Cultural Anthropology/Social Institutions/Political Org

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Political Systems

Photo of protesters in Cairo showing solidarity with protesters in Wisconsin.
A protester in Cairo's Tahrir Square show unity with protesters in Wisconsin.

Key Terms & Concepts

  • Political system/Political organization
  • Power
  • Authority
  • Types of political organization: band, tribe, chiefdom, state
  • Egalitarian
  • Status
  • Ascribed status
  • Achieved status
  • Big man
  • Pantribal sodality
  • Differential access
  • Hegemony

Political Systems

Human groups have developed ways in which public decision-making, leadership, maintenance of social cohesion and order, protection of group rights, and safety from external threats are handled. Anthropologists identify these as political systems or political organizations. In studying political systems, anthropologists have learned about the myriad ways that people acquire power, or the ability to get others to do what one wants, and authority, or socially acceptable ways in which to wield power. While political anthropologists and political scientists share an interest in political systems, political anthropologists are interested in the political systems from all different types of societies while political scientists focus on contemporary nation-states.

Political Organization

Anthropologists use a typological system when discussing political organization. Introduced by Marshall Sahlins and Elman Service in 1960, the system uses “…types of leadership, societal integration and cohesion, decision-making mechanisms, and degree of control over people” (Bonvillain 2010: 303) to categorize a group’s political organization. Service identified four types of political organizations: bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and states that are closely related to subsistence strategies. As with any typological system, these types are ideals and there is variation within groups. Political organization can be thought of as a continuum with groups falling in between the ideals. It is important to note that today the various types of political organizations operate within the modern nation-state system.


A band is a “…small, loosely organized [group] of people held together by informal means” (Gezen and Kottak 2014: 303). Its political organization is concerned with meeting basic needs for survival. Decision-making and leadership are focused on how best to meet those needs. Membership can be fluid. Power can be situational with leadership based on the skills and personality of an individual. Leaders do not have the power to enforce their will on the group; all members of the group, generally adults, contribute to the decision-making process. Because of this group decision-making process and the fact that everyone has access to the resources needed to survive, bands are egalitarian. Just like other members of the band, leaders are expected to contribute to the economic resources of the group. Authority is relegated within families, but due to the egalitarian nature of bands, even within families authority may not be strong.

In general, bands have a small number of people who are kin or loyal to the leader. Subsistence is based on foraging, thus bands need a fair amount of land from which to gather, hunt, and fish, which also contributes to the small size of bands as the group does not want to surpass the carrying capacity of their territory. Bands may be fairly mobile as they seasonally follow food sources. They may have semi-permanent settlements that are reused at specific times of the year. The concept of private property is generally absent, although if it is present, it is weak. This means that land is not owned, but can be used communally. Social stratification is absent or based on skills and age.

Bands in the modern world are relegated to marginal environments such as the arctic, deserts, and dense forests. Examples include the Mbuti and Ju’/hoansi in Africa, the Netsilik and Inuit in Canada, the Lapp of Scandinavia, the Tiwi in Australia, and the Ainu in Japan.

Ainu bear sacrifice.

The Ainu, meaning “human,” are traditional foraging peoples of the Far East. There are three major groups named after the islands on which they live, the Hokkaidō, the Sakhalin, and the Kurlie. Hokkaidō Island currently is part of Japan, while Sakhalin and Kurlie islands are part of Russia.

There was some variability in the settlement pattern of the three Ainu groups up until the 20th century when interaction with modern nation-states greatly changed their cultures. The Sakhalin and Kurlie were fairly mobile with the former settling near the coast during the summer and inland during winter. The Kurlie moved more frequently. The Hokkaidō resided in permanent settlements along rivers rich in fish. It was in the richest environments along rivers that supported denser populations. Most settlements contained no more than five families.

Fishing, hunting, and gathering provided necessary sustenance. The division of labor fell out along gender lines, with men responsible for fishing both freshwater and marine species and hunting (bear and deer in Hokkaidō and musk deer and reindeer in Sakhalin) and women responsible for gathering plants. Traditional tools such as bow and arrow, set-trap bow, spears, nets, and weirs were used for hunting and fishing. The Hokkaidō used trained hunting dogs (the Sakhalin used sled dogs as well). Aconite, a poisonous plant from the buttercup family commonly called wolfsbane or monkshood, and stingray poison was employed to ensure wounded animals would collapse within a short distance.

