The Family among the Australian Aborigines - Bronislaw Malinowski - ebook

The importance of the subject treated in this study, as well as the prominent part played by the Australian evidence in the problem of kinship, will, it is believed, amply justify a detailed inquiry into the institution of the family in Australia. It is, however, always desirable for a monograph like the present one, besides being a mere collection and description of facts, to have a sufficiently wide theoretical scope. It ought to demonstrate some general principle upon the particular example treated, and to approach the problem from a new standpoint. I wish here shortly to indicate how far a slight and imperfect attempt in this direction has been made. In describing the facts of family life in Australia I have tried to show that even if the problems of origins and development of an institution be put aside and the inquiry be limited to the actual facts (in this case to the actual working of the aboriginal kinship organization), there are plenty of subjects of great theoretical importance, some of which, as yet not fully considered by sociologists. On the other hand, I have tried to show that in dealing with purely sociological problems it is necessary, in order to do justice to the complexity and fulness of social phenomena, to draw into the field of inquiry a series of facts often hitherto partially or completely neglected. The facts of daily life, the emotional side of family relations, the magico-religious ideas of the aborigines about kinship and sexual relations, customary as well as legal norms—all these factors must be taken impartially into careful consideration in order to give the full picture of an institution as it embraces living man in a living society. In other words each social institution must be studied in all its complex social functions as well as in its reflexion in the collective psychology.

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Bronislaw Malinowski

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The importance of the subject treated in this study, as well as the prominent part played by the Australian evidence in the problem of kinship, will, it is believed, amply justify a detailed inquiry into the institution of the family in Australia. It is, however, always desirable for a monograph like the present one, besides being a mere collection and description of facts, to have a sufficiently wide theoretical scope. It ought to demonstrate some general principle upon the particular example treated, and to approach the problem from a new standpoint.I wish here shortly to indicate how far a slight and imperfect attempt in this direction has been made. In describing the facts of family life in Australia I have tried to show that even if the problems of origins and development of an institution be put aside and the inquiry be limited to the actual facts (in this case to the actual working of the aboriginal kinship organization), there are plenty of subjects of great theoretical importance, some of which, as yet not fully considered by sociologists. On the other hand, I have tried to show that in dealing with purely sociological problems it is necessary, in order to do justice to the complexity and fulness of social phenomena, to draw into the field of inquiry a series of facts often hitherto partially or completely neglected. The facts of daily life, the emotional side of family relations, the magico-religious ideas of the aborigines about kinship and sexual relations, customary as well as legal norms—all these factors must be taken impartially into careful consideration in order to give the full picture of an institution as it embraces living man in a living society. In other words each social institution must be studied in all its complex social functions as well as in its reflexion in the collective psychology.As a matter of fact, by a certain tendency to fanciful construction, natural in all early speculations about a new domain of facts, many problems in the study of primitive kinship have been artificially simplified, others unduly complicated and obscured. Thus, for instance, when in the discussion of primitive forms of marriage the whole problem of the position of the children and of the emotional attitude of the parents towards them has been neglected; or when different legal terms have been applied to undifferentiated societies and legal ideas attributed to primitive man, without asking how far and under what conditions this may be done; or, again, when the sexual aspect has been treated as the only essential feature of marriage. On the other hand, the concepts of "primitive promiscuity," "descent through females only," "mother-right" and "father-right" have proved meaningless and abstruse; the two latter, of course, as far only as they have been used in the majority of cases without a satisfactory definition.It is easy to see why such somewhat artificial conceptions have found their way into the study of primitive marriage and kinship. In the early days of these studies work had been done not by specialists, who would try to apply to a new set of problems new methods, but by men learned in other branches of science, who looked at the facts, not full in the face, but from a peculiar and often remote standpoint. The illustrious founder of these studies on the Continent, the Swiss savant Bachofen, was a student of history of law and classical culture, and he was chiefly concerned with establishing the primitive mother-right of the prehistoric Greeks and Romans. The chief theoretical interest of the eminent ethnographer Morgan was the unravelling of the riddle of primitive forms of marriage out of the invaluable material contained in his tables of kinship terms. McLennan assigns a prominent place in his investigations to factors which had hardly ever played a very important part in primitive society, as, for instance, marriage by capture, female infanticide and levirate. It is evident that in all these and similar speculations the chief attention was not drawn to the actual working of the social mechanism, but to survivals, rudiments and fictitious primeval conditions. And the method of sociological thinking has not been developed upon living social forms, but upon shadows and petrified remains. Whenever concrete institutions have been theoretically treated, they were approached with preconceived ideas, as, for instance, in the well-known monograph of Fison and Howitt, and in the book of Herr H. Cunow—both works relating to Australian kinship organization. When reading the theoretical chapters of the latter, one has the impression that the Australian tribes were a museum of sociological fossils from various ancient epochs of which the petrified form has been rigidly preserved, but into whose inner nature it is quite hopeless to inquire. The understanding of actual facts is sacrificed to sterile speculation upon a hypothetical earlier state of things.Prof. Tylor's well-known article ( Journ. Anthrop. Inst. xviii.) was, perhaps, the first protest against this loose and far-fetched treatment of the subject. He based his method of research on the firm ground of a statistical survey of facts, and his method of reasoning on the philosophically sound principle of inquiring into the mutual dependence of phenomena.The whole problem has been set on a new basis and its treatment recast in the fundamental treatise of Prof. Westermarck on the History of Human Marriage. Several of the most important aspects of the question which had been omitted in the speculations of the previous writers have received in it their full treatment; in taking into account, in its manifold aspects, the biological basis of the problem he has shown how many of the current conceptions about primitive marriage and kinship could not hold good in the light of a closer criticism. Besides this merely critical contribution, and besides the biological argument, the History of Human Marriage constitutes a valuable addition to the purely sociological treatment of the problem. By resolving the problem of marriage into that of family, by pointing to the importance of the relations between parents and children, of the mode of living, etc., the author has shown that marriage is rooted in a complex of sociological conditions, and that there are many points to be treated before we arrive at definite conclusions and broad generalizations.Another important aspect of the problem has received its full treatment by Mr. Crawley in his study of primitive marriage (the Mystic Rose; compare the note in the Addenda at the end of this volume). Working out thoroughly some conceptions suggested already by Prof. Frazer in his Golden Bough, the author has shown the social importance of the ideas about human relations and in particular about sexual relations as held by primitive man.The tendency towards a reform in the method of sociological treatment of kinship and family has been shown not only from the side of purely theoretical writers. Some of the modern field workers, who happily for our science are at the same time distinguished scholars, have achieved a considerable advance in the method of collecting evidence. This refers in the first place to the Cambridge School of Ethnology, whose members under the lead of Dr. Haddon have obtained such remarkable results from their work in the Torres Straits Islands. Dr. Rivers, who specially worked out the chapter on kinship in the joint publication of this Expedition, has, by the introduction of the genealogical method of inquiry as well as by the systematic study of the functions of kin, given perhaps the most useful instruments of inquiry into the social working of family and kinship organization. Thus both our theoretical conceptions and our methods of getting at the facts are certainly approaching more and more the first postulate of scientific study: the possibility of an adequate description of facts and their mutual dependences as they exist now in living primitive societies. Only on a basis of such knowledge are further speculations fruitful.As regards the general principles of sociological method much has been done in recent times by the French school of sociology, grouped round the editor of the Année Sociologique. The important question, how methodically to present evidence, has received its full attention in the excellent works of Dr. Steinmetz and his pupil, Dr. Nieboer, which are examples of a clear and conclusive way of utilizing ethnological sources. I am glad to acknowledge my intellectual indebtedness to both these schools.I have tried to collect sufficiently complete evidence, and in this endeavour have used some of the older sources whose trustworthiness might perhaps be disputed. But many of their observations are highly valuable if properly interpreted; and moreover it was necessary to bring their statements into line with the newer evidence for the sake of critical comparison, as much of what they say has been uncritically accepted and given without reference by some secondhand compilers (for instance, Waitz-Gerland, vol. vi.; Cunow) and hence found its way into the newer sociological literature.The statements I have taken from the different authors are quoted at length, and I do not think that I have thus uselessly increased the bulk of the volume. By an unprejudiced collection of evidence, which is, moreover, presented in a manner independent of, and accessible without reference to, the theoretical discussion, I hope to have given a useful compilation of observations which may serve for further theoretical purposes other than those of the present writer.In order to make short and yet clear references possible a list of the works quoted is given at the end. With its help the short indications in the footnotes will be perfectly plain.In this place I wish to express my deep gratitude to Mr. J. Martin White, whose munificence has made the publication of this book possible. As a student of sociology at the University of London I am indebted to Mr. Martin White, who, as it is well known, has founded the chairs of Sociology at this university, and furthers these studies in various ways—not the least by his personal contact with and interest shown in the students and their work.I had, while working on the present book, the privilege of personal intercourse with Prof. Westermarck, a privilege I value more than I can express. I owe much to Dr. Rivers for the constant aid and counsel generously given me during my studies. Much assistance was given to me by Mr. Wheeler, who freely put at my disposal his extensive knowledge of the subject. I have to thank Dr. Tallqvist for several important remarks upon some pages of my proofs.But my debt is the greatest to Miss Helena Hadley, without whose kind help I could not have overcome the difficulties of writing in what is for me an acquired tongue. Her advice and criticism, both as regards style and thought, were quite invaluable for me, and this is only a feeble acknowledgment of my indebtedness and feelings of gratitude.B. M.



