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This chapter examines human political organization comparatively through a sociopolitical typology that
classifies societies as bands, tribes, chiefdoms, or states. It identifies the defining characteristics of each
political system, as well as the social and economic features that have been correlated with each type of
Consider how anthropologists have traditionally differed from political scientists in their
approach to “the political.” Why does Kottak prefer to speak of sociopolitical organization?
Know the four basic types of political systems identified by Service (1962) and the social features
correlated with each type. How is this sociopolitical typology limiting, and in what ways is it
analytically useful?
Be familiar with the defining features of foraging bands, particularly with how conflicts have
traditionally been resolved and with the critical roles of the nuclear family and the band.
Understand the defining features of tribes. In particular, be able to distinguish between the
different kinds of tribal leaders identified by Kottak (i.e., village head, big man). How do these
leaders acquire, maintain, and assert their political authority, and how do such leaders differ from
political figures in chiefdoms and in states?
Be able to distinguish among such organizations as sodalities, pantribal sodalities, age grades, and
secret societies. Specifically, know how membership is organized and how sodalities and age
grades form and bolster social alliances and divisions within and across societies.
Be able to identify the defining features of chiefdoms. In particular, be familiar with how
authority and status are organized and maintained in chiefdoms. How do chiefdoms differ from
Be able to discuss the defining features of states. How do the primary specialized units of states
I. Introduction
A. The anthropological approach to political systems and organization is global and
B. Power is the ability to exercise one’s will over others, while authority is the socially approved
use of power.
II. What Is “the Political”?
A. Sociopolitical organization involves the regulation or management of relations among groups
and their representatives.
B. Political regulation includes such processes as decision making, social control, and conflict
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III. Types and Trends
A. Elman Service developed a typology with four kinds of sociopolitical organization: band,
tribe, chiefdom, and state.
1. Although there is archaeological evidence for early bands, tribes, and chiefdoms that
existed before the first states appeared, today none of these polities can be studied as
a self-contained form of political organization, since all exist within the context of
nation-states and are subject to state control.
2. Bands are small kin-based groups found among foragers.
3. Tribes had economies based on non-intensive food production (horticulture and
pastoralism), lived in villages, were organized into kin groups based on common
descent (clans and lineages), and lacked a formal government.
4. The chiefdom, a form of sociopolitical organization intermediate between the tribe
and the state, was kin-based like bands and tribes, but characterized by a permanent
political structure and differential access to resources (some people had more wealth,
prestige, and power than others).
5. The state is characterized by formal government and socioeconomic stratification.
B. Although Service’s typology is too simple to account for the full range of political diversity
and complexity known to archaeologists and ethnographers, it does highlight some significant
contrasts in sociopolitical organization, especially those between states and nonstates.
C. In bands and tribes—unlike states, which have clearly visible governments—political
organization was not separate and distinct from the total social order.
D. Correlations
1. There are many correlations between economy and sociopolitical organization.
a. Foragers tended to have band organization.
b. Horticulturalists and pastoralists tended to have tribal organization.
c. Chiefdoms and nonindustrial states usually had agricultural economies,
although herding was important in some Middle Eastern chiefdoms.
2. In general, food production was accompanied by larger, denser populations and more
complex economies, resulting in new regulatory problems that in turn gave rise to
more complex relations and linkages (greater social and political complexity).
IV. Bands and Tribes
A. Foraging Bands
1. In anthropology there is a debate between traditionalists and revisionists concerning
how much contemporary foragers—particularly the San of the Kalahari Desert of
southern Africa—can tell us about the economic, social, and political relations that
characterized humanity before food production.
a. Traditionalists maintain that the San are an egalitarian, autonomous, bandorganized people who until recently were nomadic or seminomadic, and
therefore that they are representative of the hunting-gathering way of life and
of band organization.
b. In contrast, revisionists argue that the San tell us little about the ancient
world in which all humans were foragers, since the San have been linked to
food producers for generations, and this contact has changed the basis of
their culture.
2. In certain respects, both sides in the debate are correct: Although modern foragers are
not Stone Age relics, to the extent that foraging is the basis of their subsistence,
modern hunter-gatherers can illustrate links between a foraging economy and other
aspects of society and culture.
B. Characteristics of Foraging Bands
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1. Traditionally, foraging societies had two kinds of social groups: the nuclear family
and the band.
a. Bands were impermanent, forming seasonally when component families got
together, and the particular families that formed a band varied from year to
b. Marriage, kinship, trade, and visiting created social ties between members of
different bands.
2. Foraging bands were fairly egalitarian, in that all differences in status were achieved
rather than ascribed.
3. Band leaders were “first among equals”—they could give advice or make decisions
but lacked a means of enforcing their decisions.
4. Although foragers lacked formal law, they did have methods of social control and
dispute settlement (e.g., song battles among the Inuit).
