Content created: 2006-07-04
Content revised: 2016-07-20
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Many small-scale societies lack formal institutions of government capable of physically forcing members to cooperate for the collective welfare. Cooperation is instead founded upon common needs, beliefs, fears, and values, enforced through haranguing, cajoling, gossip, and shaming by one’s peers.
Life gets complicated when different peers make different demands or harbor different expectations. This essay deals with the world of conflicting loyalties and the links between groups.
Sociologists distinguish “simplex” and “multiplex” relationships as two fundamentally different ways that people can be related to each other.
A simplex relationship is one that involves only one social status (position or role) for each participant. For example, seller-buyer, sister-brother, donor-recipient, or teacher-student. In the idealized simplex relationship, the two parties have no connection to each other beyond that single relationship and its associated behaviors: If I am the seller and you are the buyer, our relationship ends when the sale is completed. If you are the singer and I am the listener, neither of us knows or particularly cares what happens to the other outside of the concert hall. If we are enemy soldiers meeting on the battlefield, our relationship is limited to our attempting to capture, disable, or kill each other. And so on.
A multiplex relationship occurs when there is more than one kind of link between the participants: teacher/mother - student/daughter or performer/patient - audience/physician.
Cross-culturally, simplex relationships are rare. In most small-scale societies, all or nearly all relationships are multiplex. Significant simplex relationships are a feature of societies in which strangers are forced into limited, often brief, interaction, a situation commoner in larger-scale societies.
Because individual social statuses have behavioral requirements, a multiplex relationship has the potential for competing loyalties. As a result, multiplex relationships may motivate people to be peacemakers in some contexts, but they also create mixed motives and make it hard to interpret the motives of others. For example, when a Tokyo industrialist appoints his nephew as the manager of his Paris branch, people suspect it is not because the lad is a genius (even if he is), but because of his relation with the industrialist.
A person who is a member of two different social groups is in a position to pass information between them, which can facilitate cooperation and benefit both groups. But such a person can sometimes be in an uncomfortable position if the two groups make conflicting demands, even if the member has a simplex relationship with the people in each of the two groups.
For example, one of the most important kinds of groups in small scale societies is the lineage or clan, where one’s membership is based on descent from a line of ancestors traced through only one sex (a patriclan traced through males or a matriclan traced through females). In societies (the vast majority) where people may not marry clan mates, that means each household includes people from more than one clan, and every clan includes people from many households. Clan memberships tie households to each other, and household memberships tie clans to each other. (Technically, lineages are not the same as clans, but the difference need not detain us here.)
It is tempting to see multiple group memberships as conducive to harmony in social relations, but it is not always so easy as that. For example, individuals may be torn between the occasionally conflicting demands of household and lineage, of family and state, of church and political party, or whatever groups may be involved.
Some activities require the participation of “representatives” from different social groups (or social categories). These situations are of interest because the need to cooperate in such activities can sometimes force groups to cooperate in other areas as well, theoretically lessening the probability of groups drifting apart or, worse yet, engaging in destructive conflict.
For example, a tribal ceremony that requires participation of all clans effectively forces them to set aside their conflicts in order to cooperate to perform the ceremony. Some researchers have effectively argued that the need to restore or maintain peace is an important explanation (or even the principal explanation) for much of the most flamboyant ritualism of small-scale societies.
Humans usually do not consciously create cross-cutting ties in order to maintain order, and they do not usually create different social groups with the goal of enmeshing people in a web of cross-cutting loyalties. But formally complex systems (often involving religious or initiation rituals) are commonly found in societies in which there may be little in the way of government able to force cooperation, and it is reasonable to see them as a critical part of the “political” life of small-scale societies.
The same general principle is obviously at work not only in small-scale societies, but wherever people “pull together” for a special event, whether it is hurricane cleanup, warfare, or preparing for the Olympics.
It is certainly the case that people with cross-cutting ties (= competing loyalties) are motivated to try to reduce the potential conflict between the groups of which they are members. We need to recognize that, psychodynamically, competing loyalties can create personal anxiety, and part of the motivation to head off conflict is the need to avoid this anxiety.
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