November 19, 2017

The integrity of cultural behaviour

Appendix 5 of The Stable Society: its structure and control: Towards a Social Cybernetics, Wadebridge Ecological Centre, UK, 1978

A culture like all cybernisms must be regarded as an integral whole. Cultural traits can only be examined in accordance with their function within the whole. They cannot be judged in isolation, nor can the criteria used for judging them be those of other cultures for which they were not designed, as has been done by missionaries and colonial administrators. The suppression of customs and institutions in simple societies that, judged by our particular standard of morality, may appear undesirable or even evil, can have fatal results on the cultures involved, very much as the extraction of specific organs from a body can result in its annihilation.

This principle is so important that it is well worth illustrating in detail.

If one is acquainted with the culture of any ordered society and is capable of working out the role played by each of the customs and institutions within this culture, i.e. by determining in what way they contribute towards the adaptive behaviour of the society to its particular environment, one can easily imagine what would be the consequences of their suppression by outside interference.

Let us take the case of the marital customs of the Comorians.139 The people of the Comores have a complex social organisation, probably based on indigenous customs, upon which were superimposed those of their Islamic conquerors. From the former they inherited a matrilineal and matrilocal tradition, from the latter a patrilineal and patrilocal one. Islamic marital law has also been adopted. As a result, there is polygamy and a high frequency of divorce. Indeed, so high is the latter that it is perfectly normal for a woman to have been married five to ten times. From the experience gained in our culture, we would tend to associate such a consequent number of ‘broken homes’ with a very high rate of juvenile delinquency, schizophrenia, and suicide. However, things do not work out that way. In the Island of Mayotte, delinquency is unknown (1971). There are two schizophrenics out of a population of 30,000, and there have only been two murders in the last fifty years. The society has thus adapted itself to marital instability, which ours has not. The reasons are two-fold. Firstly, by virtue of the institution of matriliny and matrilocality, a child is partly the responsibility of the mother’s clan. Many of the functions of fatherhood are in fact fulfilled by the mother’s elder brother, and inheritance, for instance, is primarily through him rather than through the father. Secondly, by custom, the step-father automatically assumes many of the responsibilities of fatherhood, vis-à-vis the children that his new wife has had with previous husbands. The step-father, or baba combo, is, in particular, responsible for the payment of the very large expenses involved in the circumcision ceremony of his stepsons. Also, the father’s role is reduced by the fact that the children are brought up in the mother’s home. In addition, as the father probably has several other wives, he would in any case have only been physically present in one particular house on one or two days a week. For all these reasons, divorce does not have the same unsettling effect in the Comores that it does in our society. Now, supposing a busybody missionary or administrator suddenly decided that matriliny and matrilocality were vestiges of barbarity not to be found in modern advanced societies, and that they must therefore be abolished; unless he abolished at the same time many of the other customs making up this complex culture, the results would be disastrous. Schizophrenia, delinquency, and the other symptoms of social disorder would undoubtedly result, as they do in our society with the break-up of the nuclear family.

Another example can be drawn from the same people. When a woman is divorced by her husband, and before she can find a new one, she is deprived of all normal means of sustenance. The cattle and the fields belong to the husband. Only the house is hers. How, in these conditions, can she pay for her upkeep? The answer is that she is expected to have a lot of lovers, who must reward her financially for her favours. The more money a woman is capable of extracting from them, the more highly will she be regarded. Indeed, it appears that the greatest insult for a woman is to be told that she sleeps with men for nothing. This custom may appear particularly repugnant to those imbued with what remains of the values of our disintegrating society, yet it is considered absolutely normal in the Comores, and to abolish it would clearly lead to disastrous results. Indeed, unless a profound modification were brought about to the matrimonial system and property-owning customs of the Comorians, in which this type of ‘prostitution’ plays an essential part, there would be no means for a divorced woman to support herself.

Indeed, to judge the customs of primitive people by applying socio-centric criteria in vacuo and then seeking to abolish those that conflict with the specialised set of values underlying our cultural pattern is very much like considering an animal deformed if its physical features differ from our own, and engaging a plastic surgeon to recast them in our likeness, regardless of any adaptive function they might fulfil within a particular behaviour pattern.

Malinowski expressed the notion of the integrity of cultures thus:

“When we come to the integral institutions of a tribe or a nation, matters become extremely complicated. And the reason for this is that an important institution like the family or chieftainship, ancestor worship or agriculture has its roots in all aspects of culture. It is connected with so many cultural realities, some of which it is by no means easy to alter, that nothing except a complete transformation of the whole society can provide a painless change, free from maladjustments. Thus the African family, plus polygyny, plus matriliny, plus bride-price, could be replaced by a patriarchal, Christian family based on Roman Law, the Code Napoleon, or English Civil Law. But such a change could only be achieved by transforming the whole society simultaneously, and by giving the necessary wherewithal to establish the new and more elaborate type.”140

What Malinowski does not say is that such a transformation would lead to a marked reduction in social stability.


139. This information was obtained by the author during a month spent on Mayotte and Grand Comore in February, 1968.

140. Bronislaw Malinowski, The Dynamics of Cultural Change Yale University Press, 1965.

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