pdfFall 2019
03 credits
Classes: September 4—November 27, 2019
Wednesdays: 11:45am—2:30pm
Campus: SGW, MB S1.105

PDF copy of the Course Syllabus


Up until the 1950s, Political Anthropology was preoccupied with politics in non-Western societies, typically focusing on small-scale, local and regional social bodies, with an interest in questions of authority, coercion, order and stability. Initially there was a debate about whether one could even find either politics or power in non-state societies, as they apparently lacked centralized structures of control while possessing greater degrees of social equality than in state-societies. Kinship, custom, and contract were some of the dominant ways of understanding power in the so-called non-state, primitive societies. Since then, much has changed in Political Anthropology.

In contrast to earlier characterizations of stable, local social formations, seen as homogeneous wholes that seemingly existed free of the impact of forces such as colonialism, slavery and the world market, anthropologists have argued in recent decades for different ways of conceptualizing power and its presence. One way to reinterpret the presence of power in shaping local politics was to recognize the fact that the “remote” communities anthropologists had been studying were in fact incorporated into a global system of unequal power relations. Anthropologists became more aware of the fact that they had never actually studied any “non-state society” ethnographically, because by the time they encountered these societies they had long been incorporated by local states, colonial administrations, and the broader forces of empire. As a consequence, theory in Political Anthropology began to change.

Anthropology was also critiqued, both from within the discipline and from without, as itself being the product of empire. Anthropology was increasingly revealed as a discipline that experienced its fruition in colonial settings, often directly or indirectly collaborating with colonialism itself. The anthropology of politics began to cross over into the politics of anthropology in new and interesting ways.

Another means of reworking the anthropology of politics and power was to take a new look at the relationships structuring these local societies that typically were at the centre of their ethnographic studies. Some anthropologists began to argue that communities once portrayed as egalitarian, instead possessed some degree of internal inequalities in decision-making and unequal access to resources. Questions emerged as to which societies tended to be more egalitarian than others, especially by reference to the role of women, the sexual division of labour, and access to resources.

From the 1970s onward, new concepts came to dominate Political Anthropology. The most prominent have been ideology, hegemony, class, and power. Anthropologists now sought to uncover the ideological and social means by which some groups seek to attain or assert power as well as the resistance faced by such groups. The intellectual weight of the Enlightenment dominated all strands of Political Anthropology, right through to the present.

Recognizing power operating at all levels is not necessarily an analytical panacea. Arguably we ought to be wary of overly conspiratorial notions of power as absolute, of institutions exercising total control, of persons as pawns or dupes. On the other hand, the other extreme might not be better, that being a view of persons as self-determining free actors, as all-knowing subjects that master their own destinies, in a situation that is shaped by mere coincidences and opportunities. The notion of cultures as living in a state of unceasing contestation, rife with conflict, unable to achieve stability and consensus, is also problematic.

Therefore given the various positions we will encounter on culture, power and anthropological understandings, you should be most alert and critical. In this course we will investigate various sources and expressions of power, as well as the ways in which anthropologists have sought to theorize and study power in ethnographic and theoretical terms. But in order to renew Political Anthropology, we will also study that which is not yet discussed by political anthropologists, or not discussed to a sufficient degree—please see the next section.

For the purposes of this course, which is necessarily brief, the nation-state will be the largest unit of analysis, with discussion of the international system mostly reserved for related courses taught by the same course coordinator.

Towards a Political Anthropology of
Contemporary Societies

While this course values and often relies upon the early works that founded Political Anthropology, the intention is to update its compass and bring it closer to home. Rather than focus exclusively on the “old classics” of Political Anthropology, and rather than limit ourselves only to what anthropologists have written (instead of what anthropology students need to know and consider), our work will focus on making what is familiar to us a little more “strange,” by posing questions that challenge routinely accepted “common sense” and by spotlighting the taken for granted ideas of political power. We do so by way of four cornerstones of contemporary political life in our society: power and its guises; how people act and think politically; theories and practices of democracy; and, the power of the state.

The concept of “non-state societies” recurred continually in the early decades of political anthropology’s development. Increased attention and critique have been devoted to unveiling the extent to which early political anthropologists adopted models from their own societies, and the supreme political structure of the state, as a way of understanding all other societies. That is a Eurocentric approach, and one that can, at times, place all societies on a single evolutionary line, each assumed to be at different stages of achieving “stateness”. The weight of the Enlightenment has left a deep imprint on all political anthropology, from the start to the present day. In trying to “make the strange familiar,” generations of political anthropologists simply adopted familiar assumptions, models, and concepts and applied them to all that was commonly deemed “strange” by the standards of their own society—hence, the ultimate point of reference, marked even in its absence, was the state, along with property and coercion. This mirrored what developed in wider discourses in modernization and development theories and policy circles in the West, where the persistence of traditional social forms was treated as a “problem” to be solved. Where new states were formed after colonial rule, their “crises” were frequently treated as if stemming from an inherent pathology divorced from colonial history.

One of the most common, taken for granted notions is that we live in a democracy, while many other people on this planet allegedly do not. Thanks to the dominant discourse of politics, propagated not just by members of the political class but by the mass media and even many academics, we are presented with a simple, stark dichotomy: there are democracies, and their opposite, “dictatorships” and “tyrannies”. This new orthodoxy is built on the bones of a much older one: a world divided between the “civilized” and the “barbarians” or “savages”. In contrast to the now conventional regimes of truth establishing the legitimacy and superiority of “our system,” raised as exceptional and unassailable, we will be considering other alternatives.

Seeing that the state has been such a dominant conceptual framework in political anthropology, it now seems appropriate to examine and question how the state works in our own society, rather than continue using it as a lens to understand all other social formations of the past. The state as a political model that is considered “normal” and indispensable, is an idea that can be found in use by politicians and policy-makers in the West today who class other societies as either “failed states” or “weak states” with “lawless” regions, as if such notions were unproblematic. In our time and in our societies (North America, Europe), the state has become even more prominent as a force of domination, surveillance, and militarization. Some activists, in turn, either seek to “smash the state” or to “rescue” it by transforming its role in society. As the central institutional mode by which political power is organized in our society, either way we cannot escape the state. Having said that, we always risk essentializing “the state” as if it were, everywhere and always, the same phenomenon marked by specific traits.

Outside of the state and its entrenched political parties, we frequently hear of “civil society” and “new social movements,” as other sources of political action that sometimes advance their own theories of political power. One of the aims of this course, albeit far too brief, is to get a handle on what these phenomena entail, how we think about movements and what they mean, and where movements fit within our political system.

While the focus of this course is on understanding and explaining politics in our own society—in Europe and North America—we will also encounter cases in the lectures and readings that take us to Australia, Africa, the Caribbean, the Pacific, and South America.

PDF copy of the Course Syllabus