Kinship, Contract and Trust


Kinship, Contract, and Trust: The Economic Organization of Migrants in an African City Slum

In Diego Gambetta (ed) 1988 Trust: Making and breaking cooperative relations (Oxford: Blackwell), 176-193.


This chapter is based on fieldwork done 20 years ago in the slums of Accra, Ghana’s capital city. For two and a half years I lived among migrants from north east Ghana called Frafras who included the Tallensi, the object of a classic study by Meyer Fortes (1945; 1949; see Hart 1978). At home these were a traditionally stateless people, huddled together in densely packed egalitarian settlements, millet farmers and raisers of livestock. In 1960 only 1 in 16 was Muslim or Christian; fewer adults had even a modicum of schooling. Their political organization and religion were based on descent ties, neighbourhood (manifested as an earth cult), ritual specialization of clans, and marriage exchange. The largest corporate units (patrilineages) were linked to the constant flux of self­-reproducing domestic groups by a common ideology of kinship and the practice of ancestor worship. Age and genealogical seniority conferred office and stewardship of collective assets, principally cattle for bridewealth, on an informal gerontocracy. But individual mobility and small scale accumulation were widespread; and the frequency of raiding between quite close neighbours lent considerable uncertainty to the social life of these fighting hill tribesmen.

By the 1960s the Frafras were dispersed throughout Ghana as unskilled labourers, petty traders, soldiers and, in popular repute, thieves. They circulated between town and countryside, being usually linked to an extended family network based on their home village. When I first went there maybe 10,000 Frafras (out of a total of a quarter million) were living in Accra, many of them in a sprawling slum called Nima. This was a migrant shanty town, the chief red light district of the city’s lower classes, and a criminal ‘badlands’ only sporadically policed from the outside. I lived with a Frafra ‘fence’ (receiver) and before long became involved in a series of criminal and semi legitimate enterprises which formed the backbone of my fieldwork. Having intended to study political and associational life, I found the focus of my research gravitating towards the self made economic activities which sustained Nima’s inhabitants. Many Frafras had poorly paid wage jobs, many had none. Virtually all of them derived income from what I later (Hart 1973) came to call the ‘informal economy’: a sphere of self employment, casual labour, petty accumulation, and illegal transfers defined at its apex by the corruption of public life. I concentrated on the few successful Frafra entrepreneurs to be found in. Accra and scattered elsewhere throughout Ghana (about 70 cases in all); but I also tried to capture the style of economic life for the mass of transients and longer term residents who made up the migrant community, one of scores of ethnic groups retaining a distinctive identity in Nima’s melting pot.

I was captivated by what seemed a paradox: on the one hand the banality of a barely differentiated Dickensian mob, of water carriers, bread sellers, shit shovellers, taxi drivers, pickpockets, and prostitutes; on the other the communal spirit of hill tribesmen whose fathers were earth priests and who expected to end their days as custodians of ancestral shrines. I was impressed by the energy and ingenuity of their efforts to enrich themselves and by the inevitability of long run failure for all but a handful. It seemed as if the economy was being made, unmade and remade from day to day. The central task for everyone was to find a reasonably durable basis for livelihood and even for accumulation, a stable core in the chaos of everyday life. That was why even a poorly paid job was valued: it was an island of regularity and predictability in a sea of ephemeral opportunities. I now think of this as the search for economic form, the search for the invariant in the variable, for rules and regularity in a world constituted by flux, emergence, informality.

The Frafra migrants were doubly hampered in this task. Firstly, they lacked effective legal sanctions; the state’s presence in the slum was intermittent and punitive (occasional police raids). They knew well enough about the contractual ethos of bourgeois civil society, but it was not evident how such an ethos could be translated into the social conditions typical of Nima. They were in many ways pre adapted to the statelessness of the slum, less suited perhaps than migrants from the savannah’s Islamic civilization to the emergent mercantile society which was growing up in the interstices of state rule. Secondly, even as many aspects of their traditional mores were reinforced by slum conditions, it was not easy to transfer their customary rural institutions to the city. At home kinship is structured by lineage organization, lending the full authority of ancestors to fathers, husbands, and senior brothers. Away from home the migrants abjured any simulation of this religion of descent. Genealogical differences of generation were collapsed into a single conceptual brotherhood; ancestor worship could not be practised since the structure of home groups necessary to make up a sacrificial congregation could never be replicated. The sheer unequal power of parenthood writ large was mainly absent in the slums, where ethnic solidarity found expression in beer talk and kinship was a domestic relationship of uncertain moral provenance.

