7 3 Politics and Political Systems


In this module, we look at political life
in its broadest sense as the story of power. This concept refers to the ways in which leaders
and groups channel and use power; the ways power of all sorts serves to command conformity
to cultural norms; the methods by which power is brought into play to reestablish harmony
when people violate norms; the ways in which conflict between societies, in the absence
of social control, escalates into war, and finally strategies for achieving peace between
societies. We’ll also look at another aspect of social
groupsnamely, political organization. How have various societies organized themselves
in order to manage power and conflict? In particular, we’ll look at modern nation-states
and the role of nationalism. Then we’ll turn back to power and how power operates. We’ll
also look at social control and legal systems and how these uphold social or political systems.
Finally we’ll turn briefly to globalization and the state.
Let’s begin with a brief example: Arab Spring in the Middle East: Through 2011 and 2012,
the Middle East and North Africa erupted in antigovernment demonstrations, strikes, marches,
and rallies, as well as by sometimes violent responses from police, militaries, and pro-government
demonstrations and militias. What has become known as the Arab Spring spread quickly from
Tunisia to Egypt, eventually leading to a civil war in Libya and uprisings in Syria,
Bahrain, Yemen, Morocco, Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, and Oman. The revolution in Egypt caught the world’s
attention as tens of thousands of young people faced off against the police and soldiers
defending the repressive regime of Hosni Mubarak, who had been Egypt’s president for almost
thirty years. The protestors hurled rocks and paving stones against tear gas and bullets,
eventually toppling the Mubarak government and creating an opening for a dramatic shift
in the power structure of Egypt. The example of Egypt cuts across many of the
themes of this chapter: the uses of power, forms of political organization in this case
the state, legal systems, the culture of power, nationalism, and even the impact of globalization.
First, what is the political? Politics has to do with the management of
power relations within and between groups or societies.
Political organization is that aspect of social organization that involves regulation or management
of interrelations among groups and their representatives Drawing on the classification anthropologist
Elman Service, most introductory anthropology textbooks identify four types of political
organization of increasing scale and complexity. These are Bands, Tribes, Chiefdoms, and States.
Bands are small kin-based groups found among foragers. Tribes are larger that bands and usually have
economies based on non-intensive food production. Bands and tribes tend to be relatively egalitarian. Chiefdoms are larger and somewhat centralized.
A chief is a formal leader who becomes a key political figure with higher rank that allows
him to favor his kin and supporters with material and social benefits. States are large, highly centralized, hierarchical
political systems with formal government structure and socioeconomic stratification. This table summarizes these four forms of
political organization noting differences in population, leadership, centralization,
and hierarchy between bands, tribes, chiefdoms and states. You might pause for a moment to
review it. Let’s look briefly at each of these four forms
of political organization. Bands are the earliest form of human political
structure. They have survived until the modern period only in regions of the world with limited
natural resources. Simple bands had a family head based on influence, while composite bands
had Big Man leadership based on influence. Big Men are informal political leaders who
gain influence through skill, persuasiveness, and generosity.
Conflicts within bands are minimal and are solved informally. Groups are often so small
that the entire group will sit and hash out a problem until consensus is reached.
Bands are integrated by kinship and marriage rather than politics.
Political life is embedded within the wider social structure, particularly kinship.
Leadership roles in band societies are informal. That means that leaders are not appointed
or elected. They arise situationally by convincing others that they need to be listened to. Often,
everyone has a chance to he heard. Not all bands had big men, but when there
were big men, they did not hold a formal political office. Rather
they led through influence, convincing people they should act as he suggested. Big Men did NOT have authority, the recognized
right of an individual to command another to act in a particular way.
The word Tribe is problematic, because it is sometimes used to refer to primitive groups.
In anthropology, it refers to a form of political organization usually based on kinship. Tribes
are larger than bands and often dispersed spatially. Tribes usually recruit members through kinship,
descent or marriage and may number anywhere from 1,000 to 20,000 members. They usually lack formal leadership positions.
Instead elders, family heads, and dynamic individuals assume leadership based on inheritance
or achievement. Group cohesion is often maintained though
the kinship or descent system, marriage alliances between groups, or sodalities. Sodalities
are non-kin groups such as age grades, initiatory associations, or secret societies that bridge
kin-based or descent groups. Like foragers, tribes are egalitarian: They do, however often have marked gender
inequality. Status in tribes is based on age, gender,
and personal traits and abilities Horticulturalists are often egalitarian and
tend to live in small villages with low population density
In tribal political systems, the main leaders are village heads, big men, descent-group
leaders, village councils, and leaders of pan-tribal associations. They lead through persuasion and by example,
not through coercion and often have quite limited authority. As Marshall Sahlins had written of the elder
in “tribal societies”: “One word from him and everyone does as he pleases.” Among the Kapauku, of New Guinea, the big
man is the only political figure beyond the household
His position is achieved through generosity, eloquence, bravery, physical fitness, and
supernatural powers His decisions are binding among his loyal
followers He also serves as an important regulator of
regional events Chiefdoms are usually larger that tribes and
have more, centralized leadership, with a hereditary chief, with full formal authority. Chiefdoms may be comprised of several economically
interdependent residence groups, who owe allegiance to the chief. They number from a few thousand up to about
30,000. In chiefdoms, political authority is likely
to reside with a single individual, acting alone or in conjunction with an advisory council. Chiefdoms are often composed of local communities
that differ from one another in rank and status the chief’s village or town is likely to rank
higher than others, especially if they have been subdued by force. Chiefships are hereditary, and the chief and
immediate kin form a social and political elite. Chiefs are formal political and economic leaders.
This means that they occupy formal offices that outlast individual chiefs.
These offices must be refilled when vacated, usually by death or dismissal. Often these
offices are hereditary. Offices ensure sociopolitical organization
intended to endure across generations Chiefs play an important role in the production,
distribution, and consumption of resources. Subjects may work in the chiefly fields that
provide for the chief and his supporters. Other goods may be centralized through tribute
and then redistributed to the chief’s retinue, through feasts (in honor of the chief), or
in times of need. Kinship and descent play an important role
in defining social status in chiefdoms. All people in chiefdom are believed to have
descended from group of common ancestors The closer the chief is related to founding
ancestors, the greater his prestige To justify his status, the chief must demonstrate
his seniority of descent In chiefdoms and also states, status systems
are based on differential access to wealth and resources. This means we see the emergence of inequality
or stratification based on differential allocation of rights and duties States are characterized by much clearer class
divisions than chiefdoms Social stratification, that is, the uneven
distribution of resources and privileges in a group or social system, is a key distinguishing
feature of states. States of large-scale political systems usually
numbering from tens of thousands to millions. States have centralized leadership with formal
full authority, supported by a bureaucracy. A bureaucracy is composed of a large group
people who are involved in running a government. States are also highly complex political units.
Anthropologist Robert Carneiro defined the state as an autonomous political unit encompassing
many communities within its territory, having a centralized government with the power to
collect taxes, draft men for work or war, and decree and enforce laws’
Here’s a simpler anthropological definition of a state: A hierarchical, centralized political
entity with a legal monopoly on the use of force.
State systems, particularly modern nation-states, are the most formal and complex form of political
organization. The authority of the state rests on two important
foundations: The state claims exclusive right to use force
and physical coercion. The state maintains authority by means of
ideology. Subtitles by the Amara.org community

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