Speaking volumes

May 26, 1995

JOEL RICHMANS on Max Gluckman's Custom and Conflict in Africa. I have packed up and moved room on numerous occasions but one book from many is reverently reinstalled. Max Gluckman's Custom and Conflict in Africa was published 40 years ago. Its themes and accompanying intellectual setting of the department of social anthropology of the Victoria University of Manchester have irretrievably been lodged in my psyches.

Gluckman was one of the South African scholars so dominant in post-1945 British anthropology. C&C is dedicated to his first anthropology teacher, Agnes Winifred Hoernle, for her 70th birthday. On the penultimate page Gluckman rightfully refers to himself as a "son of Africa" when discussing the bonds of the colour bar and his aspirations for an optimistic future. The book originated as a set of six talks on the BBC Radio Third Programme to popularise anthropology. That was my seductive introduction to the subject and formal initiation as a student.

C & C was published exactly as given on air, because of public request, we are told. That justified lack of terminological elaborations of key concepts of conflict, ritual, custom, culture and cohesion and so on. Their import was left to the commonsense understanding of readers.

A centrality of the book was that cohesion in society was maintained through cross-cutting ties of allegiance and conflict, culturally mediated. In one section of relationships people can be enemies, while in others they can be forced to cooperate for common purposes - as in rain ceremonies in times of drought. The Machiavellian dictum of divide and rule is restated as "divide and cohere".

Although claiming to use primarily his own illustrative research, notably on ritual and politics, for freer expression, Gluckman nevertheless wonderfully rhapsodises others: Peters on Bedouin feuds; the "beauty" of Colson's stateless Tonga; and Evans-Pritchard Nuer kinship and Azande magic. The inspiration of C & C was not only in the analytical aesthetics of tribal doings, per se, but also how synchronised facsimiles were generated of European reasoning and behaviour.

The village headman representing a higher official authority yet living among those he directs is matched with the marginality of foremen, ward sisters and school prefects. There was special sympathy for the maligned shop steward entwined in the "frailty of conflicting authority". Licence in Zulu ritual of the "Incwala", reversing social roles, normalising the everyday, is projected to embrace the Polish ghetto when the unchallenged authority of rabbis permitted an annual sermon by a scoundrel attacking the synagogue. The exemplars are many of how I drew upon Gluckman's version of Azande witchcraft logic to emphasise "mangu" closed reasoning recently to exemplify the persistence of the diagnosis of "psychopath" by enlarging its scope of recognition by multiplication of types.

It matters not that feminism, critical theory and so on have submerged C & C; nor that its template may owe something to Simmel. Its scope remains an imaginative benchmark, as was Gluckman's venture into crowd responses and the football drama of pre-Munich Manchester United, now largely forgotten.

The author is emeritus professor in sociology, Manchester Metropolitan University.

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