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Dispute resolution in traditional societies

New Guinea tribeOne of the biggest differences between traditional societies and the state societies you and I are more familiar with is how people both inside and outside tribes are treated.  Unlike state societies, where you make friends based on shared interests, friendships in traditional societies are based on kinship, marriage, and childhood geography.  All strangers are potentially dangerous, so when two people meet, they may spend hours trying to figure out if they have a relative in common.  (Appalachia isn't too far off from this tribal focus on kinship.  I can't count how many times strangers have asked me if I'm related to the Hesses in Honaker.  For the record, the answer is no.)

Another important distinction between state and traditional societies pertains to how disputes are resolved.  In state societies, the government has taken away individuals' abilities to resolve major conflicts (vigilante justice), which is both good and bad.  On the positive side, state societies have lower death tolls since wrongs in traditional societies often lead to warfare, which tends to go on indefinitely due to tit-for-tat justice.  On the other hand, members of traditional societies have much more of an incentive to resolve conflict in a way that leaves everyone happy since the other option is war.

Tribal warfareSo how are most conflicts resolved?  Unlike the American justice system, which is based on fairness and guilt, traditional societies resolve disputes in ways that promote a fast, emotional reconciliation without an emphasis on right and wrong.  The goal is to let the two parties reestablish their previous relationship so they can live together peacefully in the future.  Diamond suggests that this is something we should strive to mimic, especially in situations like disputes between divorcing parents and between siblings arguing over an inheritance.  In modern societies, mediation can yield some of the same results if done properly.

Unfortunately, I feel like many of the social advantages of traditional societies may be impossible to recapture in our modern world.  While I regret living a distance away from many loved ones, I also wouldn't want to be forced to settle in town next-door to our family home.  I like the way modern society allows us to be individuals who don't have to cave to mainstream beliefs, but at the same time, I feel a bit lonely sometimes when most of my neighbors live in a very different mental world than I do.  Clearly, most of us have been given the choice about whether to live a more traditional existence, and we've mostly chosen the modern route instead.


This post is part of our The World Until Yesterday lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:


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In practice, I think that a kind of "tribal" reconciliation is used sometimes informally, over time, in our society, esp. when limits are clear. (between neighbors, for ex. or on the playing field) But I have no direct experiences of reconciliation between groups people dealing with a some kind of victimization of one group (say from the recent WVa water contamination issue). We do have "class action suits" but not a clear-cut actual reconciliation process.

I think that Mandela was helped by Tutu and others who had learned from their tribes. I remember how amazed I was by a situation in Water-Lily, by Deloria (about a Plains Indian woman's life), when, in a terrible snowstorm the old grandmother tells a long story about a crime of passion that had happened in her youth: as I remember, a man who tried to steal away a woman was murdered by the husband, who then, as the murderer, had to be adopted by the dead person's family, and made to, in effect, replace the dead person in that family! This was a shift, as they were from different tribes. It was decided on by a council of elders. I was so amazed by this I forgot the teller's motive, to impress on Water-Lily that her husband's tribe had to be hers, no matter what he did, or would have to do. The woman in that situation was completely disregarded...

Comment by adrianne Thu Feb 6 15:42:46 2014
Thirty yrs ago I had a patient whose son was a prof @ Amer Univ in Beirut, an expert in PoliSci. On a visit home, we met and had a discussion about problems in the Mideast. He said American politicians just don't get it: the Arabs' POV is not political, but personal- the tit-for-tat you mention. No political agreement will ever solve the problems there.
Comment by doc Fri Feb 7 06:41:50 2014

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