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Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Anthropology of power

Power is commonly seen as the ability to influence the decision making of the other. In turn power influences the behaviour of the other. Major anthropological descriptions of the dynamics and institutions of power have until recently had a markedly Western bias. Thus, other systems of power often have been described as alternatives or variations of those found in Western industrial contexts. Major issues informing the direction of research appear to have been influenced by the problem of order, as first laid out by Thomas Hobbes (1651) in his discussion of the need for the state. Undoubtedly, the centrality of this question for early anthropologists related to the imperial dominance of the West and the development of anthropology in such a context. An early and important focus of anthropological inquiry concerned so-called "stateless societies." EVANS-PRITCHARD's classic study of the Nuer (1940) became the model for such investigation and demonstrated that the forces located in KINSHIP and other social processes obviated any necessary need for the state in the promotion of order. Evans-Pritchard implied that state forms are a potential, given certain historical conditions such as invasion or colonial conquest, of non-state systems.

Early roots:

The concept of power is rooted from such nineteenth-century theorists of social evolution as Sir Henry MAINE (1861), who distinguished societies organized by status and by contract in LAW, and Lewis Henry MORGAN's (1877) distinction between kinship and territory as the basis for the organization of GOVERNMENT. In addition it owes much to the discussions about the relationships between moral order and SOCIAL ORGANIZATION found in the writings of Emile DURKHEIM (1933), Max WEBER (1968), and Karl Marx (1887). More recent infusions of theory have come from social scientists such as Michel Foucault (1977b), Pierre Bourdieu (1977), and Anthony Giddens (1984), who focus on the structure of POWER in society.

Power and inequality:

While most anthropological analyses of power have investigated social stratification and hierarchy, some have looked at forms of social organization which assure that power is not individually concentrated, as in the industrial collectives or collectives not organized within state societies. Just as Marx was preoccupied with the question of how labourers came to give up their labour power, anthropologists have studied historically, and prehistorically, the question of how individuals might have come to dominate groups and how one group might have come to dominate another. Archaeological theorizing of inequality has been accompanied with methodological innovations in studying relational power over time (McGuire and Paynter 1991).
Social theorists Max Weber and Émile Durkheim influenced anthropological conceptualization of bureaucratic power in state societies and the perpetuation of institutional authority. Anthropological studies of social movements and state-making, and of national policy, have furthered conceptualization of institutional power and the rituals of its replication. Legal anthropologists, too, have studied cross-culturally the different systems through which power is legitimized, enforced, and contested.

Studies on institutional power:

Anthropologists undertaking studies of institutional power must engage the debates formulated within sociology about structure and agency. C. Wright Mills (1956) argued influentially that social stratification and hierarchy are forcefully maintained by the ‘power elite’, those who, between themselves, mobilize the power to transcend ‘ordinary’ social environments and make decisions that pertain to the lives of people they will never meet, in nations they might never visit. This kind of structural analysis can be seen, for example, in anthropological studies of the itinerant power of transnational corporations. Class analysis has been used by anthropologists to study inequality in many social contexts, not all of them industrialized (see, again, McGuire and Paynter 1991). Anthropologists have also argued that class analysis has its limits, especially in contexts where exploitation is multidirectional, and have been drawn to reformulations of historical materialism, as in Giddens’s theory of structuration—in which ‘power is regarded as generated in and through the reproduction of structures of domination’ (Giddens 1981:4), across time and space, whether those structures of domination rely on the allocation of material resources (as emphasized by Marx) or on, for example, information and surveillance.

Colonial influence over the anthropology of power

Colonial process has considerable influence over anthropology of power. While colonial political structures gave rise to early anthropological studies of the distribution of power through political systems, they also stimulated a variety of intriguing critiques, led most notably in anthropology by Asad (1973) and those in his collection, Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter. Writers outside anthropology greatly influenced the way many anthropologists have conceptualized power and powerlessness, whether between colonizers and colonized or within societies as similar power relations, racialized, have been enacted. Colonial and neo-colonial relations between nations became a useful trope for anthropologists seeking to critique institutional power and the discipline of anthropology’s epistemological role in perpetuating institutionalized power relations. Colonial critiques made more obvious, for example, the ways in which ‘observers’ assigned themselves the power to summarize others’ experience (and that power was reinforced through institutional resources and legitimacy), and the ‘observed,’ as encapsulated in those analyses anyway, were without the power to define themselves or assert autonomy in many other ways. A ‘reinvented’ or ‘decolonized’ anthropology was envisioned as work done by anthropologists with diverse ethnic, class, and political identities on not only traditional topics, but also, as Nader put it (