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Collection « Les sciences sociales contemporaines »

The Abutia Ewe of West Africa. A Chiefdom That Never Was (1983)

Une édition électronique réalisée à partir du livre de M. Michel Verdon, The Abutia Ewe of West Africa. A Chiefdom That Never Was. Berlin – New York – Amsterdam : Mouton Publishers, 1983, 316 pp. Collection: Studies in the Social Sciences. Anthropology, no. 38. Une édition numérique réalisée par Marcelle Bergeron, bénévole, professeure à la retraite de l'École polyvalente Dominique-Racine de Chicoutimi, Ville de Saguenay. [Autorisation de l'auteur accordée le 15 septembre 2007.]


Many doctoral dissertations remain dormant on the shelves of University libraries and should not be disturbed from their peaceful slumber. This was the fate that I had chosen for my own thesis ; for five years it lay buried in the University archives but I then decided to resurrect it. What prompted me to do so is the subject of this preface. Whether or not it was a wise step to take should be answered by this book. 

I came to Cambridge to escape the American and French anthropology which had dominated my undergraduate years at the Université de Montréal. A keen admirer of British social anthropology I desperately wanted a first-hand acquaintance with the 'no-nonsense' tradition of British empiricism and happily accepted Professor Fortes' guidance in this new direction. He suggested that I study the Ewe-speaking peoples of southeastern Ghana and I took his advice. Since the coastal Ewe had already been studied by an Ewe anthropologist I turned my attention to the inland Ewe. After a series of decisions influenced more by chance and necessity than rational considerations I settled in Abutia Kloe a village of the Abutia Division an administrative unit embracing groups of villages sharing this common name and acknowledging a common 'chief'. 

There are only three Abutia villages in close proximity to one another. Although I settled in Kloe I came to know the two others quite well. 

Life in Kloe was so much like life in the French-Canadian village that I had studied before that I came to take their social organization for granted. At first sight there was little 'exotic' about their institutions and when I discovered their elaborate funeral rites I immediately and almost instinctively dedicated most of my fieldwork to their investigation. Back in Cambridge however Professor Fortes wanted a sketch of their social organization not their rituals. Eager to receive the ultimate accolade from the greatest representative of the Great Tradition I complied again unaware of the direction in which this decision would take me. 

The Abutia social organization was to impose a rethinking. Its very lack of exotic features proved indeed to be its most challenging facet. This was a society without divine kings warrior chiefs or revered elders without inordinately polygynous men without elderly men exploiting female labour and appropriating their products without bride wealth or initiation rites without extended families without... without... and without ! And yet Abutia was undeniably an African society an African society without the features that we have come to expect after four decades of segmentary lineage systems of village headmen or proto-states. More than that ; the very institutions that it possessed challenged the 'African orthodoxy'. It had descent groups but with properties more reminiscent of Melanesia and the Middle East than sub-Saharan Africa. With shallow genealogies and numerous matrifiliants their agnatic descent groups allow in-marriage and combine with a cognatic system of kinship behaviour ! 

Initially blind to this uncommon association of features when I was in the field I realized their uniqueness when I came to write a coherent account of Abutia social organization. I also realized that what I had come to get in Cambridge was now failing me. Indeed nothing in the Great Tradition could help me bring coherence to this incongruous medley. 

Like all monistic explanatory models however 'classical descent theory' was not without safety valves which enabled it to cope with instances like Abutia. It would invoke anomie disruption of the old normative order or the amorphous structure of village life disrupted by one hundred years of foreign influence. On both intellectual and aesthetic grounds however I could not bring myself to adopt this view ; it would have amounted to betraying both myself and the Abutia. The Abutia social organization had certainly changed since the precolonial days but it deserved to be treated on its own terms ; I could not discard it as some form of degenerate remnant of a once coherent and well-lubricated traditional society. 

I also sought inspiration from other paradigms marxist structuralist transactionalist and so on but to no avail. None of them enabled me to describe and analyze Abutia social organization in terms which were adequate to the reality I had observed. Quite frustrated I produced an intellectually hybrid and eclectic doctoral dissertation which earned me the title I coveted but I buried the monster in my personal files as soon as it had been examined. 

The restlessness however lingered on. I was convinced that the Abutia presented unique organizational features to which the current paradigms could not do justice. One option remained open. It was a foolhardy and most pretentious one I confess but the only one I could honestly face short of distorting the facts to fit the Procrustean bed of conventional approaches. I could indeed try to understand why the conventional models failed to make sense of the Abutia data and excogitate a new approach which would live up to their full richness and complexity. 

I returned to the classics and with some inspiration from the history of science I started elaborating this new model ; to contrast it to previous ones I labelled it 'operational'. Its details have been spelled out elsewhere (Verdon 1980a 1980b 1981 and especially n.d.1) and the reader will be spared a book on theory. With this operational model in hand I could then return to the original ethnography re-analyze the data and present it in a form which no longer suffered from my previous eclecticism. The result is this monograph. 

For these reasons I do not regard this monograph as a run-of-the-mill conventional ethnography. I present it as the first and only full-fledged application of an operational approach to a study of social organization ; more pompously I would call it a 'paradigmatic application' of an operational model. 

To set the ethnography in its proper theoretical perspective I must nonetheless say something about operationalism. But I do wish to keep this presentation to a minimum because I have already dedicated a full book to its theoretical elaboration (Verdon n.d.1). If the reader can bear the concentrated and highly selective exposition that follows he may gain a better insight into the deep motivations which drove me to bring back to life an ethnography which without an operational perspective would have at best remained concealed in the obscurity of the University archives.

Retour au texte de l'auteur: Robert Vandycke, sociologue, Université de Montréal Dernière mise à jour de cette page le vendredi 2 mai 2008 13:56
Par Jean-Marie Tremblay, sociologue
professeur de sociologie au Cégep de Chicoutimi.

Saguenay - Lac-Saint-Jean, Québec
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