Band Society

Hunters of the Manitoba Woodland Period The basic features of band societies are explained by constraints and opportunities of foraging subsistence patterns including: a dependence upon the low carrying capacity of undomesticated food resources and the regime of seasonal nomadic movements. The social institutions of band societies include:
  1. small group size
  2. bilevel organization
  3. flexible composition
  4. bilateral kinship
  5. sharing ethos
  6. egalitarian political and economic structures
Major ethnographic examples of band societies include:
  1. the San peoples of the Kalahari region
  2. the Inuit of the Arctic
  3. the Pygmies of the African rainforest
Group Size

Many features of band societies result from the small size and scale of the basic social group. As the environment limits concentrations of people to under one per square mile and transportation is poorly developed, regular contact can only be made within a group of 20 to 100 people depending on the resource base and distribution. This limitation on group size also restricts social scale, the kinds of collective activities, and institutions that a fixed number of people and their accumulated resources can support.

The low density of population and small group size are to some extent maintained by processes of birth control and birth spacing that have been documented for foraging groups. One study of child care among the Dobe !Kung found that women practiced an indirect form of birth control by extending infant breast feeding periods for several years. The stresses of lactation substantially reduced pregancy rates to produce average birth spacing of four years. The length of the period between births produced an direct benefit of avoiding the problem of having to carry more than one infant or toddler during seasonal movements. It also had the longer-term effect of keeping population sizes within the limits that the resource base could comfortably support

Bilevel Organization

The band itself is observable as a settlement group (usually of 20-100 members) composed of smaller constituent units, usually in the form of nuclear families or extended families related to one another by kinship and marriage ties. It is often associated with a fixed territory over  which it may proclaim exclusive hunting and gathering rights but exercises substantial flexibility in extending membership rights and allowing other groups to use its resources.

The band will normally form a consolidated settlement unit during a limited period, but eventually divide into small family groups  that separate to forage by themselves over the annual cycle. Thus the Dobe Kung gather in large bands at the sites of  permanent water holes during the dry season, but break up into smaller family units and disperse over much wider areas of  the desert during the rainy season. Similary, the Inuit traditionally congregated along the coast during the winter and dispersed during the summer inland migrations.

The regular alternation between band and family settlement is uniformly incorporated into the nomadic cycles of most foragers and has been the subject of some debate. Many anthropologists maintain that this pattern is a simple adaptation to seasonal variations in resource availabilties or labour requirements. Thus, limited supplies of permanent standing water bring one group together; the advantages of communal bison hunting may influence another. A second interpretation focuses on social  integration rather than ecological determinants. Richard Lee, a major figure in San studies, observes that congregation in large groups is basically a counter-productive economic strategy for foragers. Any lengthy population concentration will quickly  exhaust immediately available resources and require people to travel further and further from their base camp to find food. In fact, this problem of increased work effort regularly leads to the seasonal dispersion of the settlement. Lee argues that band  members are willing to incur the extra labour cost of congregation because of the social rather than the subsistence benefits. People might be materially better off if individual families kept to themselves all year round, but would not be able to arrange marriages or establish contacts and exchanges with other families, the main rationale for the band's existence.

Flexible Composition

The variable nature of the foraging resource base cannot support a constant population in any one locality from year to year. Because of this fluctuation, bands must continually adjust their numbers to respond to fortuitous abundance or scarcity. This condition encourages flexible patterns of band composition to allow individual families to change groups and locations to meet their subsistence needs. Accordingly, membership rules tend to be bilateral. People retain and activate membership rights in both their father's and mother's group. Constitutent families will form larger units through contacts with husband's or wife's kin and through patrilateral or matrilalteral ties of either spouse. (See an example of the the bilateral structure of basic San group organization)

The mobility of small family groups and flexibility of band membership supports the formation of relatively independent nuclear family forms. This core group is uniquely important in both foraging and industrial societies for somewhat the same reasons. In modern Western contexts, pressures for nuclear family individuation are imposed by the labour market, which constantly requires people and their families to change locations in the process of "job hunting."

Sharing Ethos

Relationships among families that join together to form bands are marked by strong pressures to share resources, food supplies, and possessions. This sharing ethos, formally termed reciprocity, is important for both the coherence and the survival of foraging groups.

The main subsistence function of the moral emphasis on sharing is to ensure that food resources do not go to waste in a situation where the maintenance of large stores is impractical. For example, if a small hunting party kills a large animal, the flesh cannot be perserved for a long enough period to supply the hunters' immediate families when they are not so successful. If, however, they give away a major portion of the meat to extended kin, they can rely upon a return of the favour at a later time. This process thus establishes a social storage system to compensate for the absence of a physical one.

Dobe Kung institutions expemplify many mechanisms for extending reciprocity. Arrow exchanges are particularly noteworthy. The Dobe usually hunt by stalking their prey and shooting it with iron-headed arrows. These items are frequently given to kinsmen and friends as gifts, and most of the arrows a man uses will belong to other people. When an animal is killed, a major share must go to the original owner of the fatal arrow. Further divisions are made to the affines of both the hunters and the arrow owner, effectively resulting in a even distribution of meat throughout the band. Accordingly, a cycle of reciprocity involving personal possesssions is integrated into a extensive system of sharing subsistence resources. Gifts of possessions and food items overlie a more basic sharing institution, that of collective band ownership of the land and its natural resources.

Egalitarian Political and Economic Structures

The material conditions and social processes of foraging societies generally limit their capacities to support substantial differences in wealth or power and result in an egalitarian class structure. In this situation, ownership of land or other productive resources is collectively managed to the benefit of all the members of the band. Wealth differences are further restricted by the difficulties in accumulating material goods and the strong emphasis on sharing within the group. In the absence of significant class divisions, leadership within the band is usually informally based on the personal abilities of prominent members who have distinguished themselves through their subsistence or social skills. Accordingly, leaders must govern the group through consultation and consensus rather than coersion.

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