Political Anthropology

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Political Anthropology

The articles under this heading outline the subject matter of political anthropology and its intellectual history. Specific topics in the field are discussed inConflict; Feud; Judicial process, article oncomparative aspects; Law, article onlaw and legal institutions; Sanctions; State; Stateless societies; War, article onprimitive warfare; and in the biographies ofFreudand Maine. Related subjects are covered inModernization; Political culture; Political sociology; Politics, comparative; andSocietal analysis.

I. The FieldElizabeth Colson


II. Political OrganizationM. G. Smith



Political anthropology as a distinctive branch of social and cultural anthropology is a late growth stimulated by the publication of African Political Systems (Fortes & Evans-Pritchard 1940). As late as 1959, Easton’s provocative essay could deny the existence of political anthropology as a discipline: “To put the matter formally, political institutions and practices tend to be viewed in anthropological research as independent variables, of interest primarily for their effect on other institutions and practices of the society of which they are part” (1959, p. 212). This, he argued, had the effect of obscuring “the analytic distinction between political and other forms of social behavior” (ibid., p. 213). Here he pinpointed a major difference between the political scientist who concentrates on a limited range of institutions which he has defined as political and the anthropologist who attempts to make comparisons using data derived from multipurpose institutions and who expects to include in his formulation all elements relevant to the attainment of the various ends which he has defined as political. Where political scientists have analyzed political institutions, anthropologists have sought to distinguish political groupings or polities and have analyzed the means whereby these groupings attained their public purposes.

Easton’s article sums up the development of much of political anthropology through its first hundred years, when it was primarily concerned with matters of definition and the creation of typologies. During this period, anthropologists developed a terminology appropriate to the wide variety of political systems with which they dealt. They clarified the characteristics that distinguished different systems and used these as the bases of typologies useful in comparative work. Inevitably they dealt with descriptions of political groups and political roles as these ideally functioned. This directed attention to “constitutions” and mechanisms for social control rather than to the competitive aspects of politics.

If the period from 1940 to 1960 was dominated by the synchronic study of political structures in a state of assumed equilibrium and by the creation of typologies, the period after 1960 showed an increasing interest in the development of a theory that could deal with change, faction, party, and political maneuver. This shift was signaled in 1954 by the appearance of Edmund R. Leach’s Political Systems of Highland Burma, which emphasized the existence of political alternatives and the search for power as the effective basis for individual choice between alternatives. It became still more explicit in 1959 when Fredrik Barth attempted to apply game theory to the analysis of political organization among the Pathans and again emphasized the search for personal advantage (1959a; 1959b). M. G. Smith followed the same general trend in his Government in Zazzau (1960), which concentrated upon political maneuvering by various contestants for power within a Hausa state. Smith is perhaps the first anthropologist to introduce an analytical distinction between government and politics which is operationally useful. As long as anthropologists dealt primarily with models of ideal political structures, this distinction could be ignored, and the terms were used interchangeably. With the move to the study of competition for political power, it became vitally important to distinguish the implementation of political decisions and the carrying out of administrative routine from the struggle for control of decision-making positions.

Anthropological interest in political typologies and the attempt to correlate these with other features of social life began with the 1861 publication of Maine’s Ancient Law. In harmony with the intellectual climate of his period, Maine attempted to deduce evolutionary stages through which developed political systems had passed. His primary distinction, between societies organized in kinship terms and those organized on a territorial basis, still has some influence. He argued that in ancient societies only kinship existed as a reason for

…holding together in political union. The history of political ideas begins, in fact, with the assumption that kinship in blood is the sole possible ground of community in political functions nor is there any of those subversions of feeling, which we term emphatically revolutions, so startling and so complete as the change which is accomplished when some other principle—such as that for instance, of local contiguity —establishes itself for the first time as the basis of common political action.… The idea that a number of persons should exercise political rights in common simply because they happened to live within the same topographical limits was utterly strange and monstrous to primitive antiquity. (Maine 1861, pp. 124, 126 in 1963 edition)

Maine’s attribution of a kinship basis to societies of “primitive antiquity” was quickly modified by Lewis Henry Morgan and his followers to include so-called primitive societies of the contemporary world, which have been the particular province of the anthropologist during the last hundred years. This classification still has some currency among political philosophers of other disciplines and among some anthropologists, despite the repeated demonstrations that even very simple societies have a territorial base and that kinship is only one of a number of conventions that may be used for describing territorial relationships. Some indeed have gone beyond Maine and accepted the kinship convention as evidence that territorial groupings are actual kinship groups. Lowie (1922), however, had early shown the importance of associations both as institutions of political integration and as organs of government in various tribal societies. Later, Radcliffe-Brown (1940, p. xiv) was to sum up the accumulating ethnographic evidence in the sentence “Every human society has some sort of territorial structure.” The interest in segmentary lineage systems—a marked feature of the 1940s and 1950s—produced new confusion on this particular issue (Fortes 1953, p. 30; Mair 1962, pp. 11–14). Schapera returned to the attack in 1956 in his study of South African political systems, Government and Politics in Tribal Societies. The importance of territorial organization runs like a theme throughout his book. The truth appears to be that people who have much the same degree of technical and economic development may vary in the way in which they conceptualize their political relationships, which are always territorial in nature. Some express them in kinship idiom; others use some other model. The differences, whatever they are, that distinguish highly developed political systems from simpler systems do not rest upon so easily formulated a dichotomy as kinship versus territoriality.

