Political Organizations Research Paper

View sample anthropology research paper on political organizations. Browse other research paper examples for more inspiration. If you need a thorough research paper written according to all the academic standards, you can always turn to our experienced writers for help. This is how your paper can get an A! Feel free to contact our writing service for professional assistance. We offer high-quality assignments for reasonable rates.

Political anthropology is a subset of social and cultural anthropology, with a special interest in the political process as a way for societies to institutionalize common values. Specifically, British anthropologists in the 1940s helped to establish political anthropology as a subdivision of anthropology.

Politics is the arena of power relations, serving as the social institution through which power is acquired by people and groups. Government is a formal organization responsible for regulating relationships among members of a society and between a society and other foreign societies from outside of established boundaries. When resources are allocated by a governmental authority structure, the political process is in place and active.

Political organizations express power and authority in both traditional and modern communities. Power can be egalitarian and decentralized or it can be centralized and elite. In either case, political organizations interact with other parts of the community such as family life, religious beliefs, economic resources, and even physical geography. With these interactions, political organizations draw on the cultural life of the community for ideas. This is the political process that allows intangible ideas, important to the life of the community, to become concrete. The community sanctions leaders who have the power to control important human and material resources on behalf of everyone else. In smaller, more traditional communities, it is easier for all members of the society to share power more equally. In larger, modern societies, power is distributed, often unequally, among highly defined classes of people with very distinct roles.

The most common forms of these political organizations identified by political anthropologists are bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and states. Foraging is often associated with bands, pastoralism with tribes, and horticulture with chiefdoms. Modern states and the city life that they support are often referred to as civilization. However, the definition of civilization is not exclusive to modern states alone. It has been applied to ancient cultures that show evidence of a certain level of material culture, such as writing for record keeping and the use of money.

The categories of bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and states were first developed in the 1940s as a way for political anthropologists to describe and discuss political organizations. By the 1960s, questions were raised about the meaning and usefulness of these categories. For the sake of a common conversation, these categories continue to be used within an ongoing discussion about the best and most useful way to describe political organizations within the discipline of political anthropology.


The most important issue that a society will confront is related to the means for survival—food to eat, clothing to wear, shelter from natural elements, and protection from outside foreign intrusions. When a society organizes all of its resources around basic survival issues, anthropologists refer to it as a subsistence culture. Bands and tribes are often referred to as nonstate, subsistence cultures.

In subsistence cultures, all of the members work together to gather and distribute the resources needed to survive. The power or labor is shared equally among members, so the political organization of bands and tribes can be described as egalitarian. Some other aspects of subsistence cultures can include seasonal migration, limited capacity for food storage, and a sense of common ownership toward available material goods.

By contrast, chiefdoms and states are often permanent settlements that have evolved over time to include a city or group of cities within a well-defined geographic territory. In states, the population is especially dense. Technology permits higher levels of food production and storage, and instead of migrating and foraging for food, members of chiefdoms and citizens of modern states can rely on crops produced by agriculture. With food supplies readily available, the population can grow. The large population is then divided into specialized classes with specific responsibilities. The division of labor required by these large populations thus creates complex and unequal relationships among classes.

Societies can also be defined as noncentralized or centralized. Bands and tribes often fit into the noncentralized category, while chiefdoms and states generally fit the centralized description. The main difference between a noncentralized society and a centralized society is the role played by kinship to provide connections between individuals and groups and for making decisions that affect everyone. Noncentralized societies rely primarily on marriage alliances and kinship ties to integrate members into the society. A key characteristic of these societies’ governance is that there is no formalized code of law used to justify punishments or the use of force by a standing army. Instead power is spread among the various groups of families that may connect with other families to form temporary groups for the completion of a specific task, such as hunting or defending from an outside attack. A noncentralized society will become centralized when political mechanisms for forming connections between people or groups, and for making community-wide decisions, become impersonal and permanent through the use of a codified law with a standing body to enforce this law.


Since the 1960s, the use of the term band has become less frequent. Anthropologists are not able to reach a complete consensus about the features that distinguish a band from other political organizations. However, there are general characteristics that apply.

