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João de Pina Cabral
Antónia Pedroso de Lima


João De Pina-cabral

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1For years Antónia Pedroso de Lima and myself have collaborated in the undergraduate teaching of kinship and family. As our mutual research interests evolved we were increasingly drawn to the issue of the relation between family and power-both in authority as constitutive of familial relations and in familial relations as transmitting positions of authority. Over the past decade, as we witnessed an increased interest on the part of anthropologists in the study of elite contexts, a discussion of succession seemed to us to be long overdue.

2We decided to convene a research seminar to which we invited colleagues from Europe, Africa and North America who were working with elites. We wanted to enlarge the basis of the debate, not only with materials originating from different cultural backgrounds, but also from different anthropological perspectives. We could not fail to bring in also an historical viewpoint, particularly since the meeting was to take place in the palatial home of one of the principal Ancien Régime families of Portugal. The dedicated interest and warm hospitality of the present scion of the House of Fronteira and Alorna was a decisive contribution. The beautiful blue and white tiles (azulejos) depicting brave battles that surrounded us during our meetings, and the stucco figures of glorious ancestors that looked down upon our debates, could not fail to impress us with a sense of how insinuating can be the process of reproduction of social privilege.


3In Fortes’s classical formulations, succession appears as a corollary of ‘corporateness’. As he puts it: ‘succession... is the instrument for ensuring corporate continuity, given the principle of the corporate identity of organised pluralities, not the formulation of this principle...’ (1969: 305).

4Considering the ethnographic material we had at hand, such a dependence on a notion of corporateness seemed to reduce the operational value of the concept of succession. We had familial entities of very distinct kinds, and they could seldom be fitted into the Fortesian mould of corporateness - that is, ‘the perpetuation of an aggregate by exclusive recruitment to restricted membership that carries actual or potential equality of status and neutrality of interests and obligations in its internal affairs’ (1969: 306).

5The divergence is largely one of perspective: while Fortes presumed the existence of the social group (with its jural principles, its constituent parts, its organizational structure) as the starting-point of any sociological analysis, we approach it from the contrary angle of seeing social relations as a permanent flux within which, through the exercise of forms of power, entities arise that are never finally fixed nor ever permanent, remaining always dependent on the constant interplay of hegemonic and counterhegemonic forces (cf. Pina-Cabral 1998b).

6Thus, the problem of succession was no longer the traditional one of social reproduction: that is, seeing how groups invested persons with specific authority in order to survive. Rather, it was necessary to capture the processes by which personal and supra-personal entities formed and reformed each other through an interplay of power relations.


7In particular, we became interested in elite contexts - that is, groups that control specific resources by means of which they acquire political power and material advantage. In such contexts, the transmission across generations of the benefits resulting from control over these resources often depends on the maintenance of structures of authority. These may manifest themselves either by unitary succession to previously defined posts of authority or by a more general production of successors out of which figures of authority will emerge. In either case, there is choice to be exercised among those who might be eligible. The nature of the exercise of this choice, in turn, is a major factor in the future development of the relations between the members and their descendants.

8We wanted to find out more about how succession and leadership interplay with each other, particularly in contexts where such leadership is the very basis for the continuation of the group. That is, where the group does not exist per se, but is a function of the control of the resource that grants it elite status (whether it be family-held assets or community or ethnic monopolies, as in my own discussion of Macao’s Eurasian community).

9We wanted to bring together scholars whose personal and research experience was deeply divergent from an ethnographic viewpoint but who faced similar questions about the issue of succession, so as to suggest the possibility of some form of comparative approach.


10Reading through the draft versions of the papers, we soon concluded that the original title of our meeting – ‘Leadership and Succession in Elite Contexts’ - needed to be changed to one that better represented these concerns: ‘Choice Leadership and Succession’. ‘Choice’ appears to be one of the central topics that most chapters address - the issue of the nature of the choice of successor, of the means to make the choice and the legal, political and economic constraints behind that choice.

11Here a major aspect seems to be the confrontation between out-group factors versus in-group factors of candidate suitability. The compliance with external factors is indispensable for the preservation of the resource that keeps the group together. At the same time, however, this compliance challenges the groups’s internal coherence, by distorting the factors of ingroup suitability.

12The other side of the coin is the conflict between what Abner Cohen would have called universalistic and particularistic interests. The successful heir has to demonstrate that he is a successful leader in out-group terms. Yanagisako’s paper exemplifies clearly this quandary.

13Even in cases such as Nuno Monteiro’s aristocratic houses (casas) of seventeenth-century Portugal, where there seemed to be practically no choice as to who should be the heir, there always remained a margin for manipulation and for negotiation as to who succeeded to the leadership roles. Whether it is formal or informal, whether it is largely biologically determined or practically a form of election, whether it confers total authority or only limited seniority - succession seems to be a central preoccupation whenever the resources that are transferred across generations demand for their preservation some form of collective action. The success of collective action depends on the legitimation of authority. In the case of elites, however, this authority must apply beyond the boundaries of the immediate group. Thus, elite succession always seems to have a contradictory element: for, while out-group factors demand universalistically legitimate candidates, in-group factors tend to favour particularistically well-placed members of the group.

Production of Successors and a Stake in the Future

14Another of the common themes that emerge from the chapters is that of the actual production of successors - sometimes, as in Jean Lave’s case, the production of the successors appears to be even more important than the actual resource that they will succeed to. Here, the element of personal versus group identity is of major importance, and Marcus’s comments on the ‘uncanny’ strike a chord in my own interest in understanding the interplay between personal and suprapersonal identities and how they mutually produce each other. We go well beyond Fortes’s opposition between individual and group-both seen as closed and self-sufficient entities.