That Maine’s formula could survive so long reflects the fortuitous nature of the development of comparative political studies. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, ethnographic accounts of American Indians provided much of the data for the formulation and testing of anthropological hypotheses, but ethnographers had little to say about American Indian political systems, which could only be reconstructed from the memories of a demoralized conquered people confined on reservations under alien rule. Lowie was perhaps the only American anthropologist of the period who made any notable contribution to political anthropology on the basis of research among American Indians. His book The Origin of the State (1922) was most influential in stimulating research in regions other than America. The general lack of concern for political formulations based on American ethnography is reflected in the contents of a notable collection of essays published as Social Anthropology of North American Tribes (1937). Only one essay, by John Provinse (1937), was primarily concerned with problems of a political nature. The development of Australian and Melanesian ethnography in the early twentieth century strongly influenced studies of kinship, religion, and social structure in general but did not stimulate research on political problems. American Indian, Australian, and Melanesian societies tended to be small in scale and without sharply differentiated political institutions; political and social organizations were seen as one and the same.

It was Malinowski’s experience in Melanesia which led him to create the functional school of anthropology and to insist that the anthropologist’s primary obligation was the study of systems of behavior in ongoing societies. This cleared the way for a study of political action as well as political structures, but Malinowski himself contributed little directly to the development of political studies. The definitive evaluation of his influence on social science (Firth 1957) includes no chapter on political studies. He had an abundance of field data on the subject, recently analyzed by Uberoi in his Politics of the Kula Ring (1962), but no relevant theoretical framework which would have allowed him to bring his observations together in a systematic fashion. Political anthropology received its real impetus when students trained by Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown encountered still functioning large-scale political units when they began to work in Africa in the 1930s. As Fortes has pointed out, they were forced to study government, whereas their predecessors, who had dealt with small-scale societies, had studied social control (1953, p. 18).

In Africa they encountered polities organized in centralized states having differentiated political institutions of a type which linked them with the kingdoms, principalities, and republics of Europe rather than with the undifferentiated, loosely organized groupings previously studied by anthropologists. Well-defined political offices, a hierarchy of authority and communication, and the explicit control of organized force were familiar features and could be handled in terms of the political theories of the day. The problem of political definition—the need to develop a minimal formula to isolate political from other forms of action—became apparent only when they sought to compare their data with that being produced by anthropologists working in a very different type of society. Populations comparable in size to those found in centralized states and with much the same level of technical and economic development existed in loose associations without any observable form of centralized authority or indeed without specialized political offices. Large populations could unite in common action and on occasion could identify themselves as a common polity, though on other occasions they stressed their independence and mutual antagonism. Their organization as it appeared in action was situational rather than maintained by the continuous existence of an administrative structure. Standard definitions of government or political organization provided no place for such systems, yet the anthropologists knew they were faced with an order, which they identified with political order comparable to that maintained within the more organized polities. It became necessary to develop a definition which would include both types of polities, and this involved isolating the essentials of political organization. Radcliffe-Brown (1940, p. xiv) proposed a minimum working definition: “In studying political organization, we have to deal with the maintenance or establishment of social order, within a territorial framework, by the organized exercise of coercive authority through the use, or the possibility of use, of physical force”

His emphasis upon physical force and social order has been strongly criticized, but the formula proved useful to those attempting to discover and analyze the mechanisms which underlay cohesion and control of violence in the seemingly amorphous stateless societies. Political science had no convenient framework for dealing with such systems, and it was the challenge they posed to the workers from the 1930s to the early 1950s which provided the major stimulus toward the development of a field of political anthropology. Fortes and Evans-Pritchard (1940) proposed a preliminary classification of political systems into three types: state, stateless, and band. It was soon pointed out that they had treated stateless systems as synonymous with segmentary lineage systems, which represented only one of several methods for organizing noncentralized systems. Segmentary lineage systems remained a focal point of research until the early 1950s, when Fallers and others who had been influenced by the political sociology of Max Weber began to examine the nature of authority within traditional African states which were then part of the colonial system. Fallers in Bantu Bureaucracy (1956) drew attention to the clash of values produced by the introduction of bureaucratic institutions under colonial regimes and stimulated an increasing interest in the current political development of the new African nations.

Prior to this time the dominant theoretical influence had stemmed from the school of Durkheim, which treated societies as moral systems and emphasized common values, integration, equilibrium, and continuity. The major purpose of any society was taken to be the maintenance of existing order, and political action was assumed to represent action governed by this purpose. Even those like Gluckman, who sought to deal with conflict, tended to treat it as an integrative device serving to maintain existing systems of political relationships. Rebellions served to maintain the system, since they only involved competition among rivals for positions which remained unquestioned. Politics, Law and Ritual in Tribal Society (Gluckman 1965) is a masterly summary of this approach which attempts to combine the insights of Durkheim with those of Simmel, whose sociology of conflict is becoming increasingly relevant to anthropological work. Conflict, no longer contained within and maintaining the system, is becoming a central interest of those concerned with political questions. The shift in interest within anthropology reflects a change in the type of data now available for observation. Colonial authorities used and maintained indigenous political institutions where these were adaptable, but as administrative institutions rather than as a means whereby competing interests and dissent could be expressed. Political dissent was not recognized as legitimate within the subordinate political units which most anthropologists studied. The decline of colonialism, the rapid growth of political parties, and the emergence of new political regimes in the period after World War Ii radically altered the anthropologist’s conception of his field of study. Anthropological studies dealing with national political parties and their impact upon local political events began to appear in the late 1950s. In a period of contending interests, most studies deal with competition, with conflict, and with rapid change. The essays in Political Systems and the Distribution of Power (Conference on New Approaches in Social Anthropology …1965) represent this interest in the study of political maneuver in systems whose stability is no longer a given.

Elizabeth Colson


Barth, Fredrik (1959a) 1965 Political Leadership Among Swat Pathans. London School of Economics Monographs on Social Anthropology, No. 19. New York: Humanities Press.

Barth, Fredrik 1959b Segmentary Opposition and the Theory of Games: A Study of Pathan Organization. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 89:5–21.

Conference on New Approaches in Social Anthropology, Jesus College, Cambridge, 1963 1965 Political Systems and the Distribution of Power. A.S.A. Monograph No. 2. London: Tavistock; New York: Praeger.