Bands are very small communities formed around one family who usually depends on foraging for survival. The number of members in a band might be as few as 25 or as great as 150, but bands are still small enough that there is no special division of labor. The resources available will also be a factor in determining the size of a band. Regardless of age or gender, the members of the band have the same access to all of the resources, which are usually very scarce and restricted. Leadership is temporary and based on the situation and need. If the band is hunting, the best and most experienced hunter might be in charge. For religious ceremonies and celebrations, a shaman will take the lead. These leadership roles are not permanent, and as a group, the band will not permit any single member to coerce other members or place restrictions on resources. A band’s search for food and resources is often seasonal, and migration allows the band to forage for the best resources available at any given time.


Tribes are a village or collection of family groups. Tribes are somewhat more organized than bands because herds of animals and horticulture supplement foraging. Tribes are thus able to remain more settled and less migratory by practicing horticulture. With herding and common land use, tribes can also develop some sense of communal ownership. In addition, by practicing horticulture and communal herding, the tribe has a domesticated food supply that may permit longer settlement regardless of the season, but the overall economy of the tribe is still at the subsistence level.

Tribe power is decentralized and egalitarian, but a leadership lineage might exercise some force from time to time. A strong network of kinship contacts keeps power largely in the hands of the entire band, although families with more animals may benefit from some extra status. Because of the relatively small size of the band and the decentralization of power, there is little specialization of labor or division of roles to accomplish political, religious, or economic goals. However, a headman may emerge from time to time because of unusual skills or wealth. Village councils might also form for the purpose of making emergency decisions. Overall, the lower population level in a tribe promotes sharing of labor. Small subgroups within the larger tribe might form temporarily to complete a specific task, then dissolve when the task is completed. Although the organizational level in a tribe is somewhat more developed than in a band because of communal ownership, power is still decentralized and there is little specialization of political, religious, or economic functions. Examples of tribes are the Shoshone and Painte Indians of North America.


A chiefdom is a settlement of several hundred of members. Because the group stays in one place over longer periods of time, it relies on both crops and animals for a fairly stable subsistence, although food storage is limited. Chiefdoms differ from tribes in two important ways: by practicing horticulture on regular basis and generating food productivity with some surplus. The food surplus allows the population to grow. To meet the greater demands of the higher population, the overall level of organization is more complex with some form of permanent, centralized authority able to provide ongoing leadership without interruption. As a result, chiefdoms have more complicated and more permanent mechanisms for collecting and redistributing economic and labor surplus. Instead of headmen or ad hoc subgroups that emerge to meet a specific task or immediate emergency, authority is successive, allowing for the development of a power elite and the development of a ranked society.

In a chiefdom, the chief is the symbolic provider in charge of the redistribution of resources. He has some ability to coerce subordinates and can collect taxes on food or other kinds of goods. While actual class stratification might not be evident in a chiefdom, there is a clear inequality of persons and groups in the society. Some individuals and groups are closer to the chief than others and receive the deference of subordinates at a lower rank.


The state, or nation, is densely populated with high levels of food surplus and permanent settlement or residence in one geographic area. In these systems, all political power is monopolized by a centralized elite. Division of labor is sharply divided and access to resources is dependent on social rank. Government is based on territory and property, and states are traditionally defined by sharp divisions among social classes; clearly defined geographic boundaries; and centralized, elite authorities who hold a monopoly on political power. The monopoly extends to the legal system, courts, and the armed forces, with power over national borders, citizenship, and foreign policy.

Anthropologists have an ongoing debate about how and why traditional, nonstate political organizations become modern states. Political anthropologists connect the decisionmaking process and the conflict-resolution process with the emergence of the state. The high population levels increase conflict over resources internally and externally that might lead to the formation of a state. Political anthropologists are still discussing the use of new technology to move a society from a subsistence mode of living to food supplies that then allow a traditional society to stratify into specializations and classes. Other useful theories explain the formation of the state as a result of environmental limitations, the use of irrigation to produce food in hostile environments, and in some cases, the influence of a previously existing state.

Most early states seem to have developed out of a combination of these factors interacting with each other in no special sequence. However, anthropologists have identified six early states considered to be examples of societies that evolved into states with no outside influence. The primary states are Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus River Valley of India, the Yellow River Valley of China, Mesoamerica, and Peru. These states appeared hundreds and even thousands of years apart from each other. Their appearance raised the question of finding a universal process to work as an equal model for all events of state formation.

More recent definitions of states try to take into account the effect of rapidly developing global-communications technologies that have the capacity to create online, virtual communities on a global level. This new ability to communicate rapidly, yet intimately, on a global level affects all areas of life—financial, cultural, and social.

