Local group formation in bilateral socieities

Bilateral kindred structures do not usually support the construction of exclusive local groupings with a fixed membership and territory. This arrangement is normally forstalled by the indefinite boundaries and membership of ego-based bilateral networks. For example, an individual is located within the separate kindreds of dozens or even hundreds of other relatives with whom he or she maintains contact. Consequently, he or she has no single and unique group that can be assigned a fixed locality and provide a basis for settlement. A person may of course choose one kindred to the exclusion of all the others, but in this case the group structure becomes technically considered as ambilineal rather than bilateral.

In spite of the complexities of forming a clearly defined group, kindreds do sometimes form the basis of a local settlement system. This arrangement occurs when individuals maintain and activate membership rights in several different local groups at the same time, usually moving from one to the other in the course of migrations that occur with some frequency. For example, Ju/'hoansi foragers of the Kalahari desert form local camps of approximately 20 individuals on the basis of the kindreds of a few core members. The later remain in the same general territory year after year, but the peripheral members tend to reside in the locality impermanently and will regularly move away to live with different sets of relatives. This flexible group and locality arrangement is well suited to the unpredictable and irratic fluctuation in resources that hunting and gathering subsistence dependency often entails. (See Ju/'hoansi Kindreds for a more detailed discussion)

A similar pattern of kindred-based territorial is apparent among the Iban of Borneo. The Iban settle in "long-house" communities composed of a matrix of individual nuclear and stem family appartments (Freeman 1968). Families obtain settlement rights through kinship connections to existing residents, which ultimately coverge on and constitute the kindred of a core group within the center of the settlement. Families may reside within the long-house for generations, usually through one son or daughter who will inherit its complex of rooms, but will often move out in the course of a few years to join the long-houses of other relatives, according to the supply of farm land.

An Iban Long-House

Common area within the Long-House

Photo credits: Galen R. Frysinger

This flexible group formation is also apparent in the formation of Iban "travelling groups" of 5 to 50 members drawn from the kindred of a key leader. The group will undertake a major project, such as a trading expedition, which may last for several years. During this period the members of the group reside and travel together and share in the dangers and rewards of the operation. When the group's objective is acheived, it disbands.

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© Brian Schwimmer, All rights reserved
Department of Anthropology
University of Manitoba
Created: September 2003