Easton, David 1959 Political Anthropology. Biennial Review of Anthropology [1959]: 210–262.

Fallers, Lloyd A. (1956) 1965 Bantu Bureaucracy: A Century of Political Evolution. Univ. of Chicago Press. → First published as Bantu Bureaucracy: A Study of Integration and Conflict in the Political Institutions of an East African People.

Firth, Raymond W. (editor) (1957) 1964 Man and Culture: An Evaluation of the Work of Bronislaw Malinowski. New York: Harper.

Fortes, Meyer 1953 The Structure of Unilineal Descent Groups. American Anthropologist New Series 55:17–41.

Fortes, Meyer; and Evanspritchard, E. E. (editors) (1940) 1961 African Political Systems. Oxford Univ. Press.

Gluckman, Max 1965 Politics, Law and Ritual in Tribal Society. Oxford: Blackwell.

Leach, Edmund R. 1954 Political Systems of Highland Burma: A Study of Kachin Social Structure. London School of Economics and Political Science.

Lowie, Robert (1922) 1962 The Origin of the State. New York: Russell. → An enlarged and revised version of articles first published in the Freeman in 1922.

Maine, Henry J. S. (1861) 1960 Ancient Law: Its Connection With the Early History of Society, and Its Relations to Modern Ideas. Rev. ed. New York: Dutton; London and Toronto: Dent. → A paperback edition was published in 1963 by Beacon.

Mair, Lucy P. (1962) 1964 Primitive Government. Baltimore: Penguin.

Provinse, John (1937) 1955 The Underlying Sanctions of Plains Indian Culture. Pages 341–374 in Social Anthropology of North American Tribes. Edited by Fred Eggan. 2d ed. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. (1940) 1961 Preface. In Meyer Fortes and E. E. Evans-Pritchard (editors), African Political Systems. Oxford Univ. Press.

Schapera, Isaac 1956 Government and Politics in Tribal Societies. London: Watts.

Smith, Michael G. 1960 Government in Zazzau: 1800–1950. Published for the International African Institute. Oxford Univ. Press.

Social Anthropology of North American Tribes. Edited by Fred Eggan. 2d ed. (1937) 1955 Univ. of Chicago Press.

Swartz, Marc J.; Turner, Victor W.; and Tuden, Arthur (editors) 1966 Political Anthropology. Chicago: Aldine.

Uberoi, J. P. Singh 1962 Politics of the Kula Ring: An Analysis of the Findings of Bronislaw Malinowski. Manchester Univ. Press.


Comparative politics is the study of the forms of political organization, their properties, correlates, variations, and modes of change. The object of these inquiries is to formulate general statements and hypotheses about the nature and conditions of political processes and their relations to other social phenomena.

Political organization has been defined structurally by reference to institutions that regulate the use of force (Radcliffe-Brown 1940; Weber 1922; Almond 1960) and functionally with reference to social cooperation and leadership (Schapera 1956; Mair 1962). Political organization can be described in terms of the processes of decision making found in a given population (Easton 1953; 1957; Macridis 1955). All these schemes identify political organization with discrete social units, “societies” or “political communities,” within which force is controlled or excluded and valid decision making or directed cooperation obtain. Thus political organization is restricted to social units having these characteristics. However, in some societies, the political community is indeterminate. As Mair observes:

… some populations regard themselves, and are regarded by others, as distinct entities, but yet do not recognize any person or body of persons as having general authority to take decisions in matters affecting them all. In different contexts, different subdivisions of the whole take collective action for the purposes for which they are autonomous; so that if such action is the criterion of a political community, there are series of overlapping political communities. (1962, p. 106)

If political organization is identified with discrete communities, populations that lack such units must be said to lack political organization. However, since these aggregates persist, they presumably have some adequate methods for regulating their internal and external affairs. They must be able to restrict disruptive violence and take some kind of action in common. Definitions of political organization that cannot accommodate such phenomena are likely to be inadequate in other respects as well. We must therefore seek a more appropriate analytic framework.

Power and authority

Max Weber has remarked that the common element in our everyday use of such terms as “political events,” “actions,” “institutions,” and “processes” consists in their reference to “striving to share power, or striving to influence the distribution of power, either among states or among groups within a state” ([1919] 1946, p. 78). Again, in considering the same question, Weber noted that these terms “have to do with relations of authority within what is, in the present terminology, a political organization” ([1922] 1957, p. 142). Except for an obscure distinction between political and politically oriented action, Weber seemed content not to pursue the question further; however, power and authority differ sharply in their nature, although they often overlap in their distribution; and if they are the elements of political organization, it is necessary to distinguish them and to study their interrelations with special care.

Power is the capacity to take autonomous action in the face of resistance from persons, groups, rules, or material conditions. It is the ability to pursue one’s will effectively, if necessary by imposing it on others. As such it is manifested directly as pressure against resistance, that is, by contraposition and confrontation. Although power may be latent and indirectly applied, it may gradually assume the character of authority if it is regularly effective. There are many historical cases of regimes based on conquest or usurpation that have later acquired authority through general acceptance. Power without authority remains uninstitutionalized, labile, and relative. Because it is instrumental and conditional, its effectiveness is uncertain. Authority, being institutionalized, is fixed in its scope, character, and distribution. It enjoins observance on obligatory and normative grounds rather than instrumental ones.

Authority is the right to take certain kinds of action, including decisions to issue commands appropriate to the circumstances. Authority thus represents the set of rules, procedures, traditions, and norms that are regarded as binding when they are applied within a given social unit. The rules that establish and allocate authority also serve to limit the authority that they institutionalize.

