Home 603Seminar in the Anthropology of Power


Week 2 Vincent, Focault, Marx

Week 3 Vincent II

Week 4 Kertzer-Anderson

Week 4 Essay 1

Week 5 Kertzer

Week 6 Anderson

Week 7 Scott

Week 8 Vincent III

Week 9 Said

Week 10 Crehan

Week 10 Essay 2

Week 11 Vincent IV

Week 12 Vincent IVb

Week 14 Swartz

Week 14 Mohanty Analytic Summary

Resource Links

Victoria Kline
Anthropology 583: Politics and Power
Instr: Dr. Ramona Pérez
September 15, 2005

Week 3: The Anthropology of Politics: Part II – Classics and Classics Revisited

Ch 1 Nuer Politics: Structure and System (1940) a classic by E. E. Evans-Pritchard
The Nuer, according to Evans-Pritchard are hostile and war-like, and more war-like towards groups that are most like themselves in culture (language, dress, customs etc.). They show the hostility towards those that they can count on as to how they will respond. Evans-Pritchard says the “Nuer make war against a people who have a culture like their own rather than among themselves or against peoples with cultures very different from their own” (Vincent 2002: 35). 

Evans-Pritchard goes into detail describing the political organization of Nuer tribes, which are split into segments. There are primary, secondary, and tertiary segments that branch from the main tribe. The way these segments unite when there is inter-segment conflict is explained. “Fission and fusion in political groups are two aspects of the same segmentary principle” (Vincent 2002: 38). There are reasons and rules for how the segments will unite against another group or break off to join with another segment. An egalitarian and acephalous kinship state is how Evans-Pritchard names the Nuer political structure.

Evans-Pritchard was from the English structural functionalist school. He studied under Radcliffe-Brown, one who was particularly influential in formulating the theory of structural functionalism. Structural functionalists concentrated on analysis of political and economic systems of primitive societies through the understanding of their kinship and lineage systems.

They “sought to understand how cultural institutions maintained the equilibrium and cohesion of a society” (McGee and Warms 2000:158). Back when Evans-Pritchard did his studies, the “field” was always one of small, primitive, exotic (non-Western) peoples as the acceptable culture group for academic studies in anthropology. Evans-Pritchard is able to make a chart of the political system of the Nuer that is based on relations with others and who needs to unite against whom (Vincent 2002:36-37).

We viewed a video the week before this reading, which was about the life and work of Evans-Prichard. The Englishman lived among several primitive tribes in Africa, adding up to many months for length of study not including the weeks of travel it used to take to arrive at a remote and primitive study site.

Ch 2 Nuer Ethnicity Militarized revisit of a classic by Sharon Elaine Hutchinson
Years later Hutchinson does ethnography within the same boundaries that Evan-Pritchard had done his studies within the boundaries of Nuer and Dinka of the southern Sudan. The changes in the welfare of the people are huge. There is movement by the government to take over oil fields within the territory of Nuer and Dinka rival ethnic groups. Those tribes unite together against the government, break away, and re-unite again. They fight with each other then re-unite against government forces. Women and children are killed. The government, according to Hutchinson, essentially incites the Nuer and Dinka to fight against each other as it is in the government’s best interest for them to kill each other off. The government makes a peace agreement that is weak on the side of these two ethnic groups.

As was mentioned in the earlier reading by EE Evans-Pritchard, the two groups are really closely related in culture. Fighting between them has gone on for many years. The Dinka tend great herds of cattle, and the Nuer come and raid them. The justification for this is in their origin mythology which says that when God made the two groups, he gave them each some cattle, but the Dinka went to God pretending to be Nuer and took their cattle from God, thus duping God. Accordingly, God told the Nuer to raid the Dinka to gain back their stolen cattle until the end of time. The unrest and antagonism of the area is great compared with that time when Evans-Pritchard did his fieldwork.

Ch 3 “The Bridge”: Analysis of a Social Situation in Zululand a classic by Max Gluckman
Anthropologist Max Gluckman writes about the opening of a bridge in Zululand, built by Zulu labor. Through the story you get the tensions between Zulu groups, and the divisions and “place” of different ethnic groups. How do the Zulu’s, original inhabitants of the land, defer to Europeans that now seem to be taking over their lands? Zulu chieftains seem to keep their people in order in deference to whites in a series of symbolic gestures that comprises the order of social etiquette, properness, reasonableness, and modern-ness. The scene is one of orderliness mixed with wild primitiveness. Gluckman is in the thick of it, engaging in whatever social niceties that are necessary. He is a proper gentleman. Everything he does is so orderly. Gluckman wrote a narrative of what he observed happening between individuals and between groups on this particular day, at this particular event, and included himself as participant.