The problem of the social forms of family life still presents some obscurities. What appears to be most urgently needed is a careful investigation of facts in all the different ethnographical areas. I propose in this study to undertake this task for Australia. I shall avoid making any hypothetical assumptions, or discussing general problems which refer to the origin or evolution of the family. I wish only to describe in correct terms and as thoroughly as possible all that refers to actual family life in Australia. In other words I intend to give in outline the social morphology of the Australian family.

It may be well to show briefly the necessity for this task, which to some may appear superfluous, and to indicate the lines on which it will be attempted. In the first place there are some contradictions with regard to the problem of relationship or kinship in Australia, which can be reduced to the question: Is kinship in Australia exclusively individual; or is it exclusively group kinship (or tribal kinship, as it often is called); and, further, do these two forms exclude each other or do they perhaps exist side by side? When Howitt says: "The social unit is not the individual, but the group; the former merely takes the relationships of his group, which are of group to group," [1] this obviously means that there is no individual relationship, consequently no individual family in Australia. It is important to note that the passage just quoted is placed in the chapter on Relationship in Howitt's chief work on Australia, and that consequently it refers to all the tribes described by the author, i. e. to the majority of the known Australian tribes. The same opinion that there is only group relationship and no individual family is supported by another passage, no less important and general, for it is placed at the conclusion of Howitt's article on the organization of the Australian tribes in general: "It has been shown that the fundamental idea in the conception of an Australian community is its division into two groups. The relationships which obtain between the members of them are also those of group to group." [2] And again: "The unit of aboriginal society is, therefore, not the individual, but the group. It is the group which marries the group and which begets the group." [3] There are also a few passages in Spencer and Gillen which deny the existence of the individual family, at least in some tribes. [4]

Thus the impression drawn from the passages just quoted [5] is that there is no individual relationship and, what follows as an immediate consequence, no individual marriage, nor individual family in Australia. Such a conclusion would be absolutely false. For the same author (Howitt) writes: "Individual marriage in Australian tribes has been evident to everyone." [6] Curr speaks in still more positive terms: "No relationship but that of blood is known amongst Australians." [7] The social relations which exist amongst the Australian aborigines are of five sorts; first, those of family; second, those of the tribe; third, those between associated tribes; fourth, those of neighbours who belong to different associations; fifth, all other persons. [8] We see that in Curr's statements there is again no room for any kind of group relationship. Obviously Curr's information contradicts in plain terms the foregoing set of statements, and such a contradiction among our best informants is truly puzzling. There seems to be some misunderstanding in the present problem.

