ANTH 423, Dr. Maximilian Forte, Dept. of Sociology & Anthropology, Concordia University


Lincoln Hill, 2013, Version 1

(Preliminary editing by Maximilian Forte)

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Factionalism is a concept in political anthropology that is used to describe groups of people formed around a leader who reject the status quo and actively work against established authority within a society, such as state institutions, political parties, or economic interests. Groups classed as factions engage in conflict with official power structures by means of verbal contention and often-physical action and violence (Lewellen, 1983, pp. 104-105). The anthropological study of factionalism is part of an effort to understand sub-groups in a society, and how they relate to the groups within the establishment. It was born from the principles of structural-functionalism, which sought to take an anthropological understanding of the relations between groups that composed different societies (Siegel and Beals, 1960a, pp. 108-116).

The term factionalism derives from faction, which has its roots in the French language from the 14th-century. Ultimately it derives from the Latin word factio, meaning “political party, class of persons, or a making or doing.” Before that, it appeared in ancient Rome, where it meant, “one of the companies of contractors for the chariot races in the circus” (Online Etymology Dictionary, 2013).

In anthropology, the term arose during the 1940s and 1950s as a part of structural-functionalism, and later grew in prominence. In its earlier form, factionalism sought to explain separatist groups within small villages and tribes. Later, in circles outside of anthropology and the social sciences, it came to be used to describe more prolific guerrilla groups such as the FARC in Columbia or the Red Army Faction in 1970s Germany, especially. It continues to be a term used to define the actions of groups that push against authority outside of the established channels of dissent, most often in political arenas. Factionalism has also been used to describe contemporary struggles and conflicts in developing regions of the world. As an anthropological concept, the study of factionalism has declined in recent years. This is partially due to its roots in structural-functionalist thinking, and the difficulty of adapting it to newer theories in the discipline (Lewellen, 1983, pp. 104-105).

In order to be considered factions in an anthropological sense, groups must contain certain elements and act in certain capacities. This includes the organizational structure of the group, their leadership style, and their recruitment and members. It is also based on the time span of their activities, their strategies and tactics used against established authority, and their relation to the wider society which they operate in.

In terms of organization and structure, factions are bodies built on close ties between leaders and followers. They have no formal structure, but tend to form a tight core of hierarchical arrangement based on their personal attributes and abilities. The leader and this core actively recruit others to expand the faction, finding people who are dedicated to the vision of the leader. The leader and the core confer directly with others in the group, and do not delegate through intermediaries. More specifically, they are “comprised of nodes and linkages, the total network is made up of partial networks that are defined by egocentric foci” (Barnes as quoted by Silverman, 1980, p. 6). While the establishment sees them as the fringe elements in society that act irrationally, internally they are constituted of this core with very specific motives. These factions are also ephemeral. They cease to exist if they fail, or if they overthrow the establishment (Bujra, 1973, p. 134).

Within anthropology, there are three types of factions. Their structure and characteristics are similar, but they differ with respect to strategies and tactics.

Common Factionalism is the general type of faction, used in defining fundamental differences between subgroups in nation-states. These subgroups are well established, and confront each other as a result of the failure of a larger group (Lewellen, 1983, pp. 104-105). Anthropologists such as Nicholas stress that these are defined as small groups with strong ties instead of broader groups. He argues that when such groups grow beyond interpersonal relationships, they can no longer be defined as a faction (Nicholas in Swartz, 1966, p. 52).

Schismatic Factionalism concerns the fault lines between segments within large groups or coalitions. Disputes that start at a small level expand to a larger context that involves the entire society or state, which can lead to rebellion or even civil war (Siegel & Beals, 1960, 394).

Pervasive Factionalism is a way to describe the continual degradation of trust within societies that gives way to reliance on factional groups until a formal power structure is established (Lewellen, 1983, p. 231).

Anthropologists predominantly conducted research on factionalism in the mid to late twentieth century. Although intellectuals such as Karl Marx have used the term “faction” in previous periods of social research, none of their work defined it as a concept that could be used when studying culture. The following researchers have been among the most detailed in their discussion of factionalism, and have been cited extensively for their contributions.

