October 30, 2007

African vs. African-American family structures

An anthropologist responds to my posting on the loss of interest among the public in the bread-and-butter topic of cultural anthropology -- kinship structures:

Steve Sailer noted that the study of family structure has fallen on hard times in anthropology. This is perfectly true. It is now very widely believed by anthropologists that 'kinship' is a Eurocentric construction, and that other folks actually have their own folk theories about 'relatedness' which have to be understood in their own terms, and don't map closely on to Western folk theories of 'blood' and biology (which in turn don't map closely on to actual genetic relatedness).

Meanwhile, back on Planet Earth, even serious treatments of kinship often veer between microscopic and telescopic: either details of particular societies or general principles underlying all human kinship systems. But there's also a middle range to kinship: different geographic areas have (on average) characteristic differences in their kinship systems.

In Sub-Saharan Africa (henceforth just 'Africa'), for example, family establishments commonly take the form of separate households for each of a man's co-wives (and her children), with husbands moving between wives' households, and women having considerable autonomy, and not much day-to-day economic support. Polygyny is certainly found outside of Africa, but this particular household arrangement is vastly more common in Africa than anywhere else. African societies also generally have strong unilineal descent groups, and great religious power vested in elders and ancestors. (This actually converges somewhat with China, but economics and male-female relations are very different there). Marriage is stronger in some parts of Africa than others, but is generally seen as a device for expanding the lineage, rather than as an economic and emotional union. Within Africa. the major exceptions to these generalizations are often genetic outliers as well: Bushmen, Pygmies, and Ethiopians.

Africans on the other side of the Atlantic are an interesting comparison. In some ways they look very African: marriage is not very strong among blacks in the New World. But in other respects, New World blacks look Western: African lineage systems and ancestor worship didn't survive the Middle Passage and slavery (except among scattered maroon (i.e. runaway slave) groups in places like Surinam). One result is that, although blacks in the US, the Caribbean, and Brazil have all sorts of social problems related in part to family structure, tribalism is really not the issue that it is in Africa.

More speculatively, another result may be much higher levels of creativity in popular culture, especially music, among blacks on the western side of the Atlantic than in Africa. I suspect that Jamaica alone has had as much impact on popular culture around the world as all of sub-Saharan African. There are all sorts of factors contributing here: more money, more miscegenation, a greater proportion of English speakers. But it may also be that in the African Diaspora as in the Jewish Diaspora, the assimilation of Western individualism has unleashed a degree of cultural creativity not seen in more tradition-bound kin-group-oriented sectors of the population.

I had a summer job once sharing an office with a Ph.D. student from Cameroon. All day long we played his tapes of African pop music. Wonderful stuff, but it lacked the "star power" of African-American pop music. It was more communal, less show-offy than James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, or Jimi Hendrix.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

23 comments:

Mark said...

But there's also a middle range to kinship: different geographic areas have (on average) characteristic differences in their kinship systems.

I appreciate the study of surviving hunter-gatherer tribes, and I think we have a lot to learn about our own past from them. But one thing that bothers me is the suggestion that our ancestors were "just like them."

Sorry, no. Our ancestors evolved into us, a people who created modern civilization. Surely there were/are some genetic and cultural differences (and not just geographical ones) that led some groups to evolve while the others remained primitive or died off.

josh said...

Not to get OT,but I always wonder why good rock'n roll comes from three places only:the English speaking countries of the USA(obv),Great Britain,and Ireland.Rock,and pop music in general,from Europe is usually pretty wretched. Some good niche music comes from Germany and Scandanavia(Kraftwerk,ABBA) but NO decent rock. I just read an article about the Frenchman Serge Gainsbourg,who I had never heard of,who apparently wrote very popular songs in France--and was quite a pop icon. He looked like a cross betw Lenny Bruce and Dylan. He is said to be a big inspiration for Donna summers "Love to Love Ya Baby" which(?) set off the disco craze.I heard a couple of his songs and tho he looked very "cool" with his wasted Lenny Bruce appearance,the music was...yech! We would laugh at that stuff here. So why are Amer blacks so great at music,and their African cousins not so much? Something about the English language? Or the roots of rock in Irish/English folk music?? I dont know,but one thing I DO know is keep away from foreign music,as Mike Meyers Scottish character would say,"Its crap!"

Thursday said...

More speculatively, another result may be much higher levels of creativity in popular culture, especially music, among blacks on the western side of the Atlantic than in Africa.

Interestingly, jazz started out as a_very_communal music, but really took off artistically when Louis Armstrong hit on the idea of an individual soloist improvising around pop tunes by white (mostly Jewish) composers. Blacks were not necessarily the best at composition, only Duke Ellington compares well with Rogers, Berlin, Arlen, Gershwin etc., but put a solid structure underneath them and they created magic. Conversely, while there were some very good white jazz performers, only Benny Goodman seems to me of the first rank.

