This essay is an attempt to explain the persistence of high bridewealth in Lesotho. I argue that the structural conditions of its persistence have changed over time and I develop a macro-economic perspective in which to apprehend its contemporary significance. This approach exposes the weakness of the anthropologist's traditional paradigm of discovering functional consistencies between variables of kinship structure within a relatively homogeneous “society”. For an understanding of social systems on the rural periphery of southern Africa critically depends on assumptions about the way in which these are articulated with the larger political and economic system of the region as a whole. From a methodological point of view the essay may be seen as an attempt to work out systematically the implications of a view that Isaac Schapera has argued in essence throughout his professional life: that piece-meal ethnography can only make sense within its full political, economic and social context.
* Lecturer in Social Anthropology, London School of Economics and Political Science, University of London.