Skip to ContentGo to accessibility pageKeyboard shortcuts menu
OpenStax Logo
Introduction to Anthropology

8.1 Colonialism and the Categorization of Political Systems

Introduction to Anthropology8.1 Colonialism and the Categorization of Political Systems

Menu
Table of contents
  1. Preface
  2. 1 What Is Anthropology?
    1. Introduction
    2. 1.1 The Study of Humanity, or "Anthropology Is Vast"
    3. 1.2 The Four-Field Approach: Four Approaches within the Guiding Narrative
    4. 1.3 Overcoming Ethnocentrism
    5. 1.4 Western Bias in Our Assumptions about Humanity
    6. 1.5 Holism, Anthropology’s Distinctive Approach
    7. 1.6 Cross-Cultural Comparison and Cultural Relativism
    8. 1.7 Reaching for an Insider’s Point of View
    9. Key Terms
    10. Summary
    11. Critical Thinking Questions
    12. Bibliography
  3. 2 Methods: Cultural and Archaeological
    1. Introduction
    2. 2.1 Archaeological Research Methods
    3. 2.2 Conservation and Naturalism
    4. 2.3 Ethnography and Ethnology
    5. 2.4 Participant Observation and Interviewing
    6. 2.5 Quantitative and Qualitative Analysis
    7. 2.6 Collections
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. Critical Thinking Questions
    11. Bibliography
  4. 3 Culture Concept Theory: Theories of Cultural Change
    1. Introduction
    2. 3.1 The Homeyness of Culture
    3. 3.2 The Winkiness of Culture
    4. 3.3 The Elements of Culture
    5. 3.4 The Aggregates of Culture
    6. 3.5 Modes of Cultural Analysis
    7. 3.6 The Paradoxes of Culture
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. Critical Thinking Questions
    11. Bibliography
  5. 4 Biological Evolution and Early Human Evidence
    1. Introduction
    2. 4.1 What Is Biological Anthropology?
    3. 4.2 What’s in a Name? The Science of Taxonomy
    4. 4.3 It’s All in the Genes! The Foundation of Evolution
    5. 4.4 Evolution in Action: Past and Present
    6. 4.5 What Is a Primate?
    7. 4.6 Origin of and Classification of Primates
    8. 4.7 Our Ancient Past: The Earliest Hominins
    9. Key Terms
    10. Summary
    11. Critical Thinking Questions
    12. Bibliography
  6. 5 The Genus Homo and the Emergence of Us
    1. Introduction
    2. 5.1 Defining the Genus Homo
    3. 5.2 Tools and Brains: Homo habilis, Homo ergaster, and Homo erectus
    4. 5.3 The Emergence of Us: The Archaic Homo
    5. 5.4 Tracking Genomes: Our Human Story Unfolds
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Critical Thinking Questions
    9. Bibliography
  7. 6 Language and Communication
    1. Introduction
    2. 6.1 The Emergence and Development of Language
    3. 6.2 Language and the Mind
    4. 6.3 Language, Community, and Culture
    5. 6.4 Performativity and Ritual
    6. 6.5 Language and Power
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
    10. Bibliography
  8. 7 Work, Life, and Value: Economic Anthropology
    1. Introduction
    2. 7.1 Economies: Two Ways to Study Them
    3. 7.2 Modes of Subsistence
    4. 7.3 Gathering and Hunting
    5. 7.4 Pastoralism
    6. 7.5 Plant Cultivation: Horticulture and Agriculture
    7. 7.6 Exchange, Value, and Consumption
    8. 7.7 Industrialism and Postmodernity
    9. Key Terms
    10. Summary
    11. Critical Thinking Questions
    12. Bibliography
  9. 8 Authority, Decisions, and Power: Political Anthropology
    1. Introduction
    2. 8.1 Colonialism and the Categorization of Political Systems
    3. 8.2 Acephalous Societies: Bands and Tribes
    4. 8.3 Centralized Societies: Chiefdoms and States
    5. 8.4 Modern Nation-States
    6. 8.5 Resistance, Revolution, and Social Movements
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
    10. Bibliography
  10. 9 Social Inequalities
    1. Introduction
    2. 9.1 Theories of Inequity and Inequality
    3. 9.2 Systems of Inequality
    4. 9.3 Intersections of Inequality
    5. 9.4 Studying In: Addressing Inequities within Anthropology
    6. Key Terms
    7. Critical Thinking Questions
    8. Bibliography
  11. 10 The Global Impact of Human Migration
    1. Introduction
    2. 10.1 Peopling of the World
    3. 10.2 Early Global Movements and Cultural Hybridity
    4. 10.3 Peasantry and Urbanization
    5. 10.4 Inequality along the Margins
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Critical Thinking Questions
    9. Bibliography
  12. 11 Forming Family through Kinship
    1. Introduction
    2. 11.1 What Is Kinship?
    3. 11.2 Defining Family and Household
    4. 11.3 Reckoning Kinship across Cultures
    5. 11.4 Marriage and Families across Cultures
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Critical Thinking Questions
    9. Bibliography
  13. 12 Gender and Sexuality
    1. Introduction
    2. 12.1 Sex, Gender, and Sexuality in Anthropology
    3. 12.2 Performing Gender Categories
    4. 12.3 The Power of Gender: Patriarchy and Matriarchy
    5. 12.4 Sexuality and Queer Anthropology
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Critical Thinking Questions
    9. Bibliography
  14. 13 Religion and Culture
    1. Introduction
    2. 13.1 What Is Religion?
    3. 13.2 Symbolic and Sacred Space
    4. 13.3 Myth and Religious Doctrine
    5. 13.4 Rituals of Transition and Conformity
    6. 13.5 Other Forms of Religious Practice
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
    10. Bibliography
  15. 14 Anthropology of Food
    1. Introduction
    2. 14.1 Food as a Material Artifact
    3. 14.2 A Biocultural Approach to Food
    4. 14.3 Food and Cultural Identity
    5. 14.4 The Globalization of Food
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Critical Thinking Questions
    9. Bibliography
  16. 15 Anthropology of Media
    1. Introduction
    2. 15.1 Putting the Mass into Media
    3. 15.2 Putting Culture into Media Studies
    4. 15.3 Visual Anthropology and Ethnographic Film
    5. 15.4 Photography, Representation, and Memory
    6. 15.5 News Media, the Public Sphere, and Nationalism
    7. 15.6 Community, Development, and Broadcast Media
    8. 15.7 Broadcasting Modernity and National Identity
    9. 15.8 Digital Media, New Socialities
    10. Key Terms
    11. Summary
    12. Critical Thinking Questions
    13. Bibliography
  17. 16 Art, Music, and Sport
    1. Introduction
    2. 16.1 Anthropology of the Arts
    3. 16.2 Anthropology of Music
    4. 16.3 An Anthropological View of Sport throughout Time
    5. 16.4 Anthropology, Representation, and Performance
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Critical Thinking Questions
    9. Bibliography
  18. 17 Medical Anthropology
    1. Introduction
    2. 17.1 What Is Medical Anthropology?
    3. 17.2 Ethnomedicine
    4. 17.3 Theories and Methods
    5. 17.4 Applied Medical Anthropology
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Critical Thinking Questions
    9. Bibliography
  19. 18 Human-Animal Relationship
    1. Introduction
    2. 18.1 Humans and Animals
    3. 18.2 Animals and Subsistence
    4. 18.3 Symbolism and Meaning of Animals
    5. 18.4 Pet-Keeping
    6. 18.5 Animal Industries and the Animal Trade
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
    10. Bibliography
  20. 19 Indigenous Anthropology
    1. Introduction
    2. 19.1 Indigenous Peoples
    3. 19.2 Colonization and Anthropology
    4. 19.3 Indigenous Agency and Rights
    5. 19.4 Applied and Public Anthropology and Indigenous Peoples
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Critical Thinking Questions
    9. Bibliography
  21. 20 Anthropology on the Ground
    1. Introduction
    2. 20.1 Our Challenging World Today
    3. 20.2 Why Anthropology Matters
    4. 20.3 What Anthropologists Can Do
    5. Key Terms
    6. Summary
    7. Critical Thinking Questions
    8. Bibliography
  22. Index

