Politics without the State: Tribal Societies

Until very recently tribal groups have been discovered in the forests of Papua New Guinea and Brazil living apparently undisturbed by the governments. Of course such tribal groups may be thought of merely as traditional mini-states. However, social anthropologists who study such groups in detail have shown that tribal societies may differ radically from the state model of government.

Social anthropologists often avoid the use of tribal in this context. Many of the groups concerned have sophisticated cultures, high levels of artistic achievement and admirable ways of life. Tribal is used here as an easily intelligible synonym for what anthropologists frequently term simple societies those having common cultures (e.g. one religion and language), undifferentiated role structures (most people do a small range of similar jobs), with strong emphasis on kinship and custom. Following Weber, the defining characteristic of such societies may be a claim to common ancestry.

One way in which these groups differ from the state model of government is in terms of territory. While many of such groups have what they regard as their own territory, some are so nomadic that they can make no such claim. Groups like the Fulani of northern Nigeria herd cattle through lands partially cultivated by others. The Kalahari Bushmen and similar groups range broadly over deserts or forests which may also be used by other groups. Such groups think of government as the kin group all those people descended from a common ancestor or married to such persons. It is the basis of the idea of the blood brother to become a member of the group it is necessary either to marry into it or to be adopted as a member of a particular small family group.

Still more startling to the modern Western citizen is the absence in some of such groups of anything resembling a fixed governmental organization. While the absence of a chief or council is not so strange in tiny groups such as the !Kung bushmen of the Kalahari desert, it seems almost incredible in groups numbering as many as a million or more such as the pre-colonial Tiv of Nigeria.

How can centralized political institutions be avoided in such societies? One explanation lies in the attitude to law found in most tribal societies. Western societies tend to see law as the creation of a sovereign representative legislature. Tribal societies see law as a part of the way of life inherited from their ancestors. Thus living human beings only interpret and enforce the authority of the ancestors and no legislature is necessary.

There are numerous tribal societies that exist without centralized governmental institutions. Many have used some variation of the combination of feuding and informal reconciliation systems practised by them. Disputes might be settled by resort to oracles like the famous classical Greek oracle at Delphi, in which disputes were arbitrated using magical signs resulting from sacrifices. Other societies practised a division of functions on an age grade basis in which, for instance, the oldest men might collectively manage relationships with the gods, another male age group constitute the leaders of the hunt, the oldest women practise medicine, and so on. In some groups important functions connected with warfare, law and order, or magic might be vested in secret or title societies. In such societies skill in magic or warfare might be rewarded by promotion on merit, or promotion might depend upon seniority.

Authority in such societies might rest upon a variety of foundations a reputation for wisdom in settling disputes, knowledge of traditional remedies for illness, ability as a war leader or merely being the grandparent of a very large (polygamous) family. Such authority figures might be known by a title which translates into English as chief but their powers were often far from the absolute despotisms. In these tribal stateless societies, then, there is law rather than anarchy (in the everyday sense of no guarantees of law and order); equally, collective decisions on self-defense and economic cooperation are also made but in a decentralized fashion. Collective activities also occur on a spiritual level. Life continues and even prospers without the state with its accompanying mechanisms of professional armies, bureaucrats, prisons and the like. It is not surprising that, consequently, some modern thinkers anarchists in the technical sense have argued that the same is possible in a modern context.


1 Give Ukrainian equivalents for the following words and expressions.

Social anthropologist, sophisticated, ancestry, nomadic, to inherit, reconciliation, warfare, seniority, bureaucrat.


2 Translate words and word combinations from Ukrainian into English and use them in your own sentences.

, , , , , , .


3 Complete the sentences with words or phrases from the list.

Collective decisions, governmental organization, representative legislature, law and order, self-defense.

1. The constitutional forms of our present system of _____ _____ were fixed in the last years of the Second World War.

2. Finally, the _____ ______ has a diverse membership that effectively represents the social, economic, ethnic, and other characteristics of the constituencies.

3. When ____ ____ ____ ends, tyranny begins and another revolution has been conceived.

4. ______ _______ made by groups or within organizations have been of particular interest to sociologists and political scientists.

5. The use of force in ________ against terrorist acts poses several sets of questions.


4 Complete the sentences.

1. Western societies ...

2. Such groups think of government ...

3. Social anthropologists ...

4. Collective activities ...

5. Still more startling ...

6. Many have used ...

7. While many such groups ...

8. In some groups ...

9. Other societies practised ...

10. Tribal is used ...

5 Comprehension questions.

1. What kinds of societies are called tribal in social anthropology?

2. What are characteristic features of simple societies?

3. How do tribal societies differ from the state model of government?

4. What part of tribal society has the function of governmental organization?

5. How is law seen in Western societies and tribal societies?

6. How are disputes settled and decisions made in tribal societies without centralized government institutions?

7. What is age grade basis in tribal societies?

8. What are the figures of authority in tribal societies?

9. How can law and order be maintained in stateless societies?

10. How are decisions made in tribal societies?

6 Say if the following statements are true according to the text.

1. Tribal societies are different from the state model of government.

2. Simple societies have common cultures, one religion and language, undifferentiated role structures, and strong emphasis on kinship and custom.

3. Tribal societies have their own territories.

4. Tribal societies see government as the kin group.

5. In some tribal societies chief or council are absent.

6. In tribal societies no legislature is necessary because law is the will of ancestors.

7. In tribal societies the oldest men often practise medicine.

8. Tribal chiefs powers are like absolute despotism.

9. There is no law and order in tribal societies. Members of tribal societies live in anarchy.

10. In tribal societies people cannot live without bureaucrats and prisons.

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