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Introduction Forms of political systems Primitive law and justice War and peace

There would be no coherent social life unless the social relationships which bind people together were, at least to some degree, orderly, institutionalised and predictable, to maintain an orderly system of social relations. People have to be subjected to some degree of compulsion; they cannot all the time do what they like, and so it is that in every society some rules, some kinds of constraints on the peoples behaviour are acknowledged, and on the whole, adhered to. These may, however, differ from society to society, but they always secure some degree of social order. This is what constitutes the political sphere or political organisation or political system. Thus, when we speak of political organisation, we are thinking in part of the maintenance of ordered relationships between different categories and groups of people over a social field wider than that which is implied by each kind, component, categories or groups which are taken separately. This wider, social field is what we call society or it may entail relations between separate societies, whether tribal groups, nations or states. Usually, though not invariably, the political unit can be defined territorially. Therefore, when we speak of a political system or a political organisation, we are usually referring to certain kinds of social relationships within a particular area. In addition, other features common to political systems are: common membership and loyalty, shared traditions and symbols, an internal government for group control and welfare and the system of external relations. A central concept in the study of political systems is that of the exercise of power.

Radcliffe Brown speaks of political organisation as that aspect of the total organisation which is concerned with the control and regulation of the use of physical force. Nadel characterises the political organisation of smaller societies as essentially an organisation for war without and peace within. Havyland defines political organisation as a means by which a society maintains its order internally and manages its affairs with other societies externally. Such organisation may be decentralised and informal, or centralised and formal.


Political organisation assumes a variety of forms among the people of the world. But scholars have simplified this complex subject by identifying four basic kinds of political systems: a) Bands b) Tribes c) Chiefdoms d) States A) DECENTRALISED POLITICAL SYSTEMS (ACEPHALOID) In non-centralised political systems, the authority structure does not involve any centralisation, that is, there is no political authority among many societies; there are no chiefs with established rights and duties, nor any fixed form of government. Instead marriage and kinship form principal means of social control and populations are typically small. Leaders do not have real authority to enforce the societies customs and laws, but if individual members do not conform, they may be made the target of scorn and gossip and even ostracism. Important decisions are usually made in a democratic manner, by a consensus of adults, often including men and women. This form of political organisation provides great flexibility. Bands and tribes are decentralised forms of political organisation. Centralised Decentralised

a) Bands: This is a small group of politically independent, though related

households and the least complex form of political organisation. It is usually found amongst food foragers and other nomadic societies into which people are organised into autonomous and extended family groups. They are, thus, kinship groups. This is perhaps the oldest form of political organisation, since all humans were once food foragers. Bands are typically small in size, and societies with bands have low population density. Julian Steward estimated that density in band societies range from a maximum of 1 person per 5 sq miles to a minimum of 1 person per 50 sq miles. For example, the Andaman Islanders had a band consisting of 40-50 persons, occupying an area of roughly 16 sq miles. Band size, very often, varies by season, the band breaking up or recombining according to the food resources available at a given time and place. For example, Eskimo bands are smaller in winter where food is hard to find, and larger in summer when there is sufficient food to feed a larger group. American Indian tribes of the plains scatter in tiny bands in winter and form a conglomeration of tribal assemblies during the summer, when lush green pastures are to be shared by all their cattle. Political decision-making within the band is generally informal, since the formal permanent office of the leader does not exist. Decisions such as when the camp has to move, or how a hunt has to be arranged, are either agreed upon by the community as a whole, or are made by the best qualified member. Leadership is not the consequence of bossing or throwing ones weight about; each band may have its informal headman or its most proficient hunter, or a person most accomplished in ritual, but such a person or persons will have gained the status through the communitys recognition of skill, good sense and humility. Leadership, in other words, stems not from power, but from influence; not from office, but from admired personal qualities. For example, in the Eskimo bands, each settlement may have a headman, who acquires his influence because the other members of the community recognise his good judgment and superior skills. Eskimo leaders are male, but men often consult their wives in private, and women who hunt seem to have more influence. In any case, leadership exists only in a very restricted sense. Bands are more egalitarian societies.