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Trace the colonial origins of political anthropology.
  • Identify European misconceptions about non-Western political organization.
  • Discuss the importance of the book African Political Systems.
  • Distinguish between acephalous and centralized political organization.
  • Describe the association between modes of subsistence and political organization.
  • Identify and briefly define Max Weber’s three types of authority.

As discussed in Work, Life, Value: Economic Anthropology, many European countries began developing formal colonial rule over other parts of the world in the late 1800s. Their main motivation was to secure the raw materials they needed to fuel their own growing industrial economies. As they began to establish their own governments in colonized societies, European administrators were highly influenced by ethnocentric stereotypes of non-Western peoples. Typically, they assumed that non-Western societies either were ruled by overbearing tyrants or were chaotic anarchies with no political organization whatsoever.

The establishment of colonial rule provided the administrative context for anthropologists to study non-Western societies in countries under European domination. As cultural anthropologists conducted research in African colonies during the early part of the 20th century, they made the surprising discovery that European assumptions about African political organization were completely misguided. In 1940, British anthropologists Meyer Fortes and E. E. Evans-Pritchard published a particularly important collection of essays written by a variety of anthropologists with ethnographic experience in societies all over Africa. This book, African Political Systems, completely invalidated the idea that Indigenous African politics were either oppressive or chaotic. The eight chapters all demonstrated that African societies were meticulously organized systems with well-defined institutions for political representation and collaborative decision-making.

