This report presents a critical analysis of the theme of social organisation discussed in the ethnography of Yanomamo written by Chagnon. The ethnography will be analysed based on the conceptual framework of cultural anthropology put forth in their book by Bonvillain & Schwimmer (2010). Careful attention is paid to make sure that the analysis presented in this paper is objective in nature and devoid of personal biases.
Chagnon (2013) begins his exploration of the social organisation by counterposing two of the existing approaches in the field. He argues that the ‘structural’ approach does not address the actual behaviour of the individuals in real life. He therefore rejects this approach in favour of the ‘statistical model’ approach, which the author believes confirms more to reality. This is inline with the theory in cultural anthropology that the concept of culture is best derived by investigating human experience and behaviour (Bonvillain & Schwimmer, 2010).
In cultural anthropology structural considerations are the identifying factor that divides a society into groups. Social groups are considered to be the building blocks of social organisation. Socials groups are defined as assemblages of individuals who are recruited into the said group by means of a common identity or interest (Bonvillain & Schwimmer, 2010). Chagnon (2013) successfully identifies the social groups that’s exists in Yanomamo on numerous occasions. While discussing child adult division, he identifies Huyas as a social group that consists of young men who are usually unmarried. While discussing the male-female devision among Yanomamo, the author talks about ‘shuwahimou’ who are women who have escaped the cruelty of their husbands. Even though he does not mention a term, the author also distinguishes older women, who usually have children who are adults as a separate social group from women who are younger. This is because the author identified that older women tend to have different set of experiences in general when compared to younger women, owing to the fact that they have adult children to protect them from factors such as cruel husbands. It is important to note that in all of the aforementioned cases, the author used the cultural anthropological definition to identify social groups successfully.
Throughout the book the author does a near perfect job at analysing the roles of the members of a Yanomamo village. While describing the status differences and activities of the Yanomami people, the author says that the variations of daily activities are a function of one’s age and sex. In various chapters of the book, the author identifies different roles played by the members of the same social group. For example, author talks about the role of a married man during gardening, cooking, hunting and various other occasions. He successfully identifies the context in which a particular role is played by the individual, the functions of that role and the rights that come along with it. This is demonstrated well in the example of the difference between a son-in-law and an in-married son-in-law. The regular son-in-laws have the function of participating in the gardening activities, whereas an in-married son-in-law doesn’t. Rerebawa, is one such in-married son-in-law that the author talks about in the ethnography. The author not only demonstrates the line that exists between functions and rights of a role, but also talks about how this line is blurred in certain cases. In the case of Rerebawa, the fact that he is exempted from gardening is considered to be an exemption of duty by some but is also considered to be a lack of privilege by others. This is clear when author talks about how Rerebawa drew attention away from the fact that he did not cultivate for his in-laws.
Chagnon (2013) also clearly demonstrates the difference between ascribed and achieved roles of individuals in the society. A great example of this would be the differences noticed by the author regarding how girls achieve womanhood and how boys achieve manhood. The author observes that the girls in the village achieve womanhood when they menstruate for the first time. This is marked by a week long ceremony. However, there is no clear point in time when a boy achieves manhood. The author talks about a process where a boy becomes a man when he is no longer called by his teknonymous name by his peers. The author mentions that there is no clear age limit for this to happen and it does not happen abruptly. This is a clear example of how the author has managed to identify the various intricate aspects of an achieved role in Yanomamo society.
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Chagnon (2013) also encompasses a wider view of what entails as social organisation in Yanomamo society. In cultural anthropology, the regularly anticipated and repeated patterns of behaviour that are widely observable in social interactions. Chagnon (2013) not only includes this definition in his observations but also tries to analyse social organisation in the light of what people actually do, as opposed to the norms that are supposed to govern their motivations and actions. This is every time he talks about a repeated pattern of behaviour he also observes exceptions to the pattern. For example, when the author talks about the morning routine of Yanomamo, he observes how it starts with a morning toilet procession, but he also observes that this is also the time when clandestine sexual activities happen between lovers. Had the author not encompassed a wider view of social organisation, he wouldn’t have been able to identify such social irregularities.