There is some variation in kinship among the Ainu, but generally, they are patrilineal with the nuclear family as the basic social unit. Polygyny is acceptable among prominent males. Cousins from an individual’s mother’s side are prohibited from marrying. Sociopolitical power is held by males and has a strong religious component. Political organization is within settlements; however, some smaller settlements may align themselves with larger settlements nearby. Elders are involved in the decision-making process.

Religious beliefs permeate all aspects of Ainu life; from the way food scraps are disposed of to declaration of war have religious overtones. Nature deities reign supreme among the Ainu, with animal deities taking the form of humans when interacting with the Ainu people. The bear, representing the supreme deity in disguise, is the most sacred figure. The Ainu have many religious ceremonies, but the bear ceremony, which takes two years to complete, is the most important. It is a funeral ritual for a dead bear in which the soul of the bear is sent back to the mountains to be reborn as another bear. This is to ensure that the deities continue to gift the Ainu with fur and meat. The bear ceremony has political overtones, as the political leader is responsible for hosting the ceremony. The ceremony acts as a way for the leader to display their power as they are expected to display their wealth through trade items. Both men and women can be shamans, or religious leaders. In fact, most shamans are women and represents a socially acceptable way for a woman to wield, albeit little, power within Ainu culture.

The Ainu culture has been greatly impacted by contact with both Japanese and Russian governments as control of traditional lands changed hands. The Hokkaidō’s, through influence from the Japanese, were forced to live in smaller territories and to adopt an agricultural lifestyle. In recent years, the Ainu, like indigenous peoples worldwide, struggle against prejudice and discrimination in Japan. The Japanese government did not recognize the Ainu as indigenous people of Japan until 2008. Two times as many Hokkaidō rely on social welfare programs compared to the majority of Japanese population (Irvine 2015), but the Japanese government is now trying to learn more about the challenges that face the Ainu peoples.

Optional: You can learn more about the Ainu by visiting the Ainu museum and NOVA’s “Origins of the Ainu”.


Like bands, tribes’ political organization is focused on meeting basic needs of the group; however, the structure and organization are more formalized because most are reliant on pastoralism or horticulture. This leads to concepts of communal ownership of animals or land. Membership in tribes is usually restricted to descent groups. Tribes generally have more permanent settlements than bands. While still relatively egalitarian, political leaders have more power than the leaders of bands. However, leaders who try to exercise too much power can be deposed through socially structured methods. This helps to prevent over-centralization of power and wealth.

Tribal leaders are reliant on personal skills and charisma to achieve and maintain their power and status. Status refers to the position an individual has within a society. An individual holds multiple statuses that can change over time. Some statuses are ascribed in that they are assigned to us without reference to personal skill, e.g., sex and age. Other statuses are achieved and are based on our skills, choices, and accomplishments. Tribal leaders have a combination of ascribed status and achieved status. Most tribal leaders are male (ascribed status) and eloquent (achieved status). Many tribal leaders are leaders solely of their village. The Yanomami of the Amazon region have a village head with limited authority. The village head, always a male, leads through example and persuasion. He may be called upon to mediate conflict, but lacks the power to enforce his decision. The headman is expected to be more generous and fierce than others in the village. If people within the village do not like how the headman is leading the group, they may leave and create their own village. In Papua New Guinea and the Melanesian Islands, the big man is the political leader. While big men have some similarities to the headman, one difference is that they have regional influence with supporters in multiple villages. Highly charismatic, the big man uses his powers of persuasion to convince others to hold feasts and support him during times of conflict. Another difference is that big men are wealthier than others. In New Guinea, the big man’s wealth resides in the number of pigs that he has; however, the big man was expected to redistribute his wealth in the form of feasts. Pigs were also used to trade for support. Sometimes tribes would band together to form a pantribal sodality, “…a nonkin-based group that exists throughout a tribe…” (Gezen and Kottak 2014: 107). These sodalities span multiple villages and may form during times of warfare with other tribes.

Examples of tribal cultures include the Cheyenne and Blackfeet of North America, the Berbers and Amhara of Africa, the Munda of India, the Hmong of Southeast Asia, and the Basseri of Iran.

The Basseri live in the Fars Province of southwest Iran. They are a pastoral people, raising a variety of animals including donkeys, camels, horses, sheep, and goats. The Basseri share a language and cultural traits with nearby tribes, but consider themselves a distinct cultural group who traditionally fell under the authority of a supreme chief. In the 1950s, the government of Iran wrested power from the traditional chief and invested it in the national army operating in the Fars region. The information that follows relates to pre-1950s Basseri. Anthropological research on the Basseri is notably lacking since the late 1950s.