Among the members of a group, the distribution of authority may be marked by special observances of etiquette or dress or by the use of such symbols as the miter, crown, seal, or staff. A person in authority holds a special position that entitles him to take certain types of action not open to everyone. The right to act in this way may in fact be obligatory or it may be discretionary; but if authoritative, the act imposes an obligation of conformity or obedience directly or indirectly on others in the social group. Thus the person holding authority enjoys an immunity that extends at least as far as the right to take these actions. He may also exercise sanctions to secure observance and have a limited discretion in their use.

A “structure of authority” is simply a distribution of authority among a number of interconnected social positions. With regard to authority of the same kind within a single social unit, this structure is often, but by no means always, hierarchic in form. Such a hierarchic authority structure operates administratively, that is, its members administer the affairs under their control in an orderly, coordinated fashion by procedures and rules that they and their colleagues regard as correct and binding. The principal characteristic of a hierarchic authority structure is that the members of inferior levels of the hierarchy are responsible directly to those above them, including their ultimate superior. Members of superior levels are authorized to issue commands, to make decisions about the unit’s operating procedures, and to supervise the conduct of their subordinates.

Being in some respects discretionary, although bound by precedents and rules, authority may often be applied incorrectly or inappropriately. Incorrectly applied, it is not truly authoritative. If it is effective, its effectiveness is a function of power. The same conditions that create authority ensure continuous interest in its application. Ensuing efforts to change the rules, conditions, and distribution of authority require the mobilization of opposing interests and alignments of power.

Political organization consists in the combination and interplay of relations of authority and power in the regulation of public affairs. Briefly, the political organization is the set of arrangements by which a public regulates its common affairs. Such regulation always integrates two modes of public action, the administrative, which consists in the authoritative conduct of public affairs, and the political, which consists in the exercise and competitions of power to influence or control the course of these affairs. Political organization thus combines authority and power; it is not independently coterminous with either. Without power, authority is ineffective; without authority, power may dominate but remains uninstitutionalized.

Authority, power, and regulation appear in many social contexts that are not strictly political in the sense that they do not relate to the regulation of the affairs of a polity or its main components. For example, economic power is the capacity to pursue economic goals despite resistance and competition. Ritual authority is the right to make ritual pronouncements and to carry out certain ritual acts. The regulation of a family or a work team is a domestic or private affair, of concern only to those immediately involved and their circle of close kin and friends. Although regulation, authority, and power are closely associated empirically, they are analytically distinct principles and modes of social relation and action. Regulation, which integrates authority and power, is correspondingly more complex. In much the same way, government, as a form of political organization, integrates specifically political and specifically administrative forms of action. It is thus more complex than either.

The corporate group

To maintain cohesion and continuity, all social groups that succeed in persisting must have adequate arrangements for the regulation of their common affairs. However much these affairs may vary from one group to another, they always include control over the conditions of membership and admission and over those relations which the members have with one another or with outsiders which are directly relevant to the aggregate as a whole. Beyond this, the subject matter of public regulation varies as widely as the form, scale, character, and function of the groups and their differing social contexts.

All persistent social units that have distinct identities, membership, closure, presumptions of indefinite continuity, exclusive common affairs, and the autonomy, procedures, and organization necessary to regulate them are corporate in nature and form. The public, which is the persistent social group that forms a unit regulating its common affairs, is a corporate group. The comparative study of political organization is in large measure a study of the correspondences between differing or similar modes of corporate organization and differing or similar systems of power and authority.

As regulatory units, corporations provide the basic framework for alignments of authority and power in the regulation of public affairs. However, being themselves very varied in their character and form, these units constitute differing frameworks for power and authority and distribute them in different ways and on different principles. Accordingly, different types and combinations of corporations establish differing modes and relations of power and authority. For example, in a polity based on only one or two types of corporate unit, the political organization consists of relations of power and authority within, between, and among these corporations and, collectively or separately, between them and external bodies. As their corporate composition differs, even those polities which have an identical number of corporate forms will differ in their regulatory processes and organization.

Although all persistent social groups with the properties of corporations are units of public regulation for their own internal affairs, many, such as universities, firms, clubs, or occupational associations, may have no collective role in the processes by which the affairs of the wider unit to which they belong are regulated. In this case, the regulatory arrangements that constitute the internal self-governments of these units are not directly relevant to the analysis of the polities to which their members belong. On the other hand, if, as is often the case, the members of religious communities, universities, and occupational or other groups do take collective action through these units to influence or control the conduct of affairs in their immediate public or some larger aggregate, then these corporations enter directly into the political organization of the populations concerned.

Publics, or corporate groups, vary widely in their character, form, complexity, size, functions, and modes of procedure. They may include village communities, cities, nations, certain types of descent groups, age sets, secret and other closed continuing associations, cult groups, monasteries and ritual orders, primitive bands, regiments, guilds, trade unions, political parties, and so on. Despite their many differences, all corporate groups have a distinct identity, a determinate membership, closure, the presumption of indefinite continuity, common exclusive affairs, and the autonomy, procedures, and organization necessary to regulate them. However, they differ notably in the bases on which they recruit and organize their members. Some corporate groups recruit their members by locality, others by descent or cult, by occupation, age, sex, joint property interests, ethnicity, or by exclusive association for specific or diffuse purposes. Most corporate groups recruit their members on two or more of these principles simultaneously. They differ correspondingly in their organization, procedures, interests, and affairs. Similar properties found in different types of corporate groups reflect the common conditions of continuing group organization.

Since it is identified with an exclusive set of common affairs, the universitatis juris (Maine 1861), which includes control of the admission and organization of its members, the corporate group requires some set of institutional procedures to regulate itself. These procedures involve a set of rules and practices by which the actions of the members or representatives of the unit may be distinguished as correct or incorrect and disagreements within the collectivity can be contained or settled. If the rules and procedures of the corporate group are not adequate for these purposes, under favorable conditions dissatisfied members may withdraw to establish a separate unit of their own. An accepted framework of rules and procedures is thus indispensable if the members of a group are to regulate their mutual relations with sufficient harmony to permit joint action in managing their essential common affairs. And for this reason, the rules of a corporate group will only specify those forms of conduct which are relevant to the welfare of the collectivity as a whole.

