Chapter 15: Politics, Power, and Violence


This chapter covers topics in political and legal anthropology. Political anthropology is a subfield of cultural anthropology that addresses the study of politics, political organization and leadership. Legal anthropology is a subfield that addresses social order and conflict resolution.


Politics is really about power. Power is the ability to bring about results. Authority is the right to take certain actions and is based on a person’s status or reputation. Power is different than authority because it is backed up by the potential use of force. Power implies the greatest likelihood of coercive and hierarchical relationships while authority offers the best chance for consensual and cooperative action. What this discussion of power and authority is really about is legitimacy, the right of leaders to govern, or to hold and use power. Where legitimacy is weak, power backed by force grows. A legitimate ruler automatically has authority.


Political organization is the way power is distributed in society and the means by which a society creates and maintains order internally and externally. There are four major types of political organization that are associated with the different modes of production and they range from the minimal forms of foragers to the complex forms of industrial societies. They are organized into two categories, uncentralized and centralized systems.  All larger states require intricate, centralized structures with stratification. Government is a system of administering a political organization in a complex state.


In bands and tribes, marriage and kinship form the primary means of social organization and because of their small size, there is no great need for political organization. Uncentralized systems are found among subsistence economies (foragers, horticulturalists and pastoralists). Their leaders don’t have the power to compel people to obey laws and they use informal sanctions such as scorn or gossip for social control. Important decisions are made by a consensus of adults (egalitarian), thus, power is uncentralized and rests with all adults. Uncentralized systems provide greater flexibility. Small bands or tribes usually are flexible and base their political systems around achievement.

Band: A small group of related households that is usually found among nomadic foragers. Bands consist of nuclear or extended family groups that occupy a common territory. They are the oldest form of political organization; most of human history has been lived in bands. They are egalitarian and have little conflict. They control members through informal controls like shame. Leaders serve based on their abilities, are impermanent and can’t force anyone to do anything.

Tribe: Separate bands or villages integrated by factors such as clans, age grades or common interests, which cut across kinship or territory boundaries. They usually have an economy based on horticulture or pastoralism and a larger population than a band. Political organization is more formal than bands and there are often recognized leaders (headman or woman) but they still can’t force anyone to do anything. In many tribes, the organizing unit and the seat of authority is the clan, a group of people who share a common ancestry.


Because chiefdoms and states have large, heterogeneous populations, vast territories, specialization of labor, a surplus of goods and extensive trade, some individual’s or group’s ability to exercise control increases. Political authority and power are centralized in a single individual or body of them: The state, the chiefdom, the president or the chief. In larger systems, individuals are often strangers to one another so kinship is not an organizing principle.

Chiefdom: A regional political unit where two or more groups are organized under a single ruler, a chief, who is the head of a stratified group of people. A person’s status is determined by their closeness to the chief. There is a recognized hierarchy of administrators who help rule the chiefdom. The chief has the power to coerce people and rules over society. There are clear criteria for becoming a chief and the basic element is ascription (being born into a chiefly family). Power is more important than influence or authority in compelling behavior.

State: The largest and most formal of political organizations, whose political power is centralized in a government that legitimately uses force to regulate its citizens and relations with other states. Institutions of the state provide the means through which these diverse groups can function together. All people now live in states. States have much greater power to force people to act than any other political organization. In most state systems, achievement is more important than ascription. States and nations are not the same. A nation can be thought of as the people who share an ethnicity. It is rare for state and nation to coincide. Additionally, about three quarters of the world’s states are pluralistic, having two or more ethnic groups.


There are numerous ways to maintain peace and order, ranging from internal to external controls.


Because laws are typically created and enforced by formal systems in centralized political organizations, they have the implied threat of power behind them. Most people obey these laws and are unwilling to challenge a government who creates or enforces a law they disagree with. This allows for the maintenance of social inequalities and imbalances in status through the maintenance of the legal system. For a long time, both the U.S. and South Africa had racial discrimination enshrined in law or lacked any laws expressly prohibiting discrimination. Maintaining the status quo through the law is an often-unquestioned way of life.


All cultures have means of resolving conflicts. These means can take different forms.


All social systems will have some level of conflict or violence and systems of social control must be prepared to handle these problems when they arise. Conflict can occur at any level, from the private, interpersonal fight to the public realm of warfare.


Emerging Nations and Transnationalism

There are a number of newly formed or emerging states that are trying to build a sense of shared culture and identity. The former Yugoslavia has broken into six new states that have many citizens whose ethnic ties are bound to regions that are now in the other five states. How is a new state to deal with the continuance of old cultural ties? This often leads to people leaving their state to return to their birth region, where they are often unwanted, or seeking out better lives in other states around the world (migration). Sometimes, transnationalism develops, which is a sense of belonging to more than one nation.

Democratization occurs when an authoritarian regime transforms into a democratic one. This process is often difficult, but usually entails the end of torture and censorship, liberation of political prisoners and tolerance of opposition groups. We can think of this process as existing on a continuum, where in some cases, only slight easing of repression occurs whereas in others, the authoritarian regime ends and free elections are held. Because so many formerly authoritarian states were socialist or communist regimes, the process can be especially difficult as much of the means of economic production are turned over to the private sector.

Women in Politics

Only a small rise in the participation of women at the upper levels of leadership has occurred, and they have not really drawn attention to women’s issues. In no country do women have political status equal to men in that country.


In a state society, smaller nations are often dominated by powerful ones. Likewise, in any stratified society, those with little power are at risk of domination by those with great power.