To summarize, Frafra migrants were faced with the need to build economic relations from scratch in a world lacking both orderly state regulation and the segmentary political structure of their customary society. I shall argue that they had three basic models for such relation­ships, none of them unproblematic. One, kinship, is an extrapolation from statuses typical of traditional ideology and practice; its antithesis is the legally sanctioned contract of the modern state and civil society. There remains the zone of free floating social relationships formed by choice in the expectation of mutuality. The most neutral term for this zone is association, but its strongest form of expression is friendship, the negotiated order of free individuals joined by affection and shared experience rather than by legal sanction or the ties of blood. It is in this third area of social life that trust plays so prominent a role, relatively unmediated by the formal obligations of kinship and contract.

The remainder of the paper is divided into three sections. Only in the last of these (‘Argument’) will I return to explicit consideration of the issues raised here. The main problem I address is the basis of durable economic relations in an environment that is marginal to both traditional and modern society. The section on ethnography is primarily concerned with indicating, by way of examples, the tenor of commercial life and petty enterprise in Accra’s slums. It is not structured explicitly to highlight specific points about trust. This description is contextual to the later analysis of the significance of trust in migrants’ attempts to build viable patterns of enterprise. The third section of the paper (‘Definition’) prepares the ground for such an analysis by exploring the semantics of trust and cognate terms.

My main concern is with the difficulties Frafras faced in trying to establish enterprises; but firstly we should consider the more diffuse issue of commodity exchange, the ordinary business of buying and selling. Most sellers in Nima are women, although the upper echelons of trade in Accra are dominated by men, often European or Lebanese men. There is a general lack of liquidity, that is the women’s customers generally run out of cash before each monthly pay period is half over. Indeed budgeting is extremely rare, especially for single men. Expenditures are normally erratic, even when individuals succeed in stabilizing some part of their income by earning wages. In this situation continuous commerce would be impossible without a high level of credit. Credit is thus the most prominent feature of buyer seller relations; and you do not bargain if each side has a long term arrangement to protect. This is particularly true of the purchase of daily comestibles, less so of occasional deals involving consumer durables like items of furniture. The higgling or sliding price mechanism that Westerners imagine is endemic to foreign bazaars is absent from large sections of Nima’s market.

Prices normally vary by volume for a fixed price. Thus a woman will buy her goods from a wholesaler, often on a daily basis, take out a third of the total quantity to give away as sweeteners to preferred customers, and divide the rest into equal piles sufficient to give her a profit if sold for a standard sum. The customers always buy, say, a shilling of yams; what they get for it varies. The interdependence of both parties is based on the fact that sellers are subject to unpredictable shortages and gluts of supply and must have a steady clientele, while the buyers of course need to eat when they have no cash. Since bargaining depends on the ability of each party to walk away from the deal, this pervasive structure of credit and clientelistic particularism restricts the scope for such behaviour. It is not accidental that game theorists talk about used cars and ‘lemons’. The rational negotiation of risk is less appropriate when most purchases go on the slate.

The problem of default was omnipresent. The women were usually illiterate and relied on fantastic memories to keep a register of customers’ debts. If challenged they could always list each purchase over several weeks, persuading the client by sheer power of mental arithmetic. This reliance on memory placed an upper limit   perhaps eight to ten   on the number of debtors each trader could support. Capital shortage was another restrictive consideration, of course. As partial defence against default, traders of a given commodity would stick together where Possible and share information on their clients’ trustworthiness. They could also ostracize persistent offenders and avoid being played off against each other. Interest rates in Nima were high, 25 to 50 per cent per month, and outstanding debts at the end of the month would often be increased by such an amount. The high price of money reflected not just the obvious risk of default, but rather its extreme scarcity and the inefficiency of commercial institutions.

I noticed that something like chains of debt were commonplace. Each migrant made and received loans (including traders’ credit). If a man came into a windfall   a stolen wallet or a back dated pay rise   he was as likely to lend the money as to pay off existing debts. This meant that when he was being dunned by a creditor, he could pass on the pressure to one of his debtors. There is an analogy with traditional bridewealth transactions where in laws typically chase an infinitely regressive chain of debt in order to retrieve an outstanding cow. Another metaphor for this process, besides that of a chain, might be the ripples caused by a stone dropped into a pool. Beer drinking (a traditional millet beer from the north) is the main activity of Frafra men at weekends. I calculated that women beer brewers generally sold a volume valued at five to six times their initial production costs. But they gave away a third, and most of the rest was sold on credit; so that they often had difficulty finding the cash to start off another three day brewing cycle. Every now and then a major millet trader would arrive to collect on credit sales to the brewers. These impressive ladies would sit in the courtyard of their principal customer, for all to see. The brewers would put the squeeze on their clients, the clients would turn to their debtors, and so on.

