Age Differentiation

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Age Differentiation


Any analysis of social structure is concerned with the integration of social groups and the recognized network of status positions that are part of, or cut across, those groups. Expectations in terms of interpersonal behavior patterns are formulated by the role differentiation appropriate to status distinctions. In all societies only two reference points for the ascription of status seem to be universal: sex and age.

The institutionalization of age makes it clear that cultural rather than biological factors are of prime importance in determining the content of status. All human societies recognize a number of life stages, to which rather diffuse patterns of activities, attitudes, prohibitions, and obligations are ascribed. Age-categories may be few in number— e.g., youngsters, mature adults, and elderly people —or they may be numerous. For example, the Kikuyu of central Kenya have six age-categories for males and eight for females, emphasizing the continuous development of the individual as a social person. An age-category, as Eisenstadt has written, is a generalized role disposition into which specific roles may be built (1956, p. 22).

Age-grades. Ascribed roles relating to age may be specific, defining and limiting the nature of interconnected roles. The total range of age-defined roles may constitute a graded system, which emphasizes the progressive movement from role to role, i.e., from grade to grade, and prescribes the relationships between people in different grades. There is usually a specific time for moving from a younger grade to an older one, often ritually established (or at least marked) by rites de passage. In this case there is a periodic achievement of increasing seniority.

Persons of junior status may give respect and some degree of obedience to those of more senior status; conversely, the seniors expect deference but may also acknowledge obligations to assist, teach, test, or lead their juniors. One of the best-known cases of age-grades is that of the Masai of east Africa: for males, the grades are uninitiated youths (ilaiyok); young men or warriors (ilmurran), who are divided between junior and senior subgrades; elders (ilmoruak), who are divided into junior, senior, and retired subgrades; and ancient elders (ildasati). There are thus seven effective age-grades. For each there are well-established norms that prescribe the general lines of behavior, expectations, and obligations, both in public life (community, political, and ritual affairs) and in private life (family, kinship, and interpersonal affairs).

This system establishes the areas of competence, privilege, and obligation of males in Masai society. These basic role allocations are supported and emphasized by secondary ascriptions of dress and deportment, access to food and drink, sexual opportunities, etc. For example, junior ilmurran are learning warriors, able-bodied men available for protecting the community and its herds and for acting as messengers among the dispersed population. They are responsible for fence building and for the laborious watering of stock in the dry season. They may not marry. They may not eat meat in public. They have characteristic dress, hair style, and weapons. Senior elders are the “elder statesmen” and experienced diplomatists of the community, whereas the junior elders implement decisions and policies. The senior elders are characterized as sober, reliable men and heads of established families.

Age-class. Of course, the difference between age-categories and age-grades is largely one of degree rather than of kind, but the distinction is worth making if only to indicate the special significance of age-grades. There is often a considerable emphasis on one particular age-grade. Significantly, this is frequently the one relating to adolescents and young adults: for example, the teen-agers of modern Western societies, the bachelors in a number of Melanesian societies, or the militant warrior grades of many societies that engage in raiding or warfare. Elsewhere, as in some Australian tribes, it is the grade of elderly men which is specially stressed and defined. The general explanation for this kind of emphasis is that the particular stage of life is one that either presents a special problem to the society or is of such importance that it calls for marked attention.

In these cases the collection of people currently occupying the grade form an age-class, which is a noncorporate grouping. Entry into the grade and, where relevant, transfer out of it, are accomplished individually. This may happen by the attainment of a certain biological state (puberty) or a socially recognized status change that typically occurs at certain age periods (marriage, birth of a child, etc.). People in the same grade, that is, playing the same role, have much in common: they share their differentiation from younger and older statuses; they engage in similar activities and often cooperate with each other; and they share the same orientation and aspirations. There may even be subgrades through which a person is promoted. Among the Oraon of eastern India there are three three-year periods in the adolescents’ grade. Among the south Irish peasants the lengthy age-grade between adolescence and the status of independent farm-owner and family head is divided between “boys” and “married boys.” On any social occasion (a party, a wake, before and after Sunday mass) men cluster according to their subgrades, which are separate from the cluster of family heads (Arensberg 1937). Thus, the adolescents, who are neither children nor adults, and the peasant men, who remain subservient to their aged fathers, are set apart and seek the companionship of each other in extrafamilial situations.

