The anthropological approach to political systems and organization is global and comparative.
Power is the ability to exercise one's will over others, while authority is the socially approved use of power.
What Is "the Political"?
Sociopolitical organization involves the regulation or management of relations among groups and their representatives.
Political regulation includes such processes as decision making, social control, and conflict resolution.
Types and Trends
Elman Service developed a typology with four kinds of sociopolitical organization: band, tribe, chiefdom, and state.
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.
Bands are small kin-based groups found among foragers.
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.
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 did).
The state is characterized by formal government and socioeconomic stratification.
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.
In bands and tribes—unlike states, which have clearly visible governments—political organization was not separate and distinct from the total social order.
There are many correlations between economy and sociopolitical organization.
Foragers tended to have band organization.
Horticulturalists and pastoralists tended to have tribal organization.
Chiefdoms and nonindustrial states usually had agricultural economies, although herding was important in some Middle Eastern chiefdoms.
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).
Bands and Tribes
The Foraging Bands
Modern hunter-gatherers should not be seen as representative of Stone Age peoples, all of who also were foragers. Modern foragers live in nation-states and an interlinked world. Most contemporary hunter-gatherers rely on governments and on missionaries for at least part of what they consume.
An example of changes in foraging communities in a globalizing world is the Basarwa San that have been affected by the policies of the government of Botswana, which relocated them after converting their ancestral lands into a wildlife reserve. They have also been influenced by other neighboring African communities and Europeans for centuries.
Susan Kent notes the tendency to stereotype foragers, to treat them all alike. They used to be stereotyped as isolated, primitive survivors of the Stone Age. A new stereotype see then as culturally deprived people forced by states, colonialism, and world events into marginal environments. Neither view is accurate, although the latter is probably closer the reality of most foraging communities around the world.
Kent stresses the diversity in time and space among the San.
Modern foragers are not Stone Age relics, living fossils, lost tribes, or noble savages. Still, 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.
Foraging bands refer to small, nomadic or seminomadic social unites, formed seasonally when component nuclear families got together.
The particular families in a band varied from year to year.
Marriage and kinship created ties between members of different bands.
Band leaders were leaders in name only, and were first among equals. Sometimes they gave advice or made decisions, but they had no way to enforce their decision.
All societies have a way of settling disputes along with cultural rules or norms about proper and improper behavior.
Norms are cultural standards or guidelines that enable individuals to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate behavior in a given society.
The aboriginal Inuit illustrate methods of settling disputes—conflict resolution—in a stateless society (e.g., song duels).
Prestige is esteem, respect, or approval for culturally valued acts or qualities.
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 operate.
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).
Socioeconomic stratification and formal government are not found in tribes.
A few tribes still conduct small-scale warfare (intervillage raiding).
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.
Like foragers, tribes are fairly egalitarian.
Some tribes have marked gender stratification—an unequal distribution of resources, power, prestige, and personal freedom between men and women.
Status in tribes is based on age, gender, and personal traits.
Horticulturalists tend to live in small villages with low population density and open access to resources.
Egalitarianism tends to diminish as village size and population density increase.
The Village Head
The Yanomami, who live in southern Venezuela and the adjacent part of Brazil, are an example of a tribal society with a village head.
The position of village head is achieved and comes with very limited authority.
The village head cannot issue orders, nor can he force or coerce people to do things. Rather, the village head must lead by example; he can only persuade, harangue, try to influence people to do things, and act as a mediator in disputes, but he has no authority to back his decision or impose punishments.
The village head must lead in generosity. Because he must be more generous, the village head cultivates more land than other villagers.
The village head represents the village in its dealings with outsiders—for example, he may host feasts to which other villages are invited.
Two examples of this form of leadership are the Yanomami village head and the big man in many societies of the South Pacific. However, differences exist.
In the last few decades, the Yanomami have suffered from violence and disease as a result of encroachment by Brazilian miners and ranchers, highlighting how stateless societies are not isolated from outside events (including missionization).