Evolutionary Theories

Theories of Evolution

Anthropology has its roots in Enlightenment ideals (1700–1800) about human development universally unfolding in clear, identifiable stages and therefore considered a law of science. The human race was assumed to have a common point of origin. This common origin gave the human race a psychological unity that made development parallel for all cultures. A final outcome of human progress and development was expected and recognized by the appearance of certain kinds of material and cultural experiences. Philosophical and historical traditions assumed that government and politics were the products of civilization and that lower stages were characterized by anarchy. This viewpoint, with an emphasis on the importance of civilization as the highest level of development and evolution, lends itself to asking questions about how the lower stages of anarchy moved to the higher stage of civilization.

One of the foundational thinkers for anthropology was the British law scholar Henry Sumner Maine (1822–1888). In his Ancient Law (1861), Maine defined one of anthropology’s earliest and most difficult questions: Where did the state come from? And what accounts for the differences between highly evolved societies, civilization, and lessevolved societies, or primitive ones? Maine described kinship-based societies that held land and goods in common as primitive. Societies organized around the individual and based on the ownership of private property protected by law were described by Maine as civilized. Somewhat contradictorily, Maine’s description of the sequence of evolution as moving through a family-based society to a tribal organization and finally to an urbanized and economically sophisticated society links him to evolutionary determinism. At the same time, he rejected the belief that human society always moves through the same series of changes.

Colonialism provided the context for the development of a theory of social evolution that placed Christianity and Western culture at the pinnacle. In the 19th century, theories about social evolution made Western culture the most civilized. Non-Western societies were viewed as primitive but able and expected to become civilized by developing in defined stages from band to tribe, to chiefdom, to state. Developing through these stages was seen as social progress. Social progress was in turn viewed by many theorists as a law of history and therefore scientific.

The ideas of British naturalist Charles Darwin (1809– 1882) in combination with the work of German political theorist Karl Marx (1818–1883) were very significant in shaping the anthropological point of view in the 19th century. Darwin’s work with the process of natural selection postulated that life evolved naturally from simple to complex. Simple forms of life were lower and inferior; complex forms of life were higher and superior. When anthropologists applied the idea of natural selection to groups of people, it became an opportunity for ethnocentric points of view to categorize some cultures as simple and inferior, while other cultures were complex and superior.

The ideas of Karl Marx influenced anthropology by emphasizing and giving importance to survival and adaptation in the material world. Societies would reorganize and change relationships among individuals and groups as a result of the need to adapt to physical conditions in order to survive. Natural or primitive societies, sometimes called nonstate societies, lived in a condition of relative equality with no private property. In primitive societies, material goods were held in common and authority was diffused throughout the community. With the emergence of civilization, central authority gained control of the land. An unequal class system allowed the elite authority to remain in control. All modern societies take this form of states with unequal class distinctions.

The German philosopher Friedrich Engels (1820–1895) combined the ideas of Karl Marx with the work of American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan (1818–1881) to form theories that looked at internal class conflict as the catalyst for evolution. The earliest form of social organization was noncentralized and communistic. All members shared equally in the resources of the community, and personal property did not exist. When new technologies made agricultural surplus possible, a class of nonproducers developed to protect the supply. The new nonproducing class erected a strong centralized governmental mechanism to ensure that the producers could not share in the wealth that they produced. In the internal theory, the evolution is caused by economic and material developments, an unequal concentration of wealth, and the effort of an elite class to maintain unequal access to power. The class system requires strong centralized government to give a few elites access to resources while exploiting the majority of producers. The American writer Morton Fried (1923–1986) added to the class-conflict model with his book The Evolution of Political Society (1967). Here, Fried observed that social stratification destabilizes a society, forcing power to become fully centralized to prevent disintegration to a lower level of organization.

The English economist and philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) articulated the theory of external conflict as the process leading to state formation. Using Charles Darwin’s ideas about the survival of the fittest of individuals, Spencer applied the idea to whole societies. If a society feared invasion from an outside intruder, it would organize using a strong, centralized form of government to create a standing army able to force or threaten an intruder to leave or stay away. The American ethnologist Robert Carniero (1927– ) generally agreed with Spencer, but he believed that conflict can only lead to state formation in specific situations and clearly defined conditions. His book, Evolution and Cultural Anthropology (2003), provided details about what conditions and situations can lead to statehood. When combined with environmental limitations such as mountains, seas, or deserts, external conflict could lead to the centralization of government for the sake of raising an army because the geographic barriers prevented escape. Without barriers to prevent escape, Caneiro believed that it was more likely that a society would disperse, rather than fight, when confronted with an external threat. Carniero also took into account the pressures created by population expansion in a land area that becomes too crowded. In this case, small separate groups will unite into one larger unit. Smaller units continue to create larger units until a true state is finally formed with complete control over all of the available land area. Carniero predicted the complete political unification of the entire planet by the year 2300.