The institutional prescriptions and proscriptions by which a corporate group organizes its members and regulates its common, exclusive affairs create a field for internal disagreements, dissension, and initiative. The organization and processes of corporate action provide opportunities for the members, individually or in small groups, to try to influence the unit’s decisions, to modify or maintain its rules, procedures, and organization or the conditions, range, and implications of membership, to extend or reduce the scope of its common affairs, and to maintain or change its relations with external bodies. While the unit’s institutional organization and rules establish its structure and distribution of authority, these rules and precedents are made, retained, changed, or broken by autonomous acts which may also decide the distribution and tenure of regulatory positions and the character of relations within the group and between it and other bodies of similar or differing constitution. And since no persisting social unit can ever have a framework of organization and procedures that is fully comprehensive and appropriate for all the eventualities that arise in its history, all social units must retain sufficient autonomy to enable them to modify, supplement, reinterpret, repeal, or develop their rules, procedures, and organization as a necessity of successful adaptation to their changing external environment and internal distributions of power and need. Moreover, as units of public regulation, all corporate groups also require an internal authority structure by which their affairs can be representatively handled; and this structure provides a major focus of internal political competition as individual members and segments try to influence, limit, evade, or control the uses, conditions, objects, and distribution of authority.

Types of corporations

Corporate groups represent one type of corporation; others are categories, offices, colleges, and commissions. Of these five, corporate groups, offices, and colleges possess all those conditions which are necessary to maintain their continuity as self-regulatory units. Commissions and corporate categories lack some of these essentials. Some commissions, such as military, magisterial, and certain ritual commissions, lack uniqueness and determinate spheres of competence; others, such as charismatic leadership or ad hoc parliamentary commissions, although unique, lack the appropriate bases for continuity. Such corporate categories as moieties, uncoordinated clans, castes, or age sets among the Turkana and Karimojong (Gulliver 1958; Dyson-Hudson 1963) lack the necessary bases for organization as groups. They cannot therefore serve as inclusive units of positive regulation.

The office. The corporation sole (Maine 1861), or office, has all the properties of the corporate group except that at any time only one member, the incumbent, fully represents it. Normally the office is also represented indirectly and incompletely through an official staff controlled by its holder. In Weber’s terminology, this structure constitutes an “administrative organ” ([1922] 1957, pp. 302–303). Offices vary in the complexity and size of the staff through which they regulate their affairs.

As a centrally directed organization of roles and responsibilities, the office and its staff form a continuing aggregate which is in many ways quite similar to a corporate group. However, the structure is always a specialized segment of a wider public or corporate group, some or all of whose common affairs it serves to regulate. Those processes of political competition and rivalry which characterize the corporate group operate also within the administrative staff attached to an office. Members of this staff compete with one another for influence, promotion, autonomy in their respective spheres, and for such other rewards and advantages as the structure provides. Such political conditions will modify the formal hierarchy of authority within the office if they are not controlled; and if this formal authority structure is not maintained, relations between the staff and the wider public will also change as a function of those redistributions of autonomy within the office.

As a unique perpetual unit with public regulatory roles, office is always distinguished from the personality of the individual who holds it. Even in those societies, such as the Bemba, Wambugwe, Luapula, and Yao, which institutionalize office as hierarchic units linked to one another by ties of “perpetual kinship” individuals are totally identified with the perpetual statuses to which they are recruited (Richards 1940, p. 91 ff.; 1950, p. 224; Gray 1953; Cunnison 1956; Mitchell 1956). In its more familiar forms, such as presidencies, university chancellor ships, managing directorships, kingships, or the papacy, office is clearly an extremely important organ for the regulation of the affairs of the corporate group in which it exists. However, offices differ widely in their forms, character, and capacities. For some the method of recruitment is hereditary; for others elective; and others have mixed forms of succession. The authority of office may be narrow or wide in its scope, that is, the affairs to which it relates, or in its range, the size of the aggregate it regulates. Some offices, such as the Shilluk and Ngonde chieftaincies are primarily symbolic and integrative, executive authority being dispersed among other units (Wilson 1939; Evans-Pritchard 1948). Other offices, although executive in character, may be accountable for their conduct to some other body— a college, a corporate group, or a superior office. The mere existence of an office or hierarchy of offices, however exalted, has very indefinite connotations for the working of the political organization. What really matters is the basis of recruitment to the office, the scope and range of the office, the character of the authority vested in it, the limits of its autonomous discretion, the sanctions that it controls, the actual distributions of power and authority among the office staff, and the relationships between the office, its staff, and the public to which it relates.

The college. The college is an extremely adaptable type of corporation, possessing certain properties common to corporate groups and offices alike. The college has two distinguishing characteristics: first, it contains a plurality of members who thus have equal status; second, the members of a college are always a minority of the public with which the college is identified. Like offices and corporate groups, colleges are presumed to be indefinitely continuous, have distinct identities, control the admission of members, and have a determinate membership, organization, procedures, common affairs, and autonomy to regulate them. In such cases as the College of Cardinals, the U.S. Supreme Court, the council of the Iroquois League, and modern cabinets, the membership of the college is entirely confined to the holders of particular offices; in others, the members are persons who hold representative commissions and meet certain qualifications. The latter would include, for example, the Athenian ecclesia and council, the British House of Commons, the Yampai grade of the Egbo society among the Efik (Jones 1956, p. 138 ff.), village panchayats in India (Dube 1955; Mayer 1960; Marriott 1955), or community councils among the Kikuyu, Ibo, and Bini (Meek 1937, p. 148 ff.; Middleton 1953; Lambert 1956; Bradbury 1957).