A quite different form of noncorporate age-class occurs in some cases in which men who were initiated together or during the same period are considered to have a special egalitarian and friendly relationship. Such men acknowledge a common status within the total range of classes, and they acquire increasing seniority contemporaneously. Yet these classes do not emerge as integrated groups: the class never assembles or acts as a unit, nor does it pass through a series of grades. Instead, like the Irish peasants, these men are able to order their relations with one another in terms of their equality (same class), seniority, or juniority. Among the nomadic Turkana of Kenya, where local groups are highly unstable, kinship narrow in range, and political institutions weakly developed, the age-class system is most important. “Wherever a man goes in the course of nomadic pastoral movement or in traveling, he finds men who are his age-mates, comrades, and supporters. He finds also his seniors and juniors to whom he can fairly easily adjust his attitudes and behavior. He can never become socially isolated” (Gulliver 1958, p. 917). A temporary cluster of nomadic neighbors has a ready-made pattern of relative statuses and behavior norms that give it form and a degree of cohesion. Among the Nuer of the Sudan, where local communities are stable and kinship is both wide in range and powerful in practice, the class statuses of equality, seniority, and juniority usefully reinforce these other relations.

The allocation of roles by age-category or age-grade and membership of an age-class are not entirely coterminous with physiological age. For example, although the normal expectation is that initiation occurs at a given age, it can be subject to various other factors: the individual’s position in the range of siblings and economic considerations, such as the need for labor in the family (where an initiate eschews labor) and the wealth of the father (where a payment is required). Co-initiates may thus be of ages ranging over a number of years. A man leaves the bachelor grade on marriage, but the time of first marriage is obviously dependent on many factors other than age. The young Irish peasant whose father dies early leaves the company of “boys” and becomes a family head more or less equal in status to his father’s coevals. The ascription of role and status by age is thus subservient to other factors arising in family and community life.

There is a further point about which there has been confusion in the past. It should be remembered that the age-grade always implies the differentiation, or ranking of role, according to ascribed status. This differs essentially from stratification by achievement. The grade systems within the male clubs of some Melanesian villages (e.g., Banks Islands and New Hebrides) have sometimes been wrongly classified together with true age systems. But, as Lowie pointed out long ago, these Melanesian grades are principally ends in themselves, scales of prestige in the village club, with little concrete content. True age-grades, age-classes, and age-groups are principally means to other social ends, and they commonly have a considerable elaboration of roles and relationships (Lowie 1916, pp. 962 ff.). The various grades of so-called elders among the Kikuyu of Kenya are comparable to the Melanesian grades, although more complex. It is detrimental to sociological understanding either to confuse these grades with the true age-group system of the Kikuyu (largely applicable only to young men) or to emphasize that all elders together constitute a single age-category. The latter is, of course, roughly correct, although entry into the category occurs only after a man’s first child is born. Since promotion through the grades is a matter of individual achievement (e.g., initiation of first child), ability to pay fees and provide feasts, and personal qualities, not all men reach the higher grades. Outstanding men may become acknowledged as leaders and are rapidly promoted. This may also be true for those with seniority in their patrilineages, for it is desired to have influential men in the higher grades where they may participate in political life.

Age-groups. In the literature of social anthropology there has been some confusion in the terminology of age and social structure. The terms “set,” “class,” “section,” and, misleadingly, “grade” have been used interchangeably and have thus lost discrete meanings. The age-group, as defined here, deliberately emphasizes the corporate nature of this social group that is based on the criterion of coevality. As a corporate group, it is a permanent collection of people who recognize a degree of unity, a unity that is acknowledged by nonmembers. Together, the members engage in particular activities, accept mutual obligations, and function as a group in relations with outsiders. Age-groups are usually named, may possess property (songs, shield designs, rituals, etc.), and are internally organized for decision making and leadership. Age-groups in historically known preindustrial cultures are largely confined to sub-Saharan Africa, certain Plains Indians of the United States, and some tribes of Brazil and India.

Transitory age-group system. Empirically, there are two kinds of age-group systems: those which initially concern younger men (and perhaps women) but become less important and disintegrate as the members grow older, and those which are comprehensive and affect people through the whole of their lives. The first type—the transitory age-group—is created specifically for the purpose of organizing the activities and potentialities of the younger men. It operates as an educational institution, providing a specialized means of bridging the gap between childhood and adulthood, and teaching young people the obligations and rights, manners, ritual behavior, sex knowledge, etc., of their society. In describing such groups among the Nupe of Nigeria, Nadel (1942) described this as “education for citizenship.” There, each age-group passes through three age-grades, until the members have reached the age of 30 (when most have married); then the group’s importance declines sharply, although older coevals retain a degree of comradeship.