Ch 4 “The Bridge” Revisited by Ronald Frankenberg
Frankenberg studies the above essay by Max Gluckman to find some of the author’s other views that are embedded in the text. Concern with social process: who did what, when, and where, and how they went about separating, reuniting, and who talked to whom, who sat where, who stood or sat where. In other words, Frankenberg says Gluckman relayed to his reading audience, the social because he is a sociologist (Vincent 2000: 60). How is this political?

Ch 5 Market Model, Class Structure and Consent: A Reconsideration of Swat Political Organization revisit of a classic of Frederick Barth’s by Talal Asad
This article is a good example of what we should be doing with our reviews of our chosen optional books. If readers had this thorough of book reviews to rely on our discussions should be able to cover all that is contained in each book, without having to read the whole book.
Swat is an area in Northern Pakistan that was written about by Fredrick Barth. Asad regards Barth’s volume as one of the great monographs of political anthropology. He divides his discussion into five parts: a reconstruction of Barth’s model of Swat political organization; a comparison between Barth’s model and that of Hobbes; two sections that criticize Barth’s model, and finally reconsideration and conclusions about Barth’s model. There is the map for the reader.

For some length Asad writes about Barth’s theory of the Swat. Barth’s model of Swat society is that of a ranked order that men can freely choose to locate themselves within, depending on whom they choose loyalty to, and for what length of time. There are two highest-ranking castes: Pakhtuns and Saints. Pakhtuns are landowners and are able to accumulate wealth; Saints are holymen and are restricted from ownership of anything. Each of these groups must be able to create a following to maintain their positions in society. Most property is owned by Pakhtuns, and they comprise from 10 to 20 percent of the population (depending on location). Also, only a small portion of Pakhtuns own most of the land. Pakhtuns lure workers and loyal followers by the offer of land for crops (share cropping) and by keeping a men’s house where individuals come for food and gifts. In this way Pakhtuns maintain their status in society.

Saints have no worldly possessions, maintaining their status in society as that of a sacred order, through sacred bloodline. Here is this idea of those that have access to the deep structure of their society being those that have relinquished ties to the material as in the essay by Victor Turner (Chapter 8, this volume).

This article was written in a style that I appreciate, being well formed and organized. I could spend much more time with it. Good writing.

Question: To me, if there are castes there is hierarchy. In a hierarchy there has to be a head or heads maybe. How can Swat be a headless society? Do not the Pakhtuns and Saints form the head?

Ch 6 The Troubles of Ranhamy Ge Punchirala a classic by E. R. Leach
Leach lives near this man Punchirala when doing culture study in Pul Eliya. The geneology of Punchirala is questionable, but his acrimonious personality seems to do more to keep him from his desired position within the community than his geneology. This could be argued from both sides. His father was accepted as a sub-caste community member even though he really was not (according to his bloodline). But the people liked him and were willing to make exceptions for him to belong. The son does not have his father’s good will and charm (or whatever he had that allowed his acceptance). Punchirala believes he is entitled to position through geneology, but the other people of the village are contesting his claim to entitlement. This article was difficult to read. It was dense for needing to remember all the people and the way they were or were not related and who married whom. The geneology or kinship chart was a definite help in understanding the author’s observations and points.

Leach fits into the anthropological theory scheme as a British structural anthropologist.

Ch 7 Stratagems and Spoils by F. G. Bailey
Bailey compares the underlying politics of the Mafia to those of the Swat Pathans written about by Fredrik Barth (see chapter 5, this volume). Bailey likens politics to a competition like a game. There are rules to follow within a game. The players agree to these rules. To play and win, Bailey moves to an example of a political candidate that wished to learn the rules of the game so he could win a seat in Parliament. The rules, it seemed, went against his own set of behavioral morals and there was conflict as to what course of action to take. Clearly, those rules of politics that were misleading in message were acceptable for some candidates as they allowed the candidate to win. If what was important was the position, bending moral rules was OK. If individual morals did not allow the candidate to play in the deceptive way, then the candidate would probably loose. What kind of game is that? It is probably true but we delude ourselves into thinking that candidates tell the truth don’t we?

In this case, the candidate decided to take his chances and not be intentionally deceptive at the risk of loosing the seat to someone else (who was probably playing the game better!).

Ch 8 Passages, Margins, and Poverty: Religious Symbols of Communitas by Victor W. Turner
Turner explains three aspects of culture that he believes to be loaded with symbolism: “liminality, outsiderhood, and structural inferiority” (96). The first, liminality, has three phases of its own: separation, the between period, and acceptance back into society. Liminality includes those rites of passage where one is detached from the group, goes into an intermediary state where one is not part of the group but is not completely separate either, and finally reunites wholly with the group. Liminality can also include that in between state where an individual may be in the process of being ousted from a group as in excommunication from the church.

