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Political Anthropology

  Political anthropology investigates how politics forms a part of social life. It is not exclusively about the study of political structures, processes and representations of formal organizations in the way familiar with in the West, but also extends into considering how power is distributed and relegated in societies that do not appear to be run by formal political organizations.

The earliest contributions to the subject were made by Meyer Fortes and Edward Evans-Pritchard in 1940. Basing their studies on African societies, they suggested three types of political systems. The first was one in which the political structures and kinship organization were fused in such a manner that the kinship system functioned as the major way of disseminating power. This was shown, for example, among the Mbuti pygmies of Congo. Although Pygmies themselves did not regard kinship as performing a political function, authority was dispersed through a grouping of about two hundred people in which there are no acknowledged leaders.

The second type of political system was considered as one determined by lineage frameworks. Lineage defines those people who trace themselves back to a known common ancestor. This system was evident, for example, among the Nuer people of Sudan where lineages were seen to divide and reunite because there was no fixed political identity, but instead one was continually re-created in response to the nature of the opposition.

The third political system was described as one of state societies in which there was an organized political structure with a recognized leader, for example, the Ashanti kingdom in Ghana.

In 1950, Max Gluckman concentrated on aspects of order and rebellion amongst African political systems. He saw rebellion as a process that constantly affected political relations. Rituals were considered as the main means of expressing such conflicts, but ultimately they acted to affirm the unity of the society. Later anthropologists criticized such models of political systems for being static. They seemed to depend more on the anthropologists\' presumed theories rather than attempting to account for the actual forms and dynamics of political organizations.

In 1954, Edmund Leach developed these concerns to produce his work on the political systems of Highland Burma. He showed the relative instability of social and political organizations by describing historical alternations between a ‘democratic’ organization called gambo, and an ‘aristocratic’ type called shan. Politics was primarily about competition and confrontation of interests. Therefore, consideration of the contradictions, tensions, and movements both within and outside the society needed to be considered.

Other perspectives have concentrated on the way political hierarchies depend on sacred or religious ideas. In 1960, John Beattie elaborated upon the concept of mahano among the Bunyoro people in East Africa. Mahano was believed to be a force present in persons, things and events out of the ordinary. The king and his senior chiefs were held to have a lot of mahano which acted to confirm their political authority in Bunyoro society.

Since the 1960s anthropologists in a Marxist vein (see Marxist anthropology) have suggested that the sacralization of political structures acts to support the interests of a dominant group. They see political structures as dependent upon who has control over economic resources and human labour. This may be between classes, generations, different kin groups or between men and women. From these premises, political discussion has extended into the historical and contemporary relationships between those countries with a history of colonial domination and the countries they formerly ruled, notably in Asia and Africa. RK

See also nationalism; power; social conflict.Further reading John Beattie, Bunyoro, an African Kingdom; , Meyer Fortes & , Edward Evans-Pritchard, African Political Systems; , Edmund Leach, The Political Systems of Highland Burma.



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