The sanctions available to traders when dealing with defaulters were weak. One woman was reduced to entering a client’s room at 4 a.m. to steal his only pair of trousers, which she then waved triumphantly in the courtyard while shouting out his crimes: ‘You think Alhassan is a big man because he walks around in trousers and white shirt, but he won’t pay a poor woman for the bread and cola he eats!’ Public humiliation of this sort is a poor substitute for legal sanctions. But, as we know, small debt settlement is hard to secure anywhere. Although Nima was beyond the law and a violent place to live in, traders rarely if ever resorted to force in settlement of debts incurred by legitimate commerce. Usury and criminal enterprise were often a different matter, but even in the area of casual sex, pimps were rare and most women relied on informal moral sanctions to extract money from their lovers, so that prostitution as we know it was not common. That is to say that what Durkheim ([1893] 1933) called the ‘non contractual element of the contract’, the non-­rational conditions for rational negotiation, assumed a dominant role in shaping commercial life in Nima. Markets were normally far from com­petitive, and price setting mechanisms were governed by relatively long-­term considerations of credit that helped to stabilize turnover and to regulate the erratic fluctuations which buffeted parties on both sides.

Frafra migrants were well aware that much of this commercial activity depended on the establishment of trust between free agents whose scope for default was palpable. The protagonist in the following example laid great stress on the importance of a personal style capable of winning and sustaining the friendship and trust of strangers. His conversation often turned to episodes such as the time when, as a house servant, he refused to steal from his white employer, with beneficial long term results. He had once been a part time photographer, and his account of that period of his life epitomizes the precarious, highly individuated casual enterprises which many Frafra migrants sought to combine with wage employment.

Atia had been hawking a camera around with intermittent success: the problem was that it was 35 mm and his customers were often unwilling to wait until the film was used up. His breakthrough came when he went to a girls’ secondary school with 600 pupils and persuaded the principal to allow him to take the girls’ photographs at weekends. Many others had tried and failed; but, as he put it, his sweet approach worked. He spent over £10 on chickens, eggs, and gifts of money before she agreed and gave him exclusive photographic rights in the school.

Trade was brisk: every weekend he got through two or three films ‘cutting’ the girls. Whenever they saw him, they all wanted photos to send to their boyfriends and families. Some asked to be taken in the nude: ‘I was trusted by all of them; they knew that I was there for the money, that’s all. If one asked me to stay and do something, another will call for photo before.’ He used to try to get an advance where possible, usually half. Those who gave him an advance were asked to write their names in a book, although he was himself illiterate. This was to stop any false claims; but in general he worked on a degree of mutual trust. If no advance had been paid and he made two copies which were refused, he couldn’t force them to pay. If he had tried force, he said, maybe they would have ganged up against him and stopped buying his pictures altogether. So he relied on goodwill. Some girls would pay for a bad photo and later tear it up. If he heard of this, he would do them a new set free. Sometimes he ‘fell down’ when he spoiled the whole negative and had to refund all the advances. Atia claims his average profit was 50 per cent. Good photos fetched more or less what he asked for. If a customer was pleased, she might not ask for change from a banknote. By buying wholesale from one man and using another individual for enlarging, Atia could often get his production costs reduced. So the profit from two films over one weekend, although highly variable, could be substantial, more than a week’s wages for steward work.

Later he had to give up photography after joining the army; he was put on a charge for spending too many weekends out of barracks. Despite the doubling of army pay after the 1966 coup and the benefits of being a regularly paid soldier, Atia was chronically indebted and looked back on his work as a weekend photographer with some nostalgia, as a time when he was free. Be that as it may, Atia’s enterprise was short lived and unstable. He depended on the patronage of a headmistress and on his ability to step through a minefield of adolescent girls. Having failed to place his enterprise on a more durable basis, he fell back on a securely paid job. His willingness to invent the conditions of his participation in the market economy, rather than accept passively whatever its formal institutions had to offer, was typical of Frafra migrants. A few of them were more successful.

In the space of two and a half years, I built up case records on 71 Frafra entrepreneurs living in southern cities and their homeland (including both villages and the main town of Bolgatanga). One in five had assets worth more than £10,000 in the mid 1960s; half had accumu­lated £2,000 or more. These were substantial sums by Frafra standards, but only three were rich on a national scale. Men outnumbered women four to one. They usually maintained a diverse portfolio of investments; few were committed to managing a single enterprise. They were part time petty capitalists: in the south, a third were still employed for wages and a further half had been employed fairly recently. The most common medium for investment was housing for rent (three quarters of the sample); next in priority (each being an interest of half the sample) were trade – wholesale, retail, and commodity speculation; bars   beer and gin, food (most of the women were traders or caterers); machinery and plant producing services   flour mills, water supplies; and crime, including money lending at usurious interest rates. A third of the sample owned one or more commercial vehicles; transport was the riskiest but most lucrative form of investment. In addition, some Frafras were contractors in the construction industry.