The educational function of the transitory age-group may be less important than the organization of manpower. This was a feature of the centralized states of the Zulu, Swazi, Sotho, and Tswana in southern Africa. Among the Swazi, every five to seven years the paramount chief recruited a new age-group from the youths “about to mature and those who had recently matured” (Kuper 1952, p. 23). Each group had its own name, insignia, songs, barracks, and officials. Each operated, according to requirements, as a military regiment or as a labor battalion for chiefs and aristocrats. Age-groups had public responsibilities in national rituals and as “police.” Each group was, to a considerable extent, responsible for the good behavior of its members, and age-mates acknowledged reciprocal assistance and loyalty.

In noncentralized societies, such as Nandi, Kipsigis, or Kikuyu of east Africa, the age-group system is similarly applicable principally to the young men. Among the Nandi a new group is recruited approximately every 15 years, and each one occupies the “warrior” grade for the same period of time and then abdicates to its chronological successors. The group in the warrior grade is a highly integrated, active unit, but afterward it degenerates to no more than an age-class. Among the Kikuyu a new age-group was founded almost every year when the uninitiated youths were circumcised. Each group remained in the warrior grade for about 12 years, acting as a military regiment for its community; but after warriorhood a group lost virtually all significance.

Comprehensive age-group system. By contrast, in a comprehensive age system males form a new group when they are adolescents and remain in it for life, acting as a unit and engaging in intergroup relationships under their leaders. In many, but not all, cases an age-group passes successively through a series of age-grades so that the common roles of its members change from period to period; but transfer is specifically by group and not individually. The classic example is that of the Masai, whose age-grades have been described above. A new Masai age-group begins as junior learning warriors and is successively transferred to the grades of senior warriors, executive elders, senior elders and advisers, and retired old men. Transfer from one grade to the next is ideally accomplished through ritual. In fact, members of a group tend to shift gradually into an older grade before ritual prescription occurs, and indeed the imbalance between a real and ideal pattern is one of the forces impelling the ritual and maintaining the dynamics of the system. Nevertheless, age-groups, however well or poorly they follow the ideal, remain strong corporate groups. Alternate groups are linked through a father–son ideology, so that “fathers” are responsible for the transfer of their “sons” through the young men’s grades. These two groups associate in politico-jural opposition to the complementary groups—i.e., groups 1 and 3 against groups 2 and 4. Although the two younger groups have pronounced military duties, the principal significance of Masai age-groups is in political affairs and in the wider field of social control. With some-what unstable local communities, very shallow kin-groups, and no specialized political institutions, public life among the Masai is administered through the age-group system.

Other examples of age-groups passing through a series of age-grades can be found in a number of west African societies. Among the Ibo of eastern Nigeria young men’s groups are allocated such tasks as clearing paths and market places, cutting forests, and guarding the settlement; older groups act as “police,” and elders’ groups act as arbitrators, conciliators, and repositories of law and custom. Each group provides mutual aid for and exercises collective discipline over its members.

A quite different system applied in a few Plains Indian tribes—Blackfoot, Mandan, Gros Ventre, Arapaho, and Hidatsa. A new group was made up of coeval youths who individually purchased the right of entry from a sponsor in the next older group. Groups aimed to gain possession over sets of rights and paraphernalia that were strictly graded and consisted chiefly of songs and dances. Achievement of a further grade was by collective purchase of the rights from their existing owners, and not by virtue of age; and a group that had sold its rights might exist outside the system until it later purchased rights in a new grade. Unfortunately, despite a considerable literature, the sociological aspects of these systems are far from clear; the nature of intragroup and intergroup relations, and their connection with social control and other activities, is vague (e.g., Lowie 1916). Useful comparison with the graded African systems is not, therefore, possible.

Not all African age-groups occupy specific grades. Among the Jie of Uganda, for example, initiation and group membership primarily give ritual efficacy to a man, and groups are principally significant in ritual contexts. In the frequent performances of public rituals a group’s activities are given a general orientation in the range of assessed seniority between all extant groups: the junior-most groups act as servants and messengers and get the smallest shares of sacrificial meat; middle groups form the basic congregation and learn ritual procedures; the senior-most groups are conveners, ritual experts, and prayer leaders, and they get the best shares of meat. The actual allocation of tasks depends on the numbers of men in attendance on a particular occasion. Men invariably sit in their groups at rituals, and each group has its own senior men and leaders (Gulliver 1953).

