Boyhood Rituals in an African Society
- PUBLISHED: September 1989
- SUBJECT LISTING: Anthropology
- ISBN: 9780295965758
- Publisher: University of Washington Press
This is an anthropological study of boyhood in a group of related Igbo villages called Afikpo, in souteastern Nigeria. About half of the book is taken up with the description and analysis of adolescent initiation rites, providing a close and detailed view of rituals that for the most part have only been touched upon in literature.
The work makes use of psychoanalytic theory, with a logic that is grounded in data, blended with traditional cultural anthropological analysis. Ottenberg’s understanding of the dynamics of the symbols and their unstated meanings contributes to the study of ritual process in any society. The data on ritual initiation alo0ne make this a major contribution to African ethnography, and Ottenberg’s descriptive material on male secrecy and related gender distinctions provides a background fora more general understanding of West African secret societies.
His examination of all phases of childhood at Afikpo--not just initiation--reveals how one society comes to terms with the special needs of infancy, while answering the society’s need to produce a certain kind of adult.
Ottenberg rejects the common notion that an adolescent arrives at his initiation as a tabula rasa upon which society’s instructon is etched; he also rejects the equally common assumption that initiation marks a summing up or completion of socialization. Instead, Ottenberg analyzes initiation rites in the context of the boys’ earlier experiences, as part of an ongoing and unfinished process of socialization.
He traces the life and experiences of boys from birth through adolescent initiation to adulthood, with a focus on the ritual aspect, since rituals through their symbolic content reveal a society’s attitudes and values. The Afikpo initiation rites recall aspects of the rites of birth and other early childhood experiences, and Ottenberg shows how many of these rituals are designed to assist in the transition from one stage to the next.
The wealth of materials and close attention to detail in the analyses of boyhood rituals among the Afikpo reflect Ottenberg’s superb skills as a field investigator. The detail in which he presents his data contributes greatly to our understanding of Afikpo cosmological beliefs and social structure. The presentation provides important materials for evaluating the interrelationship between adult and boyhood secret societies, making it valuable to scholars of other areas. Boyhood Rituals in an African Society makes a significant contribution to both psychological anthropology and African studies, but it will also be of interest to other scholars concerned with the cross-cultural study of socialization and childhood.