have expressed a social structure has beauty. For instance, the Australian Aboriginal kinship rules in their complication and economy have a beauty that's been noticed. And we may ask, if a society seems to be structured in a beautiful way, is it because these opposites, order and freedom, firmness and flexibility, seem to be working together in an accurate, coherent manner? And if a society is not just, and so does not look beautiful, is it because
these opposites--by nature always present--are in a disproportionate relation? The evidence from Oksapmin and elsewhere has convinced me the answer is yes.
Freedom and Order in Social Theory
I speak now of the tendency to see social structure as representing order only, and not freedom or flexibility as well. From the time of W.H.R. Rivers's discovery that tribal societies always have an order that is based on kinship ties, there has been a tendency to mute or leave out other things (for example friendships, antipathies, and the individual choices of people).
However, every society is also based on non-kin ties and individual choices. Since life frequently consists of meeting disorderly events in ecology and history, any social grouping must be able to adapt to changing circumstances—and so will have ways to "bend" or ignore its regular kinship rules when necessary.
The tendency for a scientist to think in terms of kinship order—or predetermination—is especially strong when a society is described as unilineal. A unilineal society is one in which a child is born either into its mother's kin group (matrilineal) or its father's kin group (patrilineal) but not both (bilateral). Each person bears a clan name which, like a family name among north Americans, comes from one side of the family only. The moment one is born, one is included amongst one strictly defined group of relatives and excluded from another. One has a position and rights only with one group. However, since both sides are relatives, in reality the child belongs to both.
The "Flexible" within the "Rigid." Take the unilineal societies of Africa. Anthropologists have created classic descriptions of them —including The Nuer of E.E. Evans-Pritchard. These societies give an impression that one is rigidly affiliated with one group of kin only. For instance, as Evans-Pritchard describes, Nuer political organization is based on the opposition of patrilineal segments. Since, in a unilineal society, membership in a group of kin is ordinarily determined from birth—we would expect the consanguineal tie to override all other considerations. However, Evans-Pritchard also describes strikingly strong maternal bonds that affect the choices a patrilineal lineage may make—when it decides where to travel for pasture, with whom to associate—and whom to fight. And friendly strangers are adopted into Nuer kin groups. And even small familial groups who are friendly will become attached (almost by default) when they stay close for pasturage or defense. Freedom of choice prevails along with the determinism of blood relationships.
Futher, in works like the novel Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, we see the tie to mother's family can be crucial to a strongly patrilineal society of West Africa (Igbo):
was well received by his mother's kinsmen in Mbanta....He was taking his family of three wives and their children to seek refuge in his motherland....Okonkwo was given a plot of ground on which to build his compound, and two or three pieces of land on which to fram during the coming planting season. With the help of his mother's kinsmen he built himself an obi and three huts for his wives. He then installed his personal god and the symbols of his departed fathers. [Pp. 129-30]
Meanwhile, in Bronislaw Malinowski's work--take his Sexual Life of Savages in North-Western Melanesia--we see how ties to the father and father's kin still matter in a strongly matrilineal society, and rules of inheritance cause conflict because of this sentiment.
Then too, in areas like the foothills of the Papua New Guinea Highlands, societies were discovered in the 1960s with "flexible" social organization: affiliations were more casual, changeable, adaptable to uncertainties, than expected.
Opposites in Reality As Such or Philosophically
Togetherness and separation, as well as order and freedom are inevitable in any organization. While this is a social fact, it is also related to facts in the inorganic sciences. For example, electrons are together and separate in that minuscule swarm of subatomic particles called an atom. And as is well known, every electron is also both free and determined. To say things are separate and together is to imply there is more than one thing that we're talking about: that is, many things. To say they are together means they have something in common which unites them and makes them like a mathematical unit,that is, a one. Therefore One and Many are also crucial opposites when we describe either an atom or a social organization.
There is no conceivable object that is not a oneness of these three pairs of opposites and more: it is one thing with many parts; it is both orderly and free; and is together with and separate from every other object in the universe.
Philosophically and in terms of life as we really live it, it's impossible for a society to have an utterly rigid organization. If it did, it couldn't adapt to changes in rainfall or pasturage over the years, or alterations in the relative numbers of kin in diverse segments, or changes in the fertility of land over time. New people could not enter the social group nor could others leave it. So every society must not only be firm but flexible too. Likewise, no society can be only flexible: it is necessary for people to know how they are related to one another so that food can be produced by cooperating friends and relatives, valuable goods and services can be exchanged on a mutually-agreeable basis, and groups of men and women can rely on one another to provide for the common defense. Every society has to be both firm and flexible in a workable, possibly even beautiful, way.
And Now, to Oksapmin
As I was thinking about how to describe the social organization of the Oksapmin community where I did field research in 1967-8, I came to realize that there was an underlying interplay of four closely related pairs of opposites which I had gathered data for, unbeknownst to myself: one and many, order and freedom, junction and separation, flexibility and firmness. For one thing, the people of Oksapmin did not go strictly by the unilineal kin ties that they recognized in their clan inheritance rules (this can be observed, for instance, in the flexibility of their marriage rules). For another, people came and went as the desires of friendship or enmity, love or hate impelled them. Further, they formed new associations and yet still were affected by the lastingness of the old; and as the land they occupied became more fertile or less, more populated or less, they were not unable to move to new places and to live with friends or relatives close to land that was available. All this happened through much more individual choices than one could predict from kinship alone. Against the background of my previous anthropological study, what I saw in Oksapmin was unexpected to me. I later came to see that it is more staple than anthropology has seen. After all, we are writing about people much more like ourselves than we have realized.
The people I lived with in Oksapmin had a flexible mode of organizing that maintained the orderliness, the predictability, the firm social relations that every person and society needs, and at the same time permitted flexibility, fluidity, freedom to change. People were together, yet separate, in a way that affected me greatly because I felt myself to be separate even at a party or in a crowd. That separation and junction belonged to the very structure of society I was yet to see. The fact that many people would see themselves as one igira, whether that igira was a household, a lineage, or a temporary work group, I thought was tremendously interesting.
I became aware of these opposites--many and one, freedom and order, separation and junction, flexibility and firmness--in the study of art, as I studied Eli Siegel's Is Beauty the Making One of Opposites? and then in anthropology, through my study of Aesthetic Realism itself: first with its founder, Eli Siegel, and then with the Class Chairman of Aesthetic Realism, Ellen Reiss.
In the method of anthropological research and explanation that I see as definitive, the philosophic or ontological opposites are necessary. They are, Mr. Siegel has demonstrated, "the things that all things have in common." That is, the opposites as Aesthetic Realism describes them are culture-free units or ideas: the very things anthropologists have been longing for.
In the pages of this chapter, I will focus (as I said above) on four major pairs of opposites which are always present in social organization: (1) Many and One, (2) Order and Freedom, (3) Separation and Junction, (4) Flexibility and Firmness. These can take diverse forms. Separation and junction, for example, can take the form of dispersal and connection (dispersal is a form of separation, connection is a form of junction).
This fact has a general meaning for anthropology as a whole. In these pages I will describe the quantitative and measurable factors that separate people and join them in Oksapmin. We will see that they comment on both the flexibility and firmness that every society must have. Study of these opposites made for an exciting and efficient way to observe how social order and social freedom interact.
We also ask whether the oneness of these opposites makes for a beauty that the observer can enjoy. I believe it does.