The social scientist and writer Karl Wittfogel (1896–1988) believed that the ability to develop land for agricultural use could be as important as the need for military power in motivating the organization of centralized government that leads to the creation of a state. Water is always necessary to crop development. When a society is organized to supply water for agriculture, the result is a food surplus that permits population growth. Organizing and coordinating for the construction of an irrigation system then set the stage for the emergence of a centralized, state bureaucracy. Wittfogel used Neolithic Egypt as an example of a society that was dependent on natural flooding from the Nile River to irrigate crop fields once every year. Irrigation by natural flooding can produce at most only one crop per year, giving farmers the best possible motivation for seeking and slowly finding alternative ways to control the flooding process with a primitive system of dikes and reservoirs. As the land became more productive, the food supplies were able to sustain a higher population level, in turn requiring irrigation systems of even greater complexity. The specialists who emerged to control the construction of complicated irrigation systems became an administrative elite capable of controlling a centralized state government.

The work of Henri Claessen and Peter Skalnik in The Early State (1978) brings together cross-cultural data from numerous early states. Multiple factors in state development can be identified—population growth, warfare, trade, environmental limitations, the need for irrigation systems, the use of innovative technology, and the influence of preexisting states. However, it is not easy to say that any one of these factors is decisively causal. It is not always possible to distinguish among factors that cause the state to emerge and factors that function as qualities of the state after the fact of its emergence. Classen and Skalnik identified only four causal factors with certainty: population growth, war, conquest, and the influence of states already in existence. It is best to allow that most states develop out of a unique combination of multiple factors that may or may not be found in any other state. One classic work that remains useful is Lawrence Krader’s Formation of the State (1968) from the Foundations of Modern Anthropology Series.

Anthropology recognizes the power of the idea of nationhood. It also examines the reality of what actually is or is not present in concrete experience through ethnographic research.

British Colonialism in the 19th Century

British anthropologists in the Victorian era (1860–1890) formulated the ideas about cultural progress and civilization to show specifically how bands, tribes, and chiefdoms became states. The development of a society from a small, simple band to a larger, more complicated tribe that led to the final, heavily populated, civilized state corresponded with British expansion into colonial territories, reinforcing the sense of superiority over the British colonies. Britain represented the modern, civilized state. The colonies held by Britain were viewed by British anthropologists as primitive and unevolved, not having yet become fully civilized states. Some of the British anthropologists of the Victorian era were Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), Edward Tylor (1832–1917), Sir James Frazer (1854–1941), and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown (1881–1955). Radcliffe-Brown is noted especially for his leadership in defining the theoretical aspects of anthropology.

British colonial anthropologists also included significant ideas from non-British scholars. Important thinkers and writers from outside of Britain during that same time period were the American Lewis Henry Morgan (1818–1881), Bronislaw Malinowski (1884–1942) from Poland, and Frenchman Émile Durkheim (1858–1918).

The term given to development from lower to higher forms was unilineal social evolution, a theory that originated with European anthropologists in the Victorian era. Civilization was defined as material culture, technology, cities, good surplus, monumental buildings, money, and writing.

During the British colonial period, anthropologists often viewed civilization as the inevitable and ultimate goal of the “lesser” societies—the bands, tribes, and chiefdoms. The evolution began with simple societies (savages), moving to somewhat more complex societies (barbarians), and finally evolving into very complex societies (civilization) with large populations using advanced technology to maintain a settled way of life. Morgan outlined the threestage sequence from savage to barbarian to civilization in the book Ancient Society (1877). Working in the United States, Morgan believed that native indigenous societies provided evidence of the development from primitive to civilized. The movement from the lower, primitive stage to the higher, civilized stage was measured in terms of leadership, complexity, and scale.

