Does the Idea of a Segmentary System Help to Explain Political Conflict?


The concept of segmentation does not imply structural dimensions per se. Segmentation, as it is technically understood, involves a unit-whole formed by unit-parts. Nevertheless, when it is related to an organisational system, a segmentary system assumes segmentary structural implications insofar as other certain elements are involved, such as structural relativity, genealogical segmentation or the massive-effects of a complementary opposition—the fission and fusion features of the segmentary systems.

These elements, together with other political values and principles, are in-depth considered in this paper with the aim of attempting to explain the plausible causal nexus between segmentary systems and political conflict.

A Case Study: The Nuer

In the endeavour of considering the elements that confer structural implications to a segmentary system, it might permit a substantive focus of attention the fact of centring on a segmentary tribe with a substantial background of ethnographic inferences and a very net model: the Nuer of the Southern Sudan (see Evans-Pritchard’s ethnography The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People).

As an attempted overview, the Nuer is a Nilotic—inhabitants of the river Nile—tribe that includes around 500,000 individualsand has a particular physical and linguistic similarity with their neighbours the Dinka. Nuer are segmented. In other words, the interrelation of territorial segments within their political system, and the relations of other systems to this system, is formed by groups that are part of a segmentary system—the idea of segmentation is not a causal model able to predict what will happen next but just an intelligible framework for grasping the forms of options available in such a system. Moreover, Nuer are not centralised in power terms and have a sort of an ordered anarchy with no government. This is to say, Nuer, as well as Dinka, are divided into a number of tribes with no central organisation that have an internal logic which requires a very substantial study of its structure in order to be grasped and entitled under such term of ordered anarchy—this will be seen below. Regarding Nuer political segments, the most significant one in terms of magnitude is the tribe. Tribe members have an obligation to unite in warfare against intruders/outsiders and a right for compensation. Continuing, tribes are divided into tribal segments called sections; concretely, into primary and secondary sections forming the largest groups, and further tertiary sections, which are characterised by closer ties among its members as they are composed by villages, and these villages by domestic groups counting with kinships and domestic clans. For a clearer diagrammatic representation:

FIG. 1

Segmentary Distribution of Tribal Sections of Nuer Tribes

Source: Author’s representation.

Notes to the figure:elements ‘2’ account with the same structure as those labelled ‘1’.

There exists an institution of blood-feud that, following the aforesaid Evans-Pritchard’s ethnography, contributes to maintain the equilibrium among political forces of different segments and groups with the help of a mediator, the leopard-skin chief. This blood-feud has sometimes structural implications in sparking off warfare (see Dresch’s essay ‘The Significance of the Course Events Take in Segmentary Systems’) that we will see below. Regarding kinship, Nuer are agnatic in terms of lineage—Nuer trace their descent solely through males to a common ancestor. The clan is thus the Nuer largest group of lineages—diverging branches of a common ancestor—and it is further divided into segments from the largest to the smallest one: maximal lineages, major lineages, minor lineages and minimal lineages. The importance of the blood-feud and the collective identity at each level determined by agnation are key features for understanding the political equilibrium in segmentary systems, as it is in-depth approached below. In relation to age, Nuer account with an age-set system. Age-sets are age-based groups that are non-cyclical but progressive. Individuals became a member of a set by the ritual of initiation and pass through positions of relative seniority until reaching the senior set. Such sets do not have a corporate function but they act jointly in small communities. In terms of social hierarchy, Nuer are not ranked. There are no classes or rankings as Nuer consider themselves as equal and they disregard wealth or other comparative features.

Followed by such attempted summary of the Nuer tribe, let us consider some of its segmentary elements able to imply structural implications for explaining determinant drivers of political conflict.

Each Nuer tribe has a unique territory in which they inhabit and a common sentiment for their members. The smaller the tribal segment the stronger the sentiment of unity and the more salient the intimacy of their social ties and contiguous their contact. There does exist a linkage between tribal divisions and lineages that crystallises its mode of segmentation. A tribal segment spreads around a lineage of the dominant clan of the tribe, which derives the strength of their interrelations insofar as smaller segments are closer genealogically and greater segments are more spread genealogically. Regarding their political values, there exist a sentiment and an organisation of unity against adjacent segments, larger segments and foreign tribes. This principle might seem highly important if we consider its structural dimensions in tailoring political conflict. Thus, same-order segments unite for war in case of conflict of one of their same-order tribal members. This results in a cumulative structure of higher-order segments of the same tribe to fight other segments of other tribes or tribes. For instance, under a hypothetical tribal distribution of order such as in (FIG. 2), if:

FIG. 2

Hypothetical Distribution of Tribal Segments of Nuer

Source: Author’s representation.

From this diagrammatic representation might seem to follow a plausible case of conflict among Nuer. If a section seeks asylum in a warfare among other section under the statement of lineage ties, the protecting section might go into conflict with the other part if such part is, at the same time, genealogically tied with it. For instance, in the aforesaid Evans-Pritchard’s ethnography, he describes this conflict between the Leng and the Nyarkwac. The latter were split into the Yol and the Thiang, both of them descendants of a common ancestor with the Leng. The Thiang, exhausted, sought asylum among the Leng and this fact caused a reaction by the Yol connoting on a warfare against the Leng. This event was twofold: the Leng had a moral obligation to give asylum to the Thiang because of kinship ties and the Yol had a subsequent ‘right’ of directing a war against the Leng because of neglecting their own kinship ties.