Some colleges have symbolic or executive heads; some do not. Colleges may meet more or less regularly, frequently, and publicly. The representation that they provide the public may be more or less exclusive. Admission may be restricted on grounds of descent, as with the ruling councils of southern Bantu chiefdoms (Schapera 1937), of age, as among the Galla (Huntingford 1955), of wealth, or of ritual status. Greek thinkers, having distinguished collegial from monarchic forms of government, classified collegial systems as aristocratic, oligarchic, or other on grounds of their representativeness and composition. They may also be classified according to the functions they perform: judicial, legislative, executive, ritual, or electoral. While some colleges are functionally specific, others regulate a variety of functions.

If the college consists only of officeholders, they can execute its decisions. Alternatively, members of the college may enforce its decisions personally, as in Athens, or through dependents and subordinates, as in such graded secret societies as the Ogboni, Poro, or Egbo (Morton-Williams 1960; Little 1949; Jones 1956). Alternatively, the college may delegate executive roles to hereditary or elected officials, as in Sparta and Rome; or it may distribute various tasks among corporate units of different kinds, as among the Cheyenne or Yakö (Hoebel 1960; Forde 1961; 1964). Where a number of regulatory colleges coexist, they may be differentiated functionally, by the types of affairs that each regulates; or hierarchically, by reference to their jurisdictions and the type of unit that each controls—age set, lineage, ward, village, and so on. Executive responsibilities may rotate among the different colleges.

Colleges and offices are often found together. As the preceding remarks indicate, the main strength of a collegial system lies in its representative character, which, even when sectional, provides opportunities for politically active segments of a public to deliberate together on matters of common concern. Although an office is a collective representation, it does not provide for adequate participation by the public in the formation of official policies. Thus, while collegial organization is ill suited to continuous administrative action, the office is excellently adapted to that end.

Offices and colleges may be combined within a common regulatory system in various ways. Where the college retains decisive control of appointments and policy formation, the office may be either symbolic, as among the Yoruba (Lloyd 1960; 1962), or, if executive, lacking in any significant discretionary power. In the opposite situation, where the senior office enjoys dominance, the college may be merely a device for mobilizing periodic support and an instrument for administrative communication.

Combinations of office and college always lead to competition between these units to preserve or extend their relative autonomies and spheres of competence. Since both the college and the official organization will be divided internally by political alignments and cleavages, a wide variety of interlocking alliances and oppositions are possible between their members. The stability of the political organization will then depend on the cohesiveness of those underlying structural conditions which regulate the distributions of power and authority. The corporate groupings in which the members of the wider public are organized have certain structurally requisite conditions and relations, and these very conditions and relations serve to limit changes in the distribution of power and authority and thus to maintain continuity. On the other hand, change or lack of change in the power-authority structure may limit the capacity of the corporate system to persist. An excellent example of such structural limits to political change is found among the Kachin of highland Burma (Leach 1954).

The polity. The most inclusive aggregate having a common corporate organization and functional cohesion is a polity. The polity coincides in its form and limits with the maximum spread of the institutional framework within which power and authority are distributed and public regulation proceeds. The term “polity” accordingly is used to identify an aggregate with a common set of corporate forms. As the basic analytic unit for comparative studies, the nature of the polity deserves special attention. In one sense, the term denotes a distinctive form of political organization; in another it refers to the society of which this is the political form. It also denotes the largest social aggregates organized separately in this form. However, the limits of the aggregate organized as a distinct unit do not always coincide with the limits of the society of which it is part or with the territorial spread of the polity which it represents.

As the form of political organization, a polity represents the political aspect of a society, and often the two are confused. As Nadel says, “mostly, when we look for a society, we find a political unit, and when speaking of the former we mean in effect the latter” (1951, p. 187). Analytically, a society is a self-sustaining system of social relations and institutions (Levy 1952, p. III ff.). Concretely, it is the aggregate that shares these institutional forms. Comparatively, societies vary in the inclusiveness as well as the forms of their political institutions. Some societies, such as France, the United States, Tikopia, and the Cheyenne, include all their members in a single polity. In these cases the polity coincides with the limits of the societal aggregate. Other polities, such as the Hausa, Tswana, and western Malays (Hogben 1930; Schapera 1938; 1953; Gullick 1958), do not include their societies in a single unit. Although their polities are centralized, the Hausa, Tswana, and western Malays lack a single inclusive political organization. Therefore, as societies they are “acephalous.” On the other hand, the societies of Tikopia, the Cheyenne, and the Shilluk, which constitute single polities, are clearly uncentralized.

Societies may be subdivided into a number of autonomous, acephalous units of similar form and kind, for example the Nuer and the Gusii (EvansPritchard 1940; Mayer 1949). Acephalous political organization may take two alternative forms, which we can illustrate by contrasting the Nuer and the Tallensi (Fortes 1940; 1945). The Nuer polity consists of aggregates whose members act together to regulate common affairs. These are a number of socially and territorially discrete tribes. Each Nuer tribe can thus be studied separately, as representative of the whole society. The political organization of the Tallensi is quite different. Their largest publics are local communities. Each community is internally divided into lineages and segments of clans, which are connected to similar units elsewhere by a network of collective ties. Since these kinship bonds are coextensive with the society, the entire population constitutes a cohesive acephalous unit. To study a Tale community in isolation, therefore, yields a misleading picture of the society and polity alike, since in this case both coincide. Thus, acephalous and centralized polities alike may embrace entire societies as single units, or they may subdivide these societies into a number of structurally similar parts. Moreover, a society which has an effective centralized organization may also extend its rule over other aggregates with differing social institutions, thereby increasing the complexity of all.

