Continuity and Change in African Cultures

Even where selectivity in the acceptance of cultural elements from outside is recognized, analyses of the contemporary African scene too often fail to grasp the fact that selection is additive and not necessarily substitutive. European cloth adds to the range of fabrics and patterns; kerosene lamps are used together with traditional ones; and European manufactured china and ironware expand the range of goods produced by African potters and blacksmiths. In time they may come to displace the African-made products, but despite the severe competition of European machine-made goods, African weavers, smiths, and potters are still active.

Literacy and schooling, which stand out among the many things of European origin because they are so widely desired by Africans, illustrate both the selective and the additive character of the acculturative process. The Africans’ eagerness for a European type of education does does not mean that monogamy is equally acceptable, while the techniques of reading and writing do not compete with established traditions in non-literate societies. The desire for literacy is a response to a need which can be satisfied without inducing cultural conflict. Even when considered as modes of speech rather than techniques, the new European languages in which instruction is given are advantageous to learn but do not necessarily replace the African ones.

In religion, where substitution has clearly been the end of proselytizing, this principle clarifies an otherwise puzzling situation. For, whatever their verbalizations, Africans have by no means given over their allegiances to traditional supernatural forces when they have accepted the deity of another people. Rather, the new deity is added to the totality of supernatural resources on which they can call for aid.

The Cultural Approach and the Historical Dimension

Since the approach of this work differs from that of its predecessors in that it is cultural rather than sociological, its scope is broader. Precision in method and a sharper definition of problem are gained through concentration on a particular phase of social activity; yet this inescapably involves a narrower view of human behavior; a more restricted approach to the institutions, beliefs, customs, and traditions which man transmits through learning from one generation to another; and a disregard of the features which in essence differentiate human behavior from that of other animals.

Culture includes not only social institutions and their derivative forms of learned behavior but also those manifestations of man’s creativity whereby the artist produces something new and distinctively individual within the range of forms and patterns which are a part of his tradition, the philosopher or priest reconciles apparent contradictions in religious belief, the narrator gives a new turn to the plot of a familiar tale, or the inventor introduces changes in technology derived from previous knowledge.

The study of culture involves not only the institutions that frame man’s reactions to the fellow members of his society but also the extra-institutional aspects of human behavior, including language, the relation between language and behavior, between personality and culture, and the system of values that gives meaning to the accepted modes of behavior of a people.

Studies in comparative sociology have often been concerned with the analysis of data lying on a single time plane. In the theoretical and conceptual scheme underlying cultural research, however, the historical dimension of culture is held to be equally indispensible for an adequate understanding of human behavior. That is, though intensive investigations of structure yield valuable insights into present relationships, other causalities are neglected if the factor of time is not taken into account.

The historical orientation that is basic to the theoretical structure of the essays that follow is most explicit in Fuller’s discussion of the Gwambe. His projection of the results of ethnographic study against the available historical records is a striking demonstration of how fruitful this method can be in giving time depth, historically documented, for assessing the processes of cultural stability and change. It is gratifying to note that the value of this method, termed “ethnohistory,” is beginning to receive the attention it deserves. Especially in West Africa studies are projected or under way which employ the resources of historical records, native tradition, and archeological findings in recovering the past of such peoples as the Bini and the Yoruba.

The cumulative value of research of this kind is obvious, not only for the study of Africa, but in broader terms for testing hypotheses about the mechanisms of culture change, assumptions about paths of diffusion, or theories of myth which deny validity to oral history. It is worthy of note, however, that in Africa these studies have in the main been initiated and prosecuted by historians because sociologically oriented anthropologists have been so preoccupied with synchronic analyses of structure.

Ethnohistory, however, is only a recent addition to the historical methods that have figured in anthropological research. Anthropologists have often been confronted with historical problems when written records were not available. One of the approaches that has long been employed is indicated by Greenberg as a solution to the question of how Africa’s linguistic complexity developed. The classification of languages into families, he explains, will “help us to decide-among other questions-whether the present diversity is of recent date, all of Africa having been settled by one linguistic stock at some not too remote period, or whether we must reckon with a more complex pattern of separate waves of settlement occurring at different periods.” This quotation not only poses the problem of the historically oriented ethnolinguist but also illustrates a difference between the objectives and methods of the historical anthropologist and the historian. The anthropologist does not share the historian’s concern with the particular event, its date, or even the exact sequence of events except in so far as they help us to understand either the form of present institutions, customs, and beliefs or the general processes of cultural dynamics-of change and stability in culture.

