Thursday, February 24, 2011

Tribal Segmentation

I don't have knowledge on Libya in particular, but Jonathan Wright is being far too rigid in his use of what anthropologists call the principle of segmentation to discuss tribal politics in Libya.

This model of tribal behavior was produced by E.E. Evans-Pritchard in the 1930's during his study of the Nuer in what is now Sudan. As seen in the common saying, "It involves a series of genealogically identified nested groups, and is explained reasonably well by Wright:
"But the unusual feature of tribalism, as anthropologists have noted for at least the last century or so, is that loyalties and customary obligations are 'segmentised' - in other words, tribes can easily split at a large number of different levels, based on perceptions, often mythical, of a person's genealogical origin. In theory, the more recent the common ancestor between X and Y (in the male line in the Arab context), the tighter the bonds of solidarity between them should be. That means that, even in a theoretically 'perfect' model, tribes need not always act as a coherent unit, unless they are in direct conflict with another tribe of equal size and coherence."

Evans-Pritchard did not elaborate this system strictly off observation, however, but was influenced by W. Robertson Smith's 1885 work Kinship and Marriage in Early Arabia. Robertson Smith was not an anthropologist, but an orientalist, and here I do not use that term pejoratively, who was working with written Arabic sources from the 8th century which had been heavily influenced by the administrative organization of tribal identity in the early caliphate. Since the 1980's, Evans-Pritchard's segmentation theory has been steadily questioned by anthropologists working on modern Bedouins societies for many reasons: It ignores links forged through women, it assumes wrongly that parallel segments will have similar sizes, it has little to say about the development and influence of tribal leadership, it does not account for genealogical changes, and tribal alliances seldom seen to actually follow it despite the fact they they accept it as a theory of their actions. At the very least, it probably has much more to do with very small, immediately related groups than it does broader tribal confederations.

Here I wish I did have detailed knowledge of Libyan tribal politics, but I can raise some points to consider. First, even independent of settlement and the like, tribespeople are not socially programmed automatons. A team of anthropologists whose work I admire, William and Fidelity Lancaster, have emphasized the way tribespeople perceive their tribal identities as assets, options, and obligations, and make a series of rational calculations about whether and how to activate or follow them. Second, the role of leaders must be considered in a case like Libya. What relationship might they have to the state? What is their source of influence? Do they control agricultural resources, or channels of patronage? The Libyan state has to be the main economic power in most people's lives, and the intersection of this with tribal networks (my own preferred term to just "tribes") colors how people see their assets and obligations. In fact, states often use tribal leaders to incorporate tribespeople into their web, as happened with Jordan during the British Mandate, and given that I'm more interested in the actions of "tribal leaders" as a group than I am individual tribes.

To conclude, though, I want to emphasize that Libya is very definitely not one of my strong points, though I hope to know a bit more by Saturday than I do now.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a really interesting post re. not just tribal politics in Libya but how to approach the broader topic in the region. The ways in which centres of power actively seek to de-tribalise, re-tribalise etc. attest to how the tribal structures are also constructs which can be activated (though not entirely controlled) through state patronage and policy. Far from being a primordial identity, there is so much more behind it's manifestations.

I too was reading A History of Modern Libya and was struck by the author's concept of statelessness. One could easily compare Libya to Iraq (3 provinces put together, massive oil reserves etc.), but I want to ask why do you think there was no attempt to function in the way the revolutionary regimes in Iraq and Egypt did (i.e. state-lead developmentalsm)?

Clearly there is the time lag, 69 versus 52 and 58, but do you see the differences to be more structural or actually a reflection of Gaddafi's personality and convictions?

Given Gaddafi would need to maintain power, I'm not sure the idea of statelessness captures it all. Perhaps state power with no state infrastructure shows up the contradictions more.

Thanks for the post though! Your thoughts would be most appreciated!

8:32 AM  
Blogger Brian Ulrich said...

Libya's provinces seem like they were more detached than Iraq's to me. Basra always had economic and often had political ties to Baghdad, and Mesopotamia is a long-standing corridor for many things. Libya, however, was really just three regions that got lumped together.

I'm actually not done with the book yet. Life is busy.

9:06 PM  

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