The theories of political anthropology

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The Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci.

We will study a great current of political science that has been built from anthropology, that is, from the interpretation of man's place and role in society.

First, we will look at the very origins of social science in the field of politics and in particular the contribution of African anthropology to political science. Traditional anthropology in the field of politics in Africa which brings elements of analysis and reflection around politics in each society. In a second part, we will draw the theoretical achievements of Africanist anthropology towards the analysis of our societies today.

It is a double movement in order to restore the place where the debate on anthropology has been established, which can be a discipline that makes it possible to understand political science and the role in societies; from this starting point, we will reverse towards an anthropology of modernity that is called current.

We will describe a transfer of tools, knowledge and analysis from raw societies to our modern societies. For that, we will show that these tools forged for these raw companies work very well for the analysis of our societies.

In the analysis of political anthropology, there remains something of structuralism, it is an intellectual recovery of the concepts of structuralism. Structuralism postulates that there are structures that persist in societies and that act and interact in relation to events and politics. In discussing African anthropology and questioning the validity of these tools for understanding our political society, we presuppose that there is a structural effect.

To the origins of anthropological thought[edit | edit source]

We must understand that to move to a political anthropology, we must understand and recognize the other as a subject. Accepting the other as a construct is a long process.

The birth of otherness[edit | edit source]

Article détaillé : Altérité.

It is the recognition of the other in his difference, that is to say, that he possesses a capacity to exist that is accepted, there is a dimension of acceptability. The concept of otherness is fundamental in our societies, otherness is at the heart of our democracies, it allows us to recognize ourselves in the difference of the other; it is an essential value of secularism which privileges the mixing of cultures as a source of enrichment and peace. In other words, it is an ethically fundamental value that makes it possible to recognize the other in his difference.

This concept is a contemporary concept that creates the principle of equality between cultures and otherness between men and women. From then on, we will experience this difference in a positive way.

The concept of otherness is not a given in itself, it is built on a long temporality. Perhaps individuals first defined themselves in early societies, not by difference, but by likeness. In our Western societies, this concept will take a very long time to develop because it will deconstruct preliminary visions and in particular the ethnocentric vision that distorts or renders incapable the concept of otherness. The other can only exist through one individual.

Scholarly travel and evolutionary anthropology[edit | edit source]

Scholarly journeys to the 18th century[edit | edit source]

Scholarly travel is a form of otherness in the sense that the discovery of the New World and the Indians allowed one to confront another. However, this discovery of otherness was confluenced by the massacre of the American Indians.

Evolutionary anthropology[edit | edit source]

Everything begins with scholarly journeys, that is, the discovery of the other, which is the discovery of the New World. We will explore unknown lands on the basis that they have wealth, but the surprise will be to find natives, natives, Indians. The first question is whether this man belongs to humanity and whether he has a soul. Basically, his social condition could reflect divine punishment. The big question is whether this individual can have human status or not. The answer will be to characterize it as not endowed with the capacity of humanity. These questions will structure the other's view based on the impossibility of the concept of otherness.

This difference is to be put on the side of animality which puts Westerners in a position of domination and colonization. The controversy of Valladolid between Las Casas and Sepulveda will arise around the presence of a soul in the native. Las Casas maintains that the savage is good because he has remained in the state of nature and that he remains in the original thought so he is pure. Sepulveda maintains that the savage is fundamentally evil on the contrary we are dealing with a good civilized.

A dualistic vision appears which will be the essence of all classical philosophy on the state of nature which is a fundamental question as to whether the state of nature brings us back to the side of wisdom or barbarity.

Political philosophers like Rousseau and Hobbes, who will return to the very essence of the modern definition of politics, will oppose each other with two always antagonistic positions. This antithetical vision, whatever the formula, opposes one to the other. This is important to understand the phenomenon of blockage and the rise in power of the theory of primitive animality, they are not beings who think.

According to the classical philosopher, what distinguishes the animal from man is, according to Aristotle and Plato's definition, that man is a thinking animal. The being as a thinking animal does, that if one postulates that the savage is in the animality it means that he does not think. If he can't think, we'll think about his place in his future.

The 18th century: the invention of the concept of man[edit | edit source]

L'arrivée de Christophe Colomb en Amérique avec deux bannières blanches blasonnées d'une croix verte et une bannière jaune frappée des initiales F et Y des souverains Ferdinand II d'Aragon et Ysabelle de Castille.

