Anthropology of State Power

In Anthropological Theory for the 21st Century we read about the anthropology of state power:

This material was for The History of Anthro Thought 2024 after reading the section “On Environment” we began the section “On State Power” with three readings:

  • Pierre Bourdieu, “Symbolic Power” (1977)
  • Begoña Aretxaga, “What the Border Hides: Partition and Gender Politics of Irish Nationalism” (1998)
  • Katherine Verdery, “Seeing like a mayor. Or, how local officials obstructed Romanian land restitution” (2002)

Next up was Necropolitics

The Anthropology of State Power

When exploring the anthropology of state power, we must first clarify what we mean by “state.” In this context, we’re not referring to individual U.S. states like Connecticut or New York, but to national governments and systems of power. Traditionally, anthropology focused on studying “non-state” societies–places without the typical trappings of state power such as bureaucracies, codified legal systems, prisons, or formal militaries.

Max Weber famously defined the state as an entity claiming a monopoly on the legitimate use of force within a given territory. However, understanding state power through an anthropological lens has become increasingly crucial, especially as we recognize that even seemingly “stateless” societies were often formed in relation to state societies, whether in pre-colonial, colonial, or post-colonial contexts.

The Ethnographic Advantage in Studying State Power

Katherine Verdery, a pioneer in the anthropology of state power, argues that “only ethnography can adequately reveal” (343) the true nature of state power. Other disciplines, she contends, are often too removed from the local scene or fail to question their own biases. While political scientists have made valuable contributions to understanding governance, their approaches sometimes struggle to capture the nuanced realities on the ground.

Verdery’s ethnographic work in Romania before and after the fall of socialism demonstrated that “the Party’s central control was always weaker than it pretended to be” (343). She observed, for instance, how local officials often bent rules or engaged in informal economies, undermining the supposed totalitarian control. This insight challenges the notion of totalitarian states as all-powerful entities, revealing instead their “relative weakness” (347) when viewed from the ground level. She pointedly asks, “Is this further evidence of the problems inherent in research methods that overemphasize the view from the top?” (347), highlighting the unique contribution of anthropological approaches to understanding state power.

Bourdieu and the Symbolic Dimensions of State Power

Pierre Bourdieu’s work offers crucial insights into how people’s actions can reproduce systemic hierarchies even as they strive for change, a key consideration in the anthropology of state power. Bourdieu argues that symbolic practices are critical in understanding this phenomenon, navigating between crude Marxist interpretations and perspectives that treat symbolic realms as entirely separate from social order.

Bourdieu describes symbolic systems as “instruments of knowledge which exert a structuring power insofar as they are structured” (332). To illustrate this complex idea, consider how educational systems not only impart knowledge but also instill certain ways of thinking and behaving that align with existing social structures. The very concepts we use to understand society are shaped by that society, creating a self-reinforcing cycle.

Furthermore, Bourdieu argues that “the dominant class is the locus of a struggle for the hierarchy of the principles of hierarchization” (333). We can see this play out in debates over what constitutes “merit” in society. Those in power might emphasize certain forms of education or cultural knowledge, effectively reinforcing their own position at the top of the social hierarchy.

The relevance of Bourdieu’s ideas to the anthropology of state power becomes particularly apparent when considering recent political phenomena that have confounded traditional political science approaches. The rise of Donald Trump, for instance, challenges conventional understandings of political behavior. Trump’s ability to garner support from demographics that seemingly vote against their economic interests can be better understood through Bourdieu’s concepts of symbolic power and cultural capital. For example, Trump’s brash communication style and supposed business background became forms of cultural capital that resonated with certain groups, despite going against traditional political norms.

Nationalism, Affect, and State Power

Begoña Aretxaga’s work on nationalism provides another crucial perspective in the anthropology of state power. Building on Benedict Anderson’s concept of nations as “imagined communities,” Aretxaga argues that “We need to understand how particular political imaginaries articulate with the symbolic universe of nationalism in order to account for its affective power” (339). She suggests that nationalism’s emotional power stems from its “unconscious connection to formations of desire” (339), often linked to ideas of gender and family.

This affective dimension helps explain why people can become intensely invested in distant borders or react strongly to perceived threats to national identity–phenomena that often baffle approaches relying solely on rational actor models. Aretxaga uses the example of Ireland to illustrate how national identity can be complicated by political realities. She notes that “The Irish nation-state came into being on the condition of losing the six counties that form Northern Ireland. From within the discourse of Irish nationalism, partition meant that the Irish nation came into being as a nation-state on condition of negating its self-identity as nation” (341).

This paradox–that Ireland had to give up part of its perceived national territory to become a nation-state–reveals the complex interplay between political realities and national imaginaries. (See also the Intro-to-Anthropology class on Is nationalism bad?)

Conclusion: The Unique Contribution of the Anthropology of State Power

The anthropology of state power offers unique insights into how governance operates at various levels of society. By combining ethnographic methods with theoretical frameworks that consider symbolic and affective dimensions, anthropologists can reveal complexities that might be missed by disciplines focused solely on formal political structures or quantitative data.

This nuanced understanding has practical implications for addressing contemporary issues in governance and international relations. For instance, it can inform more effective policy-making by highlighting the importance of local contexts and symbolic meanings. It can also provide valuable insights for conflict resolution, especially in cases where national identities and state boundaries are contested.

As our world grapples with changing forms of governance, rising nationalism, and evolving state-citizen relationships, the anthropology of state power will continue to be a vital tool for understanding and navigating these complex dynamics.

Recap

In Anthropological Theory for the 21st Century we read about the anthropology of state power:

This material was for The History of Anthro Thought 2024 after reading the section “On Environment” we began the section “On State Power” with three readings:

  • Pierre Bourdieu, “Symbolic Power” (1977)
  • Begoña Aretxaga, “What the Border Hides: Partition and Gender Politics of Irish Nationalism” (1998)
  • Katherine Verdery, “Seeing like a mayor. Or, how local officials obstructed Romanian land restitution” (2002)

Next up was Necropolitics


Living Anthropologically means documenting history, interconnection, and power during a time of global transformation. We need to care for others as we attempt to build a world together. This blog is a personal project of Jason Antrosio, author of Fast, Easy, and In Cash: Artisan Hardship and Hope in the Global Economy. For updates, subscribe to the YouTube channel or follow on Twitter.

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