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Paul Richards

Njala University

Our study of clash of institutions in post-war communities in rural Sierra Leone draws on the theory of institutional conflict and conflict mitigation developed by the anthropologist Mary Douglas, as part of a larger conversation between economists and anthropologists (and other social scientists) about institutional factors in economic and societal change.

Douglas proposed that there was a limited number of “elementary” (i.e. foundational) forms of institutions, based on two basic dimension of social regulation and social integration, as first proposed by Emile Durkheim.

Her basic typology recognized four of these basic ways of creating or ordering social institutions – sometimes labeled individualistic, hierarchical, enclave and isolate modes of ordering.

Pure examples of elementary forms rarely exist.  Most actual, real-life, working organizations are compromises between two or more of these basic modes of ordering.  This is because, in order to survive, a real-world social entity has to meet a range of challenges, to which the different organizational modalities are better or less well suited.

But combination and co-existence are difficult arts.  Not everything can be included in the mix without loss of coherence.  The army, for example, has a hierarchy of command, and rank-and-file soldiers in dug-outs are tightly bonded in “enclave” groups, with buddies willing to die for each other.  This creates enough problems when the authorities need to investigate battlefield abuse.  Think of the problems it would cause if individualist ordering was also tolerated, and soldiers could say that they acted on the battlefield out of a rational calculus of self-interest.

So combining elementary forms is a fine art, and tells us much about how an actual organization has evolved, and what challenges it has been painstakingly crafted to meet.  It is never a solution to suggest that when circumstances change organizations should simply merge, since all sorts of institutional incompatibilities then make themselves felt.  Established combinations and compromises have to be reworked to fit new needs.

An important part of Douglas’s theory concerns institutional dynamics.  Human collectivities do not just exist – they need to act.  Each elementary form has its own action principles.

Hierarchies delegate and refer.  Individualist orderings are motivated by competition.  Enclaves act united, and often typically share out tasks, responsibilities and rewards equally.  Isolate orderings are characterized by avoidance, including spreading out and moving on as potential neighbours move close by.

When institutional order is blocked the principle of action peculiar to each elementary form may go into overdrive.  The wheels slip, with sometimes spectacularly adverse consequences.

The threatened enclave may engage in effervescent revolutionary rage, or even contemplate collective suicide.  The hierarchy gums up with a surfeit of audit or other forms of over-administration.  Those ordered by individualism may compete to the point of destruction, as a bubble market finally bursts.  Isolates may simply run out of space, falling over the cliff in a scramble for mutual avoidance.

Avoiding these positive feedback loops is part of the art of founding institutions that work.  This is where the hybridity of most institutions becomes more readily apparent.  Rampaging soldiers are checked by hierarchical command and control.  The fervour of sects may be reduced when as a consequence of internal success, they seek outlet for tithes, and become engaged in management of investments.  Hybridity creates robustness and stability.

Difficulty arises when settled internal accommodations are disrupted by changing external shifts, in the global economy for example.  Two such shifts have been of enormous consequence in the case of our case-study country, Sierra Leone.

Colonial pacification imposed on rural Sierra Leone, at the end of the 19th century, an institutional settlement encouraging accommodation between the political individualism of a landed elite, licensed by the British overlord, and the enclave ordering adopted for purposes of subsistence by a commoner class, many of whom were slaves by origin.

The system was well understood by all.  For example, young men came together to form groups efficiently to prepare their farms by hand labour.  Gang work breaks up tedium, and produces larger subsistence surpluses.  This labour runs on excitement.  Often – in former times at least – drummers accompanied the work and drove the group on by chiding the slow and praising the energetic.

Sometimes the musically-directed collective energy overran itself and fights would break out in the field.  A gang labour group had no means to settle these quarrels except by making one of the village chiefs a patron of the group.  Then the case would be transferred to that chief’s jurisdiction, and fines would be imposed.  Hierarchy and enclave combined to both stir youth energy and keep it under control.

This institutional settlement broke down under imperfectly applied international structural adjustment in the 1970s and 80s.  Government funds for chiefs dried up, while markets for local crops disappeared under a flood of misguidedly supplied “food aid”.

Both chiefs and youths survived as best they could, quite often by blatantly abusing the well-understood rules of the system of hybrid compromise linking big people to the youth underclass.  A paper on court cases for “woman damages” (Mokuwa et al. 2011) illuminates some of these abuses.

Many youth went to went to the cities, but found no jobs, except in the entourages of political gang masters.  The gang masters quarreled, and their entourages became the nucleii of opposed militia forces.  Civil war broke out.

A badly handled peace process separated the leaders of the rebel force from the rank-and-file. Now the enclavists, in small ‘buddy’ groups, rampaged free of any ‘big person’ restraint.  War weariness supervened, followed by a second, better handled attempt at peace, built around promises of jobs training.

Post-war economic recovery, driven by a resource boom, provided some options for a new start.  Signs of the spread of market-based individualism are widespread.  But what is not known is whether this growth of individualism is institutionally stable. Are market-based modes of individualism coordinated with, and regulated by, state-based hierarchical modes of institutional ordering, as in many countries, or are they representative of a “free floating” elementary form of individualism, liable to dangerous feedback bubbles?

Turning to the other institutional polarity, historically significant in Sierra Leone, have traditional forms of institutional accommodation between ‘big people’ and enclaved underclasses re-emerged, and are these re-emergent hybrid forms compatible with, or antagonistic to market-based modes of individualism? And how viable have they proved to be when faced with new challenges, such as the crisis caused by Ebola Virus Disease in 2014-15?

These, then, are major concerns for our research.  Our empirical strategy is to look for evidence regarding institutional ordering, considered as the independent variable, measured by, for example, behavior related to group activities, dispute resolution, gifting and labour mobilization, and to link this to evidence of attitudes and dispositions, or statements concerning values and preferences, treated as the dependent variable, and measured by answers to, for example, interview questions, or performance in experimental games.

One published piece of work illustrating this approach is the paper “Who believes in witches?” (Grijspaarde et al. 2013).  This draws upon a data set of household surveys in 182 forest-edge communities in seven chiefdoms in three districts bordering Liberia, and looks at variation in witchcraft beliefs and witch-finding behavior.

Distribution is non-random across the 182 villages.  Villages with the highest and lowest levels of market integration have the lowest levels of belief in and activity against witches.  The witchcraft problem is most intense in villages where there are higher levels of ambiguity about institutional ordering (where, in effect, the personal leadership/enclave hybrid and the market/state regulated hybrid fight for space and influence).

Wetland farming is identified as a locus of this contestation, and draws together a number of clashing institutional themes.  In particular, land ownership and labour mobilization in wetland rice cultivation are differently ordered under each of the two different institutional hybrids.  There are some cash transactions, but in many cases disputes would still be handled by families.

In cocoa farming, by contrast, there is less of a contest between older and newer institutional hybrids.  Market values are clearly in the ascendancy.  The main way to make and manage a cocoa farm is by hiring labour on an open market at competitive rates.  An indicator of clash of institutions (in this case its relative absence) would be to see whether non-payment of wages cases would be resolved by calling in the police rather than land-owning families or chiefs.



  1. Grijspaarde, H., Voors, M., Bulte, E., and Richards, P., 2013. Who believes in witches? Institutional flux in Sierra Leone, African Affairs 112/446, 22-47
  2. Mokuwa, E., Voors, M., Bulte, E. and Richards, P., 2011, Peasant grievance and insurgency in Sierra Leone: judicial serfdom as a driver of conflict, African Affairs,110/440, 339-366

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