The major thesis of political anthropology is that politics cannot be isolated from other subsystems of a society. Political anthropology has defined its interest in how power is put to use in a social and cultural environment. Power is defined as political influence to accomplish certain aims. Through cultural interpretation, the political culture defines certain goals as acceptable. Political systems operate within a historical setting. The ability to make and enforce decisions is the basis of power, and power is what political anthropologists study. Political anthropology investigates the everyday experiences of people as they are shaped by their economic position in a particular society, and the world economy that molds most political issues.
Political Theory and Structural Functionalism
Structural functionalism is the study of how the separate parts of a society interact to form a cooperating whole; this is called synchronic. Synchronic theory characterizes the most important goal of any cultural element as the harmony of the society as a whole. The political anthropologist studies the complex interaction of mutually interrelating parts. History is not the focus in these studies. The society is studied from a holistic viewpoint. The interaction of the subsystems or institutions to maintain the equilibrium of the whole becomes the focal point of research. The political institution interacts with kinship, family, religion, and the economy as a single mutually supporting system. The major theme of each institution is the adjustment to long-term equilibrium.
Political culture is comprised of the core values of a society. Political action happens through the use of symbols, and these are defined by the political culture. Manifest functions are the stated utility; the latent function is the hidden, and more real, reason for any observable fact occurring in a social situation.
The heyday of structural functionalism was pre-World War II British anthropology. Fine examples include E. E. Evans-Pritchard’s The Nuer, and African Political Systems.
In the United States a theory closely related to structural functionalism was pluralism. Pluralism asserts that democratic state societies are made up of a collection of competitive interest groups in conflict with one another. The state balances these groups through compromise. The government is the neutral referee. Each group has about equal influence on public policy.
How are the public goals accomplished? What are the quantity and the style of power used by various competing groups in determining public policy? To answer these two questions, the study of competition between rival groups is central.
Societies are studied in their historical context, i.e., diachronic. Change is a constant in all social settings. Parties (teams that compete) vie for power in order to define public goals and determine public policy. In this it is assumed that conflict is constant. Process Theory studies take place in a political field. A political field is any area in which a political contest takes place. The competition is over political power. Power is the ability to influence public policy in the face of opposition. Power can be independent or dependent.
Independent power is the direct power of an individual or group. In egalitarian societies this power is based upon either personal charisma or specialized knowledge. In centralized societies power is vested in individuals that occupy particular offices. Dependent power is defined as the transfer of powers by one individual or group to another individual or group.
Legitimacy is a support coming from the political culture. There is consensual power within the political culture even if a large group of people disagrees with certain aspects of the leadership or their policies, if the greater essential quality of the political structure is still seen as valid. The other source of power is coercion, in which the authority of the office holder is supported by force or the threat of force. In state societies, legitimacy is always backed by coercion. Only in nonstate societies is it possible to have legitimacy without coercion. Both sources of power can be used in the conflict over power.
Action theory is an expansion of the Process approach. There are, in most societies, teams called political parties that compete for power. Each team has its leadership, which manipulates symbols of the political culture to gain and maintain power.
This competition occurs in the political arena in which rules govern the contest. These rules are interpreted, explained, and then rearranged according to a specific agenda. Political core values are used to explain these rules in order to strengthen one or another team’s claim to power.
All equilibrium is unstable and temporary. Continual readjustment is necessary while the tournament continues. Teams mobilize their political capital for a showdown, followed by the reestablishment of an unstable equilibrium. In this game normative rules represent the core values of political culture. These rules are always vague and abstract. The pragmatic rules are the real rules with which the game is really won.
The top leaders become symbols of their party. Leaders can either be moral leaders or contract leaders. A moral leader represents the shared normative ethics of the group. Moral leaders tend to be dogmatic and rigid, whereas the contract leader leads an alliance of diverse individuals that hopes to profit personally from victory.
Over the long run, teams in a stable society are about even in strength. Most parties encapsulate smaller parties within them. Within parties, conflicts also exist and are resolved in broadly similar ways. Even in a one-party state there are political contests. Political change often is repetitive as power is passed back and forth between the teams. At times, normative rules are reinterpreted and pragmatic rules change; the teams appear to stay the same as they adapt to a changing social environment. Only in an all-out revolution does change require a replacing of both sets of rules.