5. Prestige is esteem, respect, or approval for culturally valued acts or qualities.
C. Tribal Cultivators
1. Although there are no totally autonomous tribes today, there are societies (e.g., in
Papua New Guinea and South America) in which tribal principles continue to
2. Tribes usually have a horticultural or pastoral economy and are organized by village
life and/or membership in descent groups (kin groups whose members trace descent
from a common ancestor).
3. Socioeconomic stratification and formal government are not found in tribes.
4. A few tribes still conduct small-scale warfare (intervillage raiding).
5. The main regulatory officials—village heads, "big men," descent-group leaders,
village councils, and leaders of pantribal associations—have only limited authority,
as they lack the means of enforcing their decisions.
6. Like foragers, tribes are fairly egalitarian.
a. Some tribes have marked gender stratification—an unequal distribution of
resources, power, prestige, and personal freedom between men and women.
b. Status in tribes is based on age, gender, and personal traits.
7. Horticulturalists tend to live in small villages with low population density and open
access to resources.
8. Egalitarianism tends to diminish as village size and population density increase.
D. The Village Head
1. The Yanomami, who live in southern Venezuela and the adjacent part of Brazil, are
an example of a tribal society with a village head.
2. The position of village head is achieved and comes with very limited authority.
a. The village head cannot issue orders, nor can he force or coerce people to do
b. Rather, the village head must lead by example; he can only persuade,
harangue, and try to influence people to do things.
3. The village head may act as a mediator in disputes, but he has no authority to back
his decision or impose punishments.
4. The village head must lead in generosity.
a. Because he must be more generous, the village head cultivates more land
than other villagers.
b. The village head represents the village in its dealings with outsiders—for
example, he may host feasts to which other villages are invited.
5. In the last few decades, the Yanomami have suffered from violence and disease as a
result of encroachment by Brazilian miners and ranchers.
E. The "Big Man"
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1. A big man was like a village head, except that he had supporters in several villages
(rather than just one, like a village head) and thus was a regulator of regional political
2. Big men were common in societies of the South Pacific, particularly the Melanesian
Islands and Papua New Guinea.
3. Among the Kapauku, the big man (tonowi) was the only political figure.
a. The tonowi’s position was achieved through the accumulation of wealth,
generosity, eloquence, bravery, physical fitness, and supernatural powers.
b. Supporters of the tonowi accepted his decisions as binding.
c. The tonowi was an important regulator of regional events (e.g., feasts and
4. To become (and stay) a tribal leader, such as village head or big man, a person must
be generous with his supporters.
a. Tribal leaders must work hard to create a surplus to give away.
b. By giving away their surpluses, tribal leaders convert their wealth into
prestige and gratitude.
5. Big men could forge regional political organization—albeit temporarily—by
mobilizing people from several villages.
6. The term status often is used as a synonym for prestige – status encompasses the
various positions that people occupy in society.
a. Some statuses are ascribed: people have little or no choice about occupying
b. Achieved statuses (such as that of a big man), by contrast, aren’t automatic:
they come through choices, actions, efforts, talents, or accomplishments, and
may be positive or negative.
F. Pantribal Sodalities and Age Grades
1. Sodalities are nonkin groups, often based on common age or gender, that link local
groups in tribal societies.
2. Pantribal sodalities—those that extend across the whole tribe, spanning several
villages—sometimes arose in areas where two or more different cultures came into
regular contact.
a. Pantribal sodalities were especially likely to develop in the presence of
intertribal warfare.
b. Since pantribal sodalities drew their members from several villages, they
were able to mobilize a large number of men for attacks or retaliation against
other tribes.
3. During the 18th and 19th centuries, pressure from European contact created
conditions that promoted the formation of pantribal sodalities (e.g., age sets) among
Native American societies of the North American Great Plains.
4. Age sets are sodalities that include all of the men or women born during a certain
time span.
a. Age sets were common among tribes of the Great Plains, as well as in eastern
and southeastern Africa.
b. An age set is similar to a college class (e.g., the Class of 2012).
c. Members of an age set progress together through a series of age grades (e.g.,
initiated youth, warrior, adult, elder; or the first, sophomore, junior, and
senior years in American colleges and universities).
d. In societies with age grades but not age sets, people can progress through the
age grades either individually or collectively.
5. Secret societies are sodalities, made up exclusively of men or women, that have
secret initiation ceremonies.
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6. Sodalities based on age, gender, and ritual can link members of different local groups
into a single social collectivity in tribal society and thus create a sense of ethnic
identity, of belonging to the same cultural tradition.
G. Nomadic Politics
1. Various kinds of sociopolitical organization are found among pastoralists.
2. As regulatory problems among pastoralists increase, political organization becomes
less personal, more formal, and less kinship-oriented.
