Age (Anthropology)

Age, like sex, is basic to the human condition universally, though with different implications in different cultures. Primarily conceived as a chronological measure for reckoning the physical development of human beings, the concept of age has its social significance through the concurrently changing status of a person. While anthropologists have conducted field research on, for example, old age or childhood, or on transitions from one age-related status to another, as in rites of passage, a specialist literature has developed around the study of polities essentially, if not exclusively, based on age-class systems. These are overwhelmingly found in Africa, especially among pastoralists of East Africa.

This research, however, has long been marked by a gender bias. In the early phase of scientific anthropology, at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, under the influence of evolutionary theory, male age-classes were thought to have been conceived as a kind of secret association to impose men’s supremacy on women’s primeval matriarchy. Later on, a similar bias was still apparent because age-class systems are normally found in patrilineal societies in which women’s age-classes, when they exist, play a marginal role and are mostly parallel to men’s classes. It is only recently that women’s role in age-organizations has become a separate area of analysis.

Research and analytical comparison have produced an appropriate terminology which provides a consistent methodological instrument. Thus, ‘age-system’ indicates the general structure of the whole range of social forms and institutions connected with age. ‘Age-group’ refers to any collection of people formally or informally based on age. ‘Age-class’ implies an association of individuals formally initiated into an institutional age-system. ‘Age-set’ is used either as a synonym of age-class or with reference to one of its minor sections. The collection of individuals forming a set or a class may sometimes be described as a ‘cohort’, a demographic term referring to all the individuals of a given community born during a definite period who, for that reason, may be considered through their lifetime as a corporate group. ‘Age-grade’ (or, more rarely, ‘age-degree’) indicates the position attained by a class (set or cohort) in the scale of promotion of any specific system. Finally, the distinction between ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ age-groupings provides a working criterion for distinguishing their character and social significance from any other kind of age qualification. ‘Generation’, in this context, refers to the descent aspect of the classes; in fact, it refers not so much to the mass of people born about the same time, but rather to the groups of children who will formally succeed into their parents’ social position.


Age-class polities

A new approach to the analysis of age-set systems started with E.E. Evans-Pritchard’s perception of age-sets as a factor in Nuer political organization, in combination (though secondarily) with the lineage system. Stateless and chief-less societies, like the Nuer, appeared then to be mainly, if not exclusively, based on segmentary lineage systems (Fortes and Evans-Pritchard 1940). Further research, however, revealed age-class systems to be a discrete type within the category of stateless societies, with their own differences, among which the distinction between ‘initiation-’ and ‘generational-models’ is the most significant. Indeed, in these cases the age-classes are so important that the societies might be properly designated as ‘age-class polities’. Their social and political structure is, in fact, the outcome of the rhythmic succession of sets and classes which brings about a clear distinction between different grades and an ordered division of powers.

Thus, age-class polities should not be thought of in terms of a concentration of power in the hands of a single class (‘the class in power’, according to the usage of an earlier ethnographic literature). On the contrary, every class as a corporate body, and all its individual members, are assured of equal opportunities. Equality has deliberately been isolated as a necessary trait of age-class polities, although this needs to be correctly understood as an ideal ‘tendency and not an established state of affairs’ (Bernardi 1985: 147). Natural differences caused by birth, personal ability and other factors are certainly to be found here as elsewhere, but their effects are in some measure checked.

