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Kottak: Cultural Anthropology 9e
Cultural Anthropology, 9/e
Conrad P. Kottak, University of Michigan

Political Systems


What is all of this talk about bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and states?
Anthropologists interested in social and political organization developed four broad categories that attempt to describe the strategies used for every human culture, living or deceased. These categories are based on the observation that despite all of the variation present, certain combinations of strategies appear to co-occur. For example, most mobile foragers organize their social and political lives around the nuclear family and the small groups that are created when a few nuclear families come together is called a band. These band-organized societies don't permit people to accumulate wealth, they prize generosity, and they generally recognize that all members of the band have access to all of the strategic resources of the band. Groups that are organized this way work because all of the members understand their relationship to each other.

In some cases, it becomes necessary for societies to be able to effectively deal with conflicts between people who are not related or who are more distantly related. Tribally organized societies have offices that permit this. As one might expect, tribal organization is used by societies that have more people than bands or by societies that are less mobile.

How long have states been around?
Most people in the world today live in a state-organized society. States are recognizable because their governments use population controls, such as a census and citizenship, and impose taxation, which is used to support a permanent military and police, and to support a system of laws and judges. In addition, members of a state have differential access to resources. As typical as states might seem to most people today, they have only existed for about 5,500 years and they have only been widespread for the last few centuries.

Why would the question "take me to your leader" be unusual for some people?
In Star Trek, when the crew of the Enterprise lands on a strange planet, their first question of the natives is usually some variant of "Take me to your leader." In a similar way, the first Europeans who arrived in the New World during the 16th and 17th centuries asked the same question. This question reflects their (and our) natural assumption that in any group there is a leadership office. But what anthropologists know, and the 16th and 17th century explorers found out, is that this question can often lead to some confusion, because for societies with some forms of social or political organization there is no office of leadership. Among bands and tribes, there may be influential individuals (called big men or village heads by anthropologists), but there is no office of leadership they fill. Any authority these individuals have comes from their power of persuasion, not from the authority of the office. Remember how there was anxiety among the press and the citizens during the United States presidential election of 2000 because there was a delay in determining the winner (the press frequently called the one-month delay a "Constitutional Crisis"). The anxiety stemmed from the assumption of all Americans that at all times there is someone who is President. Anthropologists know that this assumption is not universal.

Can the people of one of the industrialized nations decide to go back to being egalitarian (in the anthropological sense)?

Egalitarian societies, such as bands or tribes, are ones in which status and access to resources are based on achieved as opposed to ascribed status. This means that access to strategic resources is shared among all members of the group. This is certainly not the case in Western society, where the society is stratified. Children of the wealthy or of important politicians have differential access to resources, such as wealth, prestige, and education that the average member of the society does not possess.

However, many modern states claim or strive for some amount of an "egalitarian" ethos. In the United States it is claimed that "justice is blind"; communist states try to achieve "egalitarianism" on a much grander scale. However, most anthropologists would argue that there is a large gap between the egalitarian nature of bands and tribes and the stated goals of some states. This gap emerges because in bands and tribes, all of the members of the society are related to each other (biologically or fictively) and there are fewer people. Modern states must accommodate much larger populations and most interpersonal interactions in a state are between unrelated individuals. Under these conditions it would be unlikely that truly universal access to strategic resources could be implemented.