The Basseri move seasonally, spending the rainy season on mountain flanks and spring in the lower valleys. In summer, the Bessari moved south to live in large, summer camps where they would stay until the rainy season began. If someone lost their herd, they usually left the group to live with local agricultural peoples. If the individual was able to earn enough money to reestablish their herd, they returned to the Basseri. Sheep and goats were the most important herd animals as they provided the people with not only meat and milk, but wool and hides. The Basseri used lambskins, wool, clarified butter, and the occasional livestock to sell so they could buy flour, fruits, vegetables, tea, sugar, and other items they needed. Wealth was not just in their herds, but the wealthier Basseri often had luxury goods such as china, narcotics, jewelry, saddles, etc. Ownership of pastureland belonged to patrilineages. Any member of that patriline had the right to use the pastureland.

The basic social unit was the “tent,” which was basically a nuclear family headed by a man. Each tent was considered an independent political unit responsible for its own production and consumption. Tents belonged to camps consisting of the same descent group. Tent- or camp leaders made joint decisions about herd movement, selection of campsites, etc. Sometimes a camp leader would emerge, generally someone with considerable persuasive power, but consensus was the main form of decision-making. Political authority was vested in a tribal chief who had autocratic authority, or total authority and control, over the Basseri. The chief used gifts to influence camp leaders. When disputes could not be settled within a camp, the chief made the final decision.

The division of labor fell along gender lines. Women and girls were responsible for cooking, baking, and other household duties. They were also responsible for making rugs, packbags, and other items used for packing belongings. Men provided wood and water for the household, and were responsible for the protection of the group. They also represented the household in all social and economic dealings.


Chiefdoms constitute a political organization characterized by social hierarchies and consolidation of political power into fulltime specialists who control production and distribution of resources. Sometimes the prestige of the leader and their family is higher, but not always. The leader, or chief, was a bit like a big man on steroids; they were reliant on their persuasive skills, but had more control over resources. Chiefs were often spiritual leaders, which helped to demonstrate their right to lead. They were responsible for settling disputes among their constituents, but could not always enforce their decisions. Successive leadership usually fell within a family line, something that contributed to the development of a hierarchical society; however, leadership was not guaranteed. Chiefs had to continually demonstrate their ability to lead. Competition for leadership could be fierce. Warfare was frequent, the nature of which changed; economic gain was a primary motive.

All chiefdoms that have been anthropologically identified were based on horticulture or intensive agriculture with one notable exception. In the Pacific Northwest of North America, chiefdoms emerged based on foraging. This was possible because the rich environment was able to produce a surplus. Having a surplus of food in particular allowed leaders to have enough goods to redistribute and accumulate in order to maintain power. Members of the chiefdom were required to hand over part of their harvest to the leader (or chief/king) or their appointed representatives. The chief was expected to redistribute some of this “tax” back to the people through gifting and feasting. Prestige within the chiefdom lay in the amount people were able to give to the chief and in the amount the chief gave back to individuals or families. This differential access, or unequal access to resources, prestige, and power, is a hallmark of a stratified society. In some groups, it was impossible to move out of one social strata and into another.

Membership in the chiefdom was primarily kin-based, but the group could be significantly larger than a tribe. Chiefdoms incorporated multiple hamlets, villages, and possibly small cities into one political unit. Occupational specialization, where people have different jobs within the society and are reliant on others for some of the goods they consume, becomes prevalent within chiefdoms. Within this cultural environment, people began to have a sense of belonging to entities beyond their kin group, their occupation being one of their identities.

Examples of chiefdoms include the Trobriand and Tongan Islanders in the Pacific, the Maori of New Zealand, the ancient Olmec of Mexico (only known archaeologically), the Natchez of the Mississippi Valley, the Kwakwaka’wakw of British Columbia, and the Zulu and Ashanti in Africa.

The Ashanti, Ghana (The National Archives UK)

The Ashanti are one of several Akan groups in southern and central Ghana and the Ivory Coast. In the eighteenth-century, the Ashanti formed a confederacy of several Akan groups. Over the following century, the Ashanti expanded their territory through conquest, providing a larger economic base for the chief or Omanhene. After decades of conflict with the British colonial power, in 1901 the British prevailed and the Ashanti leaders were exiled.