To explain the consolidation of civilization at its highest levels, Victorian anthropologists used the theory of structural functionalism. Structural functionalism is largely a consensus theory that explains society in terms of stable, balanced, orderly relationships. Relationships between social subgroups permit the society as a whole to maintain smooth functionality. Shared values and a common sense of purpose make it possible to agree on a moral order that is beneficial to the community as a whole. Through agreement and stability, the society maintains internal integrity and survives over time.

British anthropologist Edward Evans-Pritchard (1902–1973) is usually referred to as the originator of structural-functionalism. This approach consolidated the view that the modern state was the ultimate goal of development for human societies. The modern state was perceived to be harmonious and stable. With the social structure securely in place, individual parts of society could function effectively to keep the whole society in equilibrium. In the 1930s, Evans-Pritchard lived among the African Nuer people in Sudan and studied the problem of how a society without a political system or government of any kind—no chiefs or kings—could hold together and work. The Nuer (1940b) became Evans-Pritchard’s most widely read book along with African Political Systems (1940a). African Political Systems helped to establish the four categories of band-tribe-chiefdom-state that, while recently called into question, remain part of anthropology’s contemporary vocabulary.

Evans-Pritchard believed that structural functionalism explained why the African Nuer, a primitive, stateless society, could remain orderly and stable over time. The Nuer society was organized around kinship groups. Responsibility for certain social functions was passed from kinship group to kinship group by descent. Along with inheriting responsibility for certain functions in the community, the kinship groups also inherited territory. The sense of common purpose in the kinship group motivated that group to cooperate for the completion of their group task. Individual groups might come into conflict with each other, but the conflict among individual groups kept the community as a whole strong and stable. The groups, and the inherited land and responsibility belonging to the groups, were more permanent than any single member of the group. Individual members of groups were defined by their roles in the group, and the group roles remained stable from generation to generation, allowing the Nuer society to perpetuate itself over time with no chief or king.

Criticism of structural functionalism points out that it is focused primarily in one place, the African Sudan, at one limited period of time, the 1930s, and does not include historical antecedents to explain events. Even though structural functionalism does give some attention to competition among subgroups, critics point out that structural functionalism does not account adequately for conflict and the disorder that often comes with change. Finally, the critics asserted, there was not enough real scientific evidence to support structural functionalism, and overall the theory was serving the cause of British colonialism.

Although structural functionalism as a theory no longer holds the dominance that it once did, the writings of EvansPritchard, The Nuer and African Political Systems, are still held in high esteem by anthropologists, and today function as important points of reference for the conversation among anthropologists.

American Response in the 20th Century

American anthropologist Franz Boas (1858–1942) criticized cultural evolution, arguing mainly against its basis in ethnocentrism. Western society was seen as most valuable—the most highly developed, the most civilized. Cultural evolution assumed that all cultures would follow the same path and progression with the same final outcome of a modern state. By making it a scientific theory, cultural evolution often justified racist practices connected to British colonialism such as slavery and inequality in industrial European economies.

By the early 20th century, other anthropologists used different methods to interpret data and arrived at a different conclusion about the evolution of societies. Boas rejected definitions of societies as “civilized” or “modern” and wanted to use fieldwork data that examined exactly what already existed, without imposing an abstract and fixed expectation for development in a certain way through a certain progression. States did not always develop as a result of geographic boundaries, outside invaders, or war. Boas wanted to shift from speculating on abstract, universal stages of growth from historic societies, to the direct observation of societies that were current and living.

As British colonial rule dissolved after World War II, definitions of the state based on a European model were brought into question. Prior to World War II, the state was defined by geographical territory. Within that given territory, the state could require and enforce loyalty above and beyond that of family, ethnicity, subcultures, and classes. Within it’s own territorial boundaries, the state could replace family and kinship ties with Enlightenment values such as a secularized government, citizenship, and equality mediated by an impersonal legal system.

While acknowledging the existence of a variety of sectors, the Enlightenment model of the state would nonetheless encourage the creation of a national culture and the dominance of a single language. This form of the state as an “imagined community,” where most of the citizens never meet each other face-to-face yet hold a sense of common ideals and values, first became possible in 18th-century Europe with the advent of print technology and the distribution of pamphlets and newspapers on a wide scale. Ordinary people were thus able to learn about and identify with people whom they otherwise would have known nothing about.

Pamphleteers and publishers were able to undermine kings and contribute to the creation of a national consciousness by encouraging feelings of unity, since publications focused on a national cultural myth instead of a sense of personal allegiance to the ruling king. Before this, kings in Europe were often viewed as father figures, reinforcing the sense of drama that could accompany the revolutionary actions taken for the creation of a national state that would replace kinship ties with citizenship and equality before the law.