Many of these activities belong to the sphere of circulation   rent, interest, trading profit, theft which make few labour demands. But half of the entrepreneurs employed five or more workers and 80 per cent at least two. For most of them the key problem of accumulation was that of organizing a labour force in such a way as to secure routine transfer of surplus value to the owner of an enterprise. Trust enters into this issue, but it was much more prominent in the sphere of circulation, where economic organization is shaped by credit and debt and the partnership of equals rather than by productive hierarchy. I will return to this question in the concluding section. Half the sample neither spoke nor wrote any English (Ghana’s official language) and only one in six was literate. Yet, as a group, they were remarkable for having made a break with traditional religion; whereas more than nine out of ten Frafra migrants were pagans, 21 per cent of the entrepreneurs were Muslim and 18 per cent were Christian or some agnostic mixture, a total of almost 40 per cent in the Ghana sample. This figure rose to near 50 per cent in urban areas and 60 per cent in the southern cities of Accra and Kumasi.

As an example of enterprise involving the hierarchical organization of labour, I will briefly describe transport operations. The richest Frafra entrepreneurs all owned commercial vehicles, but the risks of failure were very high; the abandoned hulks which litter Ghana’s roadsides offer silent testimony to the idea that transport is an entrepreneur’s graveyard. In their home town of Bolgatanga, several Frafras ran long distance trucking firms, mostly using 7 ton lorries. In the south, it was more common for individuals to operate small vehicles on a part time basis: taxis, intercity estate wagons (‘Peugeot’) and minibuses (‘Benz’).

If you buy a car or lorry, there are three things you can do with it: drive it yourself, hire a driver, or sell to a driver on a hire purchase basis (‘work and pay’). No one who spends his days behind a wheel is in a position to accumulate. Most naïve operators opt for hiring a driver for fixed wages, since the prospective profit is greater. This is why they usually fail: a wage employee has no incentive to maintain the vehicle or to be honest with the takings. One alternative is to make a driver pay the owner a fixed sum daily; but again, he has no stake in the vehicle and there is nothing to stop him making common cause with a crooked fitter to supply inflated repair bills or to certify that the vehicle was legitimately off the road for several days owing to breakdown. The most secure method is to sell the vehicle to the driver on an instalment plan and make him responsible for maintenance, a method pioneered in Ghana by Lebanese traders. Some owners would run the risk of hiring a driver for the first trouble free year of a new vehicle and then sell it second-­hand on the work and pay basis.

One Tallensi entrepreneur, after several false starts, evolved his own method of running a transport enterprise. He would buy driving licences for young men from his home area and let them serve an apprenticeship on someone else’s taxi until he was convinced they were a good risk. When he had enough cash in hand to buy a vehicle for £2000 £3000, he would pick out one from his pool in reserve (many of whom lived in his household of some 80 persons). He would then write up a contract, adding £1000 to the sale price, selling it to the driver at £10 a day, with a clause giving him the right to seize the bus if the driver missed three successive days’ payments. The driver is responsible for maintenance, but if he is in difficulties the entrepreneur pays for the repairs and adds the cost to the total to be repaid. In the interest of quick turnover, he is anxious that the vehicle should not lie idle for long. Most drivers take one to one and a half years to buy their bus or taxi. This case is remarkable for being largely independent of the Muslim controlled lorry park system in Ghana. It is also worth noting that kinship, self-­reinforcing agreements, and legally binding contracts played a more important part in his enterprise than friendship and trust. He was not a trusting man   in contrast to Atia, the unsuccessful photographer   and this was reflected in his preference for hire purchase agreements over direct employment for wages.

On the face of it, another alternative to wage employment is family labour. Many small enterprises   a bar, a flour mill, a market stall   are well suited to family labour. But in practice it often turned out differently. Many of the catering and retail entrepreneurs were single women; and few of the men had conjugal relations which allowed them to enter into partnership with their wives, since the traditional role pattern is typically both patriarchal and segregated. Few had children old enough to be much help, and most of those were busy acquiring the qualifications for a career of literate employment. The fact that descent organization did not travel to the south meant that kinship ties were much more fluid and the authority of household heads was frequently weak. Here the contrast is with Asian minority communities whose tight cohesion provides patriarchs with external support to domestic hierarchy. Frafra migrants were mostly an undifferentiated brotherhood of mobile single men, linked to a few prominent married men by ties of patronage and pseudo kinship or descent. Such a community did not lend support to domestic hierarchy. Consequently, family labour was problematic. One significant exception consisted of a group of Christian entrepreneurs for whom marriage meant an egalitarian partnership with a wife conceived of as friend.

Employment of workers involves supervision, delegation, and control on a scale which many enterprises in the sphere of circulation largely avoided. Usury, speculation, landlordism, and theft are usually inter­mittent activities, lacking the routinized preoccupations of most productive enterprises. Here the main problems concern extraction of rents or debts from clients, establishing cooperative relations with partners, and negotiating obstacles imposed by public authorities. In a place like Nima, even more than in Ghana generally, legal sanction for contracts is weak or non existent, so that most activities are outside the law, whether or not they self consciously infringe it. Rates of return are nominally very high, interest rates of 25 to 50 per cent per month being normal as against the legal maximum of 30 per cent per annum and current bank lending rates of under 10 per cent per annum. On the other hand, default may be as high as four loans out of five, an expression both of the general lack of trust and of the value attached to trustworthy relationships. Recalcitrant tenants are hard to budge; and market fluctuations trap all but the most expert speculators. Rational calculation of profit under these circumstances is virtually impossible, leading to an atmosphere of windfall and catastrophe which is not conducive to sustained accumulation.