2) Tribes: What distinguishes tribal from band political organisation is the

presence in the former of some pan-tribal associations, such as clan and age sets that can potentially integrate a number of local groups into a large group. Such multi-local political integration, however, is permanent, and it is informal in the same sense that it is headed by political officials. Frequently, the integration is called into play only when an external threat arises; when the threat disappears, the local groups revert into selfsufficiency. Thus, a tribal society lacks a multi-local political authority. Situations do arise that call for inter-group co-operation of some kind, but they are transitory and a new situation may well require the co-ordination of wide different groups. Societies with tribal political organisation are similar to band societies in their tendency to be egalitarian, but although societies with tribal organisation are generally food foragers, their population density is generally higher. They are larger in number, and their way of life is more sedentary than the hunter-gatherer bands. In many tribal societies, the organising unit and seat of political authority is the clan; clans are kinship groups. In some societies, clan elders have the right to settle disputes among clan members or to attempt to punish wrongs committed against members by members of different clans. In addition, kinship bands tend to unite members of the same descent group, during periods of warfare in different societies. The organisation of warfare is the responsibility of the clan.
Age Sets: Age sets is the concept widely practised amongst East African

tribes. Simply put, they are collections of people belonging to the same age group. Among the Masai tribe of Kenya and Tanzania every adult male belongs to an age set. When he is circumcised at the age of 16 years, he joins the age grade of Moran, which means my warriors. They receive their own age set name. The age sets are based on sections and are egalitarian in structure. Every man can have his say to councils, and decisions are reached democratically. Councils have traditionally been the primary forum for legal and political decisions. They settle disputes, administer the pastures, organise rituals, etc. Every age set from amongst its own members nominates an official known as Olaigerehani, which means the one who discusses.


a) Chiefdom: Chiefdoms are found where tribes and bands have groupings

that can informally integrate more than one community. Chiefdoms have some formal structure integrating multi-community units. The formal structure consists of a council with or without a chief, but most commonly there is a person the chief who has a higher rank or authority than others. Chiefdoms are generally more densely populated and their communities more permanent, partly as a consequence of their generally higher economic productivity. The position of the chief, which is sometimes hereditary and generally permanent, bestows high status on its holder. Most chiefdoms have social ranking and accord the chief and his family greater access to prestige. The chief may redistribute goods, land and direct the use of public labour, supervise religious ceremonies and direct military activities on behalf of the chiefdom. In contrast to leader in tribal societies who generally have to earn their privileges by their personal qualities, hereditary chiefs are said to have those qualities in their blood. A high ranking chief in Polynesia inherited social, religious power called mana. Mana sanctified his rule and protected him. In most chiefdoms, the chiefs did not have the power to compel people who disobeyed them. People would act in accordance with the chiefs wishes because the chief was respected, and often had religious authority. But in most complex chiefdoms, such as those of Hawaii and Tahiti, the chiefs seem to have more compelling sanctions than the power of respect for mana. Substantial amounts of goods and services collected by the chief were used to support subordinates, including specialists such as high priests, political envoys and warriors who could be sent to quell rebellions. When redistributions do not go to everybody and the chief begins to use armed force, the political system is then on the way to becoming what is called a State.
b) The State: The state may be defined as an autonomous political unit

encompassing many communities within its territory, and having a decentralised government with the power to collect taxes, organise men for work or wars, and enforce laws. State societies then have a complex centralised political structure which includes a wide range of permanent institutions having legislative, executive and judicial functions and a large

bureaucracy. In state societies the government tries to maintain a monopoly on the use of physical force. This monopoly can be seen in the development of formalised and specialised instruments of social control, such as police force, military, etc. In addition to their strictly political features, states have class stratification and hence unequal access to economic resources. State societies are generally supported by intensive agriculture. The high productivity of agriculture presumably allows for the emergence of cities, a high degree of economic and other specialisations, market and commercial exchange and extensive trade. When states come into existence, peoples access to the scarce resources is radically altered. So also is the pattern of governance or social control. The rulers of a state do not maintain social order by force alone. The people must believe at least to some extent that those in power have a legitimate right to govern. The rulers of early states therefore claimed divine descent to buttress their legitimacy, but this claim is rare nowadays. Some theorists think that states must provide people with real or rational advantages. Otherwise, the people would not think the rulers to exercise authority. Legitimacy is not an all-ornone phenomenon. It varies with degree.


Whatever the political organisation a society may take and whatever use it may do, it is always involved in one way or another with social control. It always seeks to ensure that people behave in acceptable ways, and defines the proper action to take when they dont. In the case of chiefdoms and states, some sort of centralised authority has the power to regulate the affairs of society. Most modern industrialised states have formal institutions and offices like police, district attorneys, courts and penal systems to deal with minor disputes and more serious conflicts that may arise in society. All these generally operate according to codified laws, that is, a set of explicit rules stipulating what is permissible and what is not. Many societies lack such specialised offices and institutions for dealing with conflicts. In bands and tribes, however, people behave generally as they are expected to without the direct intervention of any centralised political authority. They use informal means like gossip, criticism, fear of supernatural forces, etc. as effective deterrence to anti-social behaviour. For example, the Wapi Indians of New Guinea believe that the ghosts of dead ancestors roam around

