Identifying the boundaries that circumscribe social groupings can present challenges, not only for anthropologists but also for those people living within the social groupings. There was a time in anthropological investigations where this did not seem to be a significant issue, when groups on the ground and living in relative communication with each other could easily appear as discrete social entities. It was in the latter part of the 20th century that the complexities of group interconnection became more apparent, with an increasing understanding of local and regional social dynamics. These regional and intraregional relationships necessitate that all social groupings define some kind of exclusivity that enables distinctions between and within the sentient social groups; “We are the people who do not eat human flesh” or “We are the people who believe. . .”
All social groupings, whether these are large-scale distinctions between societies or more esoteric divisions within social entities, are delineated by constructed boundaries defining difference. Often these differences are measured by the degrees of knowledge held by an “in-group” and considered distinct from the knowledge held by the “out-group.” Secret societies are so defined by the use of some aspect of secrecy as an indicator of exclusivity. For example, medical practitioners, while not strictly speaking a secret society, might be likened to one by their use of technical language far beyond the comprehension of the majority of their clients. Furthermore, medical practitioners must undergo strictly maintained initiation and periods of hardship through long internships so as to be accepted into the profession. We tend not to consider such Western professions as secret societies because the knowledge they hold is theoretically available to all. But for most, this is not a reality given the exclusive conditions that enable only some to be admitted into the preliminary initiation and transferral of knowledge at university level. More traditional thinking about secret societies concerns groups who imagine that they hold secret knowledge or perform secret ceremonies exclusive to that group. They form a defined boundary around themselves that is recognized by both insiders and outsiders. Extensive initiations often accompany an individual’s acceptance into the group, marking a transition from being an outsider to an insider. In Western societies, cloistered religious communities provide an example.
Imagery is used in many forms to represent the secret nature of these groups. This imagery can be in the form of sounds or words (Wicca magical texts), music (secret flutes identify men’s secret societies in parts of Papua New Guinea), masks and costumes (Poro and Sande secret societies of West Africa), or art (bark paintings of Northeast Arnhem Land, Australia). While these artefacts may be the visual or auditory means of representing these groups, a more significant aspect of secret societies is the transformation from being an outsider to an insider. Initiations into a secret society are often accompanied by significant payments to the gatekeepers. The initiations, themselves, can be extensive and punishing. During the periods of initiation, esoteric knowledge is gradually revealed to the initiates, who gain by degrees the secret knowledge held by the group. Some of the most famous anthropological examples of secret societies are the Poro and Sande societies prevailing in West African social groups, the secret societies of Papua New Guinea, and the diversity of secret/sacred knowledge held by Aboriginal Australians in a variety of social groupings.
- Epstein, A. L. (1992). In the midst of life. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Herdt, G. H. (1981). Guardians of the flutes: Idioms of masculinity. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Murphy, W. P. (1980). Secret knowledge as property and power in Kpelle Society: Elders versus youth. Africa, 50(2), 193-207.