Akan Social Stratification

Akan adinkra symbol: "Ebi te yiye"
Some people are well seated while others are not.
(An aknowledgement of social inequality).

Photo credit: G. F. Kojo Arthur
Centre for Indigenous Knowledge Systems

The Akan have developed an elaborate stratification systems based upon the recognition of hereditary statuses within their kingdoms. This arrangement represents a form that anthropologists call a ranked society. The principle positions consist of titles arranged in a graded hierarchy from the king who rules over the entire state, to divisional chiefs heading subordinate regions, to town chiefs at the bottom of the administrative ladder. On each level the central leader is assisted by a group of subordinate title holders who make up his advisory council and assume specialized political responsibilities. Each status, from royalty to the lowest office, is "owned" by a lineage group and is assigned to one of its members. Most are reserved for men, but some important women's offices, such as queen mother (ahemma, literally female king), are present. No fixed succession rule is imposed. The acquisition of some positions, such as the kingship, requires broad approval from the population. These features of the Akan ranking system are typical of ranked form of stratification in that statuses are restricted but are quite numerous and arranged in a complex hierarchy based in part upon locality.
Hereditary statuses within this stratification order are closely integrated into the religious system, especially at the upper levels where kings and chiefs serve as foci for the worship of royal ancestors and thereby assume a divine aspect. Their religious position establishes a strong sanction for the maintenance of their influence but also acts to restrict their powers, since ritual regulations impose a variety of limitations on their freedom of action including their physical mobility. Maintenance of status is also dependent upon acts of public generosity.

Before the colonial period, Akan social rank and status entailed the control of considerable amounts of wealth through the rights that the traditional kingdoms held over trade and the accumulation of gold and slaves. Public assets, however, were allotted to the office, not to individual incumbents, and had to be transferred to a successor rather than to a personally appointed heir. Moreover, the growth of economic stratification did not entail ownership of the primary productive resource. Agricultural land was held under lineage tenure and was widely accessible to all members of society. A small landless labour force was present in the form of slaves, who were introduced into the society as a consequence of military expansion. However, this institution was primarily a domestic operation, and slaves could eventually be integrated into the families of their owners and gain access to land on their own behalf. More exploitative forms of slavery were exercised on the state level where captives could be impressed to work as porters or miners.

© Brian Schwimmer, All rights reserved
Department of Anthropology
University of Manitoba
Created 2001