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Anthropological Theory

Book Reviews
Marian Kempny
Anthropological Theory 2003 3: 263
DOI: 10.1177/1463499603003002016

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Book reviews

massive migration into the city brought about a popular culture shared across caste and
class, incorporating pre-colonial artistic and literary genres and even crossing the
widening gender divide. Public debates about what it meant to be a Hindu centred
around issues of religion and marriage – subjects of great importance to all – and were
reflected not only in the fiction and essays of writers such as Bankimchandra but as well
in popular songs, plays and images. The work of the former reflects the wider movement
from lively and often heterodox debates of central issues like women’s education,
intimate conjugality, and religious authority in the 1870s towards a traditionalist
nationalist outlook common by the early 1890s. Sarkar asserts that, far from being
inevitable, the cultural nationalism that emerged under colonial rule was shaped by the
impossibility of a political agenda.
It is cultural sensitivity rather than grand political argument that makes this collec-
tion an important contribution. Here close examination of localized case studies makes
what may be perceived as a disadvantage – the main focus on 19th-century Bengal – the
book’s greatest asset. To scholars familiar with the literature on nationalism in India this
volume will provide an opportunity for re-reading these essays in conjunction with one
another; those working on nationalism elsewhere will profit from encountering a volume
with a comparative perspective on the formation of a hugely influential local discourse
which shaped India’s independence movement and contemporary nationalist politics.
Henrike Donner
London School of Economics
London, UK

Donald Kurtz. 2001. Political Anthropology: Power and Paradigms. Oxford: Westview
Press. pp. x + 251. ISBN (pbk) 0 8133 3804 2. Price: £16.99.

This book is a timely reminder that although the heyday of political anthropology is
over, that sub-discipline is still alive and well. Kurtz identifies the specificity of his project
as emphasizing theory over data because ‘political anthropology is fundamentally about
the ideas, theories, and concepts that direct research on political phenomena’ (p. 3). This
is why ‘the purpose of this work is to introduce and critically analyse each of the para-
digms within which reside the theory, concepts, and research strategies that imbue the
field of political anthropology’ (p. 4).
One can look at the book under review as the final, and finally frustrated, product of
the project signalled in Kurtz’s earlier ‘Political Anthropology: Issues and Trends on the
Frontier’ (Political Anthropology: The State of the Art, ed. Seaton and Claessen. Mouton
1979, pp. 31–62). In that chapter Kurtz expressed hope of constructing a single all-
encompassing theoretical paradigm for political anthropology, yet here he demonstrates
his disillusionment with that prospect. His previous focus on the interrelatedness of the
approaches and methodologies in use in political anthropology has been replaced with
an emphasis on understanding and explaining the nature of political phenomena as a
subject matter of anthropology.
This switch is reflected in the three-part structure of the book. The first introduces


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the Kuhnian idea of paradigm, and applies this concept to clarify ‘the historical trajec-
tory’ (p. 10) and research interests of political anthropology. The second part describes
the main subject matters of political anthropology, namely power, political leadership,
and authority. It is the idea of political power that, Kurtz claims, is ‘utterly essential’
(p. 4) and permeates all the paradigms of political anthropology. The third part brings
a critical review of a whole range of paradigms, or major approaches to the anthropo-
logical study of politics, identified by the author. Kurtz now holds that several different
paradigms dominated the anthropological study of politics at different times, but that
the major contributions of each still remain alive and provide a ‘holistic view to political
phenomena’ (p. 3) specific to political anthropology which makes it dissimilar to any
other social science. These include structural-functionalism, the processual approach,
political economy, political evolution, and finally the postmodern paradigm.
In Chapter 12 Kurtz argues that despite disclaimers of representatives of post-
modernism in anthropology, a new experimental genre of ethnographic writings might
be seen as a successor to previous anthropological approaches to politics. Even when one
concedes that new, experimental ethnography may ‘form the nucleus for another durable
paradigm of political anthropology’ (p. 213), the closing chapter brings little hope for
the emergence of a unified political anthropological paradigm.
Kurtz’s book makes clear that even today theoretical anthropology is a viable project,
but that the very notion of ‘theory’ entails a redefinition of theorists’ tasks and ambi-
tions. Without doubt the very labour of political anthropology is still to achieve gener-
alizations, to apply the comparative method, and to come up with theoretically-based
interpretations in order to understand the logic of a field of political phenomena in all
its internal complexities. There is, however, no chance of reconciling Kuhn’s notion of
a normal science with clearly defined orientations with the research and writing strategies
adopted by so-called postmodernists. It turns out that anthropology in the domain of
politics is not strictly about scientific categories, concepts, neatly tested hypotheses and
theory refutation, but has as much to do with eclectic methodologies allowing one to
grasp cultural dimensions of power and politics otherwise overlooked by social scien-
tists. As a result, one is forced to doubt the tenability of the central idea of Kurtz’s project
of political anthropology, that of explaining political phenomena through ‘normal scien-
tific practices’ (p. 3). The analytical tools used to investigate political dimensions of social
life seem now to differ so fundamentally from those typical of early political anthro-
pology that continuity within this sub-discipline can only consist in its enduring concern
with political practice and organization of power relations seen in the cross-cultural
Having said this, one must add that Kurtz’s book provides a first-rate overview of
analytical frameworks available in political anthropology and is unique in its impressive
comprehensiveness. It is this praiseworthy quality of covering all the breadth and depth
of issues studied by political anthropologists which will determine the book’s readership.
Marian Kempny,
Polish Academy of Sciences,
Warsaw, Poland


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