tHe HIDDen DIMensIon oF soCIAL noRMs In IbIbIo: tRI

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ESSIEN D. ESSIEN
University of Uyo
[email protected]
THE HIDDEN DIMENSION OF SOCIAL NORMS
IN IBIBIO: TRI-TANGENTIAL TRAJECTORY
OF IBIBIO INDIGENOUS KNOWLEDGE ON
MORALITY
abstract
This study examined the hidden ethical elements of norms in Ibibio culture and its dayto-day manifestations within the periscope of ethical prerequisite. This study presents a
socio-cultural description of Ibibio norms which are an integral part of the culture, social
custom, rituals and beliefs governing social coexistence. It argues that though norm is a
cultural production with emphasis on prohibitions, Ibibio norms dictates behavioral and/
or conversational re-orientation.
keywords
Norms, Ibibio normative world, prohibition, morality
THE HIDDEN DIMENSION OF SOCIAL NORMS IN IBIBIO: TRI-TANGENTIAL
TRAJECTORY OF IBIBIO INDIGENOUS KNOWLEDGE ON MORALITY
ESSIEN D. ESSIEN University of Uyo
Introduction
Despite the importance of social norms in contemporary societies and their
impact on human behaviour, little research has been conducted on the
diversity and power of social norms on the ethical orientation of individuals
and the well-being of communities in many African societies especially the
Ibibio of southern Nigeria. Most accounts describe this phenomenon simply
as a mere cultural product prescribing behavioural and conversational
prohibitions without a perusal of the sacred or magical nature of norms
(Ouidade, 2010). As a result, they have some difficulty explaining both the
moral aspect of the occurrence as well as the tremendous expansion of its
ideology. This study therefore aims at filling this gap by analyzing to what
extent the concept of norms helps understand, clarify and solve plethora of
moral issues ravaging our society.
In Ibibio societies, like many other societies of the world, several activities
are characterized by externally sanctioned prohibitions, and human
behavior is not governed solitary through rational decision making.
Somewhat, societies often have shared values and standards of acceptable
behavior that members of the society are encouraged to follow. Specifically
though, a cultural norm or a societal value guides and regulates the
behavioral pattern and thoughts of their members by agreed upon
expectations and rules. These rules constitute the list of behavioural
guidelines which is typically referred to as societal norms, customs and
norms (Esema, 2002). These include not only illegal or criminal behaviors
sanctioned by law, but also norms of conduct enforced through social
sanctions. However, the customs and norms governing interactions between
people and their environment in Ibibio society are complex and dynamic.
They translate to what can appropriately be described as indigenous
knowledge (IK), otherwise known as traditional knowledge (TK), or local
knowledge.
Although conventional wisdom shows that an important part of the
characterization of every society hinges on the different social norms and
values that govern their members’ behavior. Ibibio norms go further to
provide the moral sanctions against transgressions which are associated
with individuals’ emotional ambivalence and likely to provoke the wrath of
the spirit/gods. This is however due to the contagious nature of the norms,
in determining (desirable values) in the human community (Ouidade, 2010).
It is through the process of inculcation and articulation of these values that
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THE HIDDEN DIMENSION OF SOCIAL NORMS IN IBIBIO: TRI-TANGENTIAL
TRAJECTORY OF IBIBIO INDIGENOUS KNOWLEDGE ON MORALITY
ESSIEN D. ESSIEN University of Uyo
proper behavior is ensconced among the youths and adult Ibibio society. The
specific objectives of the study are to critically review the phenomenon of
norms as it affects what governs individual and social acceptable conduct
to the benefit of the well-being of the community, identify its causes and
areas of manifestation, highlight its current trend, propose a sustainable
and pragmatic solution toward averting the negative expression of the
phenomenon. This study adopted a conceptual and theoretical perspective
governing the application of norms regarding the state of affairs in Ibibio.
The study is of the opinion that norms whether viewed as laws, custom, or
personal beliefs of a people specify situations in which behaviors or actions
should not be performed. In that regard, it communicates moral messages
for the benefit of all. The fundamental hypothesis of this study, therefore,
is to demonstrate that norms have the capacity to perform critical
responsibility in the ethical life of the Ibibio people. In the perspective of
this research, this constitutes the hidden dimension of the phenomenon.
Theoretical
Framework
This scholarly discourse is founded on Martin Fishbein and Icek Ajzen
theory of Reasoned Action (TRA) and Planned Behaviour (TPB) which posits
that “a person’s behavior is determined by his/her intention to perform
the behavior and that this intention is, in turn, a function of his/her
attitude toward the behavior and his/her subjective norm” (Ajzen, 1991:
179). According to this theory, the best predictor of behavior is intention.
