Tribes on The Hill - Why Does Politics Matter

Why Does Politics Matter?

For Introduction to Anthropology 2017 we tackled some of the big questions anthropology has attempted to answer. One question: Why Does Politics Matter?

We had two readings:

Interestingly in June 2017 Richard Cohen used an example of his college anthropology professor commenting on North American politics. Cohen’s piece, Trump will never be presidential–and the GOP knows it echoes the classic gambit of Body Ritual Among the Nacirema. As I wrote in my comment: “Many anthropologists are producing some excellent and insightful contemporary political commentary. In this context, Jack Weatherford’s book Tribes on the Hill written in *1985* could be used as a prescient analysis and prediction of our increasingly tribal political apparatus.”

Politics and Anthropology

Understanding the question of “Why does politics matter?” takes us into some fundamental issues of anthropological study. How do people organize themselves? How is this organization related to the economic system? The question of “why does politics matter?” is about “the role of power in human societies” (Lavenda & Schultz 2015:350).

Early Assumptions about “Why Does Politics Matter?”

When anthropologists began their field studies, many believed that European and American institutions were the correct form of government, law, and political order (Lavenda & Schultz:352). These ideas are part of a deep view of human nature which dates to Thomas Hobbes and the “war of all against all” (in Lavenda & Schultz:352). Economists eventually promoted Hobbesian ideas for running economic systems, assuming a free market balances self-interest. But in politics, Hobbes insisted that state government is necessary to prevent political chaos.

One result of these views is we commonly assume others are warped, primitive, or lacking, in “state-less” societies. Such attitudes correspond to contemporary ideas of a need for “spreading democracy,” even if it must be imposed by military means.

Early anthropologists investigated how people displayed amazing feats of organization, such as Big Mokas (see film below). Anthropologist spent a lot of time investigating social organization without a state (Evans-Pritchard with the Azande in Lavenda & Schultz:352). Anthropologists wondered about resistance to colonial rule (Evans-Pritchard among the Nuer).

At times, anthropologists assumed forms of kinship were organizing principles without state government. This went with an assumption that in other societies they mix kinship and politics, whereas our evolved society is a meritocracy.

Anthropology’s Holistic Understanding: Why does Politics Matter?

Anthropology challenges the idea of “lack” or “absence” in non-state societies. Anthropology also challenges the idea that in modern societies, kinship and gender become less relevant to politics (Lavenda & Schultz:359). This is an important point of Jack Weatherford’s article “Tribal Politics in Washington” (interestingly, we also saw Weatherford comment on Potosi & Capitalism). And remember that Weatherford’s article was written before the election of George W. Bush (2000) and the candidacy of Hillary Clinton (2008 & 2016). As Lavenda & Schultz put it “kinship continues to play a significant role in people’s political lives, even in contemporary settings, in which it would not necessarily be expected to do so” (2015:360).

Anthropology provides tools for analyzing politics

Gramscian ideas of domination and hegemony have been influential (Lavenda & Schultz 2015:352-353)

Another set of interesting concepts anthropologists adopt to describe power and state politics are “Biopower and Governmentality” (Lavenda & Schultz:355-356). Governmentality is a concept originally developed by French theorist Michel Foucault. Lavenda & Schultz employ a definition of governmentality that “involves using the information encoded in statistics to govern in a way that promotes the welfare of populations within a state” (2015:356). There are certainly benefits to such a shift in ideas about governance. However, “the fact remains that providing the government (or any bureaucratic institution) with detailed vital statistics can be threatening, especially in cases where people are concerned that the state does not have their best interests at heart” (Lavenda & Schultz:356).

Power & Nation

Lavenda & Schultz use the case of Sri Lanka to describe how anthropologists consider ideas of power and nation. “Anthropologist Michael Woost described how the government of Sri Lanka has used a wide range of cultural media to link the national identity to development” (Lavenda & Schultz:354).

