The Power of an Anthropology of the Political

Trey Taylor
11 min readFeb 5, 2019


As Gledhill notes in his introduction to Power and its Disguises, what makes anthropology distinctive amongst social science “is often defined in terms of its favourite methodology, the direct study of human life ‘on the ground’ through ethnographic fieldwork.” Yet, for Gledhill, this is not the most important component of anthropological analysis. Instead, it is its ‘theoretical contribution’; the way it uses a “cross cultural frame of reference” to peer beneath those aspects of social life which are ‘taken for granted’, that recede into a naturalised permanence, our horizons of possibility firmly rooted to them. For an anthropology of the political, though, the disciplines pertinence comes in the way such logics — of comparative breaks with presumed necessity; and of the intimacy of ‘local’ experience — compliment each other in their elucidation of otherwise lumbering and intrusive concepts. From the state to ideology to political power itself, alternative disciplines are unable to capture the micro-processes which constitute them, nor the islands of alternatives that do not correspond to conventional metanarratives. Perhaps counterintuitively, it is precisely the broad sweeps of such explanations that preclude a comprehensive understanding. By neglecting the local, these perspectives cannot fully capture the intricate ways in which structures are reproduced; in which the global shapes the personal, and in which the personal can, in turn, shape the global. In this light, one could add on to Gledhill’s appreciation of anthropological theory the manner in which it so adeptly bridges that conceptual gap between the large and the small. And in so doing, how it opens up a path of possibilities to “challenge analyses and explanations offered by other disciplines in ways that are politically … significant.”

So, in exploring the heterodox intimacy unique to the anthropology of the political, let us begin where our cousins in the realm of philosophy so often commence their own intellectual journeys, with perhaps one of the most mythologised and controversial aspects of political life: the state. I say mythologized in explicit reference to its central position to the political theory of both Hobbes and Rousseau, the latter of which we will return to in the next section. Indeed, as they both stressed at the time, their representations of ‘stateless’ societies and the conditions, or normative importance, of their transcendence were no more empirical than other navel-gazing thought experiments. Which makes the solidification of their narratives of necessity and inevitability, respectively, in our cultural framework peculiar to say the least. Pertinent here, though, is the way in which a variety of ethnographic evidence is quite deftly able to falsify their theoretical basis. Explorations of the state are perhaps the most illustrative example of the way in which the human-scale of anthropology is able to illuminate our understandings of such momentous concepts, capable of tearing down the boundaries within which political order is commonly conceived.

Arguably the most famous example of societies that contradict the “fundamental premise of our political science” — that is, that the state (defined in its repressive, Weberian sense) is required to lift humanity out of the perpetual, miserable and violent disorder of our ‘state of nature’ — is that of the Nuer, a pastoral people of South Sudan. Evans-Pritchard’s ethnography observed how, in the absence of a centralised state, the society was structured around a system of “‘ordered anarchy’ based on the principle of ‘segmentary opposition’’. As Gledhill writes, the Nuer’s “social and political structure could thus be represented as a hierarchy of nested lineage segments of differing scale.” We may see in Evans-Pritchard’s study two important merits of ethnographic intimacy. The first is encapsulated brilliantly in the phraseology of ‘ordered anarchy’, eliciting a dissonance in the minds of those still wedded to the Hobbesian foundations of politics. That there could be such a thing as ‘ordered anarchy’, and that one could observe the intimate mechanisms of lineages that constitute it in place of the state, attests to the capacity of anthropology to enlarge our understandings through narrowing its focus. And not only by slaying sacred cows, but — on the second point — doing so by revealing alternative possibilities; pulling the curtain apart to reveal a plurality of political structures that do not conform to our particular expectations.

In regards to this second implication, however, Gledhill condemns Evans-Pritchard and his contemporary, Radcliffe-Brown, on the grounds that much of their analysis of African political systems is “utterly ethnocentric.” That is, rather than embracing new models of conceptualizing the political, it transposes their own presumptions “of how power and political organisation are supposedly constituted in modern Western societies,” thereby “universalising the Weber-derived identification of political power with coercion.” For such theorists, despite the absence of a traditional state structure, their analysis of such ‘acephalous’ societies was unable to break free of the Weberian straitjacket of “the political [as] invariably centred on coercive power.”

In this case, if we wish to step out from the constraints of both Hobbes and Weber, we may look instead to Pierre Clastres. As it is in his writings that a localised analysis more effectively refutes the state-centred truisms of European political theory. Contrary to central invocations of coercion, Clastres notes how the Amerindian societies he was embedded in found such a concept absurd. “If there is something completely alien to an Indian,” he wrote, it is the idea of giving an order or having to obey”. Yet of course, politics is not absent here — it just simply cannot conform to that premise of coercion which lies at the core of our own, culturally specific, understanding. Locating empty power in ‘titular chiefs’, Indian societies, Clastres argued, construct the political sphere — embodied by the purely formal, ritualistic position of said chief — as “not only external to the structure of the group, but … negating that structure.” Here, “power is contrary to the group,” not incorporated within the web of reciprocity that comprises community. Coercive power is denied, and “‘normal civil power’ is based on the ‘consent of all.’” To the refutation of Hobbes’ formidable Leviathan as the only guarantor of order, AmerIndian society — revelling in its absence — is “oriented towards maintaining peace and harmony” through “profoundly peaceful” means.

