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The Society and Its Environment

THE LIBERIAN SOCIETY, which had long been characterized by a conspicuous cultural gulf between the descendants of nineteenth?century black American settlers and the Africans of indigenous descent, had undergone significant changes by the mid?1980s. In the decades after World War II during the administrations of President William Vacanarat Shadrach Tubman and President William Richard Tolbert, the growth of the foreign dominated modern sector of the economy served as a catalyst in breaking down the barriers that had isolated one group from another for so long.

During this period new social categories based on occupation, education, and income rather than ethnicity emerged. A relatively small group of Americo?Liberian families had continued to constitute the elite, but its dominance was ended abruptly by the military coup d'etat of April 1980. At the time, some observers thought that Master Sergeant Samuel Kanyon Doe and his fellow enlisted soldiers of indigenous African descent would seek to expand their overthrow of the True Whig regime into a revolution that would completely restructure the society. By 1984, however, the reemergence of certain Americo?Liberians as important officials in the government and as respected members of the society indicated that the effects of the coup on the republic's social development, while not insignificant, were less sweeping than originally perceived.

Although Liberians inhabiting some of the remote rural areas had been exposed in varying degrees to economic modernization, the traditions of tribal society appeared to have continuing significance for them. According to the Liberian government, there were 16 recognized ethnic categories of indigenous peoples. Some ethnologists, however, have defined as many as 28, all of whom were grouped as part of the large Niger?Congo ethnolinguistic family. None of these groups, which between them spoke some 20 different languages and dialects, was numerically preponderant.

In the 1980s there did not appear to be any obvious conflict nor any manifestations of a social hierarchy among the indigenous ethnic groups. Given the Americo?Liberians' loss of a dominant position in the society since the coup, however, the possibility of future ethnically based conflicts and cleavages could not be ruled out.

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