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Fluid Identities and Institutional Evolution

July 20, 2010

Arnold Kling points to audio of a lecture by Ben Powell on Somalia’s experience with statelessness. As Claudia Williamson argued in her guest post for secession week, when we compare statelessness with the relevant counterfactual of predatory government, anarchy seems to perform well.

One of the more interesting aspects of Somalia’s statelessness, from the competitive government perspective we take here at LaTNB, is the role of flexible clan identities. As Arnold puts it, “there is competitive virtual government, in the sense that you choose your legal system by choosing a clan, and clans are not geographically based.”

I think this is a key historical example of competition among social institutions in action. In a 2008 paper [ungated working paper] Powell and coauthors Ryan Ford and Alex Nowrasteh describe the situation:

Although the interpretation of the law stems from clan elders, the clans are not de facto governments. Throughout all of Somalia upon becoming an adult, individuals are free to choose new insurance groups and elders.

They are allowed either to form a new insurance group with themselves as head or join an already established group, provided it will accept them. As described by Besteman (1996a,p.124),

Movement between Somali clans is not only possible but it is particularly widespread in the populous south. People switch clan affiliation for protection, for marriage, for grazing or land rights, for labor, for political reasons – or for other personal reasons. The process of affiliating with a clan other than the one into which a person was born is quick and easy in the south, and not necessarily permanent. Some clans, especially those in the south, may have more members who are adopted than members who are descended from the purported founding ancestor.

The individual clans and insurance groups are not geographic monopolies. As Little (p.48) notes, “In no way does the geographic distribution of clans and sub-clans correlate with neatly defined territorial boundaries… drought and migration blur the relationship between clan and space.”

While local cleric courts became the dominant source of law in some regions, and Qur’anic law is traditionally applied to marriage and inheritance, the common law of Xeer and the accompanying elder dispute resolution and insurance groups are the main source of law in Somalia.

Somalia is not the only case of flexible group affiliation stimulating social evolution. In The Art of Not Being Governed (a fascinating book for many reasons), James C. Scott suggests that flexible identities were key to avoiding centralized government control.

The tremendous linguistic and ethnic fluidity in the hills is itself a crucial social resource for adapting to changing constellations of power, inasmuch as it facilitates remarkable feats of identity shape-shifting. Zomians are not as a rule only linguistically and ethnically amphibious; they are, in their strong inclination to follow charismatic figures who arise among them, capable of nearly instantaneous social change, abandoning their fields and houses to join or form a new community at the behest of a trusted prophet. Their capacity to “turn on a dime” represents the ultimate in escape social structure.

Another example is the flexible nature of tribal identities of the New Zealand Maori. The politically most important descent groups in traditional Maori society were the hapu (“sub-tribe‟), iwi (“tribe”). Hapu often acted together militarily and economically – collectively producing food and sharing resources – while iwi links were weaker but often formed the basis of military coalitions.

While these groups were based on descent and therefore not infinitely malleable, the multiple levels of affiliation which could be claimed by individuals on a bi-lineal basis (trace lineage to a common ancestor on either side and you’re in!)  meant that Maori were free to affiliate with a tribal group suited to their needs. An individual couldn’t choose to affiliate with just any hapu or iwi, but normally had a range of options. Loyalties could be switched over time and it wasn’t unusual for a person to spend different parts of their life in different hapu while claiming simultaneous membership of multiple iwi.

The flexibility of Maori identity groups led to interesting outcomes with the arrival of Europeans to New Zealand. Foreign contact brought new ideas, technologies, ways of life. One important change came from the introduction of the musket into Maori warfare, which made larger forces more effective. This increased the scale of political organization, with long-term alliances and multiple hapu living in and around fortified villages becoming more common. Individuals preferred larger groupings, and the power of choice ensured they got them.

Later, mostly in the latter part of the twentieth century following mass urbanization, a new pan-Maori national identity began to emerge. This has facilitated moderately successful attempts to reclaim certain customary rights to land and resources which were seized by the British during colonization. A pan-Maori identity was better suited to western-style politics, and the power of choice ensured that such an identity emerged.

In short, European contact altered the costs and benefits to individuals of different forms of social organization, generally making large groups more desirable. The fluidity of Maori identity – as is the case in Somalia and the Zomia – allowed social structure to respond to these changes. Indeed, the case of the Maori seems to show that the individual power of exit from politically relevant identity groups has produced undirected improvement and innovation in social structure.

Competition makes everything better, including tribal organization.


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