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Cultural Analysis: !Kung San

Annotated Bibliography

A look into the !Kung family-life.

Due to their nomadic tendencies, a !Kung village tends to stay very low in population. These villages generally consist of about 10-30 people, including men, women, children and the elderly. Calling themselves zhu twa si, "the harmless people," they refer to non-San people as zosi, "animals without hooves," meaning they are as dangerous as predatory animals.11 Because of their surroundings, they tend to live as simple a life as possible in as peaceful a way as possible.

Roles of Women and Men

As a result of being a hunter-gathering society, the !Kung diet is based on what they can find in their surroundings. Typically, food gathering is handled by the women and children of the village. Consisting of mongongo nut and food from the over 200 varieties of plants that grow in the region, these resources count for about 80% of the !Kung diet. In addition, the women also hunt for small game, supplementing the diet with lizards, snakes, tortoises' and birds' eggs, insects, and some small mammals. In this aspect, women decide when and where to gather, just as men decide when and where to hunt.3

Generally, the men's position in the village is to bring in the bigger game, going off at days at a time to find meat to bring back to the village. Because bringing meat into the village is highly celebrated, men gain a larger range of influence and power in the village. It is believed that the independence that the men gain is due to their greater ability to protect themselves in the wild. As a side result, women lose a lot of their independence because they must watch over the children.4

Roles of the Children and Elderly

Though children do not have a responsibility to provide food, they do periodically accompany their mothers in the gathering of food. While they are young, they are allowed to play and entertain themselves. When they grow older they are expected to provide a contribution to the village. In fact, a young man is only eligible to marry after making his first big game kill. In doing this he has proven he can support a wife and family.3 On the contrary, a young woman is not considered a woman until she finally has her first child, which is generally only after being married.

Elders, while few in number and unable to contribute to the group economically, they are highly respected in the community. This is generally due to their knowledge of the culture before outside influences affected it. The elders gave them their connection to their history and the ability to continue to preserve their culture as best as they could.4

Marriage in the !Kung Culture

Most marriages in !Kung society are monogamous and arranged by senior members of the kinship group. Preferably, marriages are made between cousins, but this becomes difficult due to a complicated generational naming system. Sometimes cousins are named as siblings, thereby discounting them as a choice in marriage.12 A wedding is generally seen as a private event between the bride and bridegroom. There are no celebrations or rituals, nothing more than an agreement between the two involved.13


Birth is generally not considered to be a big issue. No real preparation is done, rather a woman who is about to give birth will go have the child using her mother or an elder aunt for comfort, and go back to her daily routine within the hour. After the birth, the child will receive love from the village.13

During drought conditions, fertility of the women is generally low. But, for those children that still happen to be born under severe drought conditions the mother will quietly end the child's life to save the child from severe and certain future suffering. An accepted behavior, it stems from the reality of living in a harsh climate and the realization that in their environment it is more of a risk to spend resource on a new-born that is likely not to survive.13

Functionalist Perspective

From the functionalist perspective, everyone in the !Kung society has a job to help push the village forward and succeed. Men have the job to supply the highly prized meat, while women are assigned the task of gathering food and raising the children. The elderly have the role of passing on information to the younger generations, making sure that the !Kung way of life is continued. Even the children have a role in the village, learning the roles that they will be taking on when the grow older as well as ensuring that the village will continue to exist in the future. All of these separate parts are also pieces of a bigger function, the family. The family's role is to ensure that everyone involved has a chance at survival.

Conflict Perspective

With living in such a harsh environment, the !Kung are in constant conflict, not only with each other over resources but also with the environment itself. By cooperating, the village ensures that the competition for resources is kept at a minimum by allowing each member in the village a chance to get their fair share even while resources are scarce. This is emphasized by the example of children born during drought conditions. It is counter-productive to share resources with a life that is not likely to make it to an age to become productive.

An outside culture might believe that there would exist some form of conflict between the gender roles within the !Kung group. While women are generally seen as less important, !Kung women hold a status higher than that in many agricultural and industrial societies.11 One reason that this could be true, at least according to the !Kung women, is that the women control the act of sex, and the men need sex to live.11

External conflicts between families are generally non-existent in the !Kung way of life. Over the thousands of years that the San have inhabited the Kalahari, the separate San groups divided the Kalahari into distinct areas to aid in staying away from conflict.

Symbolic Perspective

The !Kung attribute many parts of their culture to symbols. Because gender roles are strictly enforced, certain aspects of life are predetermined even though there is a great amount of focus placed on equality. Meat is so highly valued, even though it makes up very little of the overall diet, that it elevates the status of men in the !Kung culture. In addition, the family and the village is more important than anything else, with everyone working towards its betterment.

This site was created for SOCIOLOGY 1 SEC DE1 (21594) FALL 2005.