This is not only my own opinion. Mr. A. Lang discusses the same question and finds it necessary to prove in a short article that individual relationship exists in Australia. He says: "It is certain that 'blood' or 'own' relations are perfectly recognized. Messrs. Spencer and Gillen inadvertently deny this, saying: 'The savage Australian, it may be said with truth, has no idea of relationships as we understand them.'" This example is not the only one, as has been shown above, and indeed their number could be easily multiplied. Mr. Lang proves by several instances that this opinion of Spencer and Gillen is erroneous, and concludes: "The savage Australian does discriminate between his actual and his tribal relations. It was necessary to make this fact clear and certain, as it has been denied." [9] The same contradiction has also been pointed out by Dr. Westermarck: "As to the South Australians, Mr. Fison's statements have caused not a little confusion. On his authority several writers assert that among the Australian savages groups of males are actually found united to groups of females." [10] And in a footnote Dr. Westermarck quotes Lubbock, Morgan, Kohler, Kovalevsky. With such views Dr. Westermarck contrasts Curr's [11] opinion that strict monogamy obtains, and that of the Rev. J. Mathew, [12] "who fails to see that group marriage 'has been proven to exist in the past and certainly does not occur in Australia now.'"

Again E. Grosse in his well-known book, speaking of Howitt's work on the Kurnai says that this author "... hat sich so gründlich in seine Hypothese einer Gruppenehe ... der prähistorischen Australier vertieft, dass er darüber ganz vergisst, seine Leser darauf aufmerksam zu machen, dass die historischen Australier in Einzelnehe leben." [13] This is quite true, especially the remark that one of the chief sources of error in sociology is speculating on the origins and prehistory of an institution before this institution is thoroughly known in the present state.

And it seems as if in the present case a good many of the difficulties may be solved by understanding some of the statements made as referring to hypothetical earlier stages. As a matter of fact the passage quoted above, where the existence of group relationship is affirmed, is continued thus: "The idea of the relation of individual to individual, and of individual parentage, without reference to the group, is of later origin, and is the result of a number of social forces acting in the same general direction and producing change." [14] It is evident therefore that group relationship is supposed by Howitt to be the former state, and individual relationship a kind of innovation. But there is such a lack of clearness, such a confusion of the past and present tenses, that we are here again at a loss. Take for example the following passage: "The latest advance which has been made in the subject of Australian marriage was the conception of marriage in the group, and of group to group, and of the filial relation of one group to another." [15] This last phrase should be, in all probability, understood in the past tense, as referring to prehistoric times. But the author gives absolutely no hint whether this be so or otherwise. And when he on the next page refers to Mr. Curr's assertion, that there is actually no group relationship in Australia, and criticizes this assertion, a suspicion is aroused that this view of the existence of marital and filial groups is meant to express the actual status. This is enough to show how vague and puzzling the question of the individual family and individual relationship still is.

It is unnecessary to insist on the bewilderment, but the polemical mood in which our informants always approached the problem of relationship and family has had its unfortunate consequences. In the first place it is easy to see that these two groups of facts—individual relationship and group relationship—are treated by the writers as if they excluded each other, or at least as if one of them were gradually encroaching upon the other. Whereas it is quite possible that both individual and group relationship might exist side by side, originating from different sources, and expressing two different sets of social relationships. In the second place, the polemical attitude of our best informants (Howitt, and Spencer and Gillen) against individual relationship resulted in their giving very meagre information about the individual family. As a matter of fact, in all theoretical passages of works devoted to the social organization of the Australian tribes, the individual family is passed over in absolute silence. [16] As this unit obviously plays a foremost part in the social life of Australian tribes, I submit it is quite justifiable that in these pages some information about this unit should be gathered and its importance brought out. Special attention has been devoted to the facts of actual family life.

To sum up, it may be said that the defects in our information as to the individual family, and the contradiction and confusion surrounding it, do of themselves justify an examination of this institution. These contradictions are due probably not to any intrinsic reasons, but to certain theoretical postulates and axioms adopted by some of our informants. And as the exact description of actual facts seems to suffer therefrom, a revision of the theoretical side of the problem, as well as a collection of evidence from a somewhat extensive number of sources appears advisable.

But over and above clearing up some contradictions, solving some difficulties, and filling up a gap in the information concerning Australian kinship organization, there is a much deeper justification for a detailed collection and classification of facts referring to the individual family in Australia. I mean, it is only such a proceeding that can give us a scientific, correct and useful definition of the Australian individual family (or any other social unit in general). A priori only a vague meaning can be attached to the term "individual family," when it refers to a society different from ours. For the essential features of the individual family, as of all other social institutions, depend upon the general structure of a given society and upon the conditions of life therein. A careful and detailed analysis of the family life and of the different aspects of the family unit in connection with other social phenomena is therefore necessary. Such an analysis enables us to describe the said unit in a complete and exact way.

It is Dr. Rivers to whom we are indebted for emphasizing the methodological standpoint in this connection. In his article [17] he points out that we cannot a priori assert the existence of even such an apparently unquestionable fact as individual motherhood in every human society whether actual or hypothetical. To affirm that in a given society motherhood is individual and not communal (group motherhood), a strict analysis of a whole series of circumstances is necessary. Applying Dr. Rivers' argument to the other family relationships, we may say that all the circumstances referring to the relation between man and wife, parents and children, brothers and sisters, must be submitted to a careful and detailed analysis; and that only such an examination can give us the right idea of what may be called the individual family in a given society—in this case the Australian individual family. [18]

As mentioned above, many authors, who have contributed so much in other respects to our knowledge of Australian kinship organization, have not entered into details as to the family life, or actual relationship. Even Mr. Thomas, although he quite acknowledges the existence of individual relationship, confines himself to the remark that in Australia exists "the family in the European sense." But this expression is not adequate. We cannot possibly find in Australia any social unit that would exactly fit the forms of our individual family; for this is intimately connected with the structure of our society, and none of the social conditions it requires are found in Australia. We can only say a unit which is analogous to our individual family, and even then we would be more metaphorical than exact. Mr. Lang, on the other hand, is not exhaustive enough for our purpose—which is a description of the family unit that will define it fully for sociological use. Nevertheless as he writes in reply to Dr. Rivers he has accepted the latter's methodological standpoint, and he gives a series of apposite remarks and examples. But he concludes: "It is needless to give more examples; the savage Australian does discriminate between his actual and his tribal relations." This conclusion is quite correct, but it is not sufficient. The mere affirmation that the actual relationship exists and is recognized by the natives is not enough. This has been obvious to every careful, unprejudiced reader of the first-hand ethnographical material.

