Political anthropology is the study of the social and political aspects of a society and their connections. It is concerned among other issues with the question of power and its origin and role in a society. It also looks at the relationship between individuals within the society and the distribution of power, looking at the ways in which individuals obtain power and the type and extent of the control those holding power have over the society.
The questions examined in political anthropology include the role of authority and leadership, the role of bureaucracy in complex societies, colonisation, the post-colonial situation and a comparison of legal systems. The question of where power comes from remains a theme in political anthropology and involves a study of the power arising from social institutions such as religious and kinship structures, economic institutions and the political system.
Origins of political anthropology
One could say that political anthropology began as far back as the 1830s with writers such as Alexis de Tocqueville and his analysis of democracy in America. His work arose from an empirical study of conditions in America, conducted primarily so as to examine the prison system. However the Tocqueville study broadened to encompass the whole of American society at that time and the question of why a representative republic arose in the United States when it had failed to become established in most European countries.
Many of his insights relate to how the nature of the society enabled the political system to work. For example he looked at the frequency of formation of associations among citizens and decision-making by assemblies of people in the towns. He also noted the role of the press in enabling communal activity and noted the benefits of the separation of religion and government, favourably contrasting the latter with the situation in France. In addition he analysed threats to American society such as the dangerously negative implications of continuing the use of slavery and the threat of a tyranny of the majority.
Development of political anthropology
Political anthropology in the late nineteenth and the first part of the twentieth century focused on what might be described as stateless societies in non-industrialised parts of the world. Africa was an early focus of attention with empirical studies conducted in the 1940s and 1950s. However as political anthropology developed over time the studies of local societies were put in the context of the existence of the State and bureaucracies.
The Manchester school founded by Max Gluckman studied migration to cities in Central and South Africa and focused on themes such as conflict and resolution in local societies, social justice and the tensions arising between individual agents and the structures of society.
By the 1970s, the study of political anthropology was becoming more political and included the study of industrialised countries in Europe, placing local phenomena in the context of the wider political structure of the State. Studies of non-industrialised countries looked at the implications of ethnicity and the role of nationalism.
Modern political anthropology
More recent political anthropology has a number of different branches, one significant branch being development anthropology which includes a study of the activities of governments, non-governmental organisations and corporations. The study includes an analysis of the interaction between international agencies such as the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund with the local culture in societies where they become involved.
James Scott studied cultural responses to political power, observing that although phenomena such as peasant revolts are relatively unusual and ineffective, there are everyday forms of resistance such as slander, pilfering and sabotage or ways of speaking (or even singing, such as the African American spirituals). These “weapons of the weak” have been overlooked or underestimated in traditional studies.
Feminist anthropology has played a part in political anthropology by proposing counter arguments to theories that have marginalised the role of women. The feminist anthropologists have also analysed the effects of globalisation on men and on women and have highlighted the differences in the way globalisation has played out for the role of women.
Current broad topics studied in political anthropology include post-colonialism, post-communism, globalisation and multiculturalism.
In Search of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America www.tocqueville.org
Britannica Online Encyclopaedia www.britannica.com
University of Manchester www.socialsciences.manchester.ac.uk