When British colonies became independent after World War II, the overarching nationalism imposed by the British authority gave way to smaller independent groups based on ethnic, linguistic, and cultural loyalties instead of geographic unity. When subgroups reemerged as an important force in political negotiations, anthropologists responded with a new way to explain the dynamics that occurred within smaller, coexisting groups that were no longer held together from the outside by a unifying national myth. The structural functionalism of Evans-Pritchard, with its view of society as an idealized whole, was replaced by a new process-oriented approach. When political actions are studied using the process approach, the emphasis shifts to competition, conflict, history, and change and away from norms, values, and impersonal social structures. For the study of postcolonial states, the process approach provided a flexible model that promoted an understanding of how individuals were able to influence the larger system, making room for the idea of individual agency. In the 1950s and 1960s, the process approach was able to replace structural functionalism as the dominant orientation for political anthropologists in the United States and Europe.

The result was a change of interpretation of the data that acknowledges differences among communities without making value judgments about them. By the 1960s, anthropologists substituted Morgan’s savagery, barbarism, civilization sequence with the three-state sequence of hunting and gathering, horticulture, and developing agriculture. The new rhetoric avoided making a negative contrast between civilization, viewed as most evolved, and savagery and barbarism, viewed as less evolved.

The change in the method of interpreting the data continued to develop, and by the 1980s, the new approach was identified as postmodernism. Many if not most of the earlier ideas of anthropologists such as Radcliffe-Brown were criticized for containing a subjective Western bias that included the justification for 19th- and 20th-century colonialism. Enlightenment assumptions about anthropology as a science utilizing universal models were challenged and sometimes entirely rejected.

During the 1990s, the effects of economic globalization and the information and communications revolutions raised even more questions for anthropologists to consider. Some of the specific aspects of globalism considered by anthropologists in conversations about the state include sustainability and ecological justice, cultural assimilation, nativistic movements, and forced migrations. The state was more and more required to accept the outside influence of international forces on domestic policies. Parallel challenges then emerged from internal ethnic and identity politics, and there was a greater demand for all domestic cultures to receive equal recognition from the state. Internal, fundamentalist religious movements presented a challenge to the secular identity of the modern state. With this, assumptions about the linear movement of history toward democracy and secularism began to be questioned. Advanced industrial societies showed signs of moving toward postmaterialistic concerns. Cultural issues about the environment, human rights, and sexual orientation were also becoming at least as important as issues related to material well-being.

As the 20th century came to a close, the postmodern interpretation observed that new emerging world conditions required new assumptions. Some of the new assumptions formulated by postmodern anthropologists involved breaking down the distinction between domestic and foreign affairs, the growing irrelevance of territorial borders, basing security on mutual interdependence, and a growing rejection of force for resolving territorial disputes. Traditional and postmodern anthropologists currently use a combination of traditional and postmodern ideas; these are a new synthesis of the best and most useful ideas from both schools of thought.

Political Organizations Today

Significant changes have occurred in the way political anthropologists gather, discuss, and interpret data about the cultures and societies being studied. At the same time, some ideas have lasting influence. Political anthropologists today accept that reliable indications of the emergence of a modern state include the recognition of territories, an increase in population and conflict, class stratification, and a monopoly of coercive power.

Anthropologists also rely on political scientists for an understanding of how states develop and emerge. Political scientists have identified a series of five crises that lead to the development of the modern state: (1) Identity is the process of forming a common national identity. (2) Legitimacy is the confirmed acceptance of the state policies and institutions throughout the population. (3) Penetration is the early spread of the state’s authority, including the establishment of a center and the use of force to stop resistance. (4) Participation is possible in the peaceful phase following the confirmed acceptance of the state’s authority, as the population looks for ways to become involved in the governance of the nation by voting and forming political parties. (5) Distribution is an ongoing conversation and debate about how to divide the nation’s resources and wealth, with established political parties making demands on the government for fair and equitable taxes and the provision of a safety net for the underprivileged sectors.

Some significant questions have been raised about the formation of the state through a crisis sequence. Is the sequencing of steps inevitable? Can the crises reoccur? Does it matter if several crises occur at the same time? How easy is it to recognize and identify the formation of crises in historical studies? Are the steps universal or based primarily on Western experience? In defense of the theory, it can be pointed out that the steps define categories that might not be universal but are useful when they do apply. And if the sequence of steps does not apply universally to all states, it is still possible to recognize that a nation is formed through a series of steps, allowing for variations from situation to situation.