Intention is the cognitive representation of a person’s readiness to perform
a given behavior, and it is considered to be the immediate antecedent
of behavior. This intention is determined by three things: their attitude
toward the specific behavior, their subjective norms and their perceived
behavioral control. The theory of planned behavior holds that only specific
attitudes toward the behavior in question can be expected to predict that
behavior (Ajzen, 1991: 180). In addition to measuring attitudes toward the
behavior, we also need to measure people’s subjective norms – their beliefs
about how people they care about will view the behavior in question.
This study also finds premise on Vygotskian’s socio-cultural model which
cogitates that superior order functions and develops out of every social
interaction. According to this theory, “every function in an individual’s
cultural development becomes visible in life in twofold” (Adamson and
Chance (1998). Firstly, it appears on the social level between people, and
secondly, it emerges later on in an individual level from inside the person
involved. This implies that the individual in the society must first relates
with people which includes the parents, siblings, elders and peers in order
to develop culturally before the norms and values are molded and deposited
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THE HIDDEN DIMENSION OF SOCIAL NORMS IN IBIBIO: TRI-TANGENTIAL
TRAJECTORY OF IBIBIO INDIGENOUS KNOWLEDGE ON MORALITY
ESSIEN D. ESSIEN University of Uyo
in such an individual. The most important goal worthy of note here is the
act of learning through socialization. It follows that, cultural growth of
an individual depends to a large extent on the social interactions with the
societal norms, values and the wisdom of the elders as articulating agents.
Social Norms and
Human Behaviour
Human behavior everywhere is not governed only by rational decision
making. A culture or a society guides the behavior and the thoughts
of their members by agreed upon expectations and rules. Norm is a
proscription of behaviour that affects everyday life. Communal norms
for instance exist in invariably all cultures throughout the world, and
represent a class of informal institutions, where traditional, social and
religiously governed norms define the human behaviour. These norms
remain the prime factor guiding their conduct and behaviour towards
fellow man and society (Allan & Kate, 2006: 40). Scholars are of the opinion
that norms symbolizes the prohibition of an action based on the belief
that such behaviour is either too sacred and consecrated or too dangerous
and accursed for ordinary individuals to undertake hence caution is
required. Under this interpretation, a norm is a form of “thought police”
that governs not just human behavior, but also the human thoughts.
For example, merely thinking or considering incest, necrophilia, or
cannibalism is a violation of the relevant norms. Norms can be repugnant
and appalling actions or behavior which includes the display of some
bodily functions (Masaka, & Chemhuru, 2011: 132).
From anthropological perspective, norm-related prohibitions are largely
behavioral in nature (Van Gennep, 1904: 48). The norms’ role in any
society it exists is to prevent certain behaviors from happening, such as
the killing of totemic animals, desecrating sacred places and engaging
in certain activities against societal norms (Frazer, 1994: 99). However,
prohibitions in every norm can also be conversational in nature. It
is in this light that conversational nature of norms encompasses the
restriction of people’s freedom to talk about certain topics due to social,
moral or religious conventions (Frazer, 1994:97). A good example of this
kind of norm is exemplified in death-related norms. This is why many
researchers see death as the paragon of a conversational norm (Masaka
& Chemhuru, 2011: 58), because it is a painful subject that people find
difficult discussing. Yet, death-related norms are founded on a general
prohibition of killing. For instance, murdering someone or oneself
(through suicide or assisted suicide) is a behavioral norm in many
modern societies (Martindale, 2005: 22).
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TRAJECTORY OF IBIBIO INDIGENOUS KNOWLEDGE ON MORALITY
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Configuring
Social Norms
in Ibibio
Worldview
Norms exist in every society and governs how members of such society
behave, think, make judgments and perceive their world. The hidden
dimension of Ibibio social norms institution revolves around the moral
sanctions that help in shaping an Ibibio person’s (eti-uwem) virtue in the
human community. Ibibio people have an obsession with the desire to
inculcate right ethos in an individual. Social norms are among a number of
methods through which the character of an individual is shaped in Ibibio
cosmology. Norms in Ibibio is teleological in character in that they involve
sanctions that are meant to inculcate the most appropriate traits in a
person that would make him a worthy member of the community (Esema,
2002: 98). In Ibibio worldview, the concept of norms is predicated on the
premise of the “trinity”. The trinity principle in regards to social norms
presupposes that there are three most important norms in Ibibio. These
most important social norms give birth to other societal norms. They are:
(a) Norms connected with (ukot) inlaw otherwise known as “abasi ukot”.
