Political Systems



Anthropologists study political systems as part of their emphasis on the study of law, order, conflict, governance, and power. It is a product of two different traditions. First, primarily associated with cultural anthropology in the United States, remained focused on the comparative and historical questions of how and why political systems evolved. The second, associated with British social anthropology, was more interested in how politics worked in different societies and the roles of individuals. For decades evolution-minded anthropologists, along with archeologists, have busily classified societies into categories such as bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and states, and then debated the merits of one another's typologies (Fried 1967; Service 1975). Conflict is often accorded a central if not catalytic role in virtually all these schemas.
The second, and perhaps more influential, branch of political anthropology has its origins in the experience of anthropological FIELDWORK and the very practical concerns associated with locating order in non-Western societies. This was the explicit aim of the founding work in the field, African political systems (Fortes & Evans-Pritchard 1940b). Based on a set of descriptions and analyses of centralized and decentralized systems of governance in Africa, societies were divided into two types: "primitive states" that possessed government institutions and "stateless societies" that did not. This work, and examples of detailed fieldwork on political systems such as EVANS-PRITCHARD'S (1940) among the Nuer and FORTES's (1945) among the Tallensi, inspired a generation of fieldworkers to concentrate on the varied ways in which political order might be embedded in KINSHIP relations, RITUAL practices, AGE SYSTEMS, and other order-keeping institutions that did not require separate institutions of government. Such a focus was of clear concern to colonial administrators anxious to understand how to govern and control "subject" peoples, and the role anthropologists may have played in aiding COLONIALISM has been the subject of considerable debate in recent decades (Asad 1973; Kuklik 1991). It is clear, however, that the results of such work, particularly in Africa, pushed anthropology in a number of new directions.      
One such area was the question of conflict and conflict resolution which became the focus of the so-called Manchester school. Pioneered by the work of Max Gluckman and his students, it encouraged anthropologists to study social mechanisms for coping with intersocietal tension and change. Gluckman, trained in both law and anthropology, also contributed heavily to the development of legal anthropology, which has always been closely linked with political anthropology because of a shared interest in conflict mediation and the maintenance of social order. Confronting anticolonial stirrings but still-firm color lines after World War II, Manchester school anthropologists experimented with new methodologies, including situational analyses (Velsen 1967) and network analysis (J. Mitchell 1969), to explain how seemingly apolitical events and organizations could in fact be laced with political meaning. Other scholars found that politics were embedded in all aspects of social life, including ritual. For instance, Victor Turner (1957) described how village-level political crises were ritually solved by Ndembu in Zambia, and Abner Cohen (1969) unraveled ritual's political role in the development of Hausa ethnicity in a Yorubaland town in Nigeria.

Types of political organizations:

Classification has been a major focus of research since the beginnings of political anthropology; indeed, the foundational book, Fortes and Evans-Pritchard’s African Political Systems (1940), begins with a typology. The following figure is an attempt to make such a classification. It is based on means of political integration, access to leadership positions, and methods of group decision making.

Figure 1 different political systems of the world Sources: Eisenstadt 1959; Fried 1967; Service 1971.

There is a relationship of the classification of such political systems and its related social evolution from the perspectives of Neo-evolutionists like Service and Sahlins. The following table represents each of the political systems and their characteristics features.


Band Societies:

Band Societies are small-scale, mobile foraging societies organized on the basis of kinship. In Julian Steward's (1955) cultural evolutionary scheme, band societies exhibited a primary level of social integration that was contrasted with tribes, chiefdoms, and states. Band organization is closely associated with forms of hunting and gathering subsistence in which mobility and small groupings are optimal in terms of survival. In much of anthropological theory, bands are assumed to be the basic social unit of human history larger than the family prior to the invention of agriculture.      
Recent foraging bands share a number of characteristics: they are small in scale, composed of units of 30 to 150 people; nomadic, moving three or more times per year; and based on communal land tenure. Although there is a division of labor along age and sex lines, there is virtually no specialization of skills, with the result being that the unity of the wider group is, in Emile Durkheim’s term, “mechanical”—that is, based on custom, tradition, and common values and symbols, rather than on an interdependence of specialized roles. Most, but not all, are politically egalitarian societies with an absence of formal leadership, and almost all have a religious focus based on shamanistic healing. On two other key aspects band societies display considerable variation: gender egalitarianism is strong in some groups (Bushmen, Pygmies) but weakly developed in others (Eskimo, Australian Aborigines), and band societies in general are not particularly peaceful. Although comparisons are difficult some have higher rates of homicide than American inner cities (Lee 1979). Morton Fried (1967) categorizes such groups as egalitarian in terms of economy, social organization, and political structure. Distribution of food and other needed goods is at the simplest level of sharing; bonds are established within the band and between bands on the basis of ongoing reciprocal relations. Political organization is also egalitarian to the extent that decision making is usually a group enterprise, and access to leadership positions is equally open to all males within a certain age range.  
Not all foraging peoples are organized on the basis of bands. Where resources permit larger and more permanent settlements, more complex foraging societies appear, leading to the useful distinction in the archeological literature between simple and complex hunter gatherers (T. Price & Brown 1985). Band organization has provided a rich source of anthropological theory, beginning in the nineteenth century with speculation by classical evolutionists on the origin of the family. Scholars as diverse as Morgan (1877), Tylor (1871), Engels (1902), and Freud (1930) saw the primeval horde as the "Ur" unit of society, a grouping that was variously seen to be violent, promiscuous, incestuous, or all three. Ethnographic study of twentieth-century band societies supported none of these lurid projections, finding monogamous marriage and stable kin relations at the core of virtually all bands. Steward (1936) offered a serviceable typology of bands, dividing them into patrilineal, composite, and family bands depending largely on the nature of subsistence. More recent critics of Steward have questioned whether the three types are not overly reified. In writing about the seasonal life of the Eskimo, Marcel Mauss had observed that they divided their year into a larger group phase, "la vie publique" and a smaller group phase, "la vie privĂ©e" (Mauss & Beuchat 1979). In Mauss's view these alternating phases served critically important social functions, balancing the need for sociability and interaction with the need for quiet family life. Since almost all band societies display this aggregation/dispersion pattern, Steward's composite and family bands may be two phases/moments of the same underlying social dynamic. 


The word "tribe" has a long and ignoble history and remains one of the most variably used terms within and outside of anthropology (Helm 1968). Anthropologists often use it as a catch-all substitute for "primitive," avoiding the invidious comparison of "nonstate." But most who use the term analytically narrow it to mean some form of political unit, as distinct from "ethnie" or "nation," which suggest a cultural identity. At least two kinds of political unit are imagined: tribe as an evolutionary stage, and tribe as a recognized group around a state frontier. These two meanings framed a debate about tribe in the 1960s and 1970s. Tribes are uncentralized egalitarian systems in which authority is distributed among a number of small groups; unity of the larger society is established from a web of individual and group relations.
There are three basic objections to the concept of tribe: (1) it does not encompass a discrete group of societies that share common qualities; (2) it is not sufficiently different from other types, such as bands and chiefdoms; (3) it suggests a degree of social integration, or at least boundedness, that is often nonexistent (Helm 1968).        
Service (1962) followed a long tradition in positing tribe as a stage in political evolution falling between more independent bands and more centralized and hierarchical chiefdoms. Sahlins (1968b) also saw tribes as evolutionary predecessors of states but was more concerned with mechanisms of integration than boundaries. Here tribes were seen as unified and bounded by kinship or other ties and constituted the broadest level of cooperation in a segmented hierarchy of functions. By contrast, Fried (1967, 1975) disputed the evolutionary existence of such bounded groups, arguing instead that tribes arose from interactions with existing states. Despite their differences, all three agreed that boundedness of tribes was a result of external conflict, or War.