In 1975, anthropologist Elman Rogers Service published Origins of the State and Civilization, a detailed summary description of what anthropologists had learned over time about the specific characteristics of political organizations, including the importance of communities based on geographical territory. By the late 1980s, the growth of a world market sparked a debate about the changing relationship between a globalized economic marketplace and the territorialized national state.

Today the term deterritorialization is used to express anthropology’s awareness of the many activities—economic, social, and cultural—occurring in the new “space” created by communication-extension technologies. Extension technologies include the Internet, e-mail, broadcasting, computer networking, and telephoning. For example, the Internet and electronic mail can be used by anyone, from any place at any time, with no concern for geographical place.

When politics and identities become detached from local places as part of the globalization process, anthropologists also use the term deterritorialization, in this instance referring to the lessening of state authority and the trend for some ethnic groups within the state to identify less with the state and more with their ethnic identities. It can be argued that the deterritorialization of politics is a positive process, making the world as whole a more democratic experience for more people. For instance, some indigenous groups are able to find justice in the global community when the territorial nation-state denies it. The global recognition of the need for environmental awareness often views indigenous groups as making a positive contribution to the environment. When indigenous peoples create transnational alliances based on their contributions to the global ecosystem, they position themselves to advocate powerfully for their own state-based conflicts with international human rights movements. For these reasons, deterritorialized social movements such as global environmentalism and international human rights are increasingly able to transcend territorial sovereignty. Some political scientists and anthropologists suggest that the appearance of deterritorialized social movements indicates the end of state territorial sovereignty.

Future Directions

In 1994, the American Anthropological Association (as cited by Givens & Tucker, 1994) published a survey describing issues and trends in anthropology for the following 25 years. The survey predicted a “greater emphasis on the contemporary world and processes of global change . . . such as sustainable development, world ecology, environmental studies, comparative global perspectives, global interdependence, and internationalization” (Givens & Tucker, 1994, p. 1). The survey clearly defines areas of research and study that have been and are being addressed in recent publications, conference sessions, papers, and introductory anthropology texts. What new understanding do these areas of recent research bring to the study of political anthropology and political organizations?

The words global and globalization occur frequently in the latest literature from anthropologists. As recently as 1990, Anthony Giddens in The Consequences of

Modernity defined globalization as “the intensification of world-wide social relations which link distant localities in such a way that local happenings are shaped by events occurring many miles away and vice versa” (p. 64). Globalization usually refers to an impersonal process that occurs with no reference to any nation. Examples include technological developments in communication, mass popular culture, and global finances. Globalization affects anthropology’s understanding of human relations as interactions become disembodied, place no longer determines identity, territorial boundaries are no longer constraining, and communities are not defined by territory. Globalization also affects the social/cultural experience through a rapid spread of ideas. Economically, there is a rapid change of economic conditions from one region to another. Demographically, migration promotes cultural contact among populations. Government that rules by territorial boundaries must consider people who migrate into the territorial boundary but consider themselves as still belonging to the “homeland.”

To account for globalization by the new technologies, anthropologists talk about the contemporary state as transcending physical boundaries. Many traditional societies were formed to protect geographic boundaries from outside invaders, but in the new global communities, war is no longer inevitable because global communities transcend physical boundaries. The global communities are defined as transnational and the citizens belonging to them are global as well. A transnational state is described as abstract, less institutionalized, and less intentional than the previous description of the modern state.

Transnational is a frequently used term that overlaps with globalization but has some specific limitations related to the territorial national state. The term global can be appropriately used to describe environmental concerns affecting the entire planet. No specific national territory is the center of the wide awareness of the need to protect the environment. By contrast, transnational events, such as the migration of refugees from one territory to another, involve several nations but originate in a homeland that can be identified as the anchoring point.

Corporations operating on a worldwide scale are transnational because they are centered in a national country of origin. Examples of corporations that are transnational include Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, Sony, and Honda. Truly globalized corporations such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization can be said to somewhat reduce the power of the state by taking on some of the functions that were once exclusively monopolized by the state alone. Technological changes, international communication, global mass culture, global finance, and the world environment all influence transnationalism. With this, anthropologists are watching the contemporary state reemerge in a new form with fewer boundaries and limitations. Some theorists speculate that globalism will replace nationalism in the same way that nationalism replaced tribalism.

