Intergroup Relations and Social Distance among the Yanomamo
Yanomamo social process is predominantly concerned with
the formation of groups and the regulation of intergroup relations
through alliance and warfare.
These states are both depended on a single concern:
the exchange of women among the groups involved.
The central institutions -- marriage and warfare -- can best be
depicted as standing at opposite ends of a
social distance continuum that extends from close alliances and on one
pole to bitter conflicts at the other, assuming intermediate forms of
feasting and trading, as shown in the following diagram:
Social Distance and Intergroup Relationships Among the Yanomamo
Groups and group relations can best understood from the perspective of
gradations of social distance as follows:
The relationship between social distance and social interaction
described above is complex.
To some extent established degrees of distance determine the ways
in which groups treat their neighbours and set conditions
for the perpetuation of such relationships.
For example affines are expected to arrange marriages between their children
and thus maintain the continuity of their alliance through subsequent generations.
However, the stability of relationships is frequently challenged by
ruptures and rearrangements in existing alliances.
Thus the character of exchange, whether it is hostile or benevolent
and whether it involves trading, feasting, or marriage,
determines social distance in turn.
On the whole intergroup relations tend to shift through stages
of hostility,irregular trading, mutual feasting, marriage exchange,
and common settlement. Reversal can occur at any point in
this sequence and set both parties back towards a path to war.
The Localized Partilineal Moiety:
A group composed of the members of a shallow patrilineage,
seldom exceeding more than two adult generations,
whose members inhabit the same village.
Fellow lineage members are considered to be close relatives and
ideally identify each other as brothers and sisters.
Accordingly localized lineages are exogamous,
and sexual relations among members is viewed as incest.
There is an gradation of social distance within patrilineages,
and less closely related "brothers" may develop hostile relationships
in competition over women.
Such hostilities can result in a segmentation of the village
in which divisions of a lineage form new settlements which sometimes
consider each other as enemies.
The Village Settlement:
A single nucleated settlement is composed of paired patrilineages which
regularly intermarry in a standard moiety pattern. Members of one
lineage/moiety are individually and collectively tied to members of an
opposite moiety through both affinal and matrilateral ties.
(If a village is composed of two patrilineal moieties, A and B, a man from A will marry a women from B and his father will have done the same, so his mother will be a member of moiety B as well.)
Members of different moieties refer to one another as in-laws, a term which covers spouse, sibling-in-law, and cross cousin.
( See Yanomamo kin terms).
Relations between male in-laws are often more cordial than between "brothers",
since their placement in different moieties excludes competition over women.
Accordingly when villages divide each patrilineal segment establishes a new settlement in cooperation with their closest affines,
with whose families they continue to intermarry.
To the extent that marriage exchanges are confined paired moieties within
a pattern of local endogamy is upheld.
However several forces can lead to marriages between
different villages. The most common is the need for
allies. Smaller groups are under constant threat and are often
forced to enlist allies by giving wives to outsiders. Ideally, the
wife-givers will receive women in return at a later time, but
stronger groups often choose to renege on their obligations.
Settlements which are neither linked through marriage nor divided by war
often strive to maintain peaceful relations by inviting each other
to elaborate feasts,
which will also include contributions of valuable trade items from hosts to guests.
Allies who exchange feasts and gifts, will refrain from attacking each other
and may join forces against enemies.
This relationship can further develop into marriage exchanges
but can also deteriorate into hostilities.
A weaker type of alliance will be formed among groups
who are at peace with one another and regularly exchange craft
which are exclusively supplied by villages
which specialize in their production to the exclusion of other items.
They do not maintain cordial enough relations to feast together or intermarry.
The Yanomamo may have developed specialized production of
trade items, such as pottery, primarily to provide an opportunity
to contain hostilities though mutually advantageous trade and rather than
to create any economic benefits.
Villages probably could easily maintain self-sufficiency with little
Groups that fall outside of regular trading, feasting and marriage alliances
maintain a constant and violent state of war usually associated with seizures
of each other's women.
War accordingly can be modeled as an inverse to marriage
or a negative system of exchanging women among exogamous groups.
© Brian Schwimmer
University of Manitoba
Created: September 1996
Last Updated: September 2003