The aim of the present study is to define what this individual relationship is; to describe its different aspects and features; how it manifests itself in its different social functions and, as far as can be ascertained, how it must impress itself upon the native mind. And here lies the important methodological point on which some stress must be laid. It is not the actual relationship, or the individual family, or "family in the European sense" which we have to look for in Australia. It is the aboriginal Australian individual family, with all its peculiarities and characteristic features, which must be reconstructed from the evidence. It will be necessary to describe minutely all the relationships generally embraced by the term Family, [19] and to describe them in terms taken from the native social life. In other words we have to look for the connection between the facts of family life and the general structure of society and forms of native life; and to take into account all psychological data available, such as ideas on procreation and reincarnation.

Only by such a description can we reach a correct and scientific definition of a given institution in a given society. It is essential that the elements of this definition should be taken from the conditions of social life in the given society. As an example we may take the legal side of marriage. Amongst us marriage is a legal act enforced on the one hand by the authority of the law with all its complicated social working and the power of the State at its back; on the other hand by the authority of the Church, which exercises a profound moral pressure in relation to this institution. These or even analogous factors will be sought in the Australian tribes in vain. And yet marriage there is not deprived of its legal validity and of its social sanction. It is not an act of mere fancy, brutal force or accident, but the legal factors have there quite a specific character, and can be found and understood only in connection with the general tribal structure and government.

Besides all that has been said above against a general offhand affirmation, that the individual family exists in Australia, it may be added here that such an assertion is practically quite useless. No further conclusions or inferences can be drawn from such a vague statement. Only by knowing exactly and minutely all the features and characters of the said unit can the different questions attached to this problem be answered; only so can it be judged whether the individual family or certain features of it are survivals or innovations; or whether they are so deeply rooted and connected with the social life and the whole organization of the tribes, that neither of these suppositions is justifiable. Such special and concrete definitions of a given social phenomenon in a given ethnic area, as the one which it is intended to give here for the Australian individual family, can serve also as a basis to form by induction a general conception of the individual family; and only from a rich collection of such material from different peoples can any sociological laws be constructed. As said above, a general working definition of the word individual family may be accepted at the outset of our investigations. After a careful analysis of all particular relationships concerned; and further, of the economic unity of the family, division of labour within it, legal sanction, etc., content can be given to the rough definition laid down at the beginning, and scientific exactness can be given to our conception of the individual family in Australia.

It seems desirable in this place to make a digression in order to consider the problem of law and the legal side of social phenomena in the Australian aboriginal society, as we shall often have to use these concepts. A more detailed and exhaustive discussion of it would involve a treatise on primitive law, but as I am unable to indicate any place where the concepts in question are defined in a way satisfactory for the present purpose, I define them here briefly. [20]

All social organization implies a series of norms, which extend over the whole social life and regulate more or less strictly all the social relations. We find such norms and rules in the Australian aboriginal society, different kinds being enforced by different forms of social sanction. The validity of some is due to the evil results which are intrinsically connected with their violation. So e. g. we know that the breaking of certain food taboos has as an inevitable consequence premature grey hair, eruptions on the skin, or some other mishap. There are other rules, which are observed because any departure from them would bring general contempt and ridicule upon the culprit; a form of chastisement to which the natives are said to be extremely sensitive. There are still other types of social norms, sanctioned by a more direct collective action. In some cases the magicians of the tribe will use the dreaded method of "pointing the bone," thus bringing about the illness and death of the culprit; or a regulated fight ensues; or a man has to undergo a definite ordeal. Occasionally a group of people organize an armed party on their own account, but with the consent of the community; and so on.

Briefly it may be said that different types of social norms have different kinds of collective sanction and that we may suitably classify the norms and regulations according to the kind of sanction they enjoy. Here seems the proper place to introduce the concept of Law, Legal. We can agree to call such norms Legal, which enjoy an organized, more or less regulated and active social sanction. To make this definition plausible, we may remark that it makes the Australian legal institutions correspond to what we call law and legal in higher societies. Further it would be necessary, in order fully to justify our definition, to show: (1) that among the Australian blacks there exist such modes of regulated, organized and direct social sanction; (2) that they differ from other modes of sanction and that the collective mind is quite aware which norms enjoy just this form of sanction.

In answer to the first problem we may generally point to the existence of tribal government. That a kind of centralized authority exists in Australia and that it has well-determined functions has been shown at full length by Howitt. [21]

This government consists roughly speaking of headmen and a tribal council, composed in the first place of old men of the tribe, skilled magicians and experienced warriors. This camp council seems as a rule the more influential factor, and only in few cases are we informed of chiefs with extensive powers. [22] What is important for us is that one of the main functions—if not the chief one—of those central authorities is to decide in case of difficulties in tribal affairs and to give sentence, a function which is that both of a legislator and of a judge. [23] The old men are the only depositories of tribal lore; they also know the rules and norms and how to apply them. We are informed in many places that they discuss important matters and decide vital questions; and especially in cases where any law has been transgressed. They possess also executive power; they can organize an armed party; they arrange and control the regulated fights; and they have also in their hands the personal power of punishment by magic. [24] It may therefore be said in general that the rudimentary form of central authority, as found in Australia, possesses quite clearly traceable features of juridical functions and executive power; it forms a kind of tribunal, and it has its organs to carry out the sentence. It is hardly necessary to add, that those institutions exist only in a rudimentary form; but they appear to be quite unmistakable. Besides this central authority, which sometimes takes the juridical functions upon itself, there are other forms of organized action, carried out by groups of individuals, personally interested in the case. Here the legal character, i. e. the feature that distinguishes such action and the underlying norm from mere violence, fancy or custom—lies in the fact that such an action is regulated by strict rules and prescriptions. And it is in just such a mutual connection of a norm and social enforcement that the fundamental feature of legality may be seen. So e. g. in the Central Tribes a man who has by magic charmed away a woman can reckon upon the actual support of a definite group of his kindred. The legality of his act is based upon the existence of a certain norm and the existence of a form of active and regulated social support which enforces this norm. Without the norm the social action would be mere violence. Without the social enforcement the norm would be a moral or customary rule; so enforced, it may properly be called a law. [25] It is impossible, for want of space, to deal here more in detail with this question, which could correctly be answered only by collecting all the evidence available, and bringing the results into connection with the general features of Australian society, such as age grades and tribal secret societies. I only indicate here the point of view, and I shall in what follows refer to it and exemplify it by concrete instances.