(b) Norms connected with (ayeyen) grandchild or else “abasi ayeyen”. (c)
Norms connected with (esenowo inuaesit) visitor otherwise called “abasi
“esenowo inuaesit” (Esema, 2002: 102). Similarly, according to Chigidi (2009),
“The avoidance rules in these norms are restrictive and not directive in
the sense that they only tell the individual what not to do and not what to
do” and by implication one is made to pick up desirable behavioral traits
otherwise acting contrary to the dictates of this norms invites undesirable
consequences. A good character is a solid weapon against various anti-social
behaviors. The outcome of good character is good reputation whereby a
person becomes the envy of many because of his commendable dispositions
(Masaka, & Chemhuru, 2011: 133).
Though the inculcation of commendable character traits in individuals
is a lifelong process, it is believed, among the Ibibios, that such moral
education makes an indelible impression in one’s formative years. In this
light, children are taught the difference between good and bad behavior
and they also learn to avoid a number of norms. Strong and severe warnings
for those who violate Ibibio moral code are quite visible in the taboos. The
veracity of punishment and a host of other unwanted consequences if one
dares to violate the moral code help to instill commendable moral behavior
in Ibibio society (Udo, 1984: 22). It is in light of this fact that Gelfand (1979:
33) contends that “the purpose of these norms is to instill a sense of
discipline into the children as well as one of fear.” The aspect of fear that is
normally associated with Ibibio norms is a way of dissuading people from
performing immoral acts. Hence, it has an instrumental value in that it
discourages people from engaging in certain behaviors that run contrary
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THE HIDDEN DIMENSION OF SOCIAL NORMS IN IBIBIO: TRI-TANGENTIAL
TRAJECTORY OF IBIBIO INDIGENOUS KNOWLEDGE ON MORALITY
ESSIEN D. ESSIEN University of Uyo
to the ethos of Ibibio society. Although Ibibio taboos are fear inducing, this
fear has no intrinsic worth, but is a means to an end, that is, promotion of
good behavior. Though this means of achieving a virtuous life is morally
questionable, the philosophy in Ibibio norms is that the end justifies the
means. Fear may not be the best and ethically appropriate tool to achieve
the end of a virtuous life in Ibibio society, but it is believed that the goodness
of the end trivializes the badness of the means (Esema, 1984:25).
It is important to note that the individual within Ibibio society, just as in other
African societies, does not live in a moral island. A human being can only be
fully comprehended as an inseparable part of the whole (Menkiti, 2006: 98).
This communitarian view of the individual emanates from the realization that
the moral life in every human being is shaped not only by the community of
physical beings alone but also by spiritual forces. In this regard, Gelfand (1979:
35) makes an important observation that though “the origin of Ibibio norms
is unknown, they bring home to the young the realization that other forces
exist besides the physical ones” in the moral education of members of Ibibio
society. Since enforcement of Ibibio moral code has a spiritual dimension, the
learners of Ibibio morality come to know of “the existence of spiritual powers,
so important in the Ibibio religious belief” (Gelfand, 1979: 35; see alsoBourdillon,
1987: 88) such as the ancestral spirits as well as Ibibio deitiy who provide the
living with, among others, direction and appropriate moral guidance (Asante,
2000: 44). Ibibio people believe that spiritual forces are custodians of their
moral code. Ancestral spirits play a crucial role in making sure that one picks
up desirable character traits and avoid vices. The Ibibio believe that ancestral
spirits help in ensuring that one’s character is good provided that that person
does not offend them through, among others, failure to perform periodic rituals
in their honor as well as a host of other social misdemeanors such as incest (Udo,
1984: 26). Therefore, the violation of norms can be seen as a direct provocation
of ancestral spirits who are the custodian of the moral code. Tatira (2000: 61)
concurs with Gelfand (1979: 37) when he notes that “an act that breaches a taboo
triggers a reaction supposedly at the supernatural level.
Without this fear of the unknown, young people are generally adventurous,
full of doubts and questions, and like experimenting with things.” It
is pertinent to note that taboos are effective moral tools because their
violation invites the ire of ancestral spirits who are one of the key pillars
of traditional religion. It is worthy of note that Ibibio norms do not reveal
the correct consequences for performing certain actions but give a
consequence that a human being naturally loathes and fears. Therefore, for
one to comprehend the complexity of Ibibio norms, one has to look at their
common and hidden meaning.