Age-villages. The ungraded age-group system of the Nyakyusa of southern Tanganyika is probably unique. There, boys form their own distinct hamlets, separate from those of their fathers and older and younger brothers. Eventually, these become fully independent villages of adult coevals with their wives and children. Each has its own selected headman, and these villages form the basis of new chiefdoms in the territorial expansion of the tribe. In each generation, ideally, an old chiefdom divides into two; the old chief is replaced by his eldest sons, and the fathers’ villages by those of their sons. Because of intervillage movement, the coeval basis of mature villages tends to diminish, although it persists strongly as the ideal for egalitarian cooperation among villagers. Wilson considers that this system is directly related to potential conflict between father and sons and the need to segregate the generations to avoid the fear of sexual shame and incest (Wilson 1949; 1951). The regularization of intergenerational conflict is also apparent in aspects of the Kikuyu and Jie systems, although, in contrast, father-son cooperation is integral to the Masai system.

Kinship and age-groups. Empirically, there is a marked difference between the societies in which comprehensive age-group systems occur and those in which age-group systems apply only to younger age-categories. Where social roles are defined in a centralized political system and/or a well-developed kinship system (especially one involving corporate kin-groups), age-groups have little or no importance among older men. As men mature, marry, and become family heads, right-holders in property, and responsible citizens, their obligations are to their families and kin-groups and to their political superiors. In these institutions men find their rights safeguarded and assistance rendered. Age-grouping cuts across and thus conflicts with both political and kinship ties. Furthermore, an essential feature of age-groups is the fraternal equality of co-members (age-mates) and the collective ascription of social roles by universalistic criteria. This conflicts with the possibilities of specialization and the achievement of privilege by individual effort or good fortune (e.g., birth) in a stratified structure. Among younger men this conflict matters less, for such people tend to be less differentiated. Since they usually have not yet begun to acquire obligations and rights of a kinship or political nature, it is highly convenient to use their physical power for military and labor services. Conversely, where a comprehensive age-group system operates, there are significant roles and social functions that are not determined by kinship and state. There may be no specialist political institutions and only a limited kinship system, as among the Masai and Plains Indians. Alternatively, the field of activities involving age-groups is strictly separate from the field involving kinship. Among the Jie, age-groups are devoted to the administration of rituals, a field in which kinship is not invoked; the Arusha of Tanganyika maintain a Masai-like age-group system in their autonomous local communities, and the field of kinship applies largely to nonlocal and extracommunity affairs. In brief, the establishment of social roles by kinship and by a specialist political system takes precedence over their establishment by age; kinship especially is dominant where conflict might arise through antipathetic roles.

Women’s groups. Before marriage, girls’ age-groups sometimes occur, but the rights and obligations individually acquired in marriage and motherhood effectively curtail relationships by age. Affairs purely for women are often organized by married women’s groups, but the criterion of age is infrequently utilized and the groups are weakly developed.

Political significance. It is sometimes assumed that age-group systems as such establish a distinct type of political system. Only for the Masai peoples is this true. Among others, to be sure, most age-groups systems have political aspects (such as among the Swazi, Nandi, and Ibo), but the political systems of these societies are very dissimilar. Jie age-groups serve ritual requirements and have only marginal and indirect political significance, and Plains Indians’ groups seem not to have been politically important.

The literature. Despite considerable literature on age institutions, sociological analysis has been inadequate. Problems of historical reconstruction have loomed larger than functional interpretations. One of the critical problems has been the confusion of concepts resulting from the concern with ideal structure rather than careful observation of the personnel involved in age institutions, their respective roles, and the dynamics of these institutions in relation to the social structure.

The best general survey of the field is by Eisenstadt (1956). In addition, we need to have reliable information on modern change in age-grades and age-groups. Older systems have sometimes continued in changed form but with marked continuity of principle and function or simply persist in diluted importance and new systems seem to emerge. The reasons for this are not clear. Too often, ageoriented grades and classes in modern Westernized society have been considered as a social-psychological problem, or as an offshoot of political development; more sociological analysis of them is needed.

P. H. Gulliver

[Directly related are the entriesLife cycle; Ritual; Social structure. Other relevant material may be found inPolitical anthropology.]


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