The second problem, viz. whether the distinction between the customary and religious rules and legal norms may be considered as well defined in Australia, is still more difficult to answer. The small differentiation of that society hardly allows any very clear and definite sociological distinctions. But, broadly speaking, it seems that the distinction between (1) a trespass, whose punishment is supernaturally entailed by its very committal; (2) a trespass, punished by ridicule and public contempt; and (3) a crime, punished by the decision of the community, acting as a whole, or by its central organs, or certain groups of it—that this distinction between sin, improper conduct and crime (as we can call those three categories) is quite well marked in different features of aboriginal social life. What might fully elucidate this question, would be a collection of facts, classified according to these categories. [26]

These few remarks are merely made to settle the terminology. By definition a given norm or rule is Legal if it is enforced by a direct, organized, and definite social action. And by the word legal will be designated this side or aspect of a given social relation which is regulated by laws, as just defined.

Our considerations indicate also in what direction an analysis of the social conditions in Australia would be interesting from the point of view of primitive jurisprudence. In the first place, there is a great variety of modes in which the different legal norms are preserved, impressed upon the social mind, and taught to different members of the society. Here the connection of different norms with religion, myth, totemic cultus, organization of the secret society, etc., might be discussed. In the second place a careful investigation of the different forms of social sanction, based partly on belief, partly on collective ideas and feelings, partly on actual institutions and direct enforcement, might be carried out. In connection with it there might be a classification of the norms; and the domain of the purely legal norms, or rather the properly legal aspect of norms and different social phenomena could be exactly traced. In other words each norm should be studied in connection with the way in which it is "codified" ( i. e. preserved for and imparted to social knowledge); and in connection with its sanction. In the case of a legal norm the tribunal and the executive organs should be indicated as far as possible. Undoubtedly we find in such a primitive society as the Australian many institutions still in a state of confusion, which on a higher level are quite well determined and differentiated. But the more confused the phenomena, the clearer our conceptions must be in order exactly to follow the different ways in which the elements are interwoven and combined. What is an isolated and defined institution in a higher society, may be merely a side or aspect of social phenomena in a lower one. But it is highly important to use definite concepts to denote such aspects or sides in undifferentiated societies, because it often widens our horizon and puts our ideas to a crucial test.

I wish to add that in the present case it is only the necessity for clearness and convenience that makes a definition necessary. The domain of primitive jurisprudence cannot be considered fully explored yet; the chief aim of a good definition is to state the proper problems and to show the groups of facts that must be inquired into in order to give right answers to the problems proposed.


Having thus justified the scope of the present book and indicated the general lines on which its task should be carried out, a few words must be devoted to the method of dealing with the evidence. We start our investigations with (1) the Australian first-hand information, and (2) a general idea of the object of our research, that is a general idea of the individual family. This implies that during the process of research these two sets of data must be checked against each other. On the one hand we must continually extract from the evidence all that corresponds to our general idea of the individual family; on the other hand this idea must be specialized and determined according to the evidence.

It is clear enough what, broadly speaking, is meant by the Individual Family. But what exactly will be the features of this institution in Australia, that must be extracted from the evidence. This evidence is, on the other hand, given in the majority of cases in a very crude state, without reference to any theoretical points of view. The facts are often given in a purely casual and colloquial way. It is part of the task to sift out each one of them, and to ask if it can have any bearing on the present subject. Many facts that seemed not to bear immediately on it, yet furnished some very useful inferences. In short, the first duty of such a work as the present is to ask from the evidence right questions in the right way.

But even if a certain point has been settled upon as essentially important to be inquired into, and information referring to it has been gathered, the task is not yet finished. The statements collected on this point will as a rule present more or less radical discrepancies. After we have heard twenty opinions on the same subject which by no means agree with each other, to which shall we adhere? A method of dealing with evidence must be fixed upon. In the first place the statements are of the most heterogeneous character and value. They must be submitted to some criticism before use can be made of them.

After the degree of their reliability has been settled, and after, by a criticism of each statement, some of the contradictions have been removed, it must be considered how far the differences between the statements may be regarded as due to irreducible, local variations of the given institution; in other words, the problem must be discussed from the geographical standpoint.

Finally a certain system of weighing the evidence must be chosen, so as to draw from it the most correct conclusions, and never to prove too much or too little. So there are three different processes: criticism, localization of differences, and drawing of conclusions; all of which must be done according to a careful and conscientious method.

A few remarks about the latter must be given here without any attempt at completeness. That preliminary criticism is necessary seems hardly to need justification; to look at the irreducible inconsistencies and contradictions of a series of statements concerning any given point is enough. But such criticism must not be arbitrary; it must conform to strict rules. [27]

The first point to which attention must be paid, is to ascertain the exact meaning of a given statement. As many of our informants do not use exact terminology but write in a colloquial language, often spoilt by literary pretensions, we occasionally run the risk of being misled by a word or by a turn of expression. [28] In other words, it never seems advisable to cling blindly to the verbal meaning of a statement before having put it to the test. So, for instance, in the problem whether the natives live in families or tribes—the family and tribe having been exactly defined, a phrase like "the aborigines live in families" may not be accepted as argument, for by the word "family" the author may possibly have understood what we have designated by the word tribe. [29] I shall, as a rule, quote each statement in extenso, and give, if necessary, an interpretation or correction. [30] The sense in which a word is used may be, in the majority of cases, easily settled from the context, examples given by the author, and other instances where he uses the same word. When a phrase is hopelessly ambiguous, it is wrong to make any use of it.