The "Big Man"
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 organization.
Big men were common in societies of the South Pacific, particularly the Melanesian Islands and Papua New Guinea.
Among the Kapauku of Irian Jaya, Indonesia, the big man (tonowi) was the only political figure.
The tonowi's status was achieved through hard work, accumulation of wealth, generosity, eloquence, bravery, physical fitness, and supernatural powers (status encompasses the various positions that people occupy in society, such as spouse, parent, trading partner, teacher, etc.).
Some statuses are ascribed: People have little or no choice about occupying them.
Achieved statuses aren't automatic; they come through choices, actions, efforts, talents or accomplishments, and may be positive or negative.
Some examples of achieved statuses include big man, healer, senator, convicted felon, and father.
Big man's achieved status rested on certain characteristics that distinguished him from others: wealth, generosity, eloquence, physical fitness, bravery, and supernatural powers.
The tonowi was an important regulator of regional events (e.g., feasts and markets).
To become (and stay) a tribal leader, such as village head or big man, a person must be generous with his supporters.
Tribal leaders must work hard to create a surplus to give away. By giving away their surpluses, tribal leaders convert their wealth into prestige and gratitude.
Big men could forge regional political organization—albeit temporarily—by mobilizing people from several villages.
The comparison between big man and politicians in some state societies often leads to interesting similarities.
Pantribal Sodalities and Age Grades
Sodalities are nonkin groups, often based on common age or gender, which link local groups in tribal societies.
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.
Pantribal sodalities were especially likely to develop in the presence of intertribal warfare.
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.
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.
Age sets are sodalities that include all of the men born during a certain time span.
Age sets were common among tribes of the Great Plains, as well as in eastern and southeastern Africa.
An age set is similar to a college class (e.g., the Class of 2012). Members of an age set progress together through a series of age grades (e.g., initiated youth, warrior, adult, elder; or the freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior years in American colleges and universities).
In societies with age grades but not age sets, people can progress through the age grades either individually or collectively.
Secret societies are sodalities, made up exclusively of men or women, which have secret initiation ceremonies.
Sodalities based on age, gender, and ritual can link members of different local groups into a single social collectivity in tribe and thus create a sense of ethnic identity, of belonging to the same cultural tradition.
Various kinds of sociopolitical organization are found among pastoralists.
As regulatory problems among pastoralists increase, political organization becomes less personal, more formal, and less kinship-oriented.
Variability in sociopolitical organization among pastoralists is illustrated by the Basseri and the Qashqai, two pastoral nomadic tribes in Iran.
The Bassari leader (khan), because he dealt with a smaller population, faced fewer problems in coordinating its movements than did the leaders of the Qashqai.
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.
The Qashqai population was larger, and managing it required a complex hierarchy including multiple levels of authority and more powerful khans.
In Qashqai society, allegiance shifted from the person to the office.
In many parts of the world, the chiefdom was a transitional form of sociopolitical organization between tribes and states.
Chiefdom and state are ideal types—that is, they are labels that make social contrasts seem sharper than they really are. In reality, there is a continuum from tribe to chiefdom to state.
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").
Political and Economic Systems in Chiefdoms
Chiefdoms developed in several parts of the world (e.g., circum-Caribbean, lowland Amazonia, the southeastern United States, Polynesia, the megalithic cultures of Europe).
In chiefdoms (as in bands and tribes), social relations are mainly based on kinship, marriage, descent, age, generation, and gender.
Unlike bands and tribes, chiefdoms are characterized by permanent political regulation of the territory they administer.
Regulation is carried out by the chief and his or her assistants, who occupy political offices.
An office is a permanent position, which must be refilled when it is vacated by death or retirement.
Because offices are refilled systematically, the structure of a chiefdom endures across generations.
In Polynesian chiefdoms, chiefs regulated production, distribution, and consumption.
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).
Chiefly redistribution made goods from different regions available to the entire society.