My field notes are full of unexpected deductions from profits that had been calculated on paper. My landlord and I once speculated in the grain market by buying 50 bags of maize in anticipation of a substantial price rise before the next harvest. Not only did many hidden expenses arise (a bag shortage, the market porters’ union, pesticide for the insects), but the USA flooded the market with a donation of surplus maize. This left us scrambling to sell on credit as our only chance of making a small profit; and it took us a lot of effort to get our money back.

This raises the question of what takes the place of law as the major source of sanctions in economic relations. From where do the forms of economic life draw their effectiveness? Clearly force was far from centralized; but systematic use of violence to enforce payment was relatively rare in Nima, as I have already indicated. Criminals used force in their relations with each other and with the police but not normally on the local public, from whom they expected and received a considerable measure of communal support. Reputation, name, honour, the macho complex offered much more scope for creditors and rentiers hoping to shame their clients into payment. Of course, successful entrepreneurs did use forms of contractual agreement; for example, a client might agree to sign a document for a loan of £150, when he had in fact received only £100, thereby evading the law on usurious interest rates. Pawnbrokers acquired real assets and thereby reduced risks. Above all, economic life depended on the discovery of complementary or shared interests which might make commercial agreements self reinforcing in the short and medium term.

Nevertheless, a significant part of all this wheeler dealing hinged on friendship, on the trust generated by shared experience, mutual knowledge and the affection that comes from having entered a relationship freely, by choice rather than status obligation. Whenever my landlord introduced me to one of his ‘good friends’, I knew that he was almost certainly a crook, probably from another ethnic group, a member of a criminal fraternity stretching back decades with a common background of gambling dens, police raids, gaols, diamond smuggling, drug rings, and all the rest. These were the men he turned to when he needed to trust someone, not his family or his fellow tribesmen. Elsewhere in Nima these friendship networks were solidified into more corporate brotherhoods by religious organization, especially by Islamic control of the cattle trade and long distance transport. And in West Africa, but not for the Frafras, such informal organization was often provided by secret societies. Meyer Fortes (1969) argued that kinship carries an ‘axiom of amity’ and perhaps it does; but another Tallensi proverb says maalong gaat soog ‘familiarity is better than kinship’ (literally ‘making sweet’, the experience of being treated well). In the fourth section the contrast between kinship and friendship lies at the core of an attempt to assess the significance of trust in Frafra economic relations.


I study dictionaries. Our words contain a sort of archaeological stra­tigraphy representing great historical shifts in society and the continuing evolution of meaning and usage. Words do not stand still, and any attempt to fix them will fail. Some words change fast (compare Jane Austen’s ‘economist’, an efficient housekeeper, with today’s academic fraternity); others less so. Perhaps trust belongs to this latter category.

The Germanic stratum of English stresses the active voice of ich; it is personal and transitive. Latin based constructions yield agency to abstractions, camouflage the speaker’s voice in passive or intransitive verbs. Beyond this ancient distinction, modern society has exposed us to mass anonymous phenomena like markets and states which have removed from sight the intermediate pattern of human interdependence that give rise to the words we now use. In particular, modern English usage frequently collapses the distinction between persons and things, so that trust can refer equally to a person, an idea, or an object. Nothing stands between the individual subject and a depersonalized, abstract world; and our words reflect this fact. But in origin they referred to another world explicitly founded on concrete human relationships, on activities and passions: love, persuasion, coercion.

The discovery of such a world depends heavily on the achievements of British social anthropology. By investigating societies without states in Africa and Oceania, my predecessors revealed patterns of social organiz­ation and human interdependence that we had forgotten and could not recreate in our philosophical speculations. Hence the power of African Political Systems (1940) and of monographs on the Nuer and Tallensi. Unfortunately the lessons Fortes and Evans Pritchard taught are easily lost. We need this knowledge if we are to escape the tyranny of modern conceptions of the world. For this reason, I wish to distinguish carefully between trust in persons and more abstract understandings, so that we can contrast what we are with what we are not.

Faith, trust, and confidence all express belief. Belief is originally something held dear (compare with love). To believe is to accept something as true. To believe in is to have faith, trust, or confidence in someone or something. Faith and confidence both come from Latin fides, which is the nearest thing to the Germanic trust. Since the Middle Ages, faith has replaced belief as the strongest word for trust placed in a person or thing. To cut through the detail, I wish to propose a continuum of words connoting belief based on the degree to which they rest on evidence of the senses. Faith requires no evidence; trust is an expectation based on inconclusive evidence, is tolerant of uncertainty or risk; confidence is a strong conviction based on substantial evidence or logical deduction. These are all subjective attitudes.