The construction that develops is formed around its animality and its primary condition and the ignorance of conquerors as to their customs, religions, language, on the fact that they do not possess writing while forgetting that oral tradition is a form of writing. We are still in this antithetical vision that refers to the analyses of all great journeys. Christopher Columbus reported, "Because I see and know that these people are not of any sect, nor idolaters, but very gentle and ignorant of what evil is, that they cannot kill each other, nor imprison each other, that they are without weapons and so fearful that one of ours is enough to make them flee a hundred, even playing with them... I do not believe that there is in the world a better man than there is no better land"[1].

We understand how any place of capacity to think the other in his difference has already been conceptually blocked. It should be remembered that the 18th century invented the concept of man. It will be a major century for what is called the invention of the "self", that is, the invention of the individual's consciousness of being and existing.

This awareness calls into question the divine action on the human being, the subject begins to exist as being, the individual exists by his capacity to think and his consciousness, from then on the individual is a thinking being.

From the 18th century, this construction of man will liberate the intelligence of individuals by beginning to look a little differently at the other. He may no longer be a savage, but he is someone in a particular historical situation, but obviously with very negative connotations that he has not been able to develop. These questions show a knowledge of reflection, man also exists as much by a knowledge of reflection, as by a learning and a cognitive knowledge of things, we accumulate experience that we transmit. We move away from the image of the savage, he is a different being, there is an externalisation of the notion of "savage". From then on, we will begin to question the question of difference, it is a value judgment that is not of the moral order.

The great project of society in the 18th century is to build a positive knowledge of man, we will study man as man and perhaps as being thinking as an element of the history of humanity that we will be able to analyze through travel.Evolutionary anthropology of the 19th century

Evolutionary anthropology of the 19th century[edit | edit source]

We will move on to a new phase of desire to understand the other, a little more positive, which will take place through trips and study missions that will lead to a first modern anthropology around primitive societies that are endowed with structures of societies. However, we still have some very reactionary elements that refer us to a positivist science that considers that we are in societies that evolve and that must show imagination to compete.

In the vision of the 19th century, we leave the caricatural vision, but we keep things that will cost humanity dearly, which are obviously racist and racial principles. For example, we cannot understand Nazi extermination camps if we do not understand that we are very marked by an ideology of the white race to the detriment of others.

This is called evolutionary anthropology. We are still distorted by a definition of the historical evolution of societies in which whites are the "best".

What is important is to see that there is a first consideration of otherness.

In 1885 the Berlin Conference took place, which was the division of Africa between the great powers.

This colonization movement will commit the States to develop learned societies and permanent archaeological missions for the development of scientific and intellectual work that is beginning to be developed on different societies. Even if at the beginning it is a very colonialist vision, it ends up showing the complexity of the social and political mechanisms that allow a deepening work to study individuals in their environment.

Even if we are still on visions of unequal rhythms in development, we are still in one acceptation of the other in his otherness.

The contributions of American Indian and African anthropology[edit | edit source]

African anthropology and the discovery of systems of political organization[edit | edit source]

E. E. Evans-Pritchard.

Evans-Pritchard and Meyer Fortes published African Political Systems in 1940. They are sociologists who work on Sudan and have chairs in social anthropology. This book is a manifesto and a set of case studies bringing together eight anthropological studies on African tribes in an attempt to locate the place of politics in African tribes.

It is a very innovative work, because our two authors try to situate the place of politics in African society and show that in traditional African societies there is politics. Evans-Pritchard and Meyer Fortes will attempt to analyze these forms of policies. Since it is assumed that even a traditional society is built on political systems that lead to the insurance and functioning and development of society, it is the assumption that there can be no society without politics because it is a regulatory element.

They will work on political systems by opposing the fact that we contextualize the concept of primitive on the other hand, we must account for the place of politics in traditional societies.

Behind the particularities of each society, there are, through the field of politics, universality. These universalities are in the weight of structures because structures are a way of constructing the social field and establishing the social order. If we look at the early African tribes, we wonder about the very forms of politics. Thus, they wonder about siblings, families, tribal organization, but also about political organizations considered on property.