3. Variability in sociopolitical organization among pastoralists is illustrated by the
Basseri and the Qashqai, two pastoral nomadic tribes in Iran.
a. The Bassari leader (khan), because he dealt with a smaller population, faced
fewer problems in coordinating its movements than did the leaders of the
b. The rights, privileges, duties, and authority of the Bassari khan were weaker
than those of Qashqai khans, and his authority was derived from his personal
traits rather than his office.
c. The Qashqai population was larger, and managing it required a complex
hierarchy including multiple levels of authority and more powerful khans.
d. In Qashqai society, allegiance shifted from the person to the office.
V. Chiefdoms
A. In many parts of the world, the chiefdom was a transitional form of sociopolitical
organization between tribes and states.
B. Chiefdom and state are ideal types—that is, they are labels that make social contrasts seem
sharper than they really are.
1. In reality, there is a continuum from tribe to chiefdom to state.
2. Some societies had many attributes of chiefdoms but retained tribal features, while
others had attributes of archaic states and thus are difficult to assign to either
category (some scholars refer to such societies as “complex chiefdoms”).
C. Political and Economic Systems in Chiefdoms
1. Chiefdoms developed in several parts of the world (e.g., circum-Caribbean, lowland
Amazonia, the southeastern United States, Polynesia, the megalithic cultures of
2. In chiefdoms (as in bands and tribes), social relations are mainly based on kinship,
marriage, descent, age, generation, and gender.
3. Unlike bands and tribes, chiefdoms are characterized by permanent political
regulation of the territory they administer.
a. Regulation is carried out by the chief and his or her assistants, who occupy
political offices.
b. An office is a permanent position, which must be refilled when it is vacated
by death or retirement.
c. Because offices are refilled systematically, the structure of a chiefdom
endures across generations.
4. In Polynesian chiefdoms, chiefs regulated production, distribution, and consumption.
5. In chiefly redistribution, products moved up the hierarchy to a central office, and then
were redistributed during feasts sponsored by the chief (who thereby fulfilled the
obligation to share with kin).
a. Chiefly redistribution made goods from different regions available to the
entire society.
b. Chiefly redistribution helped manage risk by stimulating production of a
surplus and providing a central storehouse for goods that might become
scarce during times of famine.
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D. Social Status in Chiefdoms
1. In chiefdoms, social status was based on seniority of descent.
2. All of the people in a chiefdom were believed to have descended from a group of
founding ancestors.
a. The status of the chief was ascribed, based on seniority of descent.
b. Even the lowest-ranking person in a chiefdom was related to the chief.
c. In such a kin-based context, everyone, even a chief, had to share with his or
her relatives.
3. Chiefdoms were characterized by a continuum of social statuses, rather than distinct
social classes (elites and commoners).
E. Status Systems in Chiefdoms and States
1. The status systems of chiefdoms and states are based upon differential access to
resources—that is, some men and women have privileged access to power, prestige,
and wealth.
2. In chiefdoms, differential access was based on kinship, such that people with
privileged access were generally chiefs and their nearest relatives and assistants.
3. Compared to chiefdoms, states are characterized by much clearer class divisions (at
least nobles and commoners).
a. In states, kinship ties do not extend from nobles to commoners because of
stratum endogamy—marriage within one’s own group.
b. Stratum endogamy results in stratification, the creation of separate social
strata that differ in their access to wealth, prestige, and power.
F. The Emergence of Stratification
1. Social stratification in the form of marked social classes is one of the key
distinguishing features of states.
2. Weber’s Dimensions of Social Stratification
a. Economic status, or wealth, encompasses all a person’s material assets,
including income, land, and other types of property.
b. Power, the ability to exercise one’s will over others, is the basis of political
c. Prestige, the basis of social status, refers to esteem, respect, or approval for
acts, deeds, or qualities considered exemplary.
3. In archaic states there were two basic class distinctions.
a. The superordinate stratum was the elite or higher class that had privileged
access to wealth, power, and other valued resources.
b. The subordinate stratum was the lower or underprivileged class.
G. Open and Closed Class Systems
1. Vertical mobility is an upward or downward change in a person’s social status.
2. In a truly open class system, individual achievement and personal merit determine
social rank.
3. Caste systems are closed, hereditary systems of stratification that often are dictated
by religion.
a. Hierarchical social status is ascribed at birth, so that people are locked into
their parents’ social position.
b. Caste lines are clearly defined, and legal and religious sanctions are applied
against those who seek to cross them.
4. Slavery is the most inhumane, coercive, and degrading form of legal stratification.
5. Socioeconomic stratification continues to be a defining feature of all states, archaic
or industrial.
VI. States
A. States have specialized units that perform specific tasks.
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1. Population control: fixing of boundaries, establishment of citizenship categories, and
the taking of a census.
