Politische Anthropologie

In einer Zeit, in der an Universitäten die Fächer aus dem Boden spriesen wie Pilze und bei einigen nicht klar ist, welcher Epistemologie, welcher Methode und welchem Erkenntnisinteresse sie folgen, ist es sinnvoll, den Blick auf die Fächer zu richten, die in der Vergangenheit, in den 1960er und 1970er Jahren einen Anspruch erhoben haben, ein eigenständiges Fach zu sein und vor allem darauf, wie sie das getan haben.

Eines dieser Fächer ist die politische Anthropologie. Der Anspruch, eigenständiges Fach zu sein, hat George Balandier unter anderem wie folgt formuliert:

“As a discipline aspiring to the status of a science, political anthropology is first of all a mode of recognition and knowledge of ‘other’, exotic political forms. It is an instrument for the discovery and study of the various institutions and practices that constitute the government of men, and the systems of thought on which they are based. When Montesquieu develops the notion of oriental despotism (suggesting an ideal type in Max Weber’s sense), places the society thus defined in a class of their own and reveals political traditions different from those of Europe, he shows himself to be one of the earliest founders of political anthropology. Indeed, the place accorded to this model of political society in Marxist and neo-Marxist thought is proof of the importance of this contribution.

Montesquieu is, in fact, the initiator of a scientific enterprise that for a time performed the role of cultural and social anthropology. He draws up an inventory showing the diversity of human societies, based on ancient history, travellers’ ‘descriptions’ and observations concerning foreign or strange countries. He sketches a method of comparison and classification, a typology; this leads him to give particular value to the political sphere and, in a way, identifies the types of society according to their modes of government. With a similar aim in view, anthropology first attempted to determine cultural areas and sequences on the basis of techno-economic criteria, the elements of civilization and the forms of political structures. Thus the ‘political’ becomes a relevant criterion for the differentiation of whole societies and civilizations, sometimes it is given a privileged scientific status. Political anthropology is seen as a discipline concerned with ‘archaic’ societies in which the state is not clearly constituted and societies in which the state exists and takes on a wide variety of forms. It must of course confront the problem of the state’s origins and early forms: in devoting one of his principal works (The Origin of the State, 1927) to this question, Lowie returned to the same preoccupations as those of the pioneers of anthropological research.


By postponing the methodological study of ‘primitive systems of political organisation’, anthropologists have opened a way to negative interpretations by theoreticans, foreign to their discipline, who deny the existence of such systems. These questions suggest the principal aims of political anthropology and continue to define it:

a. A determination of the political that links it neither to ‘historical’ societies alone, nor to the existence of a state apparatus.

b. An elucidation of the formation and transformation of political systems by means of research parallel with that of the historian; although the confusion of the ‘primitive’ and the ‘first’ is generally avoided the examination of evidence relating to early times (to ‘the true youth of the world’ in Rousseau’s phrase) or to periods of transition, is still accorded especial attention.

c. A comparative study, apprehending the different expressions of political reality, not within the limits of a particular history, that of Europe, but in its entire historical and geographical extension. In this sense, political anthropology wishes to become anthropology in the full sense of the term. It helps to reduce the ‘provincialism’ of the political scientists denounced by Aron to construct ‘the world history of political thought’ desired by Parkinson” (Balandier, Political Anthropology, pp-3-5).