Of course for Hartwick College anthropology we know anthropologist Michael Woost as Professor Mike Woost. Woost is offering three amazing courses for fall 2017: “Travel, Tourism, and Ethnography”; “Anthropology of Violence”; “Ethnographic Methods.”

And for more on issues of power, nation, and nationalism, see the material on the question Is Nationalism Bad?

Don’t be afraid to think big and differently about politics

Finally, and in relation to what we discussed about capitalism, Lavenda & Schultz provide a profound statement on “the paradox of the human condition” (2015:350):

On the one hand, open cultural creativity allows humans to imagine worlds of pure possibility; on the other hand, all humans live in material circumstances that make many of those possibilities profoundly unrealistic. We can imagine many different ways to organize ourselves into groups, but, as Marx pointed out long ago, the past weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.

At the same time, one of the interesting ways in which people have been imagining worlds of more open possibility is in regard to kinship, sex, and gender. This was the theme of the next class.

Another interesting resource for thinking big and differently about anthropology & politics are the thoughts published in a 2016 forum on Anthropological publics, public anthropology. The panel included a contribution from David Price who would later speak at Hartwick, invited by Mike Woost. Mayanthi Fernando’s concludes with a provocation:

It is simply not at all clear to me that the way forward–and this is intended as a provocation–is the reentrenchment of a liberal, deliberative, rational, and secular public sphere. . . I think that there is something else going on in this moment, and I think that something else is actually productive to think with. And I believe that we as anthropologists may be well equipped to do just that, to think with that, and to do politics in the United States and Europe in a way that actually marshals that non-liberal, non-secular mode of thought and action rather than tries to deny it.

Politics and Ongka’s Big Moka

This was a good time to view Ongka’s Big Moka as a way of linking various parts of what we did in the course:

  1. Language: What is Ongka saying?
  2. Economics: What is the Moka system?
  3. Politics (this class): What authority does Ongka have?
  4. Kinship: How does kinship intersect with economics & politics?
  5. What evidence of colonial encounters?
  6. The film series is titled “Disappearing World.” Is Ongka’s world disappearing?




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  • Judy Dianis

    Why do politics matter for anthropology? I think this is a question that most of us have. Lavenda and Schultz that politics are related to anthropology because the study of social power in human society (LS: 350). “Anthropology posed boarder questions about power and inequality.” Researchers were now interested in studying how power shaped lives. We actively work to reshape the way we live to help ourselves. Since several resources may be used for more than one thing, we must choose which resources we depend on (LS: 351). However, how do they study the politics, to find out the social power? In the start of political anthropology it was thought that the state was the prototype of civilized social power. They had assumptions that social living was not normal for mankind because they are born with “free agency- instincts that lead them to pursue their own self-interest above everything else and to challenge one another for dominance” (LS:352). In the article, “Tribal Politics in Washington”, Jack Weatherford, talks about the kinship that progresses through congress. It is seen as important with connections of kinship and marriage. Weatherford says, “Family ties easily transcend state and regional boundaries.” Members of the Congressional Kin have advantages within Congress. Have the advantage of there name being recognized, arrive in office at an earlier age, stay in office longer, and to begin serving already knowing how the game is played and having the right contacts for advancement. In the textbook, on page 359, Lavenda and Schultz talk about the presence of kinship in Thailand. Having shown people marry into the system. Stating that “kinship continues to play a significant role in people’s political lives, even in contemporary settings, in which it would not necessarily be expected to do so”(LS: 360).

  • Gina G

    I never really thought that politics would really matter in anthropology but apparently it does because anthropologist are interested in the role of power in human societies. In the textbook it says “the study of social power in human society is the domain of political anthropology” (350). Anthropologist used to believe that state was the prototype of ‘civilized’ social power. In the textbook it is easy to tell the anthropologist were interested in how power shaped lives and you can see power shaping lives in the reading by Jack Weatherford. In the article it talks about how kinship and marriage is an important because it was a big way of getting into congress “The importance of kinship was not confined to the Republican party; I soon found that a high proportion of the top-ranking Democrats were also connected by blood or marriage” (JW:37) This part of the article would fit well into the textbook when talking about ideology and domination because “ideology is a worldview that justifies the social arrangement under which people live.” In the article the ideology of Cokie Robert’s family or Jay Rockefeller’s family was to be apart of congress so that could dominate the playing field and have control of power.