2. Judiciary: laws, legal procedure, and judges.
3. Enforcement: permanent military and police forces.
4. Fiscal: taxation.
5. In archaic states, these subsystems were integrated by a ruling system or government
composed of civil, military, and religious officials.
Population Control
1. To control their populations, states create administrative divisions (e.g., provinces,
districts, counties, subcounties, parishes) that are managed by lower-level officials.
2. With state organization, kinship’s pervasive role diminished.
3. States foster geographic mobility and resettlement, severing longstanding ties among
people, land, and kin.
4. States assign different rights and obligations to different social groups—for example,
citizens versus noncitizens; members of different social classes (elites, commoners,
and slaves); and soldiers versus ordinary civilians.
1. States have laws, based on precedent and legislative proclamations, which regulate
relations between individuals and groups.
2. All states also have courts and judges to handle disputes and crimes (violations of the
legal code).
3. Unlike nonstates, states intervene in family affairs.
4. Despite states’ attempts to curb internal conflict, the majority of armed conflicts
during the last half century began within states.
1. All states have agents to enforce judicial decisions.
2. State governments are concerned with preserving internal order and guarding against
external threats, as well as with defending hierarchy, property, and the power of the
Fiscal Systems
1. A financial (or fiscal) system supports rulers, nobles, officials, judges, military
personnel, and other specialists in a state.
2. Of the resources collected by a state (e.g., via taxation), some are redistributed to
citizens while others (often more) are used to support the government and the elite.
3. Common people in states usually must work harder than those in nonstates.
4. Fiscal systems of archaic states helped to maintain and elaborate class distinctions.
VII. Anthropology Today: Diwaniyas in Kuwait
A. When discussing political systems, it is important to think about the informal political
institutions that are not part of the governmental apparatus, but which significantly influence
1. Diwaniyas in Kuwait are informal, local-level meeting places where informal
discussions can have formal consequences.
2. Much of Kuwait’s decision making, networking, and influence peddling takes place
in diwaniyas.
B. Traditionally, diwaniyas are male-only political salons that function like the local equivalent
of a neighborhood pub and town-hall meeting combined.
1. Important decisions—ranging from business to politics to marriage—are made in
2. Recently, some people have begun to host mixed (male and female) diwaniyas.
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Consider how anthropologists have traditionally differed from political scientists in their
approach to “the political.” Why does Kottak prefer to speak of sociopolitical organization?
The romanticization of band and tribal life in Western society and media should be analyzed and
discussed, with examples from recent movies or television programs. Address also the social
history of such romanticization in the social sciences as well as the potential reasons for its
The key role of kinship in the sociopolitical organization of tribes can be illustrated by discussing
cases in which kinship determines political office, religious specialization, access to resources,
and so on.
It is important to note that “egalitarian” does not mean that everybody is of equal status. With a
specific ethnographic case, discuss how differences in status based on age, gender, personal
attitudes, and abilities arise in societies considered “relatively egalitarian.”
Discuss how power, authority, and resources are differentially channeled through the four
primary types of socio-political organization. Consider for instance, how (and if) political leaders
in each type of socio-political organization may organize people for subsistence work. How might
these forms of authority coexist in contemporary nation-states?
Be able to discuss the defining features of states. How do the primary specialized units of states
Discuss how feminist scholarship in anthropology has contributed to a reevaluation of “the
political,” in cross-cultural perspective.
Series: Netsilik Eskimos
A series of 9 films in 21 half-hour segments.
This series follow a group of Netsilik Eskimos during their seasonal movements and shifting subsistence
strategies. Titles in the series: At the Caribou Crossing Place (2 segments); At the Autumn River Camp
(2 segments); At the Winter Sea-Ice Camp (4 segments); Jigging for Lake Trout (1 segment); At the
Spring Sea-Ice Camp (3 segments); Group Hunting on the Spring Ice (3 segments); Stalking Seal on the
Spring Ice (2 segments); Building a Kayak (2 segments); Fishing at the Stone Weir (2 segments).
Documentary Educational Resources, Watertown, MA.
Nenetsi Samoyeds: Nomads of the Siberian Tundra
1997 52 minutes
This film depicts the life of the nomadic Nenetsi reindeer herdsmen of the Yamal Peninsula. The film
follows the Nenetsi on their spring journey to southern grazing lands. From Films for the Humanities and
N!ai: The Story of a !Kung Woman
1980 59 minutes
This film provides an historical overview of the daily life of the !Kung, a gathering and hunting people in
South Africa. It presents the story of N!ai, a !Kung woman, from childhood to her mid-thirties. The film
shows the contrast in lifestyle between traditional foraging of thirty years ago and life in a government
settlement in Namibia in 1978. From the Odyssey Series.
Ancient Rome
1996 49 minutes
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This film explores Rome’s unification of Europe, culture and institutions, and the family structure. Part
of the series Ancient Civilizations by Films for the Humanities and Sciences.
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