The notion of reliance expresses complete confidence, a presumptively objective state where belief is no longer necessary. To rely on something is to be tied to it, bound (compare with religion), as to an objective condition of existence. When there is no choice, reliance become dependence. Belief, by contrast, connotes freedom of the subject to make commitments in the absence of full knowledge. Belief is a feeling that a person or thing will not fail in performance. Feeling varies inversely with evidence or proof. Thus faith is an emotionally charged, unquestioning acceptance. Trust implies depth and assurance of such feeling, with inconclusive evidence or proof. Confidence involves less intensity of feeling, being based often on good evidence for being sure. Trust thus stands in the middle of a continuum of words for belief mixing extremes of blind faith and open eyed confidence. Its etymology shows trust to be true like a tree, firm, steadfast, and loyal; not impervious to the evidence of the senses, but founded on a willingness to endure risk and uncertainty.

I wish to suggest that Trust has been historically associated with the notion of friend. Modern usage restricts the number of our friends to a narrow circle of intimates, narrower by far than those whom we might occasionally be inclined to trust. But among the Frafras of my study   and perhaps for medieval Englishmen   trust was closely bound up with an idiom of classificatory friendship which had a relatively broad range of application. One definition of friend (American Heritage Dictionary) is ‘a person whom one knows, likes, and trusts’. This is superior to the Oxford English Dictionary’s retention of Johnson’s definition: ‘one joined to another in mutual benevolence and intimacy’. A friend is someone to whom one is not bound, and hence etymologically speaking free, based on choice not status obligation. A friend is not a kinsman. Friend is free and analogous to wife in some Germanic dialects (Frigg, Friya   Wife of Odin), someone chosen. If friendship no longer means to us what it used to, neither does trust, when we can place trust in persons and things with no semantic discontinuity.

Social relations have generally evolved from a concrete, interpersonal basis to the abstract mass anonymities of political economy, an evolution obscured by a modern usage which tends to objectify persons as abstrac­tions, much as pre industrial cultures personify objects. Social theorists perennially ask how qualities of trust, fairness, and cooperation which belong naturally to intimate social worlds might be projected on to the modern stage of markets and states. Neoclassical economists, however, by basing their most general propositions on a formal rational calculus of individual decision making, have tended to obscure the sociological distinction on which this paper hinges.

I agree with the emphasis placed by both Partha Dasgupta and Niklas Luhmann (in this volume) on the importance of personal agency in defining trust. Thus Dasgupta identifies trust as an expectation about another person’s actions which influences our own actions before we have full knowledge of the outcome; and Luhmann exposes to full view the distinction between personal and impersonal social organization. Clearly trust is the predication of one’s own actions on actions of others which bear an identifiable risk of turning out unfavourably. The problem is to control extrapolation from a theory of rational choice to the larger frameworks of modern mass society.

To some extent, the institutions of industrial society justify a theoretical stance in which the personal impersonal distinction remains blurred. But a study such as this one, of life on the margins of the modern state, requires that the difference between levels of social experience be kept in sharp focus. A similar problem arose when anthropologists turned to the analysis of kinship in stateless societies. Here the largest political groups, such as clans, are often represented as being like families. Yet Fortes (for example 1958) showed that the political and domestic levels were often contradictory and should be kept analytically separate. An anthropological approach to the problem of trust would insist on no less a degree of analytical discrimination. To summarize, I situate the notion in a set of belief concepts bounded at the extremes by faith and confidence, where the variable significance of evidence or proof is matched by a compensating level of affectivity. As such, trust is located in the no man’s land between status and contract, the poles of primitive and modern society in evolutionary theory (Maine 1861).


The specific sociological analysis goes something like this. The Frafra migrants face the problem of establishing economic forms, durable relations of partnership and hierarchy, in the city slum. Three basic models for how to go about this present themselves. The most obvious and apparently profitable of these is the contractual ethos of the civil society they think they have joined, that is individualism, rationality, market, impersonal law   the bourgeois package of city life. Here economic relations are in principle entered into freely and by choice, but the contract imposes binding obligations sanctioned by state law. There are several reasons why this does not generally work. State law does not apply except in the form of occasional punishment. Markets are erratic and the substantive conditions of rational calculation are largely absent. The Frafras have not been socialized to make and keep contracts of this sort (they are, for instance, rarely on time), and the impersonal disciplines involved have to be invented from scratch. They lack education. They have no grounds for confidence in outcomes established by contract.

