Pashtun Social Structure: Cultural Perceptions and Segmentary Lineage Organization - Understanding and Working Within Pashtun Society
24 Pages Posted: 30 Sep 2011
Date Written: August 3, 2011
The Pashtun are an ethnic group that straddles the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and are the largest group in Afghanistan. Historically, when Afghanistan has been united, it has been under Pashtun rule. Pashtun rulers of Afghanistan have come from the Durrani Pashtun, who are a western Pashtun group. The Durrani learned governance from serving under Turko-Mongolian dynasties. These dynasties tried to rule only the most populous, productive areas, leaving marginal areas ungoverned. Pashtun social structure is what anthropologists term a segmentary lineage system. In such a system, there is a hierarchy of social groupings starting at the local level, then proceeding upward through various levels to an entire ethnic group. These relationships are based on kinship and shared culture. At any given level (local, regional, ethnic group), social segments operate only in opposition to equivalent segments (local kinship group vs. local kinship group, regional group vs. regional group, etc.). Leadership is situational rather than institutionalized. Both leadership and segmentary organization end when conflict ends. The cultural ideal is egalitarianism. Pashtun society is atomized in the sense that it is based on the most basic element, the individual (especially the individual man). Each man considers himself independent and self-sufficient, and simultaneously in competition with all others Pashtun men. This belief in self-sufficiency, and the perpetual competition, make it difficult for Pashtun to unite for cooperative projects, or even to engage in economic exchange. The ideal economic exchange among the Pashtun is reciprocal and balanced. The Pashtun consider all non-Pashtun to be inferior. A Pashtun man may engage in economic relations with non-Pashtun without losing honor, but also considers it acceptable to cheat non-Pashtun. On the other hand, because of competition within Pashtun society, Pashtun men look to establish friendships with outsiders. The social structure determines how the Pashtun understand the actions of outsiders, and limits their capacity for responding to external intervention. Members of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) should understand and consider this social structure when dealing with the Pashtun. Segmentary lineage organization presents outsiders with both opportunities and challenges. It is highly important to understand this in such areas as (a) economic development), (b) Taliban force composition, (c) negotiation, and (d) the establishment of friendships and alliances. The report discusses these topics in some detail. The Pashtun on the one hand, and Western interveners on the other, are likely to have fundamentally different understandings in these areas. Pshtun conceptions of time are not fully understood. This is an important element of economic development, so it is vital to understand how the Pashtun view it.
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