Traditional societies are not without structures, rites and rules. In this sense, they are no different from Western societies. If they have the same structures, they cannot be accused of being backward.

As a result, they will try to demonstrate that any political system must have in order to function, in other words, any political system must contain certain elements essential to the development of the society it presides over.

Politics is about decision-making, acting, strengthening, creating value, and so on. There is the assumption that in any type of society there would be the same structures.

The "rudiments" of Western political structures[edit | edit source]

Evans-Pritchard and Meyer Fortes put forward four structures, but it should first be recalled that, according to Lévi-Strauss, the structures of kinship belong to society, because society is structured by the logic of kinship, on the other hand power is the symbolism of power, symbolism is an ordering element of power. In a political system of power and reality, this is a decision, but it will also have to exist as a symbolic system. However, one cannot always separate power from symbolism, because symbolism is constitutive of power. Moreover, language, that is to say speech, which is also of the order of political power, is not a simple exchange, it is communicating order, rationalities, prohibitions, ways of moving, discussing, debating, contesting. Social inversion rituals are added.

What are the elementary structures that underlie the "rudiments" of the more sophisticated structures of Western societies?

Kinship in politics[edit | edit source]

The first explanation will be to say that in African societies we see that kinship plays an important role. That is to say that one belongs to a family which is an order and a structure, it engages possibilities of birth and insertion in a dynasty. The past is an aid to construction.

On the other hand, in all traditional societies, kinship defines social status in the community. There is no political power without reflection on kinship, and basically political authority is a function of the system of filiation and residence. Power can be hereditary, but through the construction of the family social relations and power relations are built which define social relations and politics. It is an active heritage, it is a kind of capital that helps everyone to build and define themselves in the social space.

From there, we see that these clan systems will play power either to preserve it or to acquire it in a clan logic, that is to say in a whole family cohesion.

To maintain power, alliances must be formed that refer to family strategies that can be marriage. Evans-Pritchard and Meyer Fortes will say that beyond the question of kinship, it is the kinship network that is at stake, it is the fact that an organized system on kinship and the family in the very broad sense emerges from these policy structures.

To make a comparison to modern society, we can think of the Kennedy family, which is a clan. We are in the very provocative hypothesis that even if we change systems, basically we remain in a system that also works through the clan, which is the first level of cohesion.

The provocation of political anthropology is to say that, even in democracy, it works. With the example of Nicolas Sarkozy and the attempt of his 23 year old son to take the head of EPAD.

Power as symbolism[edit | edit source]

Power cannot relinquish symbolism; it must have symbolism; if there is no symbolism, there is a problem of identity and recognition. Symbolic proliferation provokes power and channels it, it is a form of recognition; in all the history of societies, sovereignty is displayed in relation to a question of symbolism. The future of the leader also passes through rituals that are a completely controlled event that serves power.

Mossi riders (engraving from 1890).

In the 15th and 16th centuries, in the Mossi kingdom in Upper Volta, when the king died in the system of transmission of power, there was no need for a dead time. In this case, the first symbolic sign is that of the death of the king himself, where a drum is punctured and the royal fire extinguished, and there is a disappearance that is an object of emotion.

Funeral rituals are immediately placed under the responsibility of the eldest daughter or son.

Then the napoco phase begins, and the king's clothes are transferred to the eldest daughter. It is a patrilineal system where the succession is ensured by a male, but in symbolic terms one needs a woman who will ensure the transition. The girl takes the bus shelters of her father and becomes the queen of the disappeared that we will walk in order to show that there is no vacancy of the power what is the symbolic rite. When this phase is over, the sovereign is chosen, who rides the horse of the former king and travels the land. It is a phenomenon of reappropriation of the power, the girl has only a transitional functions, one walked her on the horse of the king is a given moment in a village one makes her go down and one you the horse of king. It is a symbolic act that we must go through the murder of the horse to ritualize that the new king will also go on stage in a space of transition. Comes an induction ceremony called the qurita.

This shows that there can be no vacancy, rituals have a very precise social function which is to ensure the transition which is necessary but which is fundamental to ensure the security and peace of the kingdom. Ceremonies are there to rationalize the political field.

Language as an element of political power[edit | edit source]

There is no power without communication and therefore the one who holds speech and communication holds power. On the other hand, those who can speak can manipulate the forces by creating order, violence or on the contrary security. There is a continuity between the question of power and speech.