The historical component in culture, or in social institutions, cannot be rejected simply because written documentation is not available. The challenge of probing the past so as to understand the present remains. No problem disappears because we have imperfect or even inadequate means of solving it; if this were so, there would be little point to the study of either culture or social institutions, or to the whole of social science.

Some of these criticisms have been directed against the methodology underlying sweeping reconstructions of the history of human culture on a world-wide basis, such as those of the cultural evolutionists and the diffusionists of the last century. With these criticisms we are in agreement, but there is a distinct difference between the reconstruction of the development of culture, and that of a culture or even of a group of related cultures within a restricted geographic area. Where the possibility of cultural influence can be demonstrated rather than postulated, and where due regard is given the complexity of the phenomena that are compared, historical reconstructions are on far more solid ground. Such reconstructions, based on the comparison of institutions and other elements of culture and translating their distribution in space into the dimension of time, can only be statements of probability rather than established historical fact. Yet even historical probability is an aid, not a barrier, in understanding the present forms and functioning of a given culture.

Certainly historical analyses which employ documentary or archeological evidence are preferable to those based on distributions, native traditions, or the recollections of old men and women, although, in terms of scientific validity, even these are not on a level with the results of intensive field research by a trained anthropologist working within the well-defined terms of reference of a carefully designed research program. But here we take another exception to objections raised against the consideration of the historical dimension.

We deny the reality of the dichotomy which is so often drawn between history and science. Historical analysis does not preclude scientific generalization. One can generalize from the development of a belief, a custom, or an institution as well as from its structural analysis, and by the same token, one can be as particularistic in the latter as in the former. The problems of anthropology do not end with detailed description, either of the form and function of a social system or of the development of a mode of religious belief, however essential both may be to the accumulation of data for developing and testing hypotheses in the search for an understanding of the regularities in human behavior and human institutions.

Granting that the cultural approach includes as an essential component the factor of dynamics and that some social anthropologists consider the historical dimension, much of what we have discussed comes down to the need to take into account both cultural stability and change in the study of African societies, as they are and as they were before European contact.

Certain conclusions derive from this position. It enhances the value of studies of African societies little affected by European contact by showing their relevance to the understanding of the contemporary scene. Such studies, and those of the traditional, the truly African elements in societies which have been considerably affected, are not ends in themselves but means of increasing the validity of scientific research by providing a base line from which change can be measured. Without a knowledge of earlier customs, institutions, and beliefs, the amount and kind of change involved can only be inferred from descriptions of the present. Moreover, by assessing responses to the varied cultural influences to which Africans have recently been exposed, we gain insights into the dynamics of African cultures which suggest their reactions at an even earlier period of time. There is much reason to believe that the present situation of cultural change in Africa is nothing new, except in terms of the multiplicity of innovations and the intensity of their manner of presentation; yet this point is rarely taken into account, either in scientific discussions or in administrative decisions. This brings us to the difficult question of scientific law and prediction.

The observed variety of customs, beliefs, and institutions that man has developed, not only in Africa but throughout the world, makes the problem of predicting the forms of even a given culture most difficult. Whether particularistic or general, predictions necessarily involve the dimension of time; cultural laws, and social laws as well, must involve both time and space if they are to be applicable to all cultures at all times. We believe that the answer lies not in predicting forms but in establishing laws of cultural processes. If this is accepted, the false dichotomy between history and science disappears, and both the historical dimension and the study of cultural stability and change become of utmost scientific importance.

Synchronic analyses of single societies provide data essential for formulating new hypotheses and for testing old hypotheses and previously accepted theories. On the planes of both social and cultural anthropology this testing of hypotheses and theories has constituted the classical anthropological contribution to the social sciences. It has been instrumental in emphasizing the importance of learning in understanding human behavior, and it has shifted interest and research away from instincts, from cataloguing traits of human nature, from racial determinism, and from biologically transmitted oedipal complexes. What were formerly viewed as innate patterns are now largely accepted as learned behavior, to which each individual is enculturated as he grows to be a full-fledged member of his society as it is structured. However, the acceptance of this contribution of anthropology in the social sciences has not decreased concern with predictions and laws, which cannot be established by the study of any single society at any single point in time. Anthropological generalizations of this order, if they are to be valid, must be sought in the dimensions of both space and time, through the use of both historical and comparative methods.

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