Looking for some alternative form of guarantee, the migrants turn to the antithesis of modern civilization, their own customary moral institutions founded on the identities of kinship, descent, and family, reinforced as they are by a common language and religion, by the certain obligations of birth and community. This option too is fallible. The institutions do not travel en bloc to Accra, and some of the important public sanctions of domestic hierarchy are missing: lineages, ancestor worship, the security of their homeland. The migrant community is an egalitarian brotherhood of floating young men anchored in the patronage of a few resident big men. It is not closed or powerful enough to shore up the authority and reliability of kinsmen. In any case kinship is a poor foundation for the reckoning of two sided economic relations, especially unequal relations, since its central postulate is identity, sameness, a collective self defined by opposition to the generalized other. The idea of shared but separate interests cannot be expressed through a kinship idiom. Not surprisingly, Frafra migrants lose faith in their traditions as a viable framework for urban economic life.

Almost faute de mieux, denied the opportunity to rely on the poles of primitive and modern society, they fall back on the sphere of social life that people, perhaps friends, make out of their free floating association. This, as Mauss (1967) argued most cogently, is the true locus of society, where self and other meet in some reciprocal understanding, where interests and risk are negotiated within relations formed by shared experience (even secrets), by love, knowledge. choice. Friends are free, and they remain free or they are no longer friends. Society in this sense is always personal, active, concrete: perhaps inevitably charismatic or magical, straddling as it does the abstract tyrannies of nature and reason, of totality and isolation.

Does friendship work for the Frafras? In a way it has to work, although rarely without the reinforcement of some other social interest. The case of money lending illustrates the point. Loans in Nima are never made to strangers. Landlords lend to tenants, patrons to clients. The borrower often invokes friendship as a way of soliciting a loan; the pretension of familiarity is the normal rhetoric of economic life in a place like Accra. Kinsmen make poor borrowers since they equate their interests with those of the lender. Again, small traders sell to strangers for cash. Once their customers become more familiar, they grant them special privileges (extras and, more important, credit), engendering trust by means of the gift and making a kind of friendship between buyer and seller, even when it was not a precondition for their association. Regular clients with substantial debts are few, and the traders must pick them carefully: in this respect they are as selective as we are with our personal friendships. But this does not prevent Frafras and others like them from invoking friendship quite casually in their economic relations, a sort of inflation of the social currency that members of our civil society would be likely to resist.

Most migrants fail to transcend the mores of fighting hill tribesmen in the social chaos of the slum. But some of them do. They are aided in this process if they make a break with traditional religion, for both negative and positive reasons. They need some social and cultural distance from the axioms of a society where personal freedom is hedged in by kinship obligations on all sides. World religions also confer membership of new associations which lend organization and sanctions to negotiated social relations. Similar claims could be made for secret societies and criminal fraternities. In Accra, Islamic brotherhoods controlled much of the intermediate level of business between the state made corporate zone and its amorphous hinterland. They did so in informal ways which have been documented brilliantly by Cohen (1969) for the Hausa trading diaspora. Christians, at least the few Frafra Christians, did not join organizations relevant to their enterprise, such as Masons, Rotary, Lions etc. But they were encouraged to elevate their wives to the position of friend, partner, and equal, just as Anthony Pagden tells us (in this volume) Neapolitan social theorists (and, for that matter, a long list of more familiar thinkers) argued we all should, if we are to break down the wearing inertia of familism and segmentary politics which finds expression in the macho complex of public rivalry and private partiarchy. And the idea of two working as one, the ancient but often abused notion of wife as friend, is surely a recurrent theme in the history of enterprise.

Some Frafra migrants learnt to trust those whom they chose as friends, especially if they could draw on associations or on conjugal partnership. Impersonal pieces of paper were largely worthless. But personal relationships are created over time; so that exchange relations in Nima were above all a learning process. People found out by trial and error what worked for them; and the failure rate was very high. Accordingly, the problems of managing information and developing effective social tactics severely restricted ease of entry into the sort of market that most economists would characterize as competitive. The contrasting case studies presented in the second section make it clear that no easy correlation can be drawn between entrepreneurial success and an ability to make friends or engender trust. Indeed the highly successful transport entrepreneur relied on kinship and contract, while the hustler made more of the need for trust.

Frafras relied on trust as a last resort, for good reasons. Trust is essential to dealing, as is known by the diamond traders and by the game theorists, with their suckers, free riders, and lemons. But the routines of productive organization are not easily managed by an ethos of personal freedom. Kinship and contract each offer a durable model for hierarchy and control: parental and legal sanctions respectively. This is why traditional rural society has room only in the margins for achieved relations of friendship and why trust accumulates in the interstices of mass societies organized by markets and states. Trust is central to social life when neither traditional certainties nor modern probabilities hold   in weak states or relatively lawless zones of public life, and in the tran­sition to capitalism, especially in the mercantile sphere of circulation where credit is so important   but not as a basis for industrial production and division of labour. In other words trust is the negotiation of risk occasioned by the freedom of others, whom we know personally, to act against our interests in the relative absence of constraints imposed by kinship identity or legal contract. Domination and interest offer a more pervasive and durable basis for society than friendship and trust.