Instead of looking for discrete political communities characterized by authoritative decision making, the exclusion of internal force, or inclusive cooperative action, or of simply classifying polities as unitary or segmentary states or nonstates, we may regard the widest aggregates having a common form of political organization as the unit of comparative analysis. Where such aggregates are subdivided into a number of discrete autonomous self-regulating publics, we can treat these units as representatives of the polity as a whole. This is indeed the general practice of anthropologists and political scientists alike. In this way the modes of organization, degrees and areas of centralization, forms of internal order, cooperation, and decision making can be analyzed comparatively.


The autonomy that a public requires as a condition of its viability may be reserved wholly to its membership, as in Nuer communities, in which case the public is genuinely acephalous; or autonomy may be concentrated wholly in one or several representative regulatory organs, such as colleges or offices; or it may be distributed variously among the members of the public and its representative regulatory institutions. In all cases, the institutionalized distribution of such autonomy is a critical dimension of the unit’s authority structure. This distribution promotes the kinds of continuous political action that maintain or change the authority structure; and just as the distribution and scope of relative autonomy varies with the composition of the public, so do the typical forms of political issues and activities.

The greater the authority allocated to a regulatory office or college, the greater the autonomy it requires. But the greater the autonomy this regulatory organ holds, the less easily is it controlled by the members of the public whose affairs it regulates.

The autonomous discretion that inheres in regulatory authority is neither arbitrary nor unlimited. It represents the minimum range of discretion necessary to ensure appropriate action in various emergencies. The range may be very narrow, as in ancient Athens or modern Britain, or it may be very wide, as among the Inca (Moore 1958) and in Ottoman Turkey (Gibb & Bowen 1950). It may also be wide in some areas of activity and very restricted in others, as for instance in imperial China (Sprenkel 1962). The executive autonomy may be retained by the senior office of the hierarchy, as in the absolute monarchies of eighteenth-century Europe or the Roman Catholic church, or it may be exercised primarily by a senior subordinate, such as the Lozi ngambela (Gluckman 1951), the Ottoman grand vizier, the Aztec ciuacoatl (Soustelle 1955), or the Japanese shoguns (Sansom 1932). Executive authority may be vested in a college, such as the Inca opocunas, the Yoruba iwarefa (Lloyd 1962), the Roman senate, or modern cabinets.

Weber, who seems to have regarded all stable concentrations of authority and expansions of political aggregates as correlates of “patrimonial,” or chiefly, rule, characterizes the regime in which “absolute authority is maximized” by the chief as “sultanism” ([1922] 1957, p. 318). But, however broad and overwhelming such authority may be, it can never be absolute, since its effectiveness depends on the exercise of power to the degree that its action transgresses the legitimate range of permitted discretion. And power, however decisive, is always unstable and relative, never absolute or fixed. It breeds its own rivals. Few rulers have in fact been more uneasy in their rule and more dependent on their staffs than those sultans who sought to maximize an absolute authority, only to find that they were increasing their dependence on the staff, through which authority was exercised, and by which it would be appropriated unless rigorous discipline was maintained. As we have seen, the Lozi, Ottoman, and Aztec monarchs found it strategic to delegate executive power to “grand viziers,” whose offices then bore the odium for actions necessary to maintain the system. But as the Ottoman case shows clearly, in transferring this autonomy, the sultan effectively placed his regime in the hands of his grand vizier.

Comparative politics

Only in the very simplest societies are the publics not divided into a number of internally autonomous corporate groups. Examples of such societies include the Andamanese (Radcliffe-Brown 1922), the Mbuti (Turnbull 1961), the Bushmen (Marshall 1960; 1961), the Shoshoneans (Steward 1938; 1955) or the Nambikuara (Lévi-Strauss 1955). In all these cases, local communities or bands are sections of a wider aggregate, the tribe. Yet even among the Nambikuara and Shoshoneans, the leading members of these bands exercised little authority beyond that required by relations of ritual, kinship, and subsistence.

In the absence of a representative public authority, autonomy is dispersed among the adult male members of the group, who may transfer their affiliations when they change residence. There being no hierarchic authority structure within such groups, there can be none between them. Nonetheless, within each band, positions of authority identified primarily by kinship and ritual relations do exist: the band as a whole may have a leader or a symbolic head, or it may regulate its common affairs collectively. Individual misconduct may lead to collective reactions; and dissatisfaction with such band government may lead to individual withdrawal. Occasionally feuds arise between bands. These feuds may actually reinforce internal cohesion.

The segmentary lineage systems of such societies as the Nuer and Tiv exhibit similar conditions and principles of organization. Their most distinctive feature is a schematic alignment of local groups by their closeness or remoteness of kinship according to putative unilineal descent. This genealogical classification of autonomous local groups serves to guide their political relations of alliance and opposition. Internally, each group forms a single unit within which authority is distributed and collective action handled administratively. Externally, as coordinate units, groups may combine at one moment to oppose outsiders and then segregate to oppose one another, according to the prevailing scheme of lineal and local alignments. As in the case of band-organized units, authority is dispersed within each segment, but the genealogical connections of these segments cannot constitute a hierarchic organization of groups. Unless some principle of differential ranking prevails, segments are equal, each a distinct autonomous unit with its own internal concerns and regulatory arrangements. Under these circumstances, there may be an inclusive college, as among the Kikuyu and Ibo, but not necessarily a representative official structure, as, for example, in Tikopia (Firth 1949; 1959, p. 254 ff.). Political and administrative relations are here completely fused and corporately differentiated from other types of social relations.

