Political anthropology  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Political anthropology concerns the structure of political systems, looked at from the basis of the structure of societies. Political anthropologists include Pierre Clastres, E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Meyer Fortes, Georges Balandier, Fredrik Bailey, Jeremy Boissevain, Marc Abélès, Jocelyne Streiff-Fenart, Ted C. Lewellen, Robert L. Carneiro, John Borneman and Joan Vincent.

Political anthropology developed as a recognizable, well-defined branch of anthropology only in the 1940s and 1950s, as it became a main focus of the British functionalist schools, heavily inspired by Radcliffe-Brown, and openly reacting against evolutionism and historicism. The approach was empirical, with the main bulk of work carried out in colonial Africa. The British structural-functionalist school was institutionalised with African Political Systems, edited by Fortes and Evans Pritchard (1940). A similar degree of institutionalization of a distinctive political anthropology never took place in post-war America, partly due to the Parsonian view of the sciences which relegated anthropology to the sphere of culture and symbolism.

The very strong stress on social equilibrium, which was so evident in Evans-Pritchard’s approach, was quickly questioned in a series of works that focused more on conflict and change (Leach 1954). These works attempted to show how individuals acted within political structures, and that changes took place both due to internal and external pressures. Contradictions and conflict came to the fore. A special version of conflict oriented political anthropology was developed in the so-called ‘Manchester school’, started by Max Gluckman. Gluckman focused on social process and an analysis of structures and systems based on their relative stability. In his view, conflict maintained the stability of political systems through the establishment and re-establishment of crosscutting ties among social actors. Gluckman even suggested that a certain degree of conflict was necessary to uphold society, and that conflict was constitutive of social and political order.

From the 1960s a ‘process approach’ developed, stressing the role of agents (Bailey 1969; Barth 1969). It was a meaningful development as anthropologists started to work in situations where the colonial system was dismantling. The focus on conflict and social reproduction was carried over into Marxist approaches that came to dominate French political anthropology from the 1960s. Pierre Bourdieu’s work on the Kabyle (1977) was strongly inspired by this development, and his early work was a marriage between French post-structuralism, Marxism and process approach.

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