Now, as Graeber articulates in Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, some argue that such a divergence from statehood can only be the fruits of cultural backwardness; that the type of peoples Clastres studied, in their denial of the state, are merely preventing their evolution to a more sophisticated form of political organisation. If only they encountered its advantages, the argument implies, they would succumb to its presence. On the contrary, he notes how it is precisely their proximity to “arbitrary, unquestionable power,” which they “wield … over their wives and daughters.” that enables them to be in the position to prohibit the centralisation of coercive power. For Graeber, there’s “no mystery” why “most Amazonian’s don’t want to give others the power to threaten them with physical injury if they don’t do as they’re told.” “Maybe”, he writes, “we should be better asking what it says about ourselves that we feel this attitude needs any sort of explanation.”

Thus far, then, we’ve seen how the ethnographic work of Clastres and Evans-Pritchard, to varying degrees, has utilised the intimacy of the anthropological perspective to elucidate how different forms of politics may operate, removed from the generalisations of Hobbesian discourse and Weberian universalisation in such a way that global scales of analysis could not have. Now, let us focus on another broad sweep of political theory, one that presumes an inevitable link between civilisation and inequality, complexity and domination, exploring how the human-scale observations of anthropology (and archeology) demand a reformulation of such a pervasive narrative. Rousseau’s thesis, that man fell from grace with the emergence of agriculture, descending from harmonious egalitarianism to immense systems of coercive control as society sprung up from surplus, is inescapable. It is often employed not only as proof that anarchism cannot coexist with social complexity, but that the notion of substantive equality itself is a utopia, as distant and unreachable as the world of hunter-gathering in the rear-view mirrors of our fast-food civilisation.

Graeber and Wengrow, in their piece, How to Change the Course of Human History, reject this narrative. Their argument hinges on the presence of what Marcel Mauss termed ‘double morphology’, wherein cultures switch back and forth between political structures. Rather than the the onset of agricultural technologies marking an irreversible change from horizontal to hierarchical political organisation, Graeber and Wengrow observe how many so-called hunter-gatherer societies were responsible for rich burial sites of high-status individuals and monuments that required “sophisticated design and the coordination of labour on an impressive scale,” from the ‘mammoth houses’ of contemporary Kiev to the stone temples of Gobekli Tepe. The inference they make is not that “institutional inequality” was the norm, for the evidence “is nothing if not sporadic.” But that societies alternated between social structures in accordance with “seasonal rhythms”; undergoing a cyclical construction and dissolution of institutional hierarchies. For instance, circumpolar inuits would “disperse into small patriarchal bands,” in the summer months, where authority was concentrated and coercive and “property was possessively marked.” Yet, when it came to winter, when seals and walrus flocked to the Arctic shore, … Inuit gathered together to build great meeting houses” where “the virtues of equality, altruism and collective life prevailed.” In such a condition, “wealth was shared, [and] husbands and wives exchanged partners.”

Indeed, as perhaps the best embodiment of Graeber and Wengrow’s thesis, they point toward the city of Teotihuacan in Mexico, “with a population of 120,000 (one of the largest in the world at the time).” Bucking both the presumption of the immutability of hierarchical structures once instituted, and of complexity as anathema to egalitarian relations, it underwent a reconstruction from “pyramid-temples and human sacrifice” to “a vast collection of comfortable villas, all almost exactly the same size.” Furthermore, they point out that “many first cities were organised on self-consciously egalitarian lines, [with] municipal councils retaining significant autonomy from central government,” and the administrative bludgeon of Kafkaesque bureaucracies nowhere to be seen.

Counterposed to the inevitability and Rousseau’s portrayal of the state, then, these findings reveal the potential of human society to be profoundly fluid, capable of consistently reshaping itself, erecting then neutralising hierarchies of power according to local patterns. And as the title of their essay suggests, such a recalibration of our understanding is not a mere academic curiosity. By using the human-scale techniques of ethnography, anthropology has succeeded in overturning the very certainties of human society itself. As they tried to warn us, the theoretical pronouncements of European intellectuals on the nature of the political cannot be a substitute for concrete and intimate realities. Indeed, perhaps it is only in privileging this dimension that we can absorb the full scope of political life.