Chiefdoms are an intermediate-level society, often seen as a stage in social evolution (Service 1962). (A closely related social type is ranked societies.) In contrast to the local-group level of egalitarian societies, chiefdoms organize several local groups or villages in a region with a composite population in the thousands or tens of thousands. Chiefdoms can be characterized as simple or complex in terms of the scale of integration and elaboration of institutionalization (Earle 1978).
With respect to social integration, the chiefdom level transcends the tribal level in two major ways: (1) it has a higher population density made possible by more efficient productivity; and (2) it is more complex, with some form of centralized authority. Unlike segmentary systems in which political units coalesce and dissolve according to the situation, chiefdoms have relatively permanent central agencies of government, typically based on collection and redistribution of an economic surplus (often including a labor surplus).
Chiefdoms represent a new level of integration, with institutions that incorporate the expanded size of the polity. Explanations of the evolution of chiefdoms have emphasized alternatively managerial and political causes (Earle 1987). 
Within the chiefdom polity, the individuals occupying chiefly offices constitute a social segment and are ranked with respect to each other according to genealogies to create an institutionalized hierarchy of leadership. In simple chiefdoms, community leaders are the highest-ranked individuals of their community. In more complex chiefdoms, chiefs become a separate social segment set off from the commoner populace and designated by special dress and paraphernalia (Earle 1989). Genealogies become political tools, determining the pool of potential leaders, and often linking them to the gods.
The position of chief, unlike that of headman of a band or lineage, is a position of at least minimal power—that is, the chief has access to a certain amount of coercion. The chief may be the final authority in the distribution of land, and may be able to recruit an army. Economically, he is the center and coordinator of the redistribution system: he can collect taxes on food or goods, some of which will be returned to the populace, creating a new level of group solidarity in which a number of specialized parts depend on the smooth functioning of the whole. Even if the chief’s position is not directly hereditary, it will only be available to certain families or lineages. Although actual class stratification is absent, every individual is ranked according to membership in a descent group; those closer to the chief’s lineage will be higher on the scale and receive the deference of all those below. Indeed, according to Service (1971: 145), “the most distinctive characteristic of chiefdoms, as compared to tribes and bands, is . . . the pervasive inequality of persons and groups in the society.”
However, the chief by no means possesses absolute power. The aristocratic ethos does not carry with it any formal, legal apparatus of forceful repression, and what obedience the chief can command may derive less from fear of physical sanctions than from his direct control of the economic redistributional system. The chief’s lineage may itself become exceptionally wealthy, but ultimately loyalty is purchased by constant bestowal of goods and benefits. Although there may be the approximation of a bureaucracy, offices beneath that of chief are not clearly differentiated, and when pressures build up, these lower bureaucrats can break away from the parent body and set up an opposition government. Thus, a chief walks a narrow tightrope between conflicting interest groups and maintains his position through a precarious balancing act.


For Elman Service (1971: 163), the distinguishing quality of the state, that which separates it from the chiefdom, “is the presence of that special form of control, the consistent threat of force by a body of persons legitimately constituted to use it.” Morton Fried (1967), on the other hand, emphasizes stratification: the state has special institutions, both formal and informal, to maintain a hierarchy with differential access to resources. This stratification goes beyond the individual and lineage ranking found in less complex societies; it involves the establishment of true classes. For Ronald Cohen (1978a, 1978b), the key diagnostic feature of the state is its permanence. Unlike lower order forms of political organization, the state does not regularly fission (i.e., break up into a number of smaller groups) as part of its normal process of political activity.
States organize an extensive population in the hundreds of thousands or millions (Johnson & Earle 1987), often representing many ethnic groups with separate historical traditions, economies, religions, and cultures. To integrate such a diverse populace requires elaborate and specialized institutions of governance and domination. General categories of state institution include administrative bureaucracies, legal systems, and military and religious organizations. Such institutions represent different sources of power   economic, political, military, and ideological. The degree of elaboration and the interrelationships between the various institutions differ considerably from state to state. The "state," as a category of social evolution, is internally highly variable in terms of scale of integration (from the city state to the empire), type of integration ("administrative" vs. "theater" state [C. Geertz 1980]), the nature of control ("territorial" vs. "hegemonic" [Hassig 1985]), and the basis of finance ("staple" vs. "wealth" [D'Altroy & Earle 1985]), among other characteristics. Social stratification characterizes state societies. A ruling segment or CLASS retains differential access to "the basic resources that sustain life" (Fried 1967: 186). State societies are divided into classes with different economic and political interests (Marx & Engels 1888), and state institutions are developed to reproduce the social system of domination. Although this may be the dream of the ruling segment, life in complex society is more precarious. Brumfiel and Fox (1994) described the intense competition among elites for control over ruling institutions.           
A focus of anthropological research has been to explain the "origin" of state society or "civilization" (Flannery 1972; H. Wright 1978). Theories have emphasized either the central management or the coercive power of states (Service 1975). Managerial theories outline how problems of survival require central management that supposedly only the state can provide, such as irrigation systems in the desert. Sanders (1956) argued that community specialization within ecologically diverse regions must have resulted in an integrated economy and market system; the peace of the market, then necessary for the regional economy, was thereafter guaranteed by the state. Carneiro (1970) described how competitive warfare required central organization for success; states, with more effective militaries, expanded at the expense of more simply organized societies. Underlying these adapationalist theories is either the advance of a new organizational form, like irrigation, or the creation of new problems with a growing population.       

