We are forever tempted to think of Time and Space as faculties of human cognition, molesting external sensations rather than being molested by them. Time and space seem always to be the faithful axis around which spins sense-making. For Evans-Pritchard time and space are not fundamental containers but rather indicators that sketch out the dimensions of social structuring. Time does not mold, but finds itself molded in terms of richly social, deeply contingent events. Thus by pointing to instances of temporality one always points in the end back toward oneself. The seasons, the night, the neighbor’s camp, these things too are points of reference rather than fixed matters. For the Nuer there is never the thing as such, but always the thing in terms of something else. And if this Kantian way of seeing things lacks concreteness it finds consistency in recurrence. “Seasonal and lunar changes repeat themselves year after year, so that a Nuer standing at any point of time has conceptual knowledge of what lies before him and can predict and organize his life accordingly” (95). And like knowing what lies before one temporally, Evans-Pritchard’s Nuer also apply these same instruments to knowing and orienting themselves in the world around themselves spatially. Distance is partially relative partially real, a strange brew of the measured and the metaphorical.  It is again measured directly or indirectly in respect to groups rather than things. Time and space become embodied idioms for social organization itself. 


The same can be said of oecology, of political, legal, and economic systems. Each of the systems is dependent in its dependence on what is in their proximity. Defining political structure vis-à-vis their Dinka neighbors, by raiding their villages, stealing their cows, in the most general sense, by penetrating their boundaries -- the Nuer define their own borders. “Opposition to their neighbors gives them a consciousness of kind and a strong sentiment of exclusiveness” (123).  Evans-Pritchard astutely points out that this oppositional stance is a relational opposition and not one of absolute alterity. The Nuer define themselves vis-à-vis a group “in every respect most kin to themselves, than any other foreign people” (130). They torment their neighbors because they care about them, and because, argues Evans-Pritchard, were the Dinka not there to raid, the Nuer would most likely turn on itself (132).


For Evans-Pritchard, society happens. It subsists, dwells, and moves. It happens through groups, and in the case of the Nuer, above all else it happens through cattle.  Economic relationships are social relationships. On one level, different functions of society are inter-related, “One cannot treat Nuer economic relations by themselves, for they always form part of direct social relationships of a general kind (89).  On a more fundamental level, “A single man may drive a herd to pasture, a single boy may fish in river shallows, and a single woman may cook, but they can only do these things because they belong to a community and because their actions are related in a productive system” (91).  That is, meaningful action arises out of the social system and enables individual action. On the most fundamental level of Evans-Pritchard’s analysis, the individual, and all its constitutive individual relationships and institutions become subsumed: “The social system is much wider than spheres of actual political relations and cuts across them” (190).  Cattle serve as perhaps the best instance of the inter-relatedness of these three levels of analysis. The vast range of institutions regarding cows, (from subsistence to politics to legal matters), enable the social, account for the social, and finally become swallowed up by an analytic of the social system: “Nuer say that it is cattle that destroy people, for ‘more people have died for the sake of a cow than for any other cause’” (49). The paragraph continues: “men will all die on account of cattle and they and cattle will cease together (49). Indeed, ten cattle for a broken skull and two for a girl’s broken teeth (167)!!


Evans-Pritchard takes pains to stress the lack of ‘in a strict sense’ political organization (180), law (162) government, and authority in Nuer social systems. He sees a paradox in Nuer political structure; namely that they classify each other only in relation to other political groups, and only does this classification system arise in events of “hostility between tribal segments and between a tribe and other groups of the same structural order as itself, or acts likely to provoke aggression” (149). In other words, ‘structural tension’ promotes a sense of ‘group’, in turn compelling groups to consistently engage with one another, thus defining them further in respect to one another, yet in tension. “A feud has little significance unless there are social relations of some kind which can be broken off and resumed” (159). It is the structure itself that solves problems as, “Law operates weakly outside a very limited radius and nowhere very effectively” (169).  Social life between groups is a ‘balance of wrongs’ and individuals are merely the mechanisms by which structure sorts itself out.


ryan sayre

anthropology

tokyo japan

architecture

ryan sayre

anthropology

tokyo japan

architecture