Classical elite theory asserts that all societies are in fact ruled and controlled by a small ruling elite. The state, or even tribe, is the political tool of this elite. The Elite Theory states that the majority of people are incapable of self-rule. The leaders govern because the masses need them to.
Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923) claimed the ruling elite was in fact made up of superior individuals, with the will to power. History is the “circulation of elites.” The elites incorporate a small number of superior individuals from the masses in order to continuously maintain the vitality of the ruling class. Periodically, there is a breakdown of social equilibrium. When this happens, the old ruling elite is overthrown, and replaced by a new elite.
Gaetano Mosca (1858-1941) stated that the superiority of the political elite is that they have the virtues needed to rule. Elites have the extensive contacts, which determine their type of society with its political structure and culture. Elite is not a closed class; they continually incorporate the best from the masses.
Robert Michels (1876-1936) wrote that the bureaucratic organization results in the arrangement of elite command. The bureaucratic organization requires a specialized staff with skills that are difficult to replace. Both leaders and staff members require a specialized education. This complex organization requires highly structured authority to orchestrate its successful operation.
Wright Mills (1916-1962) stated that the power elite is composed of those who command the leading hierarchies of U.S. society. This includes top managers in big corporations, the top government officials, and the leaders in the military. It is in the reciprocal collaboration between these three elite groups that the power in American society rests. Power in U.S. society is derived from these linkages. Often the same individuals are leaders in several hierarchies. Business is the first in importance, while the strength of the military is growing rapidly.
William G. Domhoff, still very active today, writes that, in the United States, the upper class dominates the government. They form a close-knit group based upon control of corporate stocks, trust funds, government, and academic institutions. They organize themselves through marriage selections, private schools, exclusive clubs, summer resorts, debutante events, and corporate boards. They form a select group of intermarrying kinfolk, whose power is based upon control of business and political institutions of society.
The Instrumentalists assert that the ruling class of capitalist society is able to dominate the apparatus of domination of society because it controls the economy. On the other hand, Structuralism contends that the state power is independently operated in a way that benefits the capitalists, or any upper class. The function of the state and the dominant class coincides by necessity.
Albert Szymanski (1942-1985) writes that the state is an instrument of exploitation of the economically subordinate classes, and is secured for the benefit of the dominant class. The political, ideological, and economic environment insures that economic social relations and ideological hegemony are preserved. State managers have very limited options. The state is controlled by the upper class by both direct and indirect means. The logic of capitalist economic relations, reinforced by capital’s ideological hegemony, dictate the policies that the state must follow.
The institution of the state is always a political tool of a certain class or classes. Under capitalism the class that owns and controls corporate capital clearly dominates the state either directly by providing leadership, or indirectly by defining the issues. Within capitalism the state is central to stabilizing all of society for the capitalist by insuring the profit-making process is the main economic issue, and by increasing economic productivity of the labor force and the growth of the economy overall.
Postmodernism openly questions the legitimacy of the modernism of progress, rationalism, science, and technological progress. Science, objectivity, and grand theory are all seen as a privileged narrative that misses the point that reality is subjective, relative, and socially constructed.
The physical environment and the type and level of technology influence social organization. When a people, through their culture, adapt to their environment they change that environment. Population pressure, technology, physical environment, social environment, and political and ideological culture interact in a mutually self-reproducing way. This interaction implies a structure and a relationship of change. This is a system, which means that if we know elements of the system, alternative elements can be suggested. The environment and technology as related to subsistence seem to be the most important. However, the parts are interrelated and measurable with statistical probability.
Bands are small communities usually consisting of between 25 to 150 individuals. The nuclear family is the primary social organization. Bilateral kinship is the most common form found in band society. The size of the bands in band society changes through time, depending on the type of resources that are being exploited. Leadership within the bands is, for the most part, temporary and situational. For most, political equality is the major social organization. Coercion, laws, and restriction to major economic resources are very rare among band members. There is little specialization of skills that would lead to a permanent division of labor. This means there is usually no religious priesthood or permanent political leader. The division of labor is based upon gender and age. Custom is the ideological glue that holds the society together. The economy is primarily foraging from the local environment. Trade is very minor. However, reciprocity is the major form of distribution. A typical example is the Shoshone and Paiute tribes of the Great Basin of North America before contact with other tribes or Europeans.