The autonomy of these corporate groups corresponds in its scope to the jurisdiction they exercise on behalf of their members and over them and thus to the limits of their collective responsibility. This autonomy may either be based on the absence of alternative forms of grouping or on the coexistence of a plurality of corporate forms that dislocate one another by dispersing loyalties and generating conflict. There are many differing types of such structurally disharmonic polities, for example the Murngin (Warner 1937), the Plateau Tonga (Colson 1953), the Siuai (Oliver 1955, p. 361 ff.), the Kachin (Leach 1954), the Usurufa, Kamano, and Fore of highland New Guinea (Berndt 1962), or European feudalism (Bloch 1939–1940). The prevalence of disharmonic systems should be noted. Some may perpetuate themselves almost indefinitely, having institutionalized adequate adaptations to their basic disharmony; other disharmonic systems oscillate between two poles, as among the Kachin or in medieval China and Japan; still others undergo changes of structural type as a result of the conflicts their disharmonies generate. Such structural changes occurred, for example, in ancient Athens and Rome and in feudal France and Britain.

In extreme autarchy, relations between corporate units are almost entirely political, while those within them are primarily administrative. If these units are successively segmented or if they are linked serially by ties of increasing inclusiveness, then their political and administrative alignments alternate. To stabilize the larger aggregates it is necessary to find some basis other than mere genealogy for a more consistent differentiation of political and administrative relations. Wnether such differentiations take a collegial, official, or mixed form, they all consist in the institutionalization of certain types of regulatory roles and responsibilities on the basis of some distinctions of seniority and precedence, however diffuse or flexible. The only alternatives to an acephalous structure of coordinate corporate groups are a collegial organization, a system of central regulatory offices, or both in various combinations. The broader the authority such representative organs exercise, the more the autonomy distributed among other segments or members of the group is restricted. The larger the aggregate that regulates its public affairs as a unit and the greater the functional differentiation of its regulatory roles, the more cohesive and integrated the unit becomes.

Under collegial or official direction, the various segments of the larger public will continue to administer their internal affairs autonomously, although within the limits required by the unity of the entire aggregate and by the authority of its regulatory organs. These limits may be extensive or limited. Among the Iroquois, Kikuyu, and Ibo, whose local communities had a collegial regulatory organization, lineage rights of retaliation prevailed, and violence was sporadic, although feud was ruled out. In such “centralized” systems as Ruanda, feudal Europe, and Japan violence was so common as to be virtually institutionalized. It is thus not essential to the character, cohesion, or continuity of a public that violence should be excluded among its members; neither is it the case that all publics are units of internal cooperation and external independence. What is necessary is that the incidence, forms, and occasions of violence should be governed by authoritative rules and that responsibilities for violence should be allocated to corporate units. For the unity of the aggregate, a common set of external relations is much more essential and seems to be decisive.

It is not always the case that polities differ in their scale according to their levels of centralization. Some large populations, such as the Tiv, Gusii, Masai, or Ibo, maintain polities of an acephalous type, while many small units, such as the Mambwe villages (Watson 1958, p. 72 ff.) or some Tswana tribes, are relatively centralized.

Authority may be said to be centralized when the autonomy to regulate certain types of affairs by positive action has been transferred to some single organ or set of organs which then coordinates these affairs for all members of the aggregate. This transfer of autonomy from the members and primary corporations of the unit may be voluntary, or it may be forced. Once achieved, in order to be instrumentally effective, it requires that the central regulatory organ should control an adequate concentration of sanctions and should also be capable of employing these autonomously to enforce its orders, especially to discourage political aggrandizements among its staff. When authority is effectively centralized in this way, whether on a collegial or an official basis or on both simultaneously—as in modern societies—those who hold this authority may try to increase its range or scope by pursuing territorial expansion or by extending the types of affairs that fall under their regulation. The latter is the course that most consistently requires and promotes increases in the size, complexity, and functional differentiation of the administrative structure and in its segregation from public political processes. This may either lead to the development of a strictly bureaucratic order (Weber [1919] 1946, p. 196 ff.; [1922] 1957, p. 302 ff., p. 360 ff.) or to the domination of an aggregate by a “ruling bureaucracy” (Wittfogel 1953; 1957).

An essential condition for the effective centralization of the administrative staff within any unit of moderate size is the segregation of this administrative structure from the context and processes of public political competition. This is a more difficult achievement than the simple differentiation of judicial, military, and civil functions. These functions may be distributed among different persons in both acephalous and centralized collegial systems, as among the Kipsigi, Galla, and Kikuyu. Or these functions may be combined and exercised through a single official or collegial structure in various centralized systems, as in the southern Bantu chiefdoms (Schapera 1937). However, to preclude the appropriation of power by administrative staff, to maintain disciplined performance, and to penalize inefficiency or corruption, it is essential that the different regulatory roles should be segregated and distributed among different units and that provisions for supervision and staff control should also be adequate. When an administration relies for its staff on territorial chiefs, who are often recruited hereditarily and may be identified politically with their communities, as among the Tswana or in feudal Europe, disassociation of the regulatory roles and the maintenance of central control are both very difficult. The Chinese sought, during the Ch’ing period, to prevent the political decentralization of the administration by restricting tenure of office to three years, by excluding hereditary appointments in the bureaucracy, by sending officials to communities where they were strangers, and by specializing the staff of different offices (Sprenkel 1962). The Inca sought to control their territorial officials through an elaborate system of specialized traveling inspectors. The Zulu, Ruanda, and Lozi kings, like the Kamakura shoguns, sought simultaneously to subdivide the loyalties of their subjects and to set their subordinates against one another by differentiating the types and sources of control. The Hausa of Zazzau simply concentrated their senior territorial officials in the capital and thus segregated them from the communities they were appointed to rule (Smith 1960). Despite the high levels of functional specialization of the ruling colleges of Athens and Rome, those colleges sought to control their highest officials by institutions of indictment, accountability, and time-limited tenure of office. In the acephalous collegial polities of the Cheyenne, Yakö, and Kipsigi, authority to regulate different affairs was systematically dispersed among differing organs of government. One legacy of royal absolutism which is quite basic to the complex governments of modern society is the segregation of the bureaucratic apparatus from the arena of political competition for control of policy.

M. G. Smith


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