Finally here comes the first subdiscipline of Ethnology. The political structure is the organisation of a society, for example if it has a government of not and how the government looks like. There are different political systems like bands, tribes or kingdoms. Beside the question of how power is organised you can ask about how power is attained. Max Weber, a German sociologist, said that there are three different forms of governments: In the first one you attain power through legal procedures like voting, in the second one through tradition, meaning the heir will be the king’s son, and in the third one through charisma.
But today I want to talk a little bit about the book “African Political Systems” edited by M. Fortes and E.E. Evans-Pritchard and published in 1940. It is a collection of eight essays from social anthropologists who have investigated the political structure in eight different societies of the Sub-Saharan Africa. This book is the founding document of the subdiscipline political structure and a classic. Although the editors simplified whilst comparing the societies, they came up with the classification of the societies into two groups (A and B), group A consisting of five societies with government (primitive states), group B consisting of three societies without government (stateless societies). It was the first time social anthropologists granted societies to have a political structure even without having a state like it was common in Europe. The investigations took place during the colonial era, so both the political structure of before colonisation and during colonisation are described in the book. To keep it simple, I’d like to stick to the period before colonisation and first give one example society of each group and then compare the two groups.
The Kingdom of the Zulu of South Africa (Primitive state)
The Zulu are today the biggest society in South Africa, but I’d like to go back two centuries and describe the political structure of the Zulu in the 19th century. In 1818 Shaka gained a war between different tribes and established a kingdom in Zululand with himself as king. He was the head by descent of the powerful aristocratic Zulu lineage and had religious and magical duties. According to tradition, a king “was generous to his subjects, using his wealth for them; he gave them justice; he protected their interests; and through him they hoped to satisfy their ambitions on the battlefield and in forum” (Gluckman 1940). But Shaka didn’t reign like that at all and neither did his brother Dingane. Only when the third brother, Mpande, had fallen his brother, there was peace in Zululand.
The king was the paramount ruler and had subordinated chiefs for each region. The chiefs had their brothers or so called indunas as heads of smaller regions which consisted of different lineages and homesteads. In this hierarchy every subject was the representative of his subordinated subjects and meanwhile responsible to the subject ranked above him. As a member told Gluckman, “the people respect their chief, but the chief ought to respect his people” (Gluckman 1940). The chief had therefore to know the subjects and attend marriages or condolences.
During the time of kingship the people never meant to establish a new political structure. So the king’s brothers and chiefs were maybe his rivals but never revolutionaries. Wars between different chiefs or between the king and a chief were responsible for a balance of political power. There was a stratification of the people into classes, because only important men owned cattle, although the Zulu were pastoralists. The important men loaned out cattle and the people herded them and had the advantage of drinking the milk and eating the meat of dead animals, but on the other side they were dependent on the cattle owner.
The Nuer of the Southern Sudan (Stateless society)
The Nuer live in the southern Sudan in the Nile valley and call themselves Naath. Like with the Zulu, I’d like to go back to the 19th century. The Nuer herded cattle which was very important to them. They had a semi-nomadic lifestyle: During the rain season they lived in villages in areas not floated by the Nile and practiced cultivation. During the dry season they migrated to camps near the water to supply the cattle with water. Since raw material and food was rare, they needed social ties and were interdependent on each other. They shared the food with the neighbours and there was no stratification due to no existing wealth. As Evans-Pritchard (1940) said: “Every Nuer, the product of a hard and equalitarian upbringing, deeply democratic, and easily roused to violence, considers himself as good as his neighbour”.
The Nuerland was occupied by several tribes which were divided in primary sections, secondary sections and tertiary sections. The tertiary section consisted of nearby villages. The camps of the dry season could be a cluster of different villages or sections. Gluckman called the Nuerland an “ordered anarchy”. The political system (tribes, sections etc.) was closely related to the clan system. A clan is a system of lineages which trace their descents to a common ancestor. Each tribe had within it a dominant clan which furnished the framework. In other words, the political system was built upon the clan system and therefore upon kinship. To make that clearer, you can find here a scratch of the political system and one of the clan system. The levels with the same colours correspond with each other.
There were a lot of feuds between subjects. In a village they had to be put aside soon to continue life, and between tribes they were often not settled so these tribes lived in hostility. Most common were intersectional feuds which were regulated after some time through the “leopard-skin chief”. This person was a mediator between groups, he didn’t judge but helped to put aside any disagreement. Through the feuds and the semi-nomadic lifestyle there was a lot of fusion and fission of the tribes and their sections.
Comparison of the two groups
|Group A - “primitive states”||Group B - “stateless societies”|
|Government||centralised authority, administrative machinery, constituted judicial institutions||no government|
|Framework of the political system||administrative system||segmentary lineage system (kinship)|
|Balance||between central authority (king) and regional autonomy of the chiefs||between a number of segments (e.g. sections) that are structurally equivalent|
|Territory||membership through living in the area||membership through genealogical ties (real or fictional)|
|Demography||larger (around 150’000 subjects)||smaller (around 50’000 subjects)|
|Stratification||sharp division of rank, status, wealth||economically homogeneous, equalitarian|
|Political power||privileges: tax, tribute, labour; responsibilities: administration, justice, religion||no economic privileges (but wealth and leadership are connected)|
|Social and mystical values||bound to kingship (king is responsible for fertility, health, prosperity, peace, …)||bound to segments (maintain the relationships between them)|
In both groups the unity of the people was given through symbols like myths, fictions, rituals and sacred places or persons. They were regarded not only as symbols, but as final values. That was a little insight of what political structure can be about, but the topic is actually vast and consists of much more.
Fortes, M. & Evans-Pritchard, E.E.: African Political Systems. Oxford University Press, London 1940.