In their overview of the chapters, Fortes and Evans-Pritchard make a primary distinction between centralized political systems, which feature rulers such as chiefs, and acephalous (meaning “headless”) societies, where power is exerted through families or village meetings rather than formal political office. Africa featured a broad array of both centralized and acephalous forms of political organization, each one an effective means of maintaining social order. In an effort to demonstrate the cohesion and stability of precolonial political forms, Fortes and Evans-Pritchard applied a structural-functionalist perspective to show how the various elements of each society fit together in a durable whole, reproduced through social action over time.

With the resurgence of evolutionary social theory in the 1960s and 1970s, anthropologist Elman Service drew from previous typologies to propose four main forms of social organization, each with its own political system. His four main categories of social organization are band, tribe, chiefdom, and state, and they are linked to the subsistence patterns discussed in Work, Life, Value: Economic Anthropology (Service 1962). Gathering and hunting is associated with bands. Horticulture gives rise to tribal societies. Chiefdoms are developed on the basis of agricultural surplus. And states rely on multiple modes of subsistence as well as military conquest and extensive regional trade, leading to the development of multiethnic territories. Critical of the timeless representations of structural functionalism, neo-evolutionists such as Service were interested in understanding how societies moved from one category to the next in an evolutionary sequence.

Contemporary political anthropologists are much more interested in history than evolution; that is, they emphasize the importance of the past while rejecting the notion that all societies can be classified according to stages in an evolutionary scheme of development from simple to complex. Anthropologists are similarly critical of the structural-functional approach that represents non-Western societies as timeless and unchanging. More often, political anthropologists explore the particular histories of political practices and institutions in the societies they study, emphasizing the equivalent political sophistication and unique historical trajectory of each society.

While based on fieldwork, political anthropology is also informed by models of political structure devised by sociologists. Sociologist Max Weber defined politics as the exercise of power (or at least the attempt to exercise power). Power is the ability to influence people and/or shape social processes and social structures. In many acephalous societies, power is spread widely among members of a society, while in centralized societies, power is concentrated in one or more sociocultural roles. These roles are called positions of authority. Weber defined three types of authority: traditional, charismatic, and rational-legal (Weber 1946). Priests and family elders exercise traditional authority, based on religious expertise or position in family structures. Charismatic authority is power exercised through personal qualities such as skilled oratory, extraordinary abilities, or social charm. Such power is persuasive, meaning it is based on the ability to convince others rather than force them to obey. Rational-legal authority is power that is defined by a legal role in society, such as prime minister or president. Once elected or assigned to a rational-legal position, a person exercises the authority vested in that position. Such power is coercive—that is, based on the legal ability to force people to obey.

In the next two sections, we’ll take a look at the four main types of social organization described by Service, along with the political forms associated with each. The first two, bands and tribes, correspond with the category of acephalous societies noted by Fortes and Evans-Pritchard. The last two, chiefdoms and states, are forms of social organization featuring centralized leadership. Throughout this chapter, we will consider the features of each idealized category, mindful that the diversity of political organization in the world is more of a spectrum than a set of discrete categories. At one end of the spectrum, power is more widely shared among all members of a community, while at the other end, power is more centralized and formalized in bureaucratic institutions. Moreover, while each society is fundamentally structured by a particular model of political organization, most societies feature a variety of forms of authority, representation, and decision-making that intersect and interact with the dominant form—and sometimes contradict and undermine it. While archaeologists often consider how one form of sociopolitical order might develop into another, cultural anthropologists are typically careful to avoid simplistic typologies of cultural evolution.

In this chapter, we’ll take a modified approach between those two positions by detailing the categories of political organization and discussing common paths of social change from one system to another. However, it’s important to emphasize that societies develop not along one single evolutionary path but through complex and often unpredictable processes of historical change.

Do you know how you learn best?
Kinetic by OpenStax offers access to innovative study tools designed to help you maximize your learning potential.
Order a print copy

As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases.

Citation/Attribution

Want to cite, share, or modify this book? This book uses the Creative Commons Attribution License and you must attribute OpenStax.

Attribution information
  • If you are redistributing all or part of this book in a print format, then you must include on every physical page the following attribution:
    Access for free at https://openstax.org/books/introduction-anthropology/pages/1-introduction
  • If you are redistributing all or part of this book in a digital format, then you must include on every digital page view the following attribution:
    Access for free at https://openstax.org/books/introduction-anthropology/pages/1-introduction
Citation information

© Jun 13, 2022 OpenStax. Textbook content produced by OpenStax is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License . The OpenStax name, OpenStax logo, OpenStax book covers, OpenStax CNX name, and OpenStax CNX logo are not subject to the Creative Commons license and may not be reproduced without the prior and express written consent of Rice University.