He is a mythical figure who is a god of communication, because he masters all languages, he is able to interpret what all the other divinities say, he was sent by God to communicate with men. A cult of this developed around the figure of the Legba both in places of worship and which has returned to homes. By his omnipresence he is supposed to possess the means to control all the society, to help the people and to eventually sanction. he is interpreted as carrying the word of the king, he can get angry, he can sanction, each individual must live his life in the presence of this god.

This allows the authors to say that the god possesses the language, by his word he is power. Therefore, language is a knowledge that is structuring. We find language like in Lévi-Strauss as an ability to define the rules of social life and to express a truth that can be challenged.

Language is not only a means of power, it is the substance of power, it is a mode of power that expresses rationalities, but it is much more, it is the very substance of power, that is, if power loses language it no longer has the capacity to exist. In modern theories, the weight of language and words is particularly important to describe social realities because they allow the staging of power i.e. it is language that will be able to build the relationship to power and to stage it that power. From then on, in the theories of modern political anthropology, several ideas appear:

  • there can be no power without language,
  • there can be no power without communication,
  • there can be no power without ritual.

This means that power is staged, there is no power without staging because it is the staging of words and physical power through dramatization.

Power can be seen through words, but also through their staging and social staging. Remember that Goffman conceived public space as a theatre, power has a dimension of power, staging and construction.

Theatre is part of our modern democracy, it is a social reality.

Rituals of social inversion[edit | edit source]

Power is built and it must function in a double movement which is a movement of adhesion, power must build this logic of making tension in order to make individuals adhere to its system which is valid in African tribes and in our modern social and political realities. At the same time, there is a problem that appears in power, which is that not every society can function with "centrifugal" tension, that is, tension of nervousness that seeks to build harmony and legitimacy of power.

This creates forms of violence, the power must have times when it allows release. It is the fact that, not only are there practices of social tensions, at the same time there must be practices of easing social tensions that are found in all societies. Every society has rituals that are rituals of social inversion.

It is the fact that the power to accept that we make fun of him, because in this time he creates mockery that is a distance that is a collective relaxation. On the one hand, power must compel and, on the other, offer a movement of societal tensions to allow social management to continue. Carnival is an inversion rite that aims to reverse values.

To make inversion, you have to control the inversion. Carnival is a real system of inversion, because it is the only time of the year when one can make fun of power. From then on, the ritual is part of the societal system that is part of a time.

In other words, the ritual of social inversion is a regulatory device that is accepted in a more global device in a societal system.

The question is to find the boundary between what is the ritual of reversal and what is not. So the ritual of social inversion is the fact that at a given moment we will reverse roles in logic beyond that'inversion is totally mastered to return to reality. The paradox is that its function is to favour reality.

Some principles of social inversion :

  • the power must accept to be mocked, it is a time of mockery and distance, it is the capacity of a slackening of a vice by irony and derision ;
  • loosening offers the capacity of strengthening ties, it is because we will let go that society will be more built.

For a political anthropology of modernity[edit | edit source]

George Balandier[edit | edit source]

Georges Balandier au Salon du livre de Paris en mars 2010.

Politics are functions, duty systems and structures. The great hypothesis of George Balandier who was an anthropologist and sociologist worked in Black Africa during decolonization. From 1946 he went to Africa and published Changement sociaux au Gabon et au Congo and Sociologie des Brazzavilles noires in 1954. He will work on Africanist societies and will himself be confronted with decolonization.

He will question what is at stake in the evolution of traditional African political systems with modernization. He will take up questions of society and power from a sociology of independence, but above all he will question the phenomena of independence, knowing that this is a fundamental question in modern sociology.

It distinguishes three fields where African societies best express their own nature and their most significant reactions:

  1. Cultural ensembles and spaces: makes it possible to identify the criteria according to which relatives and cultural exclusions are expressed;
  2. Religions and religious innovations: reveal the transformations of the African social and cultural universe, and especially the new configurations of politics;
  3. Traditional political systems: threatened by the modernisation process as a whole.