15Finally, all the chapters converge on the notion that, for there to be succession, there have to be shared views of the future - familial life is seen as a project. In terms of the in-group there is a production of family legends that, in turn, are used to produce correct heirs. But these are managed through the manipulation of out-group resources, such as schooling or political or financial carreers. Both the chapters of Nana Arhin and Carola Lentz show how this confrontation can lead to internal conflict and to diverging manipulations of what is ‘traditional’. Segmentary logics start to arise that have their manifestations in different re-writings of the family history. This is as true for Asante traditional chiefly families as it is for Portuguese banking families.

Outline of the Book

16Part I - ‘Dynastic Sentiments’ - comprises three chapters dealing with the transmission and preservation of power in urban upper-class contexts. The uniting theme is Marcus’s concept of ‘dynasty’ and the way it shapes sentiments. The chapters explore the complex relation between subjectivity and the transmission of leadership positions by relation to highly demanding technical constraints, in the United States, in Northern Italy and in Portugal.

17Part II - ‘Choice and Tradition’ - brings together a series of essays on the succession to self-avowedly ‘traditional’ roles of leadership. These chapters deal with forms of political power that find their legitimation in a precolonial past, but are formed by the colonial experience. Here, the issue of choice becomes central, ranging from situations such as Christina Toren’s Fijian case, where leaders are elected from among a group of peers, to the Ghanaian examples presented by Carola Lentz and Nana Arhin Brempong, where politics and economic success intermingle with descent in legitimating succession.

18Part III - ‘House and Heir’-integrates two chapters that deal with the way in which the Iberian institution of primogeniture evolved in Portugal since its heyday in the seventeenth century. These historical chapters were particularly relevant to our discussion, not only in the light of the actual conference that brought us together, and that took place in the palatial home of one of these seventeenth-century families - the Fronteiras. Rather, as Nuno Monteiro points out, the Iberian model of aristocratic succession became the stereotype of dynastic succession throughout Europe. If we look back at the chapters by Toren, Arhin and Lentz, and at their comments about how the colonial presence imposed on the local cultures Eurocentric notions of aristocratic succession, Monteiro’s example assumes a particular relevance.

19Sobral’s chapter on the relation between local power and landed property integrates the volume under two distinct aspects. On the one hand, it shows how the model of aristocratic succession evolved and was finally destroyed by the onset of the modern state. On the other hand, it prepares us for the concerns of the last section with the preservation of the means to elite status.

20In Part IV - ‘Monopolies and Successors’ - Jean Lave and I present two very distinct situations where unitary succession is not possible or desirable, but where the preservation of a monopoly demands that the group produce suitable successors.

21Michael Herzfeld’s conclusion brings us back to one of the original preoccupations that were behind the convening of this conference. One of our aims was to bring together contributions from North American and European colleagues focusing on a topic of common interest. The past decade has witnessed an increase in communication between social scientists across the Atlantic. Often, however, this contact has failed to be a genuine dialogue, as the guiding theoretical horizons continue to be very divergent. The present collection turned out to be very telling in this sense. If we read Marcus’s and Yanagisako’s chapters in this perspective and compare them with those of Lentz or Toren or my own, for example, we come up with a clear notion that the horizons of reference continue to differ significantly. The choice of inviting Michael Herzfeld as the overall discussant for the conference thus seems to be vindicated - as is quite patent from reading his concluding remarks, where he is suggesting ways that allow for a convergence of perspectives. For instance, his emphasis on the question of ‘intimacy’ rather than on ‘sentiment’ could prove a valuable guideline. The debate here is hardly that of psychological reductionism versus anti-reductionism. To many of us, this kind of preoccupation has long lost its relevance (cf. Kuper 1990). More to the point is the fact that our theoretical agendas are marked by vague interests that have at their roots culturally specific horizons.

22To have recourse to an example again, Marcus’s discussion of the sense of the uncanny that preoccupies American heirs when they see themselves re-creating the identities of other persons cannot be taken for granted in Europe. When Antónia Pedroso de Lima’s bankers experience this same sense of unwilled identification with an ancestor, they feel it is uncanny, but it does not disturb them. Rather, they are prone to cherish the experience and to dwell on it with relish. What is perhaps at stake is a greater European situation-centredness as opposed to an American individual centredness concerning expectations as to what it is to be a person (to borrow Francis Hsu’s famous concepts for differentiating Chinese from American attitudes towards the person, 1981: 12). In short, as has often happened in the history of anthropology, we find our theoretical discussions being enriched by our pre-theoretical differences.


(D.Phil. Oxford) is Senior Research Fellow and President of the Scientific Board of the Institute of Social Sciences of the University of Lisbon. He was co-founder and Rector of the Universidade Atlântica (1996-1997). He was founding President of the Portuguese Association of Anthropology. He is an Honorary Member of the European Association of Social Anthropologists, having organized its first Conference (Coimbra 1990) and been its Secretary and Treasurer (1995-1996). His publications include Sorts of Adam, Daughters of Eve (Oxford, 1986), Os contextos da antropologia (Lisbon, 1991) and Em Terra de Tufões (Macao, Portuguese edn, 1993; Chinese edn, 1995). He was co-editor of Death in Portugal (Oxford, 1984) and Europe Observed (London, 1992). He has been Malinowski Memorial Lecturer (London School of Economics, 1992) and Distinguished Lecturer of the Society for the Anthropology of Europe (San Francisco, 1992).

© Etnográfica Press, 2000

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