The Ju/’hoansi criticize or verbally punish people whose behavior disrupts the cohesion, harmony, and mutual assistance in their communities. Drawing on her field notes from an eight-week visit to Botswana in 1974, and six weeks of observations in 1996-1997, Polly Wiessner analyzes in a recent journal article the ways the Ju/’hoansi use verbal punishments to enforce their community standards.

The author derives her information from detailed notes on 308 conversations during the two periods of time that involved three or more adults. She recorded everything the Ju/’hoansi talked about, trivial or serious, and noted such information as the participants, the settings, topics of conversations, and whether or not the conversations involved discussions of other people. She found that 63 percent of the conversations, 193 of them, included either criticism or praise about the behavior of people, and 171 of those 193 were critical in nature.

Her details about the types of issues that provoked verbal punishments are interesting. She found that 53 percent of the critical conversations focused on behaviors that disrupt the community. They included trouble making (12 percent), reclusive behavior (11 percent), inappropriate sexual behavior (9 percent), drunkenness (9 percent), and big-shot behavior (12 percent). Other issues that provoked verbal condemnation during the two combined periods included kin obligations, jealousy over possessions, the occupation of land, and repeated laziness, stinginess, or greed.

Most of the time, punishments for infractions of the social norms started as talk—verbal criticisms are a form of punishment in this society. The author acknowledges that she can only analyze punishments that formed during conversations. Punishments that began with subtle changes of group dynamics, of people withdrawing assistance from others as a way of signaling discontent, were not recorded. She found that two-thirds of the verbal criticisms started in groups that did not include visitors. In other words, the Ju/’hoansi tended to refrain from discussing with outsiders disruptive behaviors of people within the camp.

Punishment as understood by most of the world—corporal violence, imprisonment, and such—is apparently not used in the Ju/’hoansi society. Instead, Wiessner describes how their punishments fall into four levels: mocking, joking, and pantomime put-downs; mild complaining and criticism; harsh complaining and criticism; and very strong criticism that might lead to violence.

As an example, the author relates how one camp attempted to control several instance of big-shot behavior by, at first, humorous put downs, then, a few days later, when the behavior didn’t change, by harsh criticism. Finally, people started refusing to share meat, tempers flared, and the man accused of being a big shot left the band for a few weeks until things cooled down. Another man, also accused of acting like a big shot, calmed the growing anger of his accusers by slaughtering one of his cows. He justified his action by noting that the cow was behaving dangerously, and he then shared the meat widely.

Frequently the outright venting of open criticisms took place in the evening, when someone might suddenly begin to loudly and angrily denounce another so everyone could hear. When irritation about a festering problem reached that level, the issue had already became quite serious. If the matter was not resolved, the camp might dissolve into several parts, which could have economic consequences for everyone.

The author found that people of both sexes, of all ages, and of all statuses in the community were involved in punishing people who violated their norms. Men, however, were much more often the targets of criticism than women. One reason was that men acted as big shots more frequently than women did. Secondly, men were involved in controversial decisions about sharing game meat, issues that women didn’t face. Thirdly, men hesitated to complain about women because that might inflame their husbands and cause worse problems.

The author speculates that criticism of men perceived to be strong, often done in their presence, may have enhanced their reputations as it verified an impression of equality, which clearly did not exist. Strong members of the society tended to take criticism, mocking, or pantomime in good humor, and they may at times have made self-deprecating comments and made fools of themselves to enhance their “one of the boys” status.

The Ju/’hoansi group was frequently not unanimous in its condemnation of an individual. Complete consensus was not sought before punishment—i.e., criticism—began. In fact, it was not desirable. If everyone were united against a member of the group, that individual might be tempted to leave, which could result in the serious loss of the person’s contributions. Even if the complaint against someone was warranted, some people would usually refrain from joining the criticism so as to show continuing support for the individual. The groups criticized unanimously only 34 percent of the time.

Most of the time the individuals who heard the criticisms made no visible responses or apologies. Sometimes they ignored the complaints because they felt they were unfounded, though on other occasions they took the criticisms seriously but in silence, and delayed their responses. The absence of a direct response by someone accused of violating group standards meant that no dyadic encounter got started and the chances of violence developing were minimized.

Violence was not completely absent, however, a point that has been made in other literature about the Ju/’hoansi such as Lee (1979). Wiessner indicates on page 130 that two percent of the punishments she recorded, in the absence of alcohol, did escalate into violence. A few pages later, p. 136, she says that three percent of the group punishments “resulted in violent brawls.” The difference isn’t critical. The major point is that, while slight, there has always been occasional violence in Ju/’hoansi society.

She concludes that due to the rapid changes in their society and the introduction of alcohol, the traditional mechanisms for controlling behavior, including verbal punishments for violations of social norms, have weakened so much that offenders cannot be controlled. Time tested means of solving social problems no longer work, so new methods of control, such as leadership councils supported by the government, may have to substitute. The recent decade from 1993 to 2003 witnessed a severe increase in homicides among the Ju/’hoansi, she says.

Wiessner, Polly. 2005. “Norm Enforcement among the Ju/’hoansi Bushmen.” Human Nature 16(2): 115-145.