The basic settlement pattern of the Ashanti chiefdom was a series of villages and towns centered on the palace of a chief. Kin groups inhabited the villages. Agriculture based on yam, guinea corn, manioc, and maize formed the backbone of subsistence. Pre-British takeover, slaves and servants comprised farm labor. After Great Britain colonized the region, hired laborers and sharecropping became the norm. Craft specialization was an important part of the Ashanti economy. Weaving, woodcarving, ceramics, and metallurgy were the primary occupations. While women and men shared in the farming work, women were only allowed to specialize in pottery making; all of the other craft specialization was the purview of men. The Ashanti engaged in trade with neighboring societies with gold and slaves forming the commercial basis of the traditional trade economy (Gilbert et al n.d.).

Clans held ownership of land. It was inherited along matrilines. If a clan failed to work the land, ownership would resort to the chiefdom itself. While all Ashanti recognize matrilineal descent, power was restricted to men. The mother’s line determines to which clan an individual belongs, while paternity determines membership in other groups such as spirit. Membership in the various categories includes obligations to observe certain rituals and taboos. The Ashanti believe that an individual’s personality is influenced by membership in the various groups.

The Omanhene always came from “kingly lineages.” Officials, including the matriarchs of the clans, elected the Omanhene. This individual was chosen based on his personal qualities such as personality and competency. Once selected the individual was “enstooled,” which refers to the act of being seated upon the stool that symbolized kingship. The new king takes on the identity of the previous ruler, forsaking his previous identity. He becomes a sacred person and cannot eat, drink, speak, or be spoken to publically. Communication takes place through the Okyeame, or linguist. The king never steps barefoot on the earth and is covered with an umbrella when he ventures outside. While the power of modern Ashanti kings has eroded, in the past, they had the power of life and death over their constituents.


State-level societies are the most complex in terms of social, economic, and political organization, and have a formal government and social classes. States control or influence many areas of its members lives. From regulation of social relations like marriage to outlining the rights and obligations of its citizens, there is little in daily life that is not impacted. States have large populations and share the following characteristics:

States have power over their domain. They define citizenship and its rights and responsibilities. Inequality is the norm, with clear social classes defined. States monopolize the use of force and maintenance of law and order through laws, courts, and police. States maintain standing armies and police forces. They keep track of citizens in terms of number, age, gender, location, and wealth through census systems. They have the power to extract resources from citizens through taxes, which can be through cash such as the U. S. tax system or through labor such as the Incan mita system where people paid with their labor. States also have the ability to manipulate information.

States control population in numerous ways. They regulate marriage and adoption. They create administrative divisions, e.g., provinces, districts, counties, townships, that help to create loyalties and help to administer social services and organize law enforcement. They may foster geographic mobility and resettlement that breaks down the power of kin relationships and create divided loyalty, e.g., resettlement of Native Americans on reservations.

States often uses religious beliefs and symbols to maintain power. State leaders may claim to be a deity may conscript popular ideology for political purposes. Regalia may be used to create a sense of pageantry and authority.

Most states are hierarchical and patriarchal. There have been female leaders, e.g., Indira Gandhi (India), Golda Meir (Israel), Margaret Thatcher (Great Britain), and Benazir Bhutto (Pakistan), but no female-dominated states have been documented.

Social control is of key concern to state leadership and is maintained through the formal methods mentioned above and informal methods such as psychological manipulation. Hegemony is the internalization of a dominant ideology (Gezen and Kottak 2014: 116), which can happen through such things as the enculturation process and persuasion through media and propaganda. The social order then seems normal and natural. Resistance is quickly squashed through shaming, gossip, stigma, and use of formal enforcement and judiciary means.

The subsistence base of all states is intensive agriculture. The first states centered production on one major crop that could be produced in large quantities and was easily storable: wheat, rice, millet, barley, maize, and tubers (potato, manioc, yams). Wheat, rice, and maize still dominate production today.

Explore: Learn more about the anthropologists

Marshall Sahlins

Elman Service


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Gezen, Lisa, and Conrad Kottak. Culture, 2nd edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2014.

Gilbert, Michelle, Robert O. Lagacé, and Ian Skoggard. “Akan.” eHraf World Cultures. Accessed April 21, 2015.

Irvine, Dean. “Japan’s Hidden People: Ainu Try to Keep Ancient Traditions Alive.” CNN News. Last update February 9, 2015.

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