At the same time that globalism gives the abstract impression of inclusivity, anthropologists are noticing the reemergence of an awareness of identity and place experienced concretely in face-to-face relationships with others. For those who are experiencing the relationship, this reemergence of an awareness of the need for face-to-face social integration is sometimes referred to as tribalism.

Anthropologists continue to find new problems and topics to study as societies continue to change throughout the world. Communication and transportation allow people of all cultures to interact and experience each other, exchanging material goods and cultural ideas. An event from a very distant place can shape local experiences because of the links created by mobility, including space- and time-altering technologies. Anthropologists can no longer understand power as happening exclusively at the local or state level. Anthropologists now look at the changing relationship between the local and the global and how the two experiences interact.


  1. Amit, V. (Ed.). (2004). Biographical dictionary of social and cultural anthropology. New York: Routledge.
  2. Barfield, T. (1997). Dictionary of anthropology. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
  3. Barnard, A. (Ed.). (2002). Encyclopedia of social and cultural anthropology. New York: Routledge.
  4. Birx, H. J. (Ed.). (2006). Encyclopedia of anthropology. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  5. Carneiro, R. L. (2003). Evolutionism in cultural anthropology: A critical history. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
  6. H., & Skalnik, P. (1978). The early state. H. J. M. Claessen, & P. Skalník (Eds). The Hague, the Netherlands: Mouton.
  7. Earle, T. (1991). Chiefdoms: Power, economy, and ideology. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  8. Easton, D. (1959). Political Anthropology. Biennial Review of Anthropology, 1, 210–262.
  9. Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1940a). African political systems. Fortes (Ed.). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  10. Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1940b). The Nuer. A description of the modes of livelihood and political institutions of a Nilotic people. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.
  11. Fischer, M. (1999). Emergent forms of life: Anthropologies of late or postmodernities. Annual Review of Anthropology, 1(28), 455–478.
  12. Fried, M. H. (l967). The evolution of political society: An essay in political anthropology. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  13. Geertz, C. (1973). The interpretation of cultures. New York: Basic Books.
  14. Giddens, A. (1990). The consequences of modernity. Cambridge, UK: Polity.
  15. Givins, B., & Tucker, R. (1994). Sociolocultural anthropology: The next 25 years. Anthropology Newsletter, 35(4), 1.
  16. Gledhill, J. (2000). Power and its disguises: Anthropological perspectives on politics. Sterling, VA: Pluto Press.
  17. Honigmann, J. J. (Ed.). (1973). Handbook of social and cultural anthropology. Chicago: Rand.
  18. James, P. (2006). Globalism, nationalism, tribalism: Bringing theory back in. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  19. Kearney, M. (1995). The local and the global: The anthropology of globalization and transnationalism. Annual Review of Anthropology, 1(24), 547–565.
  20. Kertzer, D. I. (1988). Ritual, politics, and power. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  21. Krader, L. (1968). Formation of the state. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  22. L’Estoile, B. de. (2005). Empires, nations, and natives: Anthropology and state-making. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
  23. Lewellen, T. C. (1992). Political anthropology: An introduction (2nd ed.). Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.
  24. Lewellen, T. C. (2003). Political anthropology: An introduction (3rd ed.). Westport, CT: Praeger.
  25. Maine, H. S. (1861). Ancient law. London: John Murray.
  26. Morgan, L. H. (1877). Ancient society: Or, researches in the lines of human progress from savagery, through barbarism, to civilization. New York: Henry Holt.
  27. Service, E. R. (1975). Origins of the state and civilization: The process of cultural evolution. New York: Norton
  28. Vincent, J. (1990). Anthropology and politics: Visions, traditions, and trends. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
  29. Webster, D. (1975). Warfare and the evolution of the state: A reconsideration. American Antiquity, 40(4), 464–470.
  30. Williams, B. (Ed.). (1991). The politics of culture. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.
  31. Winckler, A. E. (1969). Political anthropology. Biennial Review of Anthropology, 6, 301–386.

More Anthropology Research Paper Examples:

Anthropology Research Paper

Kinship Systems Research Paper
Magic and Science Research Paper


Always on-time


100% Confidentiality
Special offer! Get discount 10% for the first order. Promo code: cd1a428655