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The Cultural
Context of
Ibibio Social
Norms
The Responsibilities
of Norms in Ibibio
Society
Social norms are generally considered as a socio-cultural phenomenon affiliated
with beliefs, values, custom, and hierarchical power. Every culture has its own
norms. As a cultural construct, every human society prohibits or restricts
certain kinds of behavior, although those prohibited in one society are not
necessarily the same as in another. In Ibibio society, the shared norms are what
defined the culture or subculture of Ibibio people. In this regard, prohibitions
concerning issues like stealing, adultery, killing, illegal possession of farmland
and other properties, and violating the norms regulating relationships
with inlaws, visitors, and grandchildren attracts societal disapproval and
punishment which serves as a deterrent to others and thus engender positive
values through abstention. Norm is a foremost element of Ibibio culture (Esema,
2002: 101). It is one way in which Ibibio society expresses its disapproval of
certain kinds of behaviour believed to be harmful to its members, either for
supernatural reasons or because such behaviour violates a moral code. A culture
or a society guides the behavior and the thoughts of their members by agreed
upon expectations and rules. In line with this understanding, Osei (2006: 20)
posits that “norms represent the main source of guiding principles regulating
and directing the behaviour of individuals and the community towards the
Supreme Being and especially the gods and the ancestors in African traditional
societies”. This is why Freud (1912: 73) showed that norms are productions of
culture insofar as they are established by a group’s recognized authorities
to regulate the group. It is the prohibition against touching, saying, or doing
something for fear of immediate harm from a supernatural force. Akindele
and Adegbite (1999: 592) further explain that normative words and expressions
reflect social customs and views of the people’s culture. It can be characterized
as being concerned with behaviour which is believed to be supernaturally
forbidden or regarded as immoral and improper. Every society has a culture
and norms hold the society together. Although some norms can be traced to
apparent danger in health and safety, no common explanation has been given
for most others; most authorities agree that they tend to relate to objects and
actions that are significant for the maintenance of social order. In Ibibio society,
a norm is a powerful social interdiction system relating to any area of human
activity or social custom that is venerated and or forbidden based on moral
judgment, religious beliefs and or scientific consensus. They are recognized to
avoid disrespect to any given authority, be it legal, moral and/or religious (Udo,
1984: 37).
Norms in every society are fundamental to understanding social order
as well as variation in human behavior in such society (Campbell, 1964:
12; Durkheim, 1951: 84). In Ibibio society, norms provide expectations
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shared by the members of a group about appropriate ways to behave in
given situations. This provision of expected ideas of how to behave is what
makes up the culture of Ibibio people. It is a common feature to find that
in Ibibio, norms constitute the potential “pressure” in situations that: help
to define the nature of social reality; form the foundation upon which
people base their interaction; and provide a common medium for members’
self-evaluation. By means of these mechanisms, norms increase feelings
of personal and group identity in the entire Ibibio-land (Ekong, 1983:
132). It is worthy of note that in Ibibio like its counterpart in other part
of the world, norms shape behavior of people by providing limits within
which people receive social approval for their behavior or actions. These
guidelines establish an informal basis for estimating how far one may go
before experiencing the normative power of ridicule, rejection, and loss of
status among group members, friends, acquaintances, and co-workers. That
is why group norms reflected in the dominant or most typical attitudes,
expectations and behaviors not only characterize these groups but also
regulate group members’ actions to perpetuate the collective norm. Indeed,
norms can be powerful agents of control as “choices” of behavior are framed
by these norms and as the course of behavior most commonly taken is
typically in accordance with normative directives of “reference groups” that
are most important to the individual (Esema, 2002:108).
Although group norms that are backed by powerful punishments for
violations in Ibibio society can restrict behavioral freedom such as
debarring the community members from entering the violator’s premises,
buying any goods from him/her, and selling any product to him/her,
they tend to promote excessive uniformity, even though it serves the
critical responsibility of understanding and predicting actions and
behaviours of people in the society. Ibibio norms contain the collective
power to create and regulate social reality (Ekong, 1983: 131). This is done
through the process where norms serve as a mechanism to create order
and predictability in social relationship and the understanding of each
other’s action. It is apparent that the awareness of the norms operating in a
particular community or group situation enables each member to anticipate
how others will enter or attend to a particular situation, for example, what
kind of cloth will they wear? And what are they likely to say and do, as well
as what behavior on one’s own part will be expected and approved (Esema,
2002:109). Norms in Ibibio society also help to interlock the roles that the
people or members of the society perform in social situations. Sometimes
in a group setting, a new norm usually will emerge that was not operating
before or that challenges the prior standard operating procedure. In this
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TRAJECTORY OF IBIBIO INDIGENOUS KNOWLEDGE ON MORALITY
ESSIEN D. ESSIEN University of Uyo
case, the norms that have been already internalized and integral to the
society are called into question. These roles and duties of Ibibio norms in
this thesis constitute the capacity to which critical responsibilities of Ibibio
norms are executed (Udo, 1983:97).