E. Evans-Pritchard, who along with M. Fortes produced African political systems, was one of the first anthropologists to discuss factions as they are understood today, but he did not elaborate a comprehensive concept. He discussed factions mostly in terms of political splits between tribal elites, and the ways that certain individuals separated from their group and worked to organize a counter coalition against the current leadership (Fortes & Pritchard, 1940, pp. 177-178).

Ralph W. Nicholas is one of the most cited anthropologists for his contributions on factionalism, and his effort to define the term as an important concept in anthropology. In contributions such as Segmentary factional political systems, he focused on subgroups using an understanding of political factionalism. Nicholas stated, “I regard factionalism as primarily a political activity or phenomenon. By ‘political activity’ I mean organized conflict over public power” (quoted in Swartz, 1966, p. 52). He speaks of politics as playing out in an arena, in which factions exist and actively seek to dismantle the establishment (Swartz, 1966, p. 54).

J. Siegel and A. R. Beals defined factionalism as “overt, unregulated (unresolved) conflict which interferes with the achievement of the goals of the group” (Siegel & Beals, 1960a, p. 108). However, they were not satisfied with a single definition of factionalism, and broke it down into groups that on one side were more political, and on the other were more interpersonal conflicts. They also looked at how these factions become stressed, and how this stress influences the duration of the group’s activities. (Siegel and Beals, 1960a, pp. 108-116)

Janet M. Bujra helped to update the concept. She contributed to a critique of factionalist theory of earlier anthropology, criticizing its tendency to focus heavily on political structure. She advocates for a different, more distinct understanding between a faction and a party. She organized these characteristics on opposing sides of a table, with a continuum that spans between them (Bujra 1973, pp. 132-152).

In an anthropological context, the study of factionalism has shifted over time. From its roots in the discipline in the 1930s and 1940s, it was focused on tribal systems and separatist elements within these small societies, especially on the continent of Africa (Fortes & Pritchard, 1940, pp. 177-178). These groups were labeled factions, but a widespread use of the term factionalism did not fully emerge until the 1950s and 1960s. This was a time when anthropologists defined the concept more fully, and broadened the definition beyond its previous application to tribal systems. After structural-functionalism faded in the following decades, there were critiques of these early definitions from other anthropologists. Bujra argues, “factions and factionalism are currently fashionable concepts enjoying a vogue which outstrips their present clarity on usage” (1973, p. 132)

References (and additional reading)

Boissevain, J. (1964). Factions, Parties, And Politics In A Maltese Village. American Anthropologist, 66(6), 1275-1287.

Brumfiel, E. M., & Fox, J. W. (1994). Factional competition and political development in the New World. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Bujra, J. M. (1973). The dynamics of political action: a new look at factionalism. American Anthropologist, 75(1), 132-152.

Fortes, M., & Pritchard, E. E. (1940). African political systems. London: Oxford University Press, H. Milford.

Geertz, C. (1959). Form and variation in Balinese village structure. American Anthropologist, 61(6), 991-1012.

Lewellen, T. C. (1983). Political anthropology: an introduction. South Hadley, MA: Bergin & Garvey.

Nicholas, R. W. (1968). A reply to Beals and Siegel. American Anthropologist, 70(4), 763-763.

Nutini, H. G. (1971). The ideological bases of Levi-Strauss’s structuralism. American Anthropologist, 73(3), 537-544.

Online Etymology Dictionary. (2013). Factionalism. Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved from:

Siegel, B. J. and Beals, A. R. (1960a). Conflict and factionalist dispute. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 90(1), 107-117.

Siegel, B. J., & Beals, A. R. (1960b). Pervasive factionalism. American Anthropologist, 62(3), 394-417.

Silverman, M. (1977). A house divided? Anthropological studies of factionalism. St. John’s, NFLD: Institute of Social and Economic Research, Memorial University of Newfoundland.

Silverman, M. (1980). Rich people and rice: factional politics in rural Guyana. Leiden: Brill.

Swartz, M. J., Turner, V. W., & Tuden, A. (1966). Political anthropology. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company.

Swartz, M. J. (1969). Processual and structural approaches in political anthropology: a commentary. Canadian Journal of African Studies, 3(1), 53-59.