(The same division of labour is seen in other genres. An awful lot of great soul tunes were written by whites, but whites are not among the great soul performers. Van Morrison is probably the best of them, but even he is stronger as a composer and bandleader than a singer. Compare his rather strained, inflexible vocal stylings to the effortless melismatic improvisations of the otherwise rather lightweight Ben E. King.)

More generally, the U.S. has been so vibrant is that white organizational power has harnassed the tremendous musical and athletic talent in African populations. For example, the reason the U.S. is the greatest sports nation in the world is that it is a basically Anglo-Saxon country with lots of the traditional Anglo-Saxon talent for sports organization, but with lots of West African athletic ability to show off within that organization. The combination has produced amazing results. Without whites' organizational ability and individualistic culture, we might not have known what tremendous things Africans were capable of, and without those innate African talents all of our lives would be less rich.

Steve Sailer said...

I think a lot of the decline in popular music over the last quarter century stems from the breaking up of the Afro-Anglo-Celtic synthesis that originated in the Mississippi River watershed. Blacks without white input churn out the same old rap over and over again. And while it was fun to hear new wave white rock music in 1977-1982 that was abstracted away from its Memphis roots, it just turns into the same soulless suburban sound over and over again.

Anonymous said...


It is now very widely believed by anthropologists that 'kinship' is a Eurocentric construction, and that other folks actually have their own folk theories about 'relatedness' which have to be understood in their own terms, and don't map closely on to Western folk theories of 'blood' and biology (which in turn don't map closely on to actual genetic relatedness).


Ho hum, more moronic beliefs from people with their heads up their asses.

The Chinese have known about relatedness in the very say way that we in the western world have for a long time.

They even have specific phases for a man who has been cuckolded. But, then, the Chinese can claim to have been civilized for something like 4,000 years.

SFG said...

Are you sure that maybe it's just us who only like English and American pop because we speak English and are exposed to it? I mean, I know this sounds like the old 'everyone has their own truth' argument PC people love so much, but in the arts where reality actually is subjective it could well have some truth to it.

Anonymous said...

"Some good niche music comes from Germany and Scandanavia(Kraftwerk,ABBA) but NO decent rock."


Most electronic music (techno, house etc.) comes from Europe.

Fred said...

"Some good niche music comes from Germany and Scandanavia(Kraftwerk,ABBA) but NO decent rock."

Heterosexual men who listen to harder stuff might beg to differ with you. Sweden has a thriving metal scene.

beowulf said...

And Finland has a thriving pop scene.
http://tinyurl.com/ru2fe

I like that its in English, makes it easier to sing along. :o)

billswift said...

You might try The Cruxshadows. I think their Fortress in Flames album is especially good.

Ron Guhname said...

"Are you sure that maybe it's just us who only like English and American pop because we speak English and are exposed to it?"

The music we loved is loved by non-English speakers the world over.

Bill said...

Heterosexual men who listen to harder stuff might beg to differ with you. Sweden has a thriving metal scene.

-Fred


Sweden is actually kind of second rate in this. The Swedes have a reputation for being rather gay, whereas Norwegian bands are quite manly. The Danes might fall into the Swedish category, except for Lars Ulrich, who is immortal due to Metallica, and thus gets an automatic pass to Valhalla.

But I do have a friend from Sweden who plays a mean bass, and he has a really cool name -- Hampus (pronounced Hump-us). The black girls at my high school - Jimi Hendrix's alma mater - thought that was really funny. He's a semi-famous game developer now who calls himself "Hampa". I miss old Hampus, that big softy. He was one of the best judo fighters in Sweden, but he fell out of a tree when we gave him a puff on a cigar and was totally shocked when the inevitable gunfire broke out at a high school kegger (early 90s).

Those Swedes, they just aren't prepared for the real American experience.

Mark said...

I think a lot of the decline in popular music over the last quarter century stems from the breaking up of the Afro-Anglo-Celtic synthesis that originated in the Mississippi River watershed...[modern music] just turns into the same soulless suburban sound over and over again.

1) Genuine, earth-shattering breakthroughs in any art are pretty rare. We seem to think they should happen every decade or so, but that's not how it works. Historically we're always wandering into deadends and camping out for awhile.

Your expectation that we should be having constant change in the music world is a pretty liberal one. Funny how even conservatives start to buy into the liberal line if they push it enough.

2) Modern rock music is about "art" and "the artist," and art is about "soul-searching." Music from the Mississippi Delta and Appalachia were just about having a good time. Funny that the latter tended to be better at both.

3) Nothing has time to ferment anymore. The Afro-Anglo-Celtic synthesis you speak of happened over decades, if not centuries - decades without TV or the internet. Today anything halfway decent (and a lot that ain't) makes the news by 5pm, meaning it'll soon be focus-grouped and commercialized to death.

4) Speaking of which, anyone here heard the new Alison Krauss/Robert Plant CD? Any thoughts?