lineage bands, protecting them from passers and helping their hunting descendents by driving game towards them. These ghosts also punish those who have wronged them or their descendents by preventing hunters from finding game or causing them to miss their shots, thereby depriving them of their much-needed meal. Anthropologists therefore speak of universality of law. E. Adamson Hoebel said, Each people has its system of social control, and all but a few of the poorest of them have as part of the control system a complex of behaviour patterns and institutional mechanisms that we may treat as law. For anthropologically considered law is merely one aspect of our culture, the aspect which employs the force of organised societies to regulate individual and group conduct and to prevent regress or punish deviations from prescribed social norms. Law, whether informal or formal, as in more complex societies provides a means of dealing peacefully with whatever conflicts develop. Societies have found various ways of resolving conflicts and disputes peacefully. The means used are:
1) Community Action

This is action on the part of the community as a whole. This is common in simpler societies which lack powerful authoritarian leaders. For example, among the Eskimos, they expel individuals who fail to heed to taboos or follow suggestions of the shaman.
2) Informal Adjudications Without Power

Community action is not the only way societies without codified or written laws peacefully resolve disputes. Some societies have informal adjudicators who resolve cases although they do not have the formal power needed to enforce their decisions. One such society is the Nuer of East Africa. Among the Nuer, disputes are easily settled by an informal adjudicator called the Leopardskin Chief. This man is not a political chief but a mediator. His position is hereditary, has religious overtones and makes the holder responsible for the wellbeing of his district.
3) Ritual Reconciliation

The desire to restore a harmonious relationship may also explain ceremonial apologies. An apology is based on deference, that is, the guilty

party shows obeisance and asks for forgiveness. Such ceremonies tend to occur in recent chiefdoms as amongst the Fijians of South Pacific where an offender performs a ceremony of apology.
4) Oaths and Ordeals

Another way of peacefully resolving conflicts is through oaths and ordeals, both of which involve appeals to supernatural powers. An oath is the act of calling upon a deity to bear witness to the truth of what one says. An ordeal is a means used to determine guilt or innocence by submitting the accused to dangerous or painful tests believed to be under supernatural control. A common kind of ordeal found in almost every part of the world is scalding. Among the Tanala of Madagascar, the accused having first had his hand carefully examined for protective covering has to reach his hand into a cauldron of boiling water and grasp from underneath a rock suspended there. He then plunges his hand into cold water, has it bandaged, and is let off to spend the night under guard. In the morning, his hand is unbandaged and examined. If there are blisters, he is guilty.
5) Codified Laws and Quotes

The use of codified laws and quotes to resolve disputes peacefully exists in more complex societies. For example, the Ashanti of West Africa had a complex political system with elaborate legal arrangements. The Ashanti law was based on a concept of natural law, a belief that there is an order of the universe, whose principles lawmakers should follow in decision making and in the regulations they design.


1) It defines relationships among the members of society, determining

proper behaviour under specified conditions. Knowledge of law permits everyone to know his/her rights and deities in respect to every other member of society.
2) Law allocates the authority to apply coercion in the enforcement of

sanctions. In societies with centralised political systems, such authority is generally vested in the government and its courts.

3) Law functions to redefine social relationships and to ensure social

flexibility; as new situations arise law must determine whether old rules and assumptions retain their validity, and to what extent they must be altered. Law, to operate efficiently, must allow for change.


Conflicts also occur between groups of people from separate political units, groups between which there is no procedure for settling disputes. Such conflicts are referred to as war. This may vary in scope and complexity from society to society, such as feuding, raiding and large-scale confrontation.
a) Feuding: Feuding is a state of recurring hostilities between families

or groups or kin, usually or apparently motivated by a desire to avenge an offence, whether an insult or injury, deprivation or death awaits a member of the group. The most important and characteristic feature of the feud is that the responsibility to avenge is carried by all members of the kin group. For example, Nicholas Gubser reports of a feud within the Eskimo community, caused by a husbands killing of his wifes lover, which lasted for decades.
b) Raiding: Raiding is a short term use of force, generally carefully

planned and organised to realise a limited objective. This objective is usually the acquisition of goods, animals or other forms of wealth belonging to another, often neighbouring, community. Raiding is especially prevalent in pastural societies in which cattle or other animals are prized and an individuals own herd can be augmented by theft. Raids are often organised by temporary leaders or coordinators whose activity may not endure beyond the planning and execution of the venture.
c) Large-scale confrontation: Both feuding and raiding usually

involve relatively small numbers of persons and almost always an element of surprise. Large-scale confrontations, in contrast, involve a large number of persons and planning by both sides, of strategies, of attack and defence. It is usually practised among societies with intensive agriculture or industrialisation.