It is important to highlight the fact that political membership is relative in the Nuer political structure. Hence, members of the section , in (FIG.2), might recognise themselves as members of  if they are talking among themselves or to members of . However, they would be entitled as  if they talk with members of . This is due to the relativity principle of the political structure of Nuer. The raison d’être of this principle is that tribal sections and segments have political membership solely in relation to other groups. Thus, tribal segments are political groups in relation to other segments of the same kind and only form a tribe in relation to another Nuer tribe or adjacent foreign tribe. From this, it seems to follow that political values of Nuer are relative—to other sections—and are in an equilibrium with forces of fission and fusion. (This fission/fusion feature of segmentary systems is plausibly caused in the case of Nuer due to a possible adaptive response of Nuer to Dinka. Dinka were already in the territory and Nuer were intruders. Hence, Nuer needed to fuse as well as to segment in order to gain territories for their peoples.) Indeed, groups tend to split into opposed parts—this can be seen in seasonal turns of Nuer segments, that are of different directions as Nuer tend to be opposed among segments because of this fission/fusion principle of their political system—but also fuse as they are part of the same segmentary system and such equilibrium might cogently contribute to determine political conflict. Certainly, this tendency to fusion and split is characterised as the dynamics of segmentary political systems (see Kuper’s essay ‘The Segmentary Lineage: An Organisation of Predatory Expansion’).

The blood-feud is an institution that also operates in maintaining the equilibrium of political conflict. It provides a compensation for homicide. Blood-feuds are a tribal institution or mechanism to obtain reparation for injury. For extension, then fear of incurring blood-feud is a guarantee for the individual to keep save. Although there is no law regarding the existence of an impartial authority who judges an event and has some sort of enforcement to impose a sanction, this institution maintains the equilibrium of ‘justice’ among sections of the tribe. Nevertheless, its effectiveness is more linked with smaller sections than those of greater magnitude. The fact that a group of a tribe attempts to avenge a homicide made by a member of another tribal group can result in an intertribal war rather than in a blood-feud state. When people of different villages fight, they prefer to seek the mediator leopard-skin chief, as they are aware that the aggressiveness of fighting with spears might cause to spill loads of blood and, as they are genealogically closer to one another than larger segments, they try to keep violence within limits.

The leopard-skin chief can be seen as an alternative procedure for a settlement of blood-feuds who can help to provide the alternative of paying in cattle as a compensation for death after the killer seeks asylum in his house. However, Nuer is proud and always want a body in compensation. Although the leopard-skin chief settles the blood-feud after the cattle compensation and overt hostilities are not frequently visible, for Nuer the blood-feud never ends. Their enmity lasts forever so does the chance for the blood-feud to be reopened, which contributes to a great extent in sowing the seeds for political conflict. However, chances for hostilities drawn from blood-feuds in provoking warfare are more likely to occur among primary, secondary and tertiary sections. The rationale behind such statement lies in the closer ties that smaller groups share. For instance, if the murderer is closely related with the dead man, then the feud is quickly paid and ended as there are many kinship and affinity ties involved. In contrast, when such ties are not that close and blood-feuds occur among different larger groups, a greater chance for it to break out an intertribal war might increase. (Incidentally, honour is very important for Nuer as can be seen in disputes between two men of different villages in which the honour of the whole village is at stake which adds substantial sensitivity to sparking off warfare.) Indeed, blood-feud compensations between secondary sections are not even expected and they certainly result in a general fight. Here, again, it can be seen the fission/fusion segmentary principle in relation to the relativeness notion of groups—inasmuch they politically-unite for war because of lineage reasons in case of same-order group blood-feuds.

Other disputes different than homicide might contribute to boost political conflict. For instance, adultery, steal cattle, etc., can be easily compensated; though there is no authority that controls such mechanism. Through a conventional redress, disputes habitually settle in harmony; however, if they are not eventually settled, they might result in violence as Nuer are sensitive to conflict in case that they are insulted or wronged. Thus, structural fusion might occur in cases that does not hold a settlement, which might further connote a major political conflict, unless kinship or a high difference of age make them change their minds.


The Nuer structural principles are drawn from their political values: unity for war against adjacent segments of the same order, and those of larger sections, and the whole unity against foreign tribes. Unity for war is linked with lineage, as it is illustrated by the case of the Leng vs. the Nyarkwac. Also, this draws attention to the lack of political control; fact that makes more intense the chance for political conflict to occur. Relativeness in segmentation plays a critical role; Nuer tend to fuse and segment for warfare at the same time that they maintain a co-existence between their group and tribal identity. This fission/fusion element of sectional/segmental divisions of Nuer are to be grasped as the force that equilibrates the two contradictory and supplementary drivers for political conflict and dynamics of change.

The blood-feud is an institution that operates as a means of obtaining reparation for injury. Blood-feuds can be understood as potential factors to create a permanent state of hostility among lineages and whole tribal sections that might further sow the seeds for sparking off a political conflict in cases that intertribal blood avenges result in intertribal warfare.

Plausibly, such segmentary structure drawn from lineage ties crystallised through the relative identities form a mechanism that consolidates such quasi-political, large-scale systems in the absence of a higher-level tribal organisation exerting some kind of power. However, such absence of a political control might certainly contribute to disturb the equilibrium of forces that interact in the segmentary system, connoting a greater chance for political conflict to happen. In addition, the fact that Nuer have a strong sense of personal dignity and honour, are always at once prepared to fight if they are wronged or insulted and are easily aroused to violence might contribute to increase the chance for political conflict to happen as they are an ordered anarchy in a non-headed kinship state.

Enrique Muñoz-Salido
Enrique Muñoz-Salido
Enrique works in the tech industry, computer software, in the City, London. His interests lie at crossroads of human behavior and software. Enrique is an Oxford Masters graduate, Talentia scholarship.


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