After the sense of a statement has been settled more or less reliably, two cases must be discriminated. If the statement is purely a record of facts, and, still better, if it is exemplified by concrete instances, there is generally no reason to disbelieve it, especially if in the general character of the author there is a guarantee of his trustworthiness; and if he actually has had good opportunities of observing the natives. But if the statement involves a judgment, a generalization, or abstraction, we must be much more careful. Broadly speaking, statements of this latter kind are generally much more contradictory than mere statements of fact. It will be seen that the information concerning the treatment of women by their husbands, concerning sexual matters, and concerning the authority of husbands, will present many more discrepancies than the information concerning the modes of obtaining wives, economics, and other concrete questions. The first category implies much more abstraction and qualifying judgment than the second. It must be borne in mind that statements of the first category are the result of a long and complicated series of mental processes, and that their quality and value is dependent upon many conditions. All these conditions must be mentally analyzed and each of them must be taken into account in order to ascertain its bearing upon the final form in which we find the statement. The conditions in question may be shortly set forth as follows: Did the author possess all the qualities necessary for a good ethnographer? Had he good opportunities to observe the natives and a good method of doing so? Were the latter still in a primitive condition, or in an advanced state of decay? A few words may be said in the first place about this last point.

Only in exceptional cases is it possible to say anything definite on the state of the natives the author had under observation. [31] In general, it may be taken as a rule that all writers who were in any close contact with aborigines, had to do with fairly degenerated specimens. They were usually squatters or missionaries, and had to do with blacks hanging round farms or with remnants of tribes gathered in missions. [32] Their immediate observations, especially in sociological matters, which are at once affected, when conditions of life change, and when blacks become degenerate, could be of little value. But there was still the possibility of gathering information from the natives themselves, who could, properly questioned, give their recollections of the bygone times. This was the way in which probably A. W. Howitt got so much of the most valuable information on the Kurnai tribe, which he never saw in its primitive state. But only few writers had the mental training and the opportunities of the writer just mentioned. And the majority probably communicated to us simply what they saw—not even considering the problem how far the conditions then present tallied with the primitive normal state of things in the aboriginal society. Allowance must therefore be always made for the degeneration of the blacks as a possible factor affecting ethnographical evidence. In many cases there will be no room for doubt. For instance, in sexual matters it is obvious that contact with the white man invariably fosters a great deal of depravity. An improvement in sexual morality may, on the other hand, take place if the natives are gathered in a mission station. [33] But this cannot have any connection with aboriginal custom.

If, therefore, it is found, as is in fact the case, that all writers, who either inquired into the matter with really scientific precautions, or had to do with pure, primitive material, inform us that, speaking broadly, the sexual relations were strictly regulated; and on the other hand, all settlers, casual observers, and people who obviously had already corrupted blacks under observation, speak of unrestricted immorality and even of incest, [34] it may be safely said that the second type of statements refer to degenerate blacks. Here the general a priori suppositions quite harmonize with what is to be found in the evidence; the second type of statements may be therefore fittingly discarded. In the same way it may be assumed that with a general dissolution and corruption in the aboriginal society, and with all kinds of vices engrafted upon it the general level of conjugal affection and the standard of treatment of the wife by her husband went down. The contrary cannot possibly be assumed.

So it appears that, even from the quality of the material the observer had at his disposal, some useful hints may be obtained as to the direction in which our statements need correction. Furthermore it was said above that useful indications can be gathered from the way in which the observer was in contact with the natives; whether the observer was a long time in contact with the natives or only a short time; whether he made his observations with deliberate scientific aim, or whether they were made casually and recollected afterwards; whether he had good opportunities for observation, and under what conditions this was carried on, and so forth.

All these questions may throw much light upon the relation between the writer's statement in its final form and the actual state of things to which it refers. These questions are also in close connection with the point mentioned below, touching the profession of an observer. For it is usually the privilege of the missionaries to be in a long and intimate contact with the natives, to have their confidence, and sometimes to understand even their language, while it is the ethnographer's privilege to understand the aim of his inquiries. In some cases there are fairly detailed data about these points, and such information about the conditions and circumstances under which the writer got his evidence greatly increases its value. In all cases where the evidence is contained in memoirs, diaries, descriptions of travels, expeditions, etc., it is possible to form an idea as to what kind of relation existed between the respective author and the material of his observation. So it appears that Curr and Salvado had especially good opportunities; it is possible to picture the way in which authors like Collins, Taplin, Grey, Eyre, Lumholtz, Angas, Strehlow and others, came into contact with the natives. This is much more difficult to say in the case of writers who wrote only short articles (Oldfield, Stanbridge, Bonney, Palmer, Cameron and others), which merely give information without any details as to how it was gathered. In the case of ethnographers, observing themselves or collecting the observations of others—like Howitt, Spencer and Gillen, Roth, and some others—we might expect to be informed minutely about the way in which they obtained their information. Unfortunately this is only partly the case.

The questions how the condition of the natives, and how the method of observation can affect the final statements have been discussed at length. It was done in order to exemplify how from such considerations may be gathered useful hints, nay even positive indications, as to the direction along which the given statement may be corrected, if corrected at all. There are, besides these points, several other important points referring to the qualifications of the ethnographer that cannot be omitted when any correction of statement is made. There is no room to discuss them in detail; they would lead us too far into the domains of methodology, of ethnographic research. They must be enumerated briefly. So it is quite clear, that not only the personal character but also the profession or occupation of the writer influences very considerably the value and trustworthiness and the character of the information given. The personal character of the ethnographer is a rather delicate matter, but nobody could deny that some authors inspire us with the belief that everything they say is their real conviction, based on solid foundations of facts, while other authors fail to produce the same impression on the reader. It is also clear that a missionary, a police trooper, or an ethnologist, will each look with different eyes upon the same facts; each of them will group the essential features and generalize quite differently, and will express himself in terms which are by no means of the same degree of exactness and clearness. Ultimately each man will have his professional bias: the missionary will be influenced by his creeds and his moral ideas, the ethnologist by his theories, and the squatter or police trooper will sometimes, where there is room for it, allow play to his feelings, which usually are not ones of pure sympathy for the natives. As a matter of fact, it is allowable to speak without exaggeration of professional types of information. That the utmost caution is necessary, and that thus only are to be found indications of the directions in which it is possible to interpret some possible error, is an almost superfluous statement. Of course a careful and complete study of the whole work of an author enables one to judge much better how far his profession or personality may have affected his statements. And this is also the reason why an ethnologist confining himself to a small ethnic area is in a better position than the general one. For he is able to know his sources better, having a much more restricted number to deal with.

