Political Anthropology

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In the West, we are used to the idea of government within the framework of the state and through the medium of specialised political and legal institutions (eg parliament, police and law courts). Such forms are now found world-wide, but this has not always been so, and even today many peoples living within modern states rely to a great extent on other mechanisms for the maintenance of law and order. In societies where people live in closely-knit communities, and rely heavily on each other for economic assistance, the local maintenance of good social relations can be a matter of life or death. Many ways of dealing with offences and of settling disputes may be used. For example, in some societies community tensions are released through the use of ritualised insults. In others, divination is employed to discover the sources of conflict and aggression between people.

Political anthropology examines and compares these diverse systems of social control. It also explores the power structures of societies, including the extent of consensus and the patterns of equality or inequality within them. It examines the ways in which leaders establish or bolster their authority through tradition, force, persuasion, and religion. It asks whether a society can have a legal system even without formal courts and written laws. It is also interested in the ways people resist excessive domination, both passively and through Robin Hood-style banditry and other means.

One key area of study for political anthropology has been the effect of colonialism on subject peoples, and the ways in which western legal systems have been adopted and also adapted to their needs by non-western peoples. Another area of interest has been the role of ceremonial and ritual, for instance in the installation ceremonies of rulers, as a way of giving government an aura of legitimacy.

As with other areas of anthropology, the study of diverse institutions can also lead us to a broader-based understanding of our own and other western social systems. Political anthropology has had interesting insights to offer us on such issues as national identity, ethnic conflict, the meaning of monarchy, and why people sometimes take the law into their own hands.

Text written by Professor Simon Coleman and Professor Ray Abrahams  (reproduced with the  authors’ permissions)

Related Postgraduate programmes in the UK


London School of Economics

University of Kent 

University College London

Recommended Resources


http://politicalanthropology.blogspot.com/– a blog on political anthropology associated with a university course.

http://people.bu.edu/arn/Syllabus-2005%20AN371.htm– a course syllabus which provides a good overview of some of the topics concerning political anthropology.

https://www.hyllanderiksen.net/home-1 – Anthropologist Dr.Thomas Eriksen’s website has many interesting ideas and discussions on political issues.

http://openanthropology.wordpress.com/ – Zero Anthropology is an interesting blog on political anthropology.


The following is a guest lecture by Professor Keith Hart on Engaged Anthropology and Politics in the 21st century.

The Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI) has one of the largest ethnographic film libraries in Europe. Films are available for hire, sale or loan, for educational and academic purposes. Click here for a list of films the RAI distirbutes on Political Anthropology.


The Anthropology of Politics: A Reader in Ethnography, Theory and Critique
Vincent, Joan (Ed) (Wiley-Blackwell, 2002)

Power and its Disguises: Anthropological Perspectives on Politics
By: Gledhill, John (Pluto Press, 2000)

Ethnicity and Nationalism: Anthropological Perspectives: Third Edition
By: Eriksen, Hylland Thomas (Pluto Press (2010)

Articles/Online Journals

https://www.politicalanthropology.org/ – International Political Anthropology (IPA) is an online interdisciplinary peer-reviewed journal.

Professional Organisations, Groups & Associations

Amnesty International – an international organisation of ordinary people from around the world standing up for humanity and humanity rights.

Association for Political and Legal Anthropology – an interest group of the American Anthropological Association.

C-SAP– The Subject network for Sociology, Anthropology and Politics aims to support teaching and learning within our subject areas, and to improve the student learning experience.

Vera Institute for Justice – an independent centre for policy and practice making
justice systems fairer and more effective through research and innovation.