  • Taylor Manzelli

    .I didn’t think about politics being involved or associated with anthropology. A quote that stood out to me the most was within the first page of the reading (pg.350): “people are hired to work long hours for low wages in unpleasant conditions to make clothing that they cannot afford to buy, even if it were available for sale in the communities where they live.” The harsh lines between social classes is evident of the extremely disproportionate distribution of power. The fact that there are people with enough money in this world to supply a family of people that cannot afford one week, with a lifetime of food, is crazy. These days there are laws that do help out those that are less fortunate, however most of the time they don’t provide that much assistance. If the wealthy or 1% could create or implement some sort of program that would provide some sort of assistance to help the lower classes. Considering the government isn’t really doing much, the wealthy are really the only other people that can help. The different groups of power are growing each day, and the line between the middle class and the upper class is becoming more and more distinguished rather than blurring.

    • Interesting thoughts. As discussed in class, it may be helpful to think about power as domination or power as hegemony in order to understand the acceptance of such an unequal system.

  • Patrick Skidgell

    On page 356 of the textbook it talks about governmentality. According to page 356 of the textbook governmentality “involves using the information encoded in statistics to govern in a way that promotes the welfare of populations within a state.” The textbook also gives an example. So for example state bureaucrats might use statistics to determine that a famine was likely and to calculate how much it might cost the state in the suffering and death of citizens and in other losses. Then they would come up with a plan of intervention, that is designed to reduce the impact of famine on citizens, protect economic activity within the state, and thereby preserve the stability of the state and its institutions.

    • Nice description of what might be considered the benefits of governmentality. May also want to think about how “the fact remains that providing the government (or any bureaucratic institution) with detailed vital statistics can be threatening, especially in cases where people are concerned that the state does not have their best interests at heart” (LS:356).

  • Kyle Kessler

    In the textbook on page 350 it talks about political anthropology. Lavender and Schultz say that it is the study of social power in human society. Joan Vincent says that ” political anthropology continues to be vital because it involves a complex interplay among ethnographic fieldwork, political theory and critical reflection on political theory. He says that there are three phases there is the formative era that earliest anthropological commentaries were produced. The classical era that the British social anthropology rooted in functionalist theory. Culture and politics are related because they help us answer questions about power and inequality.

    • Nice overview, although might be able to go further into the reading.

  • Paige Restivo

    Based on the readings for Thursday and our class discussion I would like to focus on answering my question that I sent in on Tuesday which was How does culture and anthropological fieldwork that we learned about in part 2 of the course play a role in politics? Lavenda and Schultz sort of cover the answer to this question in the section of Chapter 12 called How are Culture and Politics Related? starting on page 350 and going to page 352. Lavenda and Schultz start off this section of this chapter by defining the term of political anthropology as the study of social power in human society. Lavenda and Schultz bring in Joan Vincent who in recent years argues that political anthropology continues to be vital because it involves a complex interplay among ethnographic fieldwork, political theory, and critical reflection on political theory which is divided up into 3 phases the formative era, the classic era, and the time that anthropology of politics posed broader questions about power and inequality. Under the conditions of globalization, anthropologists are interested in studying power and explain how power shapes the lives of those who they carry out their research. A cross cultural study of the political institutions reveal a paradox of human condition. The other side of this is that open creativity allows humans to imagine worlds of pure possibility; on the other hand all humans live in material circumstances that make many of those possibilities profoundly unrealistic. Lavenda and Schultz then go on in the section to talk about Human beings actively work to reshape the environments in which they live to suit themselves. This is due to the resources available in any environment can be used to sustain more than one way of life, however, human beings must choose which aspects of the material world to depend on. Lavenda and Schultz finally go into the questions about human economic activity and how it is intertwined with the questions about the distribution of power in society and archeologists have suggested that population growth is a constant aspect of the human condition that determines forms of social organization. Lavenda and Schultz end this section of the chapter and answer my question on page 252 by saying “the answers offered to these questions by members of any particular society describe the niche they have constructed for themselves. By building social and political alliances and mobilizing technology and material resources to make a living, ways of life are scaffolded and sustained over time.” (L&S 252)

    • Great work here with the culture-and-politics question. Your page numbers at the end are a hundred off (352).

