Irish Travellers - Sociopolitical Organization



Social Organization. The composition of groupings larger than the household, whether they are travel and camp clusters or stationary enclaves within cities, is fluid. Cognatic Kinship is the fundamental means for association, but at any one time household clusters reflect a variety of individual and situational choices and may even be formed among unrelated households. Group composition and size is continually being renegotiated in response to changing economic opportunities and a host of social concerns: the emergence of personal animosities and the resulting fissioning, visits from distant kin, the need to defend relatives from insult or attack, the desire to affiliate with households of similar or higher economic Status, the wish for a change of scene. The actions of police, legislators, and local government employees also play a role. In England in the 1980s, for example, the average camp size for Irish Traveller carpet dealers was 19 households, but it was not uncommon for 30 households to congregate. Such large groupings were a reaction to local authority eviction policies. By traveling and camping in large groups, Irish Travellers made it more difficult for local authorities to evict them and thus ensured themselves a longer and more economically profitable stay. Travellers respond quickly to opportunities for assembly and social engagement. Annual fairs provide Distant groups, former associates and neighbors, and members of overlapping kindreds with the opportunity to meet for entertainment, trading, marriage negotiations, and fighting. Life-crisis events—marriages and funerals as well as fights, hospitalization, and imprisonment—are also important opportunities for assembly.

Political Organization. Travellers have a common identity based on their shared life-style and marginality to settled society, but they lack formal political leaders and superordinate political structures. Indeed, adults—especially men—take great pride in their independence. Respect is paid to the elderly, especially to male heads of large families, and their advice may be sought by kin, but it is not binding.

Conflict and Social Control. Minor disputes between households are settled through a variety of familiar mechanisms such as joking and ridicule, gossip, and, less often, discussions between the parties involved, sometimes with the help of ad hoc mediators. Serious disputes are settled by fighting or by fissioning (i.e., moving away) and avoidance. Not surprisingly, it is typically the most vulnerable families—the poorest and those least able to mobilize a large number of adult male kin—who move away. Fighting between close relatives and with nonkin is quite common. Lacking formal legal institutions and officers, physical aggression is the Travellers' ultimate mechanism of social control. But fighting also appears to be a basis for social organization. When families come together to defend each other in a major quarrel, they are expressing and reinforcing kin solidarity.


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