Few important concepts:


Sanctions are responses to actions that violate the social norms of a group. These reactions can be either positive (approving) or negative (disapproving). Taken together, social sanctions function to maintain social order and social control by rewarding conformity and punishing DEVIANCE, reintegrating a society after a breach. Whether delivered by individuals or by a group, sanctions are based on a collective normative order and reflect a shared sense of morality and wrong-doing. Legal sanctions are only one of many kinds of sanctions, which also include social pressure and self-help strategies (such as vengeance).    
This understanding has its foundation in Radcliffe-Brown's classic definition of a sanction as a social reaction by a society, or a good portion of its members, to varieties of behavior that are thereby approved or disapproved (1934: 205). His analysis of social sanctions focused on group rather than individual reactions and assumed that societies had a consensus about norms. For Radcliffe-Brown the function of such social sanctions was to restore social order through a collective reaction to misbehavior, thus reintegrating the community and restoring balance and harmony.
In a case at law there is only so much that can be proved by paperwork. Sometimes you have to take a man’s word for it. And if two men say different things – what then? Today we rely on Judges to decide – to ‘judge’ the case. That is what they do.


Oaths are still with us today, as is the criminal offence of perjury. However because of the belief system in medieval times, perjury was considered far more serious than it is today.  It was taking the name of God in vain and so the perjurer would have to face not only the wrath of man, but also the wrath of God in the hereafter. This was a big disincentive.
The solemnity was often further enhanced by the practice of swearing an oath on the relics of saints. For example when the monks of Thorney were in dipsute with a local landowner, they carried the relics of their saints to the land for the landowner to swear upon. In those days, few people would risk lying in such circumstances.
Oaths were an important part of the legal process and used in both civil and criminal cases – as still happens today.


Ordeals on the other hand are not (save as discussed below). They involved a direct appeal to God to resolve an issue by divine proof. There were two kinds:
Where the party underwent some kind of test where the outcome determined the case, and
Where the two parties or their champions fought it out in single combat, where, it was believed, God would give victory to the righteous.
Lets look at ordeal by test first. This type of ordeal was used almost exclusively for criminal trials. There were basically two kinds – ordeal by hot iron and ordeal by water.

Ordeal by hot iron

Here the accused would have to walk a set number of paces holding a piece of heated iron. The hand was then bound – if the wound healed cleanly he was innocent.
Robert Bartlett in his book England under the Norman and Angevin Kings gives a great description of the ritual used:
The ordeal iron was first exorcised. The priest placed it on the alter prior to celebrating mass. He invoked God’s blessing on it :
“Bless O Lord, through the strength of your power, this metal, removing every demonic falsehood and dispelling the magic and trickery of the unbelievers, so that in it the truth of a most truthful judgement should be manifested”.
He again blessed the hot iron:
“Deign to send your holy and true blessing on this iron, so that it should be a pleasing coolness to those who carry it with justice and fortitude but a burning fire to the wicked …” He concluded “May the blessing of God the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit descend on this iron , to discern the true judgement of God”.

Ordeal by water

Here the accused was thrown into a pit or pool of water. If he sank he was innocent, if he floated he was guilty.
To our eyes one would have thought it should have been the other way around, as there is not a lot of point in being found innocent if it means death by drowning. Presumably they managed to get the accused out before this happened.

Ordeal by water was mentioned in Henry II’s Assize of Clarendon of 1166:

“anyone, who shall be found, on the oath of the aforesaid [a jury], to be accused or notoriously suspect of having been a robber or murderer or thief, or a receiver of them … be taken and put to the ordeal of water.”

Ordeal by fire and water in practice

The amazing thing about ordeals generally is that apparently just under 2/3 of those who undertook the ordeal passed!
The pipe rolls tell us that of the recorded cases, 17% were hot iron and 83% water.
Apparently, hot iron was supposed to be the ordeal traditionally used for free men and ordeal by water for unfree, which just goes to show that (like today) the lower classes tended to attract more attention from those in authority than their ‘betters’.
Ordeal by iron was generally the only ordeal used in the trial of women, as it was considered more seemly than plunging them in water.


Feuding is a series of revenge-based killings that not only result in the loss of human life but also contribute to the disruption of the social order. There are five essential elements to feuding: (1) Kinship groups are involved; (2) homicides take place; (3) the killings occur as revenge for a perceived injustice or affront to honor; (4) three or more alternating killings or acts of violence occur; and (5) the violent encounters take place within a political community. Nearly half the societies studied by anthropologists have had feuds occur within them. Feuds can be divided into two types: feuding without compensation, in which there is no institutionalized means by which compensation can be paid, and feuding with compensation, in which payment of compensation can prevent a counterkilling, thereby stopping a feud. Cross-cultural studies suggest that the second type of feud outnumbers the first type about 2 to 1. Theories of feuding tend to focus on only one of these two types.
Dividing the world’s societies into those with and those without feuding permits the identification of two types: (1) societies with fraternal interest groups, which have much conflict, including feuding, internal war, rape, and intrakinship group executions, and (2) societies without fraternal interest groups, which have little conflict, no feuding, no internal war, no rape, and polity-wide executions. Fraternal interest groups are localized groups of related males who defend the interests of their members. These groups come into existence through the practice of patrilocal or virilocal residence. Polygyny can also produce fraternal interest groups. Otterbein and Otterbein showed that when patrilocal residence and polygyny were combined, the likelihood of feuding greatly increased. Divale and Harris later showed that such societies had a “male-supremacist complex.”Mistreatment of women and female infanticide accompanied the complex.