Vol-in-Law said...

"originated in the Mississippi River watershed"

You mean the Mississppi river flood plain? The watershed would be much further off, eg western New Mexico on north in the west (Hispanic & white), the central Appalachians in the east (white). Those are sources of some small Western input into country & western and of bluegrass respectively, but not the Afro-Anglo synthesis.

Anonymous said...

"I think a lot of the decline in popular music over the last quarter century stems from the breaking up of the Afro-Anglo-Celtic synthesis that originated in the Mississippi River watershed. Blacks without white input churn out the same old rap over and over again. And while it was fun to hear new wave white rock music in 1977-1982 that was abstracted away from its Memphis roots, it just turns into the same soulless suburban sound over and over again."


Ummmm:

http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/musical/2007/10/22/071022crmu_music_frerejones?currentPage=1

http://slate.com/id/2176187/nav/navoa/

Anonymous said...

Steve Sailer wrote:
"Blacks without white input churn out the same old rap over and over again."

Then what accounts for the creative success of Motown? Most of the song writers for that record label were black.

The quoted assertion seems true, but doesn't hold up upon closer examination of black music from the 70s. Beginning in the late 60s, black and white music and musical tastes diverged. Consequently, many whites simply weren't aware of black artists and what they were doing musically on their own. Artists like Stevie Wonder made some wonderfully creative and vibrant music throughout the 70s. Curtis Mayfield and Donny Hathaway wrote and performed great music. Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International Records produced unforgettable tunes with lush arrangements. I could name others. Most of these artists and their music are unknown outside of the black community in the U.S.

Rap/hip hop dominates black music today because is sells and is easy to produce. One need not know how to play an instrument or sing to be a great rapper. Indeed one doesn’t even have to write one’s own “songs”; someone else can write them for you. Attitude, a sense of timing, and rhythm are what matter most in rap, and these qualities can be found in abundance compared to actual musical talent with voice or instruments which are rarer in comparison. That’s why blacks in the main are churning out the same old rap over and over again today.

michael farris said...

IINM mistaken, musically Cameroon is part of the Congo sphere of influence, almost tuneless light guitar dance music. Pleasant enough, but I've never been able to get into it.

If you want star power in African music go anywhere else on the continent. Especially SAfrica, Ethiopia and intermittently in WAfrica (more in the former french rather than british colonies IME) there's a lot more individualistic star-centered music.

David Davenport said...

You might try The Cruxshadows. I think their Fortress in Flames album is especially good.

You miss the point that on the whole, the genre is in decline ... declining in both artists' output and audience interest.

A reductionistic and and parsimonious explanation of the fading of musical genres -- including classical symphonic music -- is that genres simply have a lifespan. After a while, they get used up, mined out, exhausted. ... Nothing fresh.

And maybe rock's fading because the audience is fading into old age ... changing audience demographics, also quite parsimonious and reductionistic.

Also, new music requires something that makes a new sound.

Harpsichords -> baroque

pianoforte -> Romantic

big industrial organization --> big orchestras or bands

electrical amplication --> night club crooning, then rock

mass market sound synthesizers --> disco and tekno

digital sampling --> much of hip hop

So what can new sound can come next?

michael farris said...

"So what can new sound can come next?"

The smart money says 'yodelling'.

Or (back on planet earth), the current trend in music isn't so much about content as format.

In other words, music as information. I'm not entirely sure what that means, but the next big kind of music will be from the internet and take advantage of the way people interact with computers (a very different thing from computerized sounds).

David Davenport said...

In other words, music as information.

That reduces to, "Everything is information."

Or maybe, "The medium is the message!" Catchy, no?

michael farris said...

Okay, I expressed myself badly. My point is/was .... sorry I don't have the words for it (so rough approximations follow).

The biggest change in music going on for some time now is the change from an individual discretionary entertainment product to a shared common resource.

I actually rarely listen to cd's anymore (and i'm technologically backward enough that I don't even have any kind of mp3 player.

Most of the time now, if I want to listen to something specific I go to youtube.

David Davenport said...

The biggest change in music going on for some time now is the change from an individual discretionary entertainment product to a shared common resource.

I actually rarely listen to cd's anymore .. .


In short, you get it all on the Internut for free.

Anonymous said...

"I had a summer job once sharing an office with a Ph.D. student from Cameroon. All day long we played his tapes of African pop music. Wonderful stuff, but it lacked the "star power" of African-American pop music. It was more communal, less show-offy than James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, or Jimi Hendrix."

have you considered that you are comparing music from a single person's collection (we don't even know if that sample was statistically representative of all pop music from across Africa--I doubt it) to heavily marketed and thus quite well-known Af-American music from across the entire USA?? And maybe you just have a "preference" for the heavily marketed Af-American music, sung in a language you can understand. I'm not sure what "star power" means in this context, but I prefer African music, thanks.