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Two-Dimensional Man
An essay on the anthropology of power and symbolism in complex society


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Abner Cohen

University of California Press
Berkeley and Los Angeles 1974

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I Introduction: the bizarre and the mystical in modem society
The hidden dimension of organisation l'sychologicaland cu&urologicalexplanauons Orientations in sociology and political science The approach from political anthropology Outline of the argument

I I 3 5 8 13 18 21 22 23 26 3S 36 4 43 4S

2 Power relations and symbolic action

The central theoretical issue in political anthropology The power order The symbolic order Form and function of symbolic formauons

3 The dialectics of politico-symbolic interdependence

Continuity and change in symbolic formauons Action theorists (or transactionalists) Thought structuralists Analysis v. description in social science



4 Political man-symbolist man

Institutional differentiation and the return to multiplexity The politico-symbolic dimensions of se/fhood The politicisation of the perennial problems of human existence

48 48 54 60
65 67 69 69 69 71 72 73 74 75 75 77 80 82 84 87
90 91 98 102 106 110
120 124 126 129 131 134


5 Symbolic strategies in group organisation

Informal organisation Organisational functions t Distinctiveness (or boundaries) Mythologies of descent Alliance under female symbolism Ritual beliefi and practices Moral exclusiveness

Style of lift 2 Communication 3 Decision-making 4 Authority and the leadership process 5 Ideology 6 B e/ief and symbolic action: the process of socialisation The problem of cultural heterogeneity Complex pluralism and the question of freedom

This book exploresthe possibilitiesof a systematicstudy of the

dynamic interdependence between power relationships and symbolic action in complex society. A good deal of analysis in this field has been carried out by social anthropologists in the course of studying small-scalet simple, pre-industrial societies. The book will therefore examine the extent to which the theoriest conceptst methods and techniques of social anthropology can be adapted for the study of modern complex societies in both developing and developed countries. In both simple and industrial societies there are extensive patterns of normativet non-rationalt non-utilitarian behaviour which play crucial parts in the distributiont maintenance and exercise of 1?ower. DescriptivelYt these are usually referred to as customs ort slmplYt as culture. On a higher level of analysis and abstraction they can be described as symbols. Symbols are objectst actst conceptst or linguistic formations that stand ambiguously for a multiplicity of disparate meaningst evoke sentiments and emotionst and impel men to action. They usually occur in stylised patterns of activities like ceremonialt ritualt gift exchanget prescribed forms of jokingt taking an oatht eating and drinking together.

6 'Invisiblet organisations: some case studies

Ethnic groups Elite groups Religious groups Secret ritual groups C ousinhoods

Conclusions: symbolic action in the politics of

stratification Stratification in two dimensions The'lineagi of complex society The lesson of political science The demystification of hierarchy The crucial politico-symbolic drama The relevance of'mumbo-jumbology'

Bibliography Author index Subject index viii

139 149 151

PREFACE Many writers refer to all or some of the types of phenomena that are here described as symbols by using different terms, like 'culture', 'custom' , 'norms' , 'values' , 'm yth s' , 'rituals' . The term 'culture' is

PREFACE happiness, fortune and misfortune. Although they can be said to be phenomena sui generis, existing in their own right and observed for their own intrinsic values, they are nearly always manipulated, consciously or unconsciously, in the struggle for, and maintenance of, power between individuals and groups. They may be said to be 'expressive'; but they are at the same time instrumental. The ceremonials of authority do not just reflect authority but create and recreate it. Political Man is also Symbolist Man. Man is twodimensional. The discussion focuses on the processes whereby interest groups manipulate different types of symbolic formations and symbolic patterns of action to articulate a number of basic organisational functions, like distinctiveness and communication. A group is formally organised when its aims are specified and its organisation is rationally planned on bureaucratic lines. As Weber shows, this kind of organisation is the most effective type of human organisation. But even in the advanced liberal industrial societies there are structural conditions under which some interest groups cannot organise themselves on formal lines. Resort is therefore made to articulate the organisation of the group on informal bases, making use of kinship, friendship, ritual, ceremonial and other forms of symbols and of symbolic activities that are implicit in what is known as 'style of life'. The difference between formal and informal group organisation is a matter of degree and nearly all groups fall on one continuum from the most formally organised to the most informally organised. The organisation of an interest group can thus be conceived as having two dimensions, the contractual and the normative, or the formal and the informal. Throughout this book, 'power' is taken to be an aspect of nearly all social relationships, and 'politics' to be referring to the processes involved in the distribution, maintenance, exercise and struggle for power. Some political scientists object to this 'extensive' definition principally on the ground that it makes the study of politics c0extensive with the study of an society. But this objection is mainly methodological and not theoretical. Most political scientists are fully aware of the fact that power does not exist in a 'pure form' but is always inherent in social relationships of varying types. There is no short cut to solving the problem, and techniques must be found to study power in its various manifestations. This is a central issue which is discussed in detail in many parts of the essay. Xl

extensively used in many different senses and is too wide in its different connotations to be useful in operational microsociological studies. Both 'culture' and 'custom' cover also patterns of action that are utilitarian and technical and are subsumed under what I call 'the power order'. The terms 'norms' and 'values' are highly abstract and tend to connote meanings that are vague, subjective, and individual. The term 'myth' has been used by writers like Cassirer (1946) and MacIver (1947) in a wide enough sense to give some of the meanings covered by the term 'symbol'. Thus MacIver (ibid., 4-5) writes:
Every society is held together by a myth-system. . . . All social relations, the very texture of human society, are myth-born and myth-sustained. . . . Wherever he goes, whatever he encounters, man spins about him his web of myth, as the caterpillar spins its cocoon. Every individual spins his own variant within the greater web of the whole group. Although MacIver contrasts 'myth' with 'technique' he subsumes under it what we nowadays can 'thought categories'. This usage of the term 'myth' is too general, imprecise, subjective and individual to be of much use in analysis, and is above all at variance with the more usual sense of 'fictitious narrative', in which it is used by most anthropologists. The term 'ritual' has similarly been used in an extensjve sense to cover a wide range of patterns of normative action. Among social anthropologists this usage has been particularly developed by Leach (1954), with whose position I am in full agreement. Unfortunately, the majority of scholars have been using the term in a more technical sense, restricting it to only those ceremonial activities that have reference to 'mystical beings', or to 'the sacred'. The term 'symbol' overcomes many of the difficulties posed by these different terms, as it refers to phenomena that are objective and collective and are thus observable and verifiable, and it covers a wide range of cultural phenomena, though it is precise enough to indicate normative patterns of action, in contrast with utilitarian and technical patterns. For the individual, symbols are fundamental mechanisms for the development of selfhood and for tackling the perennial problems of human existence, like life and death, good and evil, misery and

PREFACE I have tried to present the discussion as simply as possible. This is not only because the book is addressed to students of the behavioural sciences generally, some of whom may not be familiar with social anthropological jargon. But also because I firmly believe that we can advance our disciplines greatly by 'demystifying' our formulations. Indeed, one of the crucial tests of the validity and significance of a sociological observation is to try to express it in simple language. It is surprising how many of our pet 'theories' fail in this test and turn out to be but banal tautologies. I am grateful to Professor Ernst Gellner for commenting on an earlier draft of a part. of this book and to the editor of Man, the journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, for permitting me to reproduce parts of my paper: 'Political anthropology: the analysis of the symbolism of power relations' (Man, 4, 1969:215-35). My thanks are also due to my many students in the UK and, occasionally, in the USA for their untiring polemic about many of the theoretical issues that are raised here.