Leaving behind the dusty philosophies of long-dead thinkers, we may wish to examine more precisely the mechanisms through which anthropology actually conducts itself at this ‘human-scale.’ That is to say, what language does it use to analyse such micro-politics; to situate the individual within structures outside of their control? Here, we may use Bourdieu’s practice theory, and specifically his notion of habitus, to elucidate that bridge of the local and the global, centering our analysis on the ways in which ideologies — in the hegemonic sense — are reproduced through the collision of individuals with certain social structures and discourses.

As Gledhill articulates, Bourdieu contends that “systems of domination will be reproduced over time because the way the actors understand their world, the cognitive and meaning structures of the habitus, has been shaped by the workings of relations of domination which produced those ‘structured structures’.” Applying this to Karen Ho’s Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street, we can determine how the processes responsible for maintaining the hegemonic position of finance capital are dependent upon the manufacturing and continuation of certain dispositions associated with the deeply overlapping ‘social fields’ of elite universities and investment banks.

As an aside, it’s important to note the ways in which matters of economics are of course deeply political. Not only in the basic truth that one cannot ever truly parse one from the other unless they are to ignore the relations of power that determine the access to goods, ownership, and the division of labour. But also in the fact that the dominant process of financialisation is qualitatively different to previous models of market conduct, coming to approximate the mechanisms of ‘direct juro-political extraction’ that characterized feudal regimes. As corporations continue to be oriented toward shareholder-maximisation, more resembling hedge-funds rather than the industrial behemoths of the ‘Golden Age’ of capitalism, they become “more and more about appropriating, distributing and allocating money and resources,” increasingly deriving their wealth from loans, debts and “fees and penalties.”

Nevertheless, Ho surgically details the interlinking of finance’s international consolidation as the preeminent market player — “largely influenc[ing] the direction of corporate America” — with its intimate strategies of recruitment. In an apt metaphor, one student writer for Harvard spoke of “hunting season”, where rapacious investment banks compete to snatch up the ‘best and the brightest’ in Ivy League universities like Harvard and Princeton. Through an elaborate process of selection and persuasion, such banks flex their wealth by putting on “impeccably catered” dinners in the most repulsively expensive hotels, giving potential recruits a taste of the “whole lifestyle.” Via these lavish recruiting efforts and the discursive conflation of upward mobility, prestige and achievement with ‘I-Banking’, finance capital achieves a “monopoly” on the prospective imaginaries of graduates. Throughout, Ho notes, they take care to emphasise the notion of “smartness”; of “elite” intelligence and capabilities. Yet what they really mean is not intelligence traditionally defined, no quantitative invocation of IQ or other measures, but a “smartness [that] must be represented and reinforced by a specific appearance and bodily technique that dominantly signals that impressiveness.” Within the structures of faux “Wall Street cocktail parties”, linking the social field of elite academia with high finance, “norms are enacted for and demonstrated to students” who “immediately pick up upon the importance of performing smartness.” In other words, such situations enable at once development of the habitus inculcated by their existing frame of privilege (upper-middle class, white, Ivy League), and the transference of such unconscious dispositions and representations, connoting vast social capital, to the world of investment banking.

For the students, this enables the continuation of the privilege enjoyed at such universities. But the most pertinent benefit is for the banks themselves, who latch onto such a reputation of intense “smartness” offered by the “human kinship bridge” between them and the Ivy League, to create and perpetuate “Wall Street’s cultural superiority and its position as a ‘model’ for meritocratic excellence,” enabling the toxic diffusion of its “culture and dominance.” As Ho deconstructs the role of the reproduction of individual habitus in guaranteeing the “global leadership” of Wall Street, the radical potential of such a human-scale emerges rapidly into view. For if we can locate the precise mechanisms through which destructive and giganticised processes like financialisation are, at root, enabled by the small-scale interactions of an elite cultural milieu, we too can locate points of leverage to target in pursuit of their dismantling. By discovering how such politico-economic forces are reproduced, anthropology opens up a strategic space for how such reproduction can be stunted. If it is “through the continual praxis of recruitment and orientation, [that] the street enacts and regenerates the very foundations of its legitimacy,” then to neuter this praxis is to shatter the bedrock of its cultural hegemony.

The true importance, then, of the human-scale orientation of political anthropology, is not in academic sparring; in whether or not that 17th Century Englishman was correct in his deep political pessimism. Rather, it is in the potential “small stories” offer to “unravel and challenge homogenizing discourses embedded within concepts such as … the ‘market’, and the ‘state”; how such perspectives are able to demystify and make comprehensible the monumental political forces that are constitutive of our social reality. Indeed, “It is only through the small and the everyday,” Karen Ho assures us, “that we can understand the creation of hegemony in all its particularity and contextuality.” I’d go a step further, though, and say that it is only through the small and the everyday that we not only understand the creation of hegemony, but political life itself, in all of its fantastic potentialities.



Trey Taylor

22. BA Political Theory and Sociology, Cambridge University. Currently studying an MA in Philosophy and Contemporary Critical Theory at Kingston University.