Sea Islanders - Sociopolitical Organization

Social and Political Organization. On St. Helena Island, former plantations serve as important sociopolitical units. Island citizenship is determined through membership in a particular plantation, acquired not by birth or filiation but through "catching sense" in a specific community. Guthrie defines catching sense as a process by which children between the ages of two and ten begin to "understand and remember the meaning of social relationships." One's having caught sense on a particular plantation confers eligibility for participation in the system of dispute management and litigation that operates through the Baptist churches and their affiliated "praise houses." The church hierarchy, consisting of the ministers, deacons, and local praise house leaders and their committees, also functions as the politicojural structure.

Social Control and Conflict. Disputes between islanders can go through a series of levels within the religious court system; the goal is to achieve confession and reconciliation between the parties rather than punishment. Islanders who insist on taking cases before the secular courts or "unjust law" of the mainland authorities are sanctioned informally through gossip and general disapproval and may even lose membership in their congregation. Beyond the religious court system, social control is exercised primarily through informal means, such as respect for elders, beliefs in the ability of recently deceased relatives to punish social transgressions, and mechanisms of gossip, reputation, and respect characteristic of small, face-to-face communities.

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