The Significance
of Ibibio Norms
in the society
Social norms are rules of behavior that society uses to assess the population.
How people respond to a violation of social norms depends on a number of
different factors. Norms are an expression of interconnectedness of two
inseparable dimensions in the African worldview: the visible world and the
invisible one. That interconnectedness can also be seen as interdependence
whereby the quality of life of the ancestors and of people depended on each
other’s actions (Menkiti, 2006: 48). Norms are an expression and a means
of perpetuating what was considered as the most important features in
African culture: preservation of life and well being of people. Life and its
quality were seen as crucial and the society applied a variety of methods
to preserve it and transmit it, including norms. Norms in Ibibio showed
the communal dimensions of one’s actions. In the culture where one was
defined by belonging to a community and where the community was far
more important than its individual members, one’s actions affected that
community. Norms therefore were helping the people to recognize their
own importance. In this setting, if one could affect his or her community
negatively, then such a fellow was not unimportant. To a certain extent,
norms could be viewed as ‘self-esteem-enhancing beliefs’ (Mbiti, 1969: 83).
Norms in Ibibio helped the people to realize that an improper behaviour
would always have consequences for them, the community and the nature.
Norms were an expression of a quite sophisticated moral system ruling
the lives of the people in the community and the life of an individual.
Even though formulated as ‘negative’ principles stressing (Ku) ‘do not...’
and teaching people about what was not acceptable in the community,
by implication, they were also pointing out to the actions that were
supposed to be done. By preventing people from doing wrong things, they
were helping them to focus on what was encouraged in the community.
Norms in Ibibio are an expression of the ‘natural law’, a general set of rules
commonly understood by all human beings (Esema, 2002: 102). Similarities
among various tribes, norms concerning prohibitions against such acts as
incest, murder, stealing etc. show the common ground of various norms.
Often formulated in a way that implied more than their original wording,
they were helping people to exercise their common sense and moral
responsibility in interpreting them as well as applying them to various
situations.
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In a society where there was no police or access to police is remote, norms
served as a guardian of moral values. To a certain extent, they were better
than modern law enforcement agencies, because, in most cases, breaking
of a norm was associated with an automatic punishment – one did not have
to be caught to be punished. Through norms one was made aware that an
improper action as defined by the society one was a member of, and how
such action would result in negatively implications affecting the harmony
of the person concerned, the family and the society at large. Transgressing
it would also result in punishment (Parrinder, 1969: 20). It was a way of
teaching people that each action entails consequences. Such consequences/
punishment was usually automatic, personal (creating feelings of fear and
guilt), affecting, in one way or another family and the community. That
punishment could also be administered by the community (Miller, 1983: 21).
Conclusion
The article mirrored expressly on the moral dimensions of Ibibio social
norms. It noted that Ibibio norms are meant to instill correct dispositions
in people through fear-inducing moral sanctions. Norms, understood as
unwritten laws restraining people from breaking communal custom, is used
in Ibibio societies to preserve harmony in the different communities as well
as a good relationship with spiritual beings. The “ku” or “kunam” principle
in Ibibio culture serves as vital regulator in inculcating commendable
moral traits in individuals (Esema, 2002, 103). The paper also noted that
even though Ibibio norms have limitations in that they do not disclose the
true consequences of certain human character defects, the most important
aspect of these norms is to inculcate commendable character traits in
their apprentices that would make them worthy members of society that
would not only behave in a desirable way towards fellow human beings,
but also relate to the environment in a manner that embodies respect for
biodiversity as well as sustainable exploitation of nature’s resources (Masaka
& Chemhuru, 2011: 133).
Ibibio norms provide prohibitions that forbid people from behaving in such
manners that are a threat to the welfare and wellbeing of fellow human
beings as well as the environment. Even though norms foster commendable
character traits among people through threat of severe reprisals for the
ones who violate them, they have desirable utility because they help to
keep the wicked in check. In this regard, though the means of enforcing
desirable behavior among people are morally questionable, norms
constitute one among a number of sanctions employed to ensure proper
behavior in the society, the end has justified the means. Nonetheless, norms
are formulated in forms of (ku’s) or (kunam’s) ‘don’ts’ and sometimes being
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ambiguous, they on the other hand enabled people to maintain the moral
order and hierarchy in the society (Udo, 1984:40). In this regard, though
the contemporary society is quite different from the traditional one, there
is a need to enforce norms or to come up with an alternative way that will
promote traditional values.
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