Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

8: Political Organization

  • Page ID
  • Learning Objectives

    • Identify the four levels of socio-cultural integration (band, tribe, chiefdom, and state) and describe their characteristics.
    • Compare systems of leadership in egalitarian and non-egalitarian societies.
    • Describe systems used in tribes and chiefdoms to achieve social integration and encourage connections between people.
    • Assess the benefits and problems associated with state-level political organizations.

    • 8.1: Political Organization and Socio-cultural Integration
      Anthropologists need methods for assessing political organizations that can be applied to many different kinds of communities. This concept is called levels of socio-cultural integration. Elman Service (1975) developed an influential scheme for categorizing the political character of societies that recognized four levels of socio-cultural integration: band, tribe, chiefdom, and state. Each type of political integration can be further categorized as egalitarian, ranked, or stratified.
    • 8.2: Egalitarian Societies
      Bands and tribes are typically egalitarian societies. Bands typically comprise foragers who rely on foraging and are therefore nomadic, are few in number (rarely exceeding 100 persons), and form small groups consisting of a few families and a shifting population. While bands involve small populations without structure, tribal societies involve at least two well-defined groups linked together in some way and range in population from about 100 to as many as 5,000 people.
    • 8.3: Tribal Integration, Law, and Warfare
      Tribal societies have much larger populations than bands and must have mechanisms for creating and maintaining connections between tribe members.Likewise, they must have systems to deal with civil disagreements and conflict between individual groups.
    • 8.4: Ranked Societies and Chiefdoms
      Unlike egalitarian societies, ranked societies involve greater differentiation between individuals and the kin groups to which they belong. These differences can be, and often are, inherited, but there are no significant restrictions in these societies on access to basic resources. The concept of a ranked society leads us directly to the characteristics of chiefdoms.
    • 8.5: Stratified Societies and States
      Opposite from egalitarian societies in the spectrum of social classes is the stratified society, which is defined as one in which elites who are a numerical minority control the strategic resources that sustain life. The state is the most formal of the four levels of political organization and the most stratified. In states, political power is centralized in a government that exercises a monopoly over the legitimate use of force.
    • 8.6: States, Law, and Warfare
      At the level of the state, the law becomes an increasingly formal process and procedures are more regularly defined. Although warfare occurs in all human societies, at no other level of political organization is it as widespread as in states. Finally, it should be noted that states have a clear tendency toward instability despite trappings designed to induce awe in the wider population. Few states have lasted a thousand years.
    • 8.7: Social Control
      All cultures have one element in common: they somehow exercise social control over their own members. Even small foraging societies such as the Ju/’hoansi or !Kung, the Inuit (or “Eskimo”) of the Arctic north, and aboriginal Australians experience disputes that must be contained if inter-personal conflicts are to be reduced or eliminated. As societies become more complex, means of control increase accordingly. The study of these means of control are the subject of political anthropology.
    • 8.8: End of Chapter Discussion
    • 8.9: About the Author

    Image: Maasai Tribe in East Africa, 2005, by Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0.