In An Analysis of a Social Situation in Modern Zululand, Professor Gluckman argued that in situations of conflict, pre-existing groups do not divide neatly into opposing halves, but that groups realign themselves according to the values, motives, and interests governing them at a given time; and that groups who are opposed when facing one situation may find themselves aligned when the nature of the situation differs. Similar studies of social change in Africa and elsewhere have further advanced Gluckman's contention. In all these studies the analytical procedure adopted was to interpret the situational behaviour of the actors in terms of the influence of the wider social system of which they were a part. However, a great deal of the ethnographic data anthropologists gather in the course of field research are derived from chance observations of social phenomena occurring in relatively unstructured situations within which the individuals involved have a wide range of choice in determining the way they interact with others. This paper is based upon just these sorts of ‘imponderable’ facts of Gurage life which, when first recorded in the field, appeared less clearly a part of what Malinowski once called ‘the real substance of the social fabric’ of a changing tribal society than they do now in retrospect. I attempt here to interpret the spontaneous and contradictory behaviour of individual Gurage and groups in the setting of an Ethiopian Christian religious ceremony known as Mäsqal. This analysis of situational behaviour is made in terms of selected aspects of historical or ‘processive’ social change in Gurageland, a tribal district in south-west Ethiopia.
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