Residential Group Composition Among the Alyawarra

Article English OPEN
Denham, woodrowW W (2014)
  • Publisher: eScholarship, University of California
  • Subject: Social and Behavioral Sciences

This is the third of three papers I have written recently that challenge and seek to supplant the presumption of closure, rigidity and simplicity in anthropological analyses of Australian Aboriginal social organization. The first dealt with generational closure in canonical Kariera and Aranda kinship models; the second dealt with societal closure, endogamy and the small-world problem; this one examines closure, rigidity and simplicity in residential group compositions. I argue that these three problematic applications of the concept of closure converted European folk beliefs into a scientific theory based more on assumptions and conjectures than on observations of Aboriginal behavior. This paper and the two that preceded it constitute a systematic argument that emphasizes the importance of openness, flexibility and complexity in analyzing Australian Aboriginal social organization.  The current paper is a commentary on theoretical issues associated with diversity in residential group compositions within and among Australian Aboriginal societies. I approach the matter by focusing primarily on variability in ethnographic patterns and historical processes for which I collected computer-analyzable behavioral and cognitive data with the Alyawarra speaking people of Central Australia in 1971-72. Throughout the paper, I emphasize complexity, openness, flexibility and freedom among the Alyawarra, while rejecting simplicity, closure, rigidity and Strehlow’s (1947) “all-oppressive night-shadow of tradition”.  Among the Alyawarra, “residential group” means 2 or more people living together in any of three kinds of residences and three kinds of communities. “Group composition” refers to the diverse relationships among people with whom one lives. Relevant biological and behavioral factors include sex, age, marital status, asymmetrical male/female generation intervals with a mean wife<husband age difference of 14+ years, polygyny with 1.33 wives per married man, 49% of marriages with known biological kin, 74% of marriages with matrilateral cross-cousins and 0% with bilateral cross-cousins, and 23% of marriages based on societal exogamy. Relevant cognitive factors include concurrent use of two different universal kinship terminologies (viz., egocentric and sociocentric), plus concurrent membership in descent-based patrimoieties, matrimoieties, Dreamings and Countries, and in marriage-based generation moieties that intersect with descent moieties to yield sections and subsections. Synchronic analyses of these data reveal a remarkable range of clearly patterned internally consistent diversity, and diachronic analyses of them in the context of climatic instability, long term migration, intersocietal marriages and impacts of colonialism greatly increase the scope of that diversity.  It is a truism that we cannot account for societal complexity when our preconceived notions prevent us from perceiving it. My objective here is to demonstrate that a great deal of complexity in Australian Aboriginal social organization waits to be discovered if only we will look for it. Raising one’s consciousness is not developing a grand theory, but it may be a useful first step. 
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