War, Warfare is deadly violence between groups. Some investigators specify that war occurs between distinct political or territorial units, and that killing has social legitimacy, although any such definition encounters exceptional cases. War is often contrasted with feud, in which socially sanctioned killing occurs within such units, and homicide, where killing is usually defined as socially illegitimate. Some theorists separate war from raiding, and others restrict "true war" to state-level societies, particularly in models of evolutionary sequences.          
War developed rather late in human history. The first evidence of multiple killings is from semisedentary peoples of the Nile Valley from about 14,000 years ago (Wendorf et al. 1986), and around the world, war generally appears long after the shift to settled villages (Haas & Creamer 1993). The walls of Jericho are often taken as the earliest evidence of war, but these may have been for flood control not war (Bar-Yosef 1986). Besides Jericho probable indications of war occur in the seventh millennium B.C.E. Near East, and seem conclusive in the sixth millennium B.C.E. (Roper 1975). In the ethnohistorical and ethnographic record, war is common, although many societies have little or none of it (Knauft 1991).
Since the late nineteenth century, the longest sustained anthropological scrutiny of war has focused on the relationship between war and political evolution, particularly on how war changed with, and promoted greater, centralization and complexity. Although there is considerable argument over details, dissenting voices (C. Ember 1978), and a wide range of empirical variation acknowledged by all, the general conclusion of repeated investigation is that waging war becomes more sophisticated and efficient with political evolution, and that war plays some role, primary or secondary, in moving that process along (Otterbein 1970).          
A flurry of investigations on the subject of war attracted anthropological attention in the period of World War II. Malinowski (1941) and others attempted to synthesize existing knowledge. Turney-High's Primitive war (1949) remains unsurpassed on the actual practice of fighting. Several studies reexamined North American Indian warfare as a strategic response to changing circumstances with an expanding Euro-American presence (G. Hunt 1940)   a line of investigation that is receiving renewed attention today (R. Ferguson & Whitehead 1992a).


If people obey a command because they fear the consequences of refusing, they are responding to power. If they obey because they believe they should, they are responding to authority. Authority is that subtype of power that is accepted as legitimate. Max Weber distinguished three different types of authority. Traditional authority involves an appeal to custom and ancient practice. Legal-rational authority involves obedience to formal rules, which have been established by proper procedure: civil servants who distribute passports according to the regulations of a bureaucratic organisation can invoke this sort of authority for their actions with charismatic authority, the charismatic leader is obeyed because followers believe he or she possesses an extraordinary character (usually derived from a special relationship with the divine) that trumps existing rules or prevalent customs. An exemplar is the Christ figure in the New Testament who presents his radically innovative teachings in the form ‘It is written … but I say to you …’ and justifies his rejection of the tradition only with the claim to be the Son of God. Very loosely we can understand much about the differences between pre-modern and modern societies by noting that traditional authority is prevalent in the former and legal-rational authority (especially as embodied in bureaucratic organisations) dominates the latter. Charismatic authority may periodically appear in all sorts of societies but it is less common in modern societies.
Weber then argues that, at a high level of abstraction, where the whole range of historical reality can be encompassed conceptually by few ideal-typical constructs, that argument has always had one or the other of three contents, each characterizing a distinctive kind of authority.
Traditional authority. This rests on reverence for the past, on the assumption that what has always been the case is sacred and deserves to persist.
Charismatic authority:  Here, the commands are issued by a person to whom transcendent forces have imparted a “gift of grace,” enabling that person to perform extraordinary feats that bear witness to the power of those forces and benefit those who follow the person in question.
Legal authority:Here, single commands constitute correct instantiations of rules of lesser or greater generality, valid in turn because they have been formed and enacted according to certain procedural rules.

Barfield, Thomas. 1996. The Dictionary of Anthropology. Oxford: Blackwell
Bruce, Steve and Steven Yarley. 2006. The Sage Dictionary of Sociology. Thousand Oaks: Sage
Turner, S. Brayan. 2006. Cambridge Dictionary of Sociology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

This is a brief outline of political system (bilingual, meant for my college students)

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