The distinguishing mark of the initiation model is the performance of post-pubertal initiation for recruiting fresh sets and forming a new class. While normally initiation is aimed at the ritual ratification of the candidates’ passage into adulthood, in the age-class context it also effects the entrance of candidates into a set and finally into an age-class, simultaneously causing their movement into the first age-grade and the upward movement of other senior sets and classes. The model is best illustrated by the Maasai of East Africa and their pastoral mode of life. In the past they were consistently moving in search of pastures; this required a constant adjustment to local situations and a protection of cattle from marauding animals and human raiders. Local organization reflected the general social structure with personal duties and prerogatives defined by sets and class membership. Thus, after their initiation Maasai youths were set aside for defence purposes as warriors -moran – for a period of about fifteen years until they were succeeded by a new class. Next, having settled in the upper grade as married men, they attended to their own family affairs, trying to increase their livestock. At the next grade, as family fathers, they were invested with the power of decision in local assemblies which stressed their position of authority. At the next grade they would finally retire as senior elders, highly respected as the holders of tradition and occasionally required for ritual assistance and performances. This is obviously a standardized scheme but it portrays the ideals to which local organization and personal situations could be adjusted. Tensions and conflicts might always arise between members of two succeeding classes, especially when the time for upgrading was approaching and the holders of a grade tried to postpone the occasion in order to retain their office as long as possible. At present, modern changes have seriously affected the old efficiency of the system and where it still survives it is rarely found in harmony with the ideal standards.

The gada system of the Borana Oromo of southern Ethiopia (formerly known as Galla) provides one of the best and perhaps the most complex illustration of the generational model. Based on a chronological cycle of ten grades, each of eight years’ duration, it qualifies the whole course of life of a person from infancy (the first grade: daballe) to elderhood (yuba), through a total of eighty years. The guiding principle for entrance into the system is rigidly dictated by the structural distance of five grades (forty years) between father and sons. So it is only when a class reaches the sixth grade (gada – from which the whole system is named) that its members, having spent over forty years in the system, will be invested with the power to conduct the assemblies. It is only through these assemblies that Borana take unanimous decisions under the guidance of the elders: the general assembly — gumi gayo — convened every eight years for matters of general interest involving the entire Borana population; "clan assemblies, gathering all the rePresentatives of a clan from wherever they might be scattered for dealing with clan matters; local or family assemblies. Such a system has been described as ‘the Boran version of government by committees’ (Legesse 1973: 63), and more recently, after prolonged field research, a ‘society of assemblies’ (Bassi 1996). "Structural distance between fathers and sons emphasized the distinction between generations, but its rigidity may sometimes have had serious negative effects, such as the exclusion from the system of a son born at a time when his father had retired. This deprived him of the prerogratives of the age-grades, such as, for instance, performing an official marriage. Another severe effect of the same rule was the norm that male children might only be fathered at the end of the fifth grade — raba dori — that is, when the father had reached forty years of age; female children were allowed to be retained at the next grade, gada. This has been described as a sort of birth control: "infanticide used to be imposed on breaking the norm. Such terrible consequences have been amended by the general assembly — gumy gayo — through the introduction of adoption instead of infanticide. In the distant past an initiation model, harriya, was also devised in order to recruit those youths excluded from the gada system in order to let them join the other warriors.

Other models

Other age-related forms of organization are less totalizing than the age-class polities. Thus the ‘residential model’ refers to some community organizations like the old ‘age-villages’ of the Nyakyusa of Tanzania, or the villages and wards of the Afikpo of Nigeria. The ‘regimental model’ was typical of some chieftainships of southern Africa, like the Zulu and the Tswana. Youths were called to join a regiment and had to spend most of their time in barracks under the royal command, a system that was soon broken by colonial administration, though some elements may still be recognized in modern Botswana and Zululand.


A high honour for elderhood is certainly a distinguishing mark of the polities discussed so far, although they could hardly be designated as gerontocracies. In fact, power is not concentrated in the hands of the elders as a general category; instead power is distributed by grades to all sets, and the elders are invested with a power of decision (Maasai) or of direction (Boran), which is only temporary while they hold their position. In other cultures elderhood is frequently experienced as a time of physical decay rather than appreciated as an asset of wisdom and experience. Besides, in modern indus-tralized societies age is almost exclusively applied as a juridical norm to mark the achievement of maturity and its accompanying rights and duties such as marriage, military conscription or the eligibility to take up (or leave) public office. In these societies elderhood, or the so-called third (and fourth) age, has recently emerged as a demanding problem of government policy and of serious social responsibility.

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