Politics and Power, by Thomas H. Eriksen

Chapter 11, titled “Politics and power” of Thomas Eriksen’s book Small Places, Large Issues: An introduction to social and cultural anthropology is a great summary of what political power is and how it is implemented in different contexts,  especially in decentralized hierarchies, outside the usual institutions such as states and parliaments for which he cites and compares different case studies from West Asia and Africa.

Politics is often associated with state power, be it through laws and taxes, or  police and military (Eriksen 2001: 165). But even marginalized groups and people at the bottom of a hierarchy can retain a certain degree of autonomy through verbal and physical resistance. To counter resistance, those at the top of the hierarchy try to legitimize their authority. This can be done through myths, as is often the case in non-Western societies, or through democratic concepts such as the “will of the people”.

However, this gives the impression that traditional hierarchies are arbitrary and pure constructs, whereas modern hierarchies are merit-based (ibd: 168). Eriksen rejects this dichotomy and cites some examples in which personal, individual achievement competes with the system put in place by those in power.

For a group to revolt or at least compete against a set power structure, a “we”-group must be created. Eriksen cites as an example the Nuer, whose hierarchy is traditionally based and kinship and group affiliations. Depending on the situation, these groups are defined as narrow or wide as necessary. This becomes clear in conflict situations, whos core principle Eriksen summarizes as follows: “Myself against my brother; my brother and I against our cousins; our cousins, my brother and myself against our more distant agnates” (Eriksen 2001: 171). This principle can be applied to contain whole communities and even competing ethnic groups. As the proverb goes:  The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

A completely different situation could be witnessed in Pakistan in the 1950s. The local Pashtun hierarchy was based on a patron-client system. A larger clientele meant greater manpower and – if necessary – military strength. These power relations were the highest political currency. The only way to increase that currency is by proselytizing a competitor’s followership. Fredrik Barth (1959) saw here an meritocracy in which individuals who were more competitive and could back it up with high performance could come out on top. 10 years later, Talal Asad criticized this interpretation, suggesting an alternative approach that did not start from the individual but from the question of ownership and power relations.

According to Asad, personal abilities and skills are irrelevant if a system doesn’t provide the tools or even the opportunity to use these attributes for vertical mobility.  The Pashtuns for instance were strictly patriarchal and property (or in the case of the elite, authority as well) was passed on to the eldest son. Upward mobility couldn’t be achieved just like that. The elite was separated from the people. They were a closed system.

An extreme form of the seperation of people and elite could be found in the Republic of Zaire (today: DR Congo), where the state sustained itself with foreign investments and trade income. The citizen as tax payer were no longer relevant and their loyalty was not needed to uphold the power structure. Due to corruption and nepotism in the government, the people couldn’t interfere and were left out completely in the political decision making process. Unlike other, traditional hierarchies in the region, the state left the people on their own, without social and public services. The state has, quoting Ekholm Friedman (1991), “liberated itself from the people”.

Neither Barth nor Friedman didn’t witness significant protests in Pakistan or Zaire respectively when they conducted their research. The workers in Pakistan lacked the necessary class consciousness. In Zaire, the people in “tacit acquiescense”(Eriksen 2001: 178) simply accepted their situation and instead of organizing, sought advice and comfort in other institutions. In both cases, according to Eriksen, the power structure was ideologically uncontested.

Eriksen raises the question of whether we, as anthropologists, may even presume to criticize or change such systems. But regardless of their personal opinion, an anthropologist should first and foremost understand the structure of such systems, whether they want to change it or not.

How can we approach such systems in order to understand them? In the case of the Pashtun workers, one can look at that system from the perspective of the individual actor, as Barth does, or we can do an systemic analysis, as Asad does. I agree with Eriksen that these perspectives can complementing each other and that it is indeed “the great challenge of all social sciences” (Eriksen 2001: 167). Political equality is only a lip service when the material conditions are not given. But if the people develop solidarity and  a sense of unity and organize themselves accordingly, these boundaries can be overcome.



    • Eriksen, Thomas H. (2001[1995]): Small Places, Large Issues: An introduction to social and cultural anthropology. London: Pluto Press. (Link)