Decolonization movements in favour of the nation-state, the model of decolonization by decolonizing countries and the Western model. Balandier will note that the transition to local political systems always applies the continuity of a modernization according to the Western and colonial model. The modernization carried out by the first powers of colonization functions on a model of Western modernization. The processes of cultural and social disintegration that the West had undertaken to exploit the colonies did not stop at the end of decolonization.

The notions of dependence, domination and submission[edit | edit source]

Article détaillé : Dominations.

Dependence is specific to colonial situations[edit | edit source]

What is important to understand is that to analyze these societies one must understand the situation of dependence and domination, that is, that dependence is the situation that is created in colonial systems survival in decolonization. That is why the concept of neo-colonialism was developed. It is the idea that it is not because there is decolonization that there is a change in relations within the systems of relations between countries.

Dominance produces dependence (material and spiritual)[edit | edit source]

Dominance produces dependence, whether material or spiritual. From the spiritual point of view we are in changes of cultures, because modernity modifies it:

  • By the deculturation process (loss of all its values and references through brutal contact with another culture). In other words, it is a phenomenon of crossbreeding;
  • Through a phenomenon of acculturation (more dynamic construction between the two cultures): acculturation is the set of phenomena that result from continuous and direct contact between groups of individuals from different cultures and that lead to changes in the initial cultural models of one or both of the groups.;
  • Counter-acculturation: the reaction of an acculturated society that mobilizes to protect and claim its identity.

Balandier will develop the concept of alienation which is the concept of emancipation and dependence. What characterizes the political and societal field of decolonization is the phenomenon of alienation which is a complex process in which individuals are in a process of deculturation that is constructed in a logic of acculturation i.e. mixing between ancient elements and modern culture.

Basically, the whole process of constitution of the political field in modern African States depends on this double process, namely the mobilization of the population, the search for the creation of a new identity and the suffering in this transition from traditional society to modern society. This means that modern politics, from the Africanist point of view in the 1950s - 1960s, a period of change, is to say that this political process is at the conjunction of these two realities, that is to say that political behaviour or political systems will proceed from both acculturation and deculturation.

Balandier will argue that in this process we will find both elements of rationality proper to Western politics and traditional elements constituting this primitive governmentality. Basically, politics is interesting because it makes the distinction between a rational vision and a classical vision of Africanist anthropology with rites, rituals of the imaginary and perhaps even magic.

It's a composite system. Modernized African political systems would bear all these contradictions and would explain through these contradictions the very difficulties of building their territory or their national identity.

The fields of political anthropology of modernity[edit | edit source]

The Ritualization of Politics[edit | edit source]

In primitive societies, to preserve order and cohesion, there are rituals that aim to:

  • fight against attrition: it is a ritual that reactivates;
  • enthroning a new leader;
  • expel disease and natural disasters;
  • reinstalling mystical power: irrational dimension consequence which is a constitutive part of power;
  • integrate the community through a memory link: helps to build a common identity.

The rite takes its meaning in repetition and bases common values.

Political rites[edit | edit source]

The structure of the ritual functions according to the same principles in modern societies. Our modern rituals have the same function and the same uses. They have four functions:

  • integration: integrating individuals to build coherence, consensus for community membership ;
  • legitimation: legitimation of the structural organization of power;
  • hierarchisation: reminds us of the societal hierarchies in which society is organised;
  • moralization: mass action or meeting, emotion, seduction, valorization);
  • exaltation: exaltation of emotion.

The political ritual refers to civil celebrations which are large civil demonstrations in which we must recognize ourselves. In modern democracy, the fundamental issue is the staging of politics. Public demonstrations must build popular imagery.

Political discourse[edit | edit source]

The speech is part of the provision it is thus an element of the political ritual. Discourse is a construct, discourse is a political rite, it is a social construction that stores information and a restitution in an order and a rationality that allows its presence to the world and to build its staging.

We see that the discourse participates in the construction, it is a function of integration, coherence, consensus and mobilization. We must question the discourse and interpret it as a category, that is, analyze the discourse.

The political discourse is never prepared by the person who produces it. Writing requires thinking of speech as structure. The difficulty that lies in the analysis of the discourse is the gap that exists between the pronunciation of the discourse and the making of the discourse.

Annexes[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. COLOMB, C. La découverte de l’Amérique, Vol. I Le journal de bord 1492-1493 ; Vol. II Relations de voyage 1493-1504, Paris, La Découverte, 1989.