Tribal society is based upon the village or clan. They are horticultural or pastoral based on their means of subsistence. Communal ownership of land or herds is the most common form of economic control. Distribution is based upon reciprocity. Trade is minor, but more developed than among band societies. Tribes are egalitarian communities in which power is decentralized through a lacework of personal and group relations. Leadership is charismatic without coercive authority to enforce decisions over group opposition. The right to use force is kept within the lineage as a communal claim. The groups depend on domesticated food supply more than wild crops. There is very little political, religious, or economic specialization. Tribes are generally egalitarian. Clans are of a unilineal kinship organization, either matrilineal or patrilineal. Pan-tribal sodalities unite clans into larger organizations. These include voluntary societies, age grades, and segmentary lineage systems. Examples are the Nuer of 1940, or the Iroquois of the 18th century.
A chiefdom has a centralized authority. The office of the chief is moving closer to a continuous position. Generally only members of a certain clan or lineage in the larger kin group are eligible to obtain, by succession, the office of chief. Membership in any clan or lineage of the ethnic group is unilineal. While no real class divisions exist, this is a ranked society. Clans and individuals are both ranked, some earned and some inherited. The authority is one of minimum power; the amount of coercion a chief can use is small. Economically, the chief is the great provider. The chief is in charge of a system of redistribution. Taxes are collected in some sort of desired goods to be returned in a ceremonial “give away,” maintaining the group solidarity and uniting the clans under the chief of the kinship group. An example of a Chiefdom includes the Ashanti of Africa before British colonization.
A state society is a society that is sharply divided into social and economic classes. Membership of the state is defined by residence within a territory. Within these borders all residents are subject to a single authority, which consists of a small elite monopolized political power. There is a formal body of laws and courts, and a monopoly by the state officials on the legitimate use of force. How and why states first emerged is debated openly.
The Internal Conflict theory (Lewis Henry Morgan) of the state begins with studies of how ancient people lived in small and egalitarian communities. Resources were equally shared; then technological innovations developed. This allowed a surplus to develop. A class of non-producers appeared, along with private property. Access to resources became more restricted. The elite then created the state to protect themselves from the producers who created the wealth.
According to the External Conflict theory (Herbert Spencer), the groups with the strongest military survived. The stronger army conquered the weaker one. This external threat required a coercive body, called government, to arise to meet this outside peril.
In the Environmental Circumscription theory (Robert Carniero), the State Societies developed in areas that were circumscribed by their environment. Because of the fact that, since war is nearly universal, it is more likely to lead to population dispersal than the formation of the state, Carniero asserts that State Societies could only arise in areas in which mountains, deserts, or seas surrounded good agricultural lands, making dispersion of the population nearly impossible.
In the Hydraulic Civilization theory, Karl Wittfogel claimed that, to increase farm production in river valleys, large complex irrigation systems were developed, requiring several villages to cooperate in maintaining a controlled water supply, supporting multiple harvests and a large dense population. The complicated irrigation system required a group of specialists who ran the system, who in turn became powerful leaders of the state.
In the Mode of Production theory, Eric Robert Wolf, in “Europe and the People Without History,” classified historical cultures into three basic modes of production: kin-ordered, tributary, and capitalist. Kin-ordered relates band and tribal societies or stateless societies. In tributary modes of production, the direct producers possess the means of production. The elite expropriate the surplus product by political or other types of non-economic means. He states that all pre-capitalist states were tributary. Asiatic is an example of a strong (centralized) tributary state, while feudal is a weaker (decentralized) one; these two replace one another over time. Europe, from the 16th through the 18th centuries, was not capitalist but a mercantile tributary (centralized) state. Capitalism emerged in England in the late 18th century. The capitalist enlisted labor under capitalism through the buying of labor power, leaving the workers with nothing left to sell but this labor power. Liberal political revolution, the industrial revolution, and free trade came together in England partly because of its unique history and its geography. England then became the homeland of capitalism, which divided the world to meet the interests of the British capitalist.
Political anthropology is a sub-specialization within cultural anthropology. Like political sociology, it is a study of how political power is used within a larger social and cultural context. Also, like political sociology, it examines how political cultures and the political institutions change historically. Political anthropology adds a cross-cultural comparison to understand how widely different cultures have generally dissimilar political cultures and political institutions.
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