Not less important as regards our attitude towards a given writer's statements is the purpose with which his book is written. The greatest confidence of course is inspired by books written with a purely scientific aim. Even the articles of observers who are not men of science are apparently much more carefully written if they are intended for purely scientific use in serious scientific journals (as some articles in the Journal of the Ethnological Society, Jour. Anthrop. Inst., etc.). Memoirs, descriptions of travel, and so on, give— ceteris paribus—less guarantee; often much more room is left to phantasy, to a tendency to amuse, perhaps puzzle or interest. Concrete instances of this could be easily adduced.

At the end of all his mental operations, each observer had to generalize his observations, to express their common features, and formulate these in abstract and exact language. Here the most important points are personal intelligence and some mental training. The first is to be found even among the casual writers; for only people of a somewhat higher level of mentality would care to observe and write down their observations. But mental training in a scientific direction is exclusively to be found among the ethnographers; some of them stand far above all our other informants in matters of rather theoretical aspect, especially if social phenomena are concerned. And we may usually, in case of contradiction, take this information as the firm basis from which to start the operation of criticism. But on the other hand, there are reasons to mistrust general opinions laid down by professional ethnologists, for they are very often not simple generalizations, but theoretical inferences. Cases will be often met with where a general remark, which could be taken as a statement of fact—and often is given in such a form—appears after a more careful analysis to be quite a conjectural deduction from purely hypothetical premisses, or from incorrect definition. In all cases— e. g. where actual existence of group marriage is alleged—it will appear that this statement is a deduction from certain phenomena, which allow of quite a different interpretation, and that the term "marriage" is defined somewhat loosely. [35]

To sum up briefly: criticism of statements has in the first place to ascertain the exact and correct verbal meaning of each of them. In the second place many general but sure hints are afforded by a detailed analysis of the conditions under which the evidence was obtained and set forth by the author. The important points here are: quality of the material under observation; modes in which evidence was obtained (by inquiries from natives, by immediate observation, etc.); character, profession, and training of the informant, including possible bias, theoretical, moral, and personal. All these points appear at first sight rather impalpable, but as shown above they may afford good hints, especially if taken into account simultaneously.

Now we pass to the second point indicated above on page 18 , namely, the discussion of the local differences which may introduce some apparent contradictions into the statements. Assuming the possession of a series of statements, the correctness of which we accept within certain limits, there may still be some contradictions between them, due to the differences between the tribes, to which these statements refer. The task will be consequently to indicate these differences and to give certain reasons why some of the contradictions may be dealt with in this way and why others cannot be reduced to local differences. In the first place, in order to facilitate the application of the geographical point of view, the survey of the statements will always be made in the same geographical order. I begin with the south-east end of the continent and proceed then westwards and northwards, enumerating first the tribes of Victoria, then the tribes of the South territory of South Australia. I proceed over New South Wales to the Central and Northern tribes; then to Queensland, ending with West Australia. The order is kept only roughly without pedantic accuracy, which cannot be achieved, as many writers do not even trouble to localize their statements with anything approaching exactitude.

It may now be laid down in which cases it is possible to point with certainty to local differences between the different tribes and reduce to these factors the contradictions which are found. If the same author, who is known to be well-informed concerning the whole area (either personally or through reliable informants), points expressly to such differences, there is no reason to disbelieve him. Many such local differences are indicated in the extensive works of Spencer and Gillen, and Howitt. As an example may be quoted the differences in sexual matters, pointed out by Howitt in Reports of the Smithsonian Institution (compare below, pp. 100 and 101 ). But even in the case of such reliable authors as the ones just mentioned it should always be carefully considered whether they knew with the same degree of exactness all the tribes they compare. Further, when there is independent information about geographically-separated tribes from reliable authors of the same degree of exactness, to whose information we have reason to ascribe the same weight, we may also safely point, if there are any contradictions, to local differences. But if quite contradictory statements about some tribe or tribes living in close neighbourhood are given, we hardly feel inclined to attribute these contradictions to local differences. A very important indication of the advisability of introducing the element of geographical differences is further the question whether the tribes in question are in general different from each other, and whether they belong to different types of culture. Although very little can be said on that point, still on quite broad lines we must, e. g. acknowledge that the Kurnai were a tribe with many singularities, that the Arunta and other Central tribes clearly differ from the S.E. tribes, etc. As we shall make very little use of the geographical factor, what is said above may be considered sufficient on that point. [36]

Passing now to the third and perhaps most important methodological point, we may say a few words as to what method should be adopted for the drawing of conclusions from evidence considered as reliable. This is neither a logical proceeding, nor is it a kind of induction. Properly speaking, a witness's statement may be either accepted or rejected. But in this book importance has been laid on presenting the evidence in a quite definite way. Evidence is not used in order to exemplify or to prove a given assertion on a special point. Such a proceeding appears to be rather dogmatic, for usually in such cases the author gives preference to an a priori opinion, and looks afterwards for its confirmation in the ethnographic first-hand literature. Owing to the contradictory character of the latter, practically anything can be proved from it. In the present book the author merely sets forth the problem; for instance, such quite general questions are asked, as: How are wives obtained in Australia? What is the treatment of the wife by her husband? What are the sexual relations in general? and so forth. On each of those general topics evidence is afterwards collected, without prejudice or preference given to any type of opinion. There is, therefore, much less risk of bias or one-sidedness; the whole care is to make the best of the evidence thus collected; and a series of statements upon a given subject is presented. Each of them gives information on several points at once; at any rate each of them may usually be analyzed into a series of simpler statements. And this analytical operation will be our first task. There is always one or more assertion sufficiently general, or simple, which will be contained in all or in the majority of our statements and will be contradicted by none. These may be considered as established by our evidence. On other points there will be contradictions. Often these contradictions will be only apparent, due to a confusion in terminology, or to the defective way in which the writers have expressed themselves. Here recourse must be had to our first form of criticism, to the ascertainment of the exact meaning of each statement (verbal criticism). If that fails, the contradictions must be recognized as real ones. In case they cannot be attributed to any local differences, we must try to eliminate them. And on this point recourse must be had to the criticism of the statements from the point of view laid down above ( p. 25 ). Some of the statements may be discarded as untrustworthy; the correct interpretation of others may be determined; and thus the contradictions will vanish. Sometimes this is impossible; the contradictions remain irreducible. Then they must be simply pointed out, and there is nothing further to be done. Undoubtedly much greater service is rendered to science by pointing out really irresolvable contradictions and obscurities than by establishing fallacious certitude.