Outsiderhood can be understood in terms of “being either permanently and by ascription set outside the structural arrangements of a given social system” (Vincent 2002: 97).  From this group comes individuals who are set apart from the group either voluntarily or through assignment: shaman, priests, seers, mediums, and (Turner adds) gypsies, hippies, and hoboes. Turner says that these are not to be confused with “marginals” who are people that do not belong to one group but reside somewhere between two or more groups with conflicting ideals (97). He says that many people of the creative bent often live in this marginal state.

Structural inferiority has to do with religious symbolism and how the “throw away” people are represented within a society as representative of humanity. An example Turner gives is of a conquered people relegated to the lower rungs of the new society dominated by the conquerors (98). They are the structurally inferior to those newly in power. There is the recognition of the religious power of the indigenes but that is considered a weak power (“power of the weak”). The new regime of power is that of law and order controlled by the conquerors, and that is where there is structural superiority.

Turner goes into a discussion about groups of people that emulate the poor, and it is for self-purification that this is done, as the poor are given special status among societies. Linked to this are vows of giving up materialism by religious leaders. Religious leaders are more pure by not being befouled by material possessions, and therefore have a right to lead and represent other men because of their selflessness. “…Simpler societies seem to feel that only a person temporarily without status, property, or office is fit to receive the tribal gnosis or occult wisdom which is in effect knowledge of what tribespeople regard as the deep structure of culture and indeed of the universe” (98).

Question: Turner is concerned with religious symbolism. The next chapter (9) separates the study of religion from the study of politics through definition. Are religion and politics to be thought of only as intertwined in study? Can they be separated? I am all for separation, but does that allow me to separate where there is no separation?

Question: Is Turner saying that one of the ways that supposedly weaker members of society are actually powerful is by remaining outside of the structure or refusing to recognize the political structural element of the society in essence keeping themselves in a free and therefore more powerful state?

Ch 9 Political Anthropology by Marc J. Swartz, Victor W. Turner, and Arthur Tuden
An introduction to a volume on political anthropology, Swartz, Turner, and Tuden define political anthropology. I was so glad that they did this. The purpose of the volume was to denote change over time in the arena of political anthropology. They noted that from the early 1940s with Evans-Pritchard and others’ focus on structure and function of political systems, there was a change through the 1950s and 1960s to looking for change within systems or the study of political processes. Political anthropologists began concerning themselves with dynamic change rather than static structure.

Their definition of political anthropology stated that there must be three characteristics for a study to be within the realm of political anthropology: it must be concerned with public goals, and to sway the different forces involved must be different levels of power within the group(s). They point out that this definition could apply to something that would be categorized as religious, but the difference will be in the processes at work in the set up of a religious as opposed to a political interaction.

“The study of politics, then, is the study of the processes involved in determining and implementing public goals and in the differential achievement and use of power by the members of the group concerned with those goals” (Vincent 2002: 107).

Question: Are there any missing points in their definition of political anthropology? One contradiction I see is that politics involves that which affects the group, but so often politics is used for the promotion or betterment of the individual. So this is an ideal definition?

Ch 10 New Proposals for Anthropologists by Kathleen Gough
Gough is concerned with helping people in other parts of the world where superpowers have taken control of resources and affected the essence of their lives. They are no longer free. She has statistical facts to back up her claims. Countries are named that are under western control, countries are named as to economic status levels of the people and so forth to compare and contrast the effects of imperialism on the world’s people. She says that communism got a bad name in America. There are problems with the study of communist political systems because of blocking access of information. And that these countries need to be studied, there must be a way to do it through scholarly discourses, information needs to flow both ways.

Ch 11 National Liberation by Eric R. Wolf
Also an introduction to a volume on political anthropology of the radical Marxist kind, which is a call to action for anthropologists to he humanists first, to acknowledge the suffering in the world and move forth towards making the world more egalitarian, more socialist, more fair.

Question: think of the place that you work now. How organized and productive would that place be if the workers were left to their own devices? One is reminded of chaos theory and how things eventually break down without a concerted effort towards the maintenance of structure.



McGee, R. Jon, and Richard L. Warms
2000    Anthropological Theory: An Introductory History, Second Edition. Mountain View, California: Mayfield Publishing Company.

Vincent, Joan ed.
2002    The Anthropology of Politics: A Reader in Ethnography, Theory, and Critique. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing.

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last updated on October 9, 2010