The Turkana, like many pastoral populations in East Africa, have no formal political hierarchy based on chiefs and subchiefs. Political influence is gained through age, wealth, wisdom, and oratorical skill. Turkana social organization can be seen as two systems of social relationships operating simultaneously. One system is based on territory and rights in pasture and water; the other is based on kinship, relationships among individuals, and rights in livestock and labor.
The basic unit of Turkana social organization is the awi. Most herd owners live and travel with two to five other herd owners and their families, forming what is referred to as an awi apolon, or large awi. The composition of this unit changes frequently, as individuals and families leave to join other homesteads, or others come to join the awi apolon. During the wet season, many homesteads congregate into temporary associations (sing, adakar ); these associations break up as resources become scarce with the progression of the dry season.
Above the awi, the next level of territorial organization is the section; above that, the tribe. Sectional membership confers upon the individual rights to grazing. It appears that in the past there were a number of ceremonial occasions in which tribal identity was reinforced. Today tribal identity is reified by rules of appropriate behavior concerning raiding and banditry among the sections.
Nonterritorial aspects of social organization are primarily related to clan and kinship relations. A critical feature of Turkana social organization, however, is the network of personal relationships, based on the exchange of livestock, which is built up by each herd owner over the course of his lifetime. It is to individuals in this network that a herd owner turns in times of need. From the perspective of an individual herd owner, most members of this association will be agnatic or affinal kinsmen, but there may also be many people in this network who are simply his friends.
Finally, each man is a member of alternating generation sets. If a man is a Leopard, his son will be a Stone; thus there are approximately equal numbers of Stones and Leopards at any one time. These groups will be formed when there is a need to organize large groups quickly. Some authors refer to a functioning age-set system, but almost all of the Turkana with whom McCabe worked had never heard of such a system, and a few others had only a vague recollection that an age-set system existed at some time in the past.
Conflict is usually resolved by the men living in proximity to one another. Men discuss such issues at "the tree of the men," and special attention is paid to men of influence. The decisions of the men will be enforced by the younger men of the area.