Especially if on the part of the field ethnographers there could be expected some interest in the results of theoretical research, such indications of contradictions on points, the theoretical importance of which should be proved, would be of real value. [37] Only such a co-operation between theoretical writers and observers can give us satisfactory results. To make indifferent observation is easy. To note essential things and give useful observations is impossible without theoretical knowledge and an insight into the laws of sociology. It would be better if field ethnographers would consider the questions of theoretical writers, and take into account in their scheme of investigations the utilization subsequently to be made of their work.

Returning, after this digression, to our theme, it may be observed that the method of dealing with evidence is very simple: there is the analytical operation, of finding the essential points contained in a series of statements; in other words, the operation of analyzing these statements into simple factors and stating which are common to all the statements and may be accepted as well established. A further task consists in pointing out the irreducible contradictions. This operation obviously contains all the others—criticism of the text and contents of the statement, and reduction of contradictions to local differences. It is evident also that, although theoretically the criticism of statements was dealt with first, then the question of geographical differences, and in the third place the problem of handling a series of statements, as a matter of fact, the first step is to make a survey of all our evidence, resolving it into a set of problems, and then to take each problem separately; in this way we shall find contradictions and endeavour to eliminate them, and we shall be compelled to exercise criticism on the statements.

I would like to add here that to help us in the decision between several contradictory opinions, there is still one criterion beside the hints enunciated above (which refer to the character of each individual statement). I mean the criterion whether the final opinion drawn from the evidence is compatible or not with the other well-established features of Australian sociology. When deciding to adhere to some view, which is not established by a unanimous and categoric opinion of all our informers, it is always necessary to put this view to the test of other well-established facts. There are some views which are quite incompatible with the general conditions of life in the Australian aboriginal society and with the resulting mode of living. As a good example of such deductive demonstrations we may quote the passage in Curr, where he arithmetically proves that the statement of Dawson about the Australian chiefs and their court cannot be true. [38] Another example is afforded by the interesting passage of Howitt quoted below in extenso ( pp. 113 and 114 ), which relates how the author thinks that our ideas on group marriage should be modified by what we know about the aboriginal mode of living and about the natural character of men. As a rule it is well always to try to ascertain whether our conclusion does not stand in contradiction with some part of our well-founded knowledge. Thus in practice it is always necessary to start with a crude series of facts, and in any attempt at criticism to be guided by the contradictions found in them. If then criticism and corrections, made according to our rules, remove the contradictions, we have another guarantee that our corrections were good. For if a series of statements, which at first sight seemed to present irreconcilable contradictions, do agree after we have applied to such of them as were either in a minority or appeared vague or came from uncertain sources, corrections or interpretations (the latter based on principles laid down quite independently), it may be concluded that our reason for applying the correction and the way in which we have done it, were sufficiently correct and justified.

To use a series of statements as they are given would be in the majority of cases quite impossible. All the contradictions imaginable would be present, and we should either helplessly drop any attempt at forming an opinion, or we should get out of the difficulty by a purely arbitrary act. We could by an act of faith believe in some of our writers and accept only what they say or what confirms their opinion, and completely ignore any contradictory information. That would even enable us to form a much more certain and detailed view on many points. Our way of proceeding compels us often to relinquish a very precise, definite opinion, which we could hold if we accepted one statement to be ultimately true, and neglected the others; but it gives us at least the conviction that any more precise conclusion would be unfounded. That all the corrections must be carried out on grounds of ample justification and in the most discreet way is quite clear. It will be seen that in the subsequent pages only rarely have statements been amended, and then the reasons are always given. But it is important that even these few corrections should be done systematically. The above indications will, I trust, help to a certain degree to justify the method adopted in dealing with evidence.

Our methodological considerations were necessarily taken on broad lines. To give a detailed and precise description of the method of treating the Australian material would require a whole volume, for there are in all individual cases so many influences and possibilities that may be considered as sources of error, and so many elements to take into consideration, that it would be nearly impossible to trace all the mental processes that have to be followed here. I found it also impossible to give explicitly all my reasons in each place where I ventured to correct a statement. Nevertheless, I have not thought it superfluous to give in outline the chief points adopted in this criticism. In the first place even these general hints will be quite sufficient to indicate the writer's motives to every one who has had to deal in an analogous way with ethnographical materials. And then they will serve as a proof that these questions, doubts, and precautions, were present to his mind while weighing the evidence. In the last place, as science is essentially based on mutual help and mutual agreement, if we had a whole series of workers on a given ethnographic material, a certain general assent, if such could be obtained, would undoubtedly be the best criterion of reliability of sources. But matters should be openly and explicitly discussed.

To sum up, the chief methodological principle which we have striven to keep always before us, is a thorough clearness about every step of our reasoning. In the first place, therefore, care has been taken to give an explicit and a perfectly clear survey of the statements; and to draw conclusions in such a way that all our reasons for drawing them shall be as clear as possible to the reader, so as to enable every one to apply his own criticism as easily as possible at any stage of our reasoning. Necessarily in a study such as the present one, some allowance must be made for a subjective element in the final judgments on the value of the evidence. But just as the writer must ask for a certain amount of trust in his scientific judgment, so he is bound to give every means to the reader to enable him always fully to judge and exercise his criticism on the use the author is making of this liberty.

In order to achieve this as far as in us lies, the methodological principles set forth above have been adopted. They are in short, as follows: We accept as facts those points in which all statements agree. On controversial points we try to eliminate the contradictions by applying textual criticism to the statements, or by pointing out the possible sources of error, or by showing that these contradictions must be set down to local differences between the tribes. In drawing conclusions, we shall point out those facts which are well established, and also point out those which are more or less uncertain or contradictory. The sources used are not very numerous, but it is hoped that they will be found sufficient. They have been impartially chosen and include each of the various types of Australian evidence.