Short essay on the status and role in primitive society


A social organization is constituted by human beings having different status and role. The status of an individual is achieved by his sex, age, birth, physical traits, marriage and family, etc. Each status is connected with corresponding roles. Every individual has to fulfil roles peculiar to his status in society.

In primitive society,.particular roles are connected with the status of the chief and the priest,, etc. The males and females have different status on the basis of sex distinctions. Some statuses are ascribed while others are achieved. The former are hereditary while the later are acquired. The following bases of distinctions of the status and role may be observed in primitive societies.

1. Sex distinctions


The sex distinctions found in almost every society can be primarily explained on the basis of biological distinctions. However, these distinctions are also cultural. Biologically, the status of the female is generally lower than that of the male. She is generally always thought to be in need of protection.

These Ls equally true of the developed societies as the Hindus as well as the primitive tribes. Again, in primitive societies the status of women is lower as compared to that of men, in the context of religion and magic. For example, in the toda tribe of Nilgiri the women are not allowed to visit dairies since they are thought to be impure due to menstruation, etc.

On the other hand, it is precisely on the basis of religion and magic that the status of women is higher than that of men. For example, among Khasi tribe the status of women is higher. Some tribes have a status in between these two extremes. For example, among the Andamanese both the males and females have almost equal status in matters concerning religion and magic.

The roles of different sexes are particularly evolved on the biological basis. Besides, every society and culture allots separate functions to both the sexes. According to Whiteman in the Pueblo tribe while the roles of males are cooperative, the roles of females are competitive. While the males carry on agriculture, hunting, weaving, woodcutting, etc. the women are concerned with house keeping, cooking, child rearing, etc.


According to Powermaker, in the Lasu tribe the division of labour on the basis of sex distinctions is strictly observed. While the male cannot do any thing worthy of a female, the same is also true about restrictions on the male roles for the females. The roles of the males are generally connected with gardening, fishing, hunting, tool making, house building, etc., the roles of females are concerned with agriculture and house holders affairs.

Then there are some functions such as basket weaving, child care, magic and mcdicine etc., which are jointly carried on by members of both the sexes. As a rule one may observe a universal pattern of the role distinctions mentioned above. However, in some societies the women carry on functions peculiar to men in other societies and vice-versa.

Among exceptional societies may be counted the Khasi tribe of Assam in which while the m ales carry on child rearing, cooking,, and house keeping, etc., the femdes are busy with the out door functions.

In Navano tribe, blanket weaving is the function of women while the same has been entrusted to men in Hopi tribe. Among Maricopa Indians pottery is the function of the female while weaving is a male job. Inspite of some exceptional societies having a reversal of roles based upon sex, most of the human organizations depict a universal pattern of the roles based upon sex distinctions.


Murdock studied some 224 societies and concluded that while hunting is the male job, the females are entrusted with cooking, gathering fuel, pottery, weaving, etc. While 85% fishing and 5% animal husbandry is entrusted to males, the rest is done by the females.

The reason of this universal pattern is the biological fact that hard jobs are more suitable to males while delicate jobs are suitable to females. Within these biological limits, there may be more distinctions concerning roles due to culture.

2. Age distinctions

In almost every society one may observe distinctions of roles according to age. The children and the old people are almost every where given only delicate jobs or kept free. Their status correspondingly, is lower than that of the adolescent, the youth and the middle aged person. It may be that in some societies children may be particularly cared but this hardly makes any change in their status. According to L. Simons, generally in all societies the status increases with age. However, it will be wrong to think that this is purely due to physical maturity. Age is respected as the experience and knowledge generally increases with ages.


Therefore, it is not the age but the experience and knowledge which is the cause of higher status of the aged persons. For example, among Gond tribe, the aged people are respected due to their capacity of guidance and advice in different fields.

In most of the primitive tribes the government, religion, magic and economic organization is dominated by the aged people since they are concerned with matters which are generally above the understanding of children and youth.

Children are no where permitted to indulge in matters concerning religion and magic since it may lead to annoyance of the super natural power resulting in huge losses to the whole community.

Among the aged people the aged males have a status higher than the aged fem ales. The reason of this distinction is that the roles peculiar to males carry more power. For example, males are generally concerned with outdoor functions involving politics,, governments, religion, magic and economic organization.


Therefore, it is natural that their status should be higher than that of the females generally working in doors. In in-door life however the status of the aged female may be higher than that of the aged male.

The above pattern of respect connected with age may be observed among those primitive societies where the struggle for existence is not very harsh. On the other hand, if this struggle is harsh, the aged are sometimes considered as burdens. For example, among Eskimo people some persons almost kill their parents since they are not economically useful but burdens to the family.

Due to the feelings of unproductivity and helplessness, the aged people in this tribe themselves urge their children that they may be killed. In some other tribes the aged people are kept under. Such natural circumstances where they die automatically. According to anthropologists this custom does not show lack of respect towards the aged people.

Among Indian tribes generally the status of aged people is high. They make significant contributions to administration. The administration is generally in terms of clans, of which each has a clan chief. The clan chief has a council of the elders as an advisory body. In Australia administration is known as the rule of the elders or gerontocracy.

3. Property distinction

Property and wealth is almost a universal status symbol. It is the most important factor ensuring higher status. However, the concept of property and wealth differs in different societies.

For example, minerals and petroleum are not as much valuable in primitive society as in industrial society. Similarly while animals may be wealth in a particular society, in a different society they may not be so. In ancient times, the number of slaves was a measurement of wealth. However, this type of wealth is no more witnessed anywhere.

The wealth and property provides a higher status not only due to capacity of consumption but also due to capacity of sacrifice. In some tribes, a person may achieve a higher status only when he sacrifices his property.

Such customs may be observed among so many Indian tribes. In American Indians those persons are given higher status that have lot of food and dresses and houses and can also liberally distribute them among others. In primitive societies emphasis is not on collection of wealth but its distribution. In some tribes even the food is eaten after proper distribution. A strange custom known as potlatch is found in Kwakiutl tribe of North West coast of North America, in which there is a competition of destroying wealth, or exorbitant spending which correspondingly adds to social prestige.

Thus it is clear that property and wealth is a basis of higher status in primitive societies. However, this higher status depends upon liberal donation and distribution to others.

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