One of Chagnon’s greatest achievements in this ethnography is that he was able to identify and demonstrate with examples, that individuals often bend the rules of the existing social organisation that stem from moral commitment in order to achieve individual ambitions, serve conflicting loyalties and often times simply to achieve economic, political and social opportunities. This is evident in many examples such as the instance where he talks about how the women are brought with the men into the garden to help with planting and weeding. However, the men are motivated to keep the women around so as to avoid leaving them alone in the village, which could lead to women having affairs with other men.
The author also successfully explores how demographic changes can create distortions in the expression of social values. A great example of how Chagnon (2013) successfully demonstrates this phenomenon while discussing the demographic basis of social behaviour among the Yanomamo. Cultural anthropology recognises social solidarity as a binding force that glues the member of a society together. In order to understand this concept of solidarity, we see that Chagnon, investigates the fissioning out of Yanomamo villages. Yanomamo villages usually grew to a size of 125 and then fizzle out into smaller settlements. Yet some villages are able to grow into sizes larger than that. For example, a village in Shamatari has a population of 300. In the traditional sense of cultural anthropology, this fissioning out of villages can be viewed as a failure of the solidarity that glued the village together. Chagnon investigates this phenomenon of fissioning out the reasons behind it. The author recognised that much of the internal cohesion in Yanomamo villages are generated through kinship and marriages. In the previous chapters the author talks about marriage systems that Yanomamo have. Since they do not have a formal rule that decided who could marry whom, the author defined a rule through observation. After statical analysis it was found that the men marry women who are a particular kind of cross cousins. The authors notes that the size to which a village is able to grow to is likely correlated to the total number of cross cousins that the men of the village have available to marry. Thus, Chagnon (2013), through statistical analysis, provides a satisfactory explanation to a question that has evaded anthropologists for a long time – ‘how does demographic irregularities affect social solidarity?’.
Chagnon (2013) discusses social change among Yanomamo in the context of behaviourism. He argues that individual is the agency of social change. According to the author, social organisation, social roles and identities have a great influence on individual behaviour. However, he infers that these factors cannot fully determine the behaviour of individuals. His ethnography is full of examples that support this argument. One of the examples is that of Hontonawa, the aggressive troublemaker who wants to become the headman of the village. There are many stories in many chapters of the book where Hontonawa challenges the authority of Kaobawa, who the current headman. The author attributes Hontonawa’s behavior mostly to individual motivations as well as attributes of his personality. His argument that individuals will seek personal, economic and political interests while deviating from established norms, is very much in line with the conceptual boundaries of behaviourism.
The theory of behaviourism also suggests that at some point, these deviations that occur as a result of individual strategic considerations may become part of the institutional norms. Behavioural irregularities could become part of the new social reality and with time it could constitute social change (Bonvillain & Schwimmer, 2010). Chagnon (2013) seems to have missed the opportunity to complete the analysis of social change among Yanomamo within the framework of behaviourism. For example, even though he describes the behavioural irregularities that Hotonawa exhibits, through the book, he never investigates if such behaviour was replicated in other villages with frequency. And whether or not this behavioural irregularity of challenging the headmen ever managed to become part of the new social reality among the Yanomamo.
This report found that Chagnon does a new perfect job of analysing the social organisation of Yanomamo people within the contextual framework put forth by cultural anthropologists. The ethnography is definitely not without its shortcomings, but it is definitely one of the most successful attempts at applying the concepts of cultural anthropology in analysing the social organisation of a society.
- Bonvillain, N., & Schwimmer, B. E. (2010). Cultural anthropology. Prentice Hall.
- Chagnon, A., N. (2013). Yąnomamӧ. Legacy 6th ed. Balmont, CA: Wadsworth/Cengage Learning.