Asmat - Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Traditionally, social organization (often involving ritual) revolved around activities of the yew and its associated men's house. The yew was the largest stable unit of social organization. Since the 1950s this focus has diminished somewhat. Some men's houses have been replaced by community houses, open to all.

Political Organization. For this traditionally egalitarian society, political organization was based upon the interplay of yew-prescribed activity (including warfare and ritual) and the dictates of the tesmaypits, ascribed charismatic leaders. Ascribed leadership, based on a combination of skill, generosity, and charisma ( tes), is still important today; but the government's appointment of an Asmatter who does not possess tes to a local post can create a great deal of friction. The ability of tesmaypits to develop flexible intersettlement alliances and confederations, once so important to the waging of war and peace, has been curtailed.

Social Control. Traditionally, social control largely was exerted by the various tesmaypits and was tied to allegiances that they had developed over time. While attenuated, this practice continues. Strong processes of peer sanction are operative, including gossip and the open berating of husbands by their wives. Wife beating occurs and is implicitly condoned.

Conflict. Ritualized warfare, head-hunting, and cannibalism were distinctive features of Asmat life through the early 1950s. Strikes, ambushes, and skirmishes still occur occasionally, and—as with ritual warfare in the past—they are aimed at revenge. The latent function is seen to be the rectification of cosmic and also population balance.

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