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.
Social Status in Chiefdoms
In chiefdoms, social status was based on seniority of descent.
All of the people in a chiefdom were believed to have descended from a group of common ancestors.
The chief had to demonstrate seniority in descent.
Even the lowest-ranking person in a chiefdom was related to the chief.
In such a kin-based context, everyone, even a chief, had to share with his or her relatives. All relatives presumably are all descended from a group of founding ancestors.
Chiefdoms were characterized by a continuum of social statuses, rather than distinct social classes (elites and commoners).
Status Systems in Chiefdoms and States
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.
In chiefdoms, differential access was based on kinship, such that people with privileged access were generally chiefs and their nearest relatives and assistants.
Compared to chiefdoms, states are characterized by much clearer class divisions (at least nobles and commoners).
In states, kinship ties do not extend from nobles to commoners because of stratum endogamy—marriage within one's own group.
Stratum endogamy results in stratification, the creation of separate social strata that differ in their access to wealth, prestige, and power.
The presence of stratification is one of the key distinguishing features of a state.
Max Weber defined three related dimensions of social stratification:
Economic status is based on wealth (a person's material assets).
Political status is based on power (the ability to exercise one's will over others).
Social status is based on prestige (esteem, respect, or approval for acts, deeds, or qualities considered exemplary).
In archaic states—for the first time in human evolution—there were contrasts in wealth, power, and prestige between entire groups (social strata) of men and women.
The superordinate (higher or elite) stratum had privileged access to wealth, power, and other valued resources.
The subordinate (lower or underprivileged) stratum had limited access to resources.
Open and Closed Class Systems
Inequalities, which are built into the structure of state-organized societies, tend to persist across the generations.
Vertical mobility is an upward or downward change in a person's social status.
A truly open class system would facilitate mobility. Individual achievement and personal merit would determine social rank.
Stratification has taken many forms, including caste, slavery, and class systems.
Caste systems are closed, hereditary systems of stratification that often are dictated by religion.
In slavery, the most inhumane, coercive, and degrading form of legal stratification, people who are conquered or stolen from their homelands become someone's property.
Modern class structures, featuring forms of stratification more open than slavery, caste systems, or the status systems of ancient states have developed in recent times.
States have specialized units that perform specific tasks.
Population control: fixing of boundaries, establishment of citizenship categories, and the taking of a census.
Judiciary: laws, legal procedure, and judges.
Enforcement: permanent military and police forces.
In archaic states, these subsystems were integrated by a ruling system or government composed of civil, military, and religious officials.
To control their populations, states create administrative divisions (e.g., provinces, districts, counties, subcounties, parishes) that are managed by lower-level officials.
The importance of kinship is greatly reduced in the sociopolitical organization of states.
States foster geographic mobility and resettlement, severing longstanding ties among people, land, and kin.
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.
States have laws, based on precedent and legislative proclamations, which regulate relations between individuals and groups.
All states also have courts and judges to handle disputes and crimes (violations of the legal code).
Unlike nonstates, states intervene in family affairs.
Despite states' attempts to curb internal conflict, the majority of armed conflicts during the last half-century began within states.
All states have agents to enforce judicial decisions.
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 law.
A financial (or fiscal) system supports rulers, nobles, officials, judges, military personnel, and other specialists in a state.
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.
Common people in states usually must work harder than those in nonstates.
Fiscal systems of archaic states helped to maintain and elaborate class distinctions.
Anthropology Today: Diwaniyas in Kuwait
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 it.
Diwaniyas in Kuwait are informal, local-level meeting places where informal discussions can have formal consequences.
Much of Kuwait's decision making, networking, and influence peddling takes place in diwaniyas.
Traditionally, diwaniyas are male-only political salons that function like the local equivalent of a neighborhood pub and town-hall meeting combined.
Important decisions—ranging from business to politics to marriage—are made in diwaniyas.
Recently, some people have begun to host mixed (male and female) diwaniyas.