One of the primary social units of Basseri society is the group of people who share a tent. The Basseri keep a count of their numbers and describe their camp groups in terms of tents (sing, khune, "house"). Each tent is occupied by an independent household, typically consisting of a nuclear family. Tents are units of production and consumption; each is represented by its male head. Tent residents hold rights over all movable property including flocks, and they can act as independent units for political purposes. For purposes of more efficient herding, these households combine in small herding units, the composition of which depends on expediency rather than kinship or other basic principles of organization.
In winter, groups of two to five tents associated in herding units make up local camps separated by 3 or 4 kilometers from the next group. At all other times of the year, camps are larger—usually numbering ten to forty tents. These camps are in a very real sense the primary communities of nomadic Basseri society. The members of a camp are a very clearly bounded social group. Their relations to each other as continuing neighbors are relatively constant, whereas all other contacts are passing, ephemeral, and governed by chance.
The maintenance of a camp as a social unit requires daily unanimous agreement on questions of migration, the selection of campsites, and all other economicaliy vital considerations. Such agreement may be achieved in various ways, ranging from coercion by a powerful leader to mutual consent through compromise by all concerned. The compositon of a camp will thus indirectly be determined by shifting circumstances in the formation of a consensus whereby the movements of economically independent households can be controlled and coordinated. The unity of a camp is enhanced by the existence of a recognized leader, who represents the group for political and administrative purposes. Leaders of different camps may be of two kinds: headmen (sing, katkhoda ), who are formally recognized by the Basseri chief, and, where no headman resides in camp, informal leaders (sing, riz safid ; lit., "white beard"). The latter, by common consent, are recognized to represent their camp in the same way as a headman does but without the formal recognition of the Basseri chief. Technically, therefore, the riz safid is under a headman in a different camp.
The Basseri chief is the head of a very strongly centralized political system and has immense authority over all members of the Basseri tribe. The chief, in his dealing with the headmen, draws on their power and influence but does not delegate any of his own power back to them. Some material goods—mostly gifts of some economic and prestige value, such as riding horses and weapons—flow from the chief to the headmen. A headman is in a politically convenient position: he can communicate much more freely with the chief than can ordinary tribesmen, and thus can bring up cases that are to his own advantage and, to some extent, block or delay the discussion of matters detrimental to his own interests. Nonetheless, the political power that a headman derives from the chief is very limited.
The authority of headmen is derived from agnatic kinship in a ramifying descent system, as well as from matrilateral and affinal relations. As is commonly the case in the Middle East, the agnatic lines of the Basseri are predominant in matters of succession. The son of a Basseri is regarded as Basseri even though his mother may be from another tribe or village. On the other hand, when a Basseri woman marries outside the tribe she transmits no rights in the tribe to her offspring. Although patrilineal kinship unites larger kin-based groups, bonds of solidarity also tie matrikin together. For example, the relation between a mother's brother and a sister's child is an indulgent one among the Basseri. Affinal relations are also regarded as relations of solidarity and kinship. They appear to be most effective in establishing political bonds between tents.
A marriage is a transaction between kin groups constituting whole households, and not merely between contracting spouses. The head of a household, or tent, holds the authority to make marriage contracts for the members of his household. A married man may arrange subsequent marriages for himself, whereas all women and unmarried boys are subject to the authority of a marriage guardian, who is the head of their household. The marriage contract is often drawn up and written by a nontribal ritual specialist, or holy man. It stipulates certain bride-payments for the girl and the domestic equipment she is expected to bring, and the divorce or widow's insurance, which is a prearranged share of the husband's estate, payable upon divorce or in the event of his death.
When a household was established by marriage, the groom's father gave the new household an "anticipatory inheritance"—the groom received from his father's herd the arithmetic fraction that he would receive as an heir if his father were to die at that moment. From then on, the new household was on its own. If its herds failed, it received no second inheritance, nor was it lent animals to help it maintain itself.