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  • Comparing Cultures in Southern Ethiopia:From Ethnography to Generative Explanation
  • Jon G. Abbink

This special issue of Northeast African Studies is an exercise in comparative ethnography and theoretical exploration. It starts with the following question: Why is there such remarkable regional diversity in the cultural traditions and modes of life in the societies of southern Ethiopia, and with what kind of theoretical and ethnographic understanding can we explain it? The question has often been posed as to what extent these small-scale societies with their notable linguistic commonalities (being of the Omotic, Cushitic, and Surmic language families and thus per group suggesting a common "origin") have shared social and economic traits, political institutions, ideologies, and ritual complexes, and what has generated their paths of differentiation.

Apart from evoking fascinating ethnographic questions, this issue also raises theoretical problems, of wider significance outside the Ethiopian ethnographic context, related to structural comparison, societal change, and the import of underlying ecological and socioeconomic factors or processes that fuel cultural differentiation. Regional comparison is a well-established research tradition in anthropology and has many forms. There is the school of statistical comparison and correlation, going back to the now largely ignored work of Harold Driver and his group (Driver 1973; Jorgensen 1974), and which is partly continued in the electronic journal World Cultures and in the large number of studies of the Human Relations Areas Files at Yale University. The work of [End Page 1] C. Lévi-Strauss on American Indian mythology is another form, marked not only by erudition and controversial comparisons, but also by inspiring research questions about the workings of the human mind and the properties of "culture" as an abstract system or human predisposition. For many "classical" areas of anthropological theorizing, like Papua New Guinea/Melanesia, southern Africa, Sudan, and Indian South America, there has emerged a host of publications on regional-structural comparison (for some examples, see Barth 1975, 1987; Kuper 1982; Rivière 1984; Barnard 1992; Simonse 1992; Knauft 1993). Remarkably, Ethiopia, a country of much internal variety yet with a notable history of intergroup relations and a basis of similarities in cultural traditions, has lagged behind as a domain of study and has not been prominent in the international debate (except of course in the realm of paleoanthropology). While several authors have already called for such a comparative effort, the work done on cultural traditions in Ethiopia and adjacent regions has been fairly limited, and often the attempts made can only be found in monographs on certain ethnic groups or culture areas aiming to place them in a wider regional setting.1

This volume, the result of a pioneering workshop in Oxford in 1999 organized by D. Freeman and E. Watson (then of the London School of Economics and Political Science and of Cambridge University), tries to restart the discussion in a more concentrated manner (see Freeman's "Introduction" below), somewhat analogous to previous efforts like, e.g., A. Kuper's "regional comparison" approach (1982) on southern Africa, although with more eye to agency and praxis. It goes without saying that this kind of comparative study must be based in solid ethnography, and there is indeed plenty of it in this special issue. But the empirical fact that many "customs," kinship patterns, religious ideas, and rituals are shared and were even partly exchanged among southern Ethiopian groups points to the fascinating transgroup connections that must be explored in a more theoretical and systematic fashion.

The study of the above themes allows scholars to combine historical, structuralist, and agency-oriented approaches. For instance, a study of the cosmologies and worldviews of people in the south reveals that the role of "dual structures" in this culture area is remarkable, referred to by Donham in his analysis of the Omotic-speaking Maale, and already the [End Page 2] subject of study since the findings of the German Frobenius Institute expeditions in Ethiopia of the 1930s and 1950s (Jensen 1953; Straube 1957; see also Orent 1970 and Almagor 1989) and the work on Oromo social structures (e.g., Haberland 1963; Hinnant 1989). Also among Surmic-speaking agro-pastoral groups, such as the Bodi, Tishana (Abbink 1992b), and Suri, dual clan orders...


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