  • Terrill Davis

    As I was reading parts of chapter 12, I came across interesting facts that I did not know before. On page 350, it says, “Under conditions of globalization, Anthropologists interested in studying power have joined forces with scholars in other disciplines who share their concerns and have adopted ideas from influential political thinkers such as Antonio Gransci and Michel Foucault to help them explain how power shapes the lives of those among whom they carry out ethnographic research.” It is always interesting to the politicians collaborating with scholars to tackle such an issue that could impact our lives.

    • Good point which we will tackle more toward the end of the course, although you could use a bit more detail from other parts of the chapter.

  • Victoria Subik

    In the text it works on answering the question, how are culture and politics related? Political anthropology is the study of social power in human society. Joan Vincent explains how in recent years political anthropology continues to be important due to its complex interplay among ethnographic fieldwork, political theory, and critical reflection on political theory which is divided up into three phases. The three phases are the formative era, the classic era, and the time that anthropology of politics posed broader questions about power and inequality (L&S 351). With the conditions of globalization anthropologist are studying power and explaining how power shapes lives. By performing a cross cultural study of the political institutions it reveals a paradox of human condition. The other part of this is that open creativity allows humans to imagine the possibilities, although on the other hand all humans live in material circumstances that make many of these possibilities unrealistic (L&S 352). So why does politics matter for anthropology? It matters because politics are related to anthropology due to the study of social power in human society. Scientists explain how we actively work to reshape the way we live to help ourselves. Since several resources may be used for more than one thing, and that we must choose which resources we depend on (L&S 351).

  • Zach Simmonds

    Why does politics matter for anthropology? This is a question that is difficult to answer as it has many layers and angles that it can be approached at. L&S look at it through the lens of social power in human societies. They claim researchers attempt to explain how we work to change the way we live in order to better help ourselves. Working to change how we live gives us an upper hand over those around us and allows us to constantly readjust to an ever changing social landscape (L&S 352). Furthermore a cross cultural study has exposed a paradox of human condition. Meaning, people are inherently creative and it allows us to picture desirable possibilities however we are embedded in a materialistic culture that make these creative ideas almost unrealistic. All in all it would seem that political anthropology is an interesting field that discovers much about human nature. It allows us to see how the social power struggle has effected society, how individuals constantly adapt their immediate social environment to better succeed and how humans are in a sense paradoxical.

    • Good summary, although might go further into the readings to illuminate the points.

  • Stephen Junjulas

    The article touches on why politics matter in anthropology in a few sections. One part that stuck out to me was when it said “While Cokie Roberts pursued a careerin broadcasting, these other kids grew up to follow their fathers into political careers.” To me this kind of answers the questions as to why politics matter in anthropology because it is almost a right of passage. Just like in the article, many ancient societies have people that are given advantages in the political world just because they had relatives that were important political figures. This also seems to be a factor in today’s society where people that are related to politicians, typically become politicians themselves. This is important for anthropologists to study because it shows that the political system is kind of fixed based off of the relations in politics.

    • Yes, although this article is mostly about the continuing relevance of kinship in contemporary politics, it can also be interestingly applied to material we discussed on rites of passage.

  • Liam D. Kane

    Politics and anthropology seem like oil and water from the outside looking in but after reading the chapter and article it makes a lot of sense. From the beginning of time we’ve studied individuals who received “divine rights” separating them from ordinary citizens. Kings and queens turned into dictators and totalitarians. Political systems are extremely important to study, as we have seen throughout history, politicians can heavily impact/influence the way a society operates. From Hitler to Mandela, politically motivated humans have a platform that can change standpoints and ways of life. Studying politics is like looking through a window into the past.

