Masquelier: Review of Zeitlyn 1994

Masquelier: Review of Zeitlyn 1994 from Anthropos 90.1995 4/6 p 657-8

With the kind permsision of the editor the text of a recent review is included below:

Zeitlyn, David: Sua in Somie. Aspects of Mambila Traditional Religion. Sankt Augustin: Academia Verlag, 1994. 260pp. ISBN 3-88345-375-7. (Collectanea Instituti Anthropos,41) Preis: DM78.

Cameroonian Mambila are settled in three major villages (including Somié) on the Tikar Plain of the Adamawa province. Culturally and historically speaking, they are related to the neighboring Nigerian Mambila F. Rehfisch studied in the 1950s. Because Mambila concepts and practice did not agree with the assumptions and requisites of lineage theory, the dominant model in studies of African social structure, Rehfisch's ethnography proved to be theoretically fruitful. The evidence could be adduced in support of a different model; something Lévi-Strauss did for his new concept of the "house".

Zeitlyn has pursued his research in Cameroon over a span of some ten years, since the mid 1980s. It significantly expands our documentation, but also provides a fresh assessment on former fieldwork. In spite of its focus on modes of religious action (with an emphasis on people of Somié) his research is set on thoroughly investigating Mambila ethnography as a whole. His current findings are thus meticulously matched against data previously collected by Rehfisch; an exhaustive inquiry that confirms many of Rehfisch's conclusions while it underlines differences in historical and regional processes between the two populations. A much broader comparative framework is occasionally invoked. Depending on the topic at issue, it does encompass societies of the neighboring Adamawa Plateau and Bamenda Grassfields, as well as other Sub-Saharan African societies. All of this is very enlightening; as is, for instance, Zeitlyn's survey presentation on spider divination. Equally informative

p 658 are Zeitlyn's snippets of theoretical commentaries intertwined with his ethnographic report: thus, the Goodys' typology of marriage and residence patterns and R. Fardon's interpretation of Tiv ethnography are critically scrutinized in reference to Mambila marriage. Zeitlyn's text (especially the first two parts) is riddled with many of these comparitive and theoretical arguments.

The device is neither spurious, nor is it cumbersome. However, it compels the reader to wonder what are the author's assumptions about ethnographic discourse. Indeed, in contrast to some of the recent (postmodern) experimentations in ethnographic writing, the first half of Zeitlyn's book reads more like an old fashioned encyclopaedia, carefully researched and seemingly exhaustive with its wide range of entries. Just about everything one wants to know about the Mambila (on kinship, economics, politics, and change) is answered. Naturally the purpose is to provide the reader with sound and complete knowledge; but the object is drawn from a distance, the gaze of the anthropologist reifying what it beholds. A question arises as to the fit between this form of knowing and the strong claims Zeitlyn makes in favor of an ethnomethodological approach.

Zeitlyn's epistemology is explained in light of the circumstances of his field research. More importantly, it is anchored in his experience of local ways of knowing (for instance, his learning of divination), and his understanding of how Mambila make sense of their lives. Zeitlyn's perspective is also said to be adapted to both the richness and the poverty of Mambila thought. The author mentions that, unlike Victor Turner, he never could find a privileged consultant. The Mambila are seemingly not theologians. Apart from commonsense commentaries, they are not prone to global intellectual considerations. There is not even unanimity among them. For these and other diverse reasons, "religion" is cautiously presented as a heuristic category, one that comes in handy for spotting a field of activity-types: divination, witchcraft, ritual masquerades, oath-taking, and blessing. Zeitlyn's emphasis on ethnomethodology is specifically embodied in some seventy pages of published (translated) transcripts of dialogues. These are meant to illustrate ritual action and to display the situated meaning of key categories (sua being foremost among them) as social actors construe them in the moment-by-moment process of their joint activity (e.g., oath-taking to settle dispute, overcome misfortune and mystical sanction, or reaching reconciliation through ritual blessing).

If there is some sort of Mambila rationality (and there is), Zeitlyn looks for it in the record of the discourse produced among participants in face-to-face encounters. The objective is to show how the Mambila make sense of their own doings, and how they attend to what they mean to one another. The method highlights their reflexive attitude and the indexicality of their words. In turn, the anthropologist's interpretation is grounded in the record of Mambila action. Puzzling out the situated meanings of sua (and across the frameworks of the sua-masquerade, sua-oath, sua-kare-oath, kulu-sua-blessing) Zeitlyn thinks there is some conceptual unity behind the plurality of usage. Transcripts are thus useful to the work of interpretation. On the whole, they also convey a sense of process (in contrast to the static description of the book's first half). The reader may even gain insights into Mambila practice and social strategies. But does he get a full picture? At times, Zeitlyn seems apologetic for not pursuing further the study of the social use of sua in reference to the broader issues of (for instance) gender asymmetry and micro-politics. One wonders: the boundaries he draws for his case studies (in the second half of the book) may stem from the method (ethnomethodology) he advocates. Ethnomethodology (specifically, conversational analysis) puts severe constraints on the way context is defined. Ethnomethodological context is determined in reference to the emerging structure that results from the sequential organization of talk and interaction. This is probably too narrow a definition of context for the requisite of thick description. Because, Zeitlyn does not give us a "frame" analysis of how the Mambila participants to a meeting define the social situation and how they are involved at each moment, the reader fails to grasp the subtleties of every one of their moves (and turns at talk) and the complex meanings they convey between another. But as Zeitlyn himself points out, this would require studying Mambila rhetorics.

In his conclusion, Zeitlyn states over again his fundamental position, which he has tried to document: "in the absence of a literate and reflective tradition, Mambila cosmology is ineluctably vague" (231). His stance differs from that of anthropologists who argue in terms of "systems" of thought. But to describe forms of religious life and the use of key concepts does not complete Zeitlyn's agenda. He hopes to transcend the Wittgensteinian account of linguistic practice, and wishes to reject incommensurability and strong relativism. This is research to come.

Bertrand Masquelier
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