The list of triadic word sets shown in the table captures some of this argument. Like all words, these are ideal types: they either make for good communication and rational insight or they do not. Real people and societies do not conform to these types: empirical life is always a mixture, and our interest is in the varying emphasis of different arrange­ments. The most important observation is that, whereas many languages have words which identify some of the conceptual oppositions in the table, such as kinship and friendship, confidence and trust, it is normal for cultural categories and social organizations to be formed out of hybrid constructs. This was pointed out by Pitt Rivers (1973) in his excellent paper ‘The kith and the kin’, written for Fortes’s Festschrift.

Starting from the premise that Fortes’s link between kinship and the ‘axiom of amity’ was odd in view of the conceptual opposition most cultures make between kinship and friendship, Pitt Rivers went on to argue that, in the Mediterranean region at least, the key social relations are a fusion of the two polar types, both obligatory and free, a sort of pseudo familism of the kinsman friend: patron, godfather, brother in­-law, indeed affinal relations in general. Something similar can be discerned in religious brotherhoods and in the sworn secrecy of associates who take on the symbolic attributes of blood and common substance in their rituals. We can go further. A familiar critique of utilitarianism is that the contract rests on a non contractual element which is both prior and irreducible to its logic. Hence capitalist firms are organized not just by a state made legal sanction for exploitation, but by having recourse to the ideology of paternalism and mutual trust. Real social organization depends on creative combinations of the types, and successful mixtures will vary according to their situational effectiveness. It is the intellectuals who suppose that modern society could ever be founded on rational choice alone or that the simple minded identities of primitive kinship-­based societies have no room for person or the individual, as in practice all societies must.

My most general point has been made several times in this paper. Our modern English usage, inured as it is to the abstractions of mass society, makes no systematic discrimination between persons and things. But, if we rely on the language and ideology of our times alone, we will fail to understand a social evolution which crucially entails a shift in emphasis from personal to impersonal relations as a function of society’s greater size and complexity. The value of the Frafra case study is that it forces us to conceptualize social life on the margins of the industrial world; and to concede that ‘trust’ may occupy a rather different place in the spectrum of social organization there than it does in the imagination of economists.


Buck, C. S. 1949: A Dictionary of Selected Synonyms in The Principal Indo-­European Languages. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Cohen, A. 1969: Custom and Politics in Urban Africa. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Durkheim, E. [1893]1933: The Division of Labour in Society. Glencoe, III.: Free Press.
Fortes, M. 1945: The Dynamics of Clanship among the Tallensi. London: Oxford University Press.
Fortes, M. 1949: The Web of Kinship among the Tallensi. London: Oxford University Press.
Fortes, M. 1958: Introduction. In J. Goody (ed.), The Development Cycle in Domestic Groups, Cambridge. Cambridge University Press, 1 14.
Fortes, M. 1969: Kinship and the Social Order. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Fortes, M. and Evans Pritchard, E. (eds) 1940: African Political Systems. London: Oxford University Press.
Hart, K. 1969: Entrepreneurs and migrants: a study of modernization among the Frafras of Ghana. Cambridge University, PhD thesis.
Hart, K. 1975: Swindler or public benefactor? The entrepreneur in his com­munity. In J. Goody (ed.), Changing Social Structure in Ghana, London: International African Institute, 1 35.
Hart, K. 1978: The economic basis of Tallensi social history in the early twentieth century. In G. Dalton (ed.), Research in Economic Anthropology, vol. 1, Greenwich, Corm.: JAI Press, 185 216.
Maine, H. S. 1861: Ancient Law. London: Murray.
Mauss, M. 1967: The Gift. New York: Norton.
Morris, W. (ed.) 1969: The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (first college edition). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Pitt Rivers, J. 1973: The kith and the kin. In J. Goody (ed.), The Character of Kinship, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 89 105.

I am grateful for their comments on earlier drafts of this paper to Ray Abrahams, Eduardo da Fonseca, Tanya Luhrmann, Alan Macfarlane, Anthony Pagden, Jolinny Parry, and especially to Diego Gambetta and Geoff Hawthorn.

The fieldwork took place in 1965 68 and is embodied in a Cambridge PhD thesis (Hart 1969). There are many reasons why I balked at publishing the enthnography in subsequent years, most of them to do with my criminal associations.

Details of the entrepreneurs’ sample may be found in Hart (1969). Another paper (Hart 1975) discusses a number of issues germane to the present enquiry.

The principal sources for the etymological argument are the appendix on Indo­-European roots in the American Heritage Dictionary (Morris 1969: 1505 50) and Buck’s Dictionary of Selected Synonyms in the Principal Indo European Languages (1949). Much of this work is highly speculative, even poetic.

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