    • Interesting thoughts in general, but would be good to link them to specific concepts, such as coercion, domination, and hegemony (LS:352-353).

  • Jessi-Lee Grant

    When we think about pairing anthropology and politics the two don’t seem to go together or have any sort of relation but they actually do. Even during the very early years of our planet we are shown that politics have always been a part of our life. When we think back to the Egyptians when anthropologists found these special tombs that had many nice and expensive artifacts, it was found out that those tombs were built for their emperors. On page 359 in L&S, it begins to talk about if politics, gender, and kinship related. This section discusses Thailand and their poltical belief system. It states ” In Northern Thailand, people belong to social groups called matrilineages, which are created by links made through women, and both men and women belong to the same matrilineages as their mother.” These social groups are very similar to political views of places like England where they still have a queen. If you were a royal it was better for you to be married to another royal. Back in the day it was to gain leadership over another country or land. This also relates to Thailands marriage residence, Once married a man leaves his families home and goes to live with his new wives family. This is because they tend to have people in the same matrilineage live close to one another.

  • Alice Spina

    Political anthropology is the study of social power in human society (LS:350). Whether we like to talk about it in anthropology or not, politics really does matter. In the definition of anthropology alone, it says that it is “the study of human nature, human society, and the human past.” (LS:5) Politics relates to all components of this definition, which is why it is relevant in the world of anthropology just as much as anything else anthropologists study. In fact, people’s lives, or portions of them, are directly impacted by politics. The video that we watched in class, “Ongka’s Big Moka” exemplifies how people live in accordance with their political system. The moka, which is a ceremony in which gifts are exchanged between groups of people with the expectation that they will be returned, is a huge part of Ongka’s life. And, because he didn’t have power over the people who were giving him pigs for the moka, he had to do the best he could to persuade them to help him out. The moka that took years in the making took over his life. If mokas didn’t exist, he would be living a very different life, but because they do exist, the effects that is has on his life and the lives of the people around him are great.

  • Brittanie R. Latour

    According to Lavenda and Schultz, political anthroplogy can be defined as the study of social power in human society (LS: 350). Something I found interesting within this chapter is the section about “How do Anthropologists Study Politics?”. Within this it talks about coercion and how in the beginning anthropologists were strongly influenced by earlier Western thinkers. It’s similar to how people today can be influenced by the opinions of their peers or people around them. Another point I found interesting was, “Anthropologists who consider both coercive and persuasive forms of power have to come to terms with the ambiguity of power both as a concept and as a phenomenon threaded into the fabric of everyday life” (LS 352). Sometimes people will submit to power because they’ve been coerced and fear the consequences of not submitting. For instance, with all of the technology we have now, people can be coerced into fear and submitting to power in the form of blackmailing. It’s easy to electronically get a text or email that can be held over someone in order to get what you want from them.

    • Interesting example, and definitely related to the forms of power discussed (LS:352-353).

  • Justin

    When reading this chapter on political anthropology it made me think back to one of the films that we watched a few weeks ago. According to L&S “Human societies are able to organize human inter-dependency successfully only if they find ways to manage relations of power among the different individuals and groups they comprise. “(L&S:350) The film that we watched in class was about an ancient civilization that was discovered and they had found different specialty buildings like a house for grain or pottery houses. In my opinion this immediately indicates that there had to be some form of organizing power in the area. This is how I felt that power dynamics within a society could fall into the area of anthropology. As the text states “The study of social power in human society is the domain of political anthropology. ” (L&S 350) As I read this text that was really the first example of how social power could really tie to anthropology and how relevant it was in studying ancient societies. Power plays a large role in the way a society functions and the direction that they choose to take. In the same way that in previous times when a leader would conquer a land the people of that land had to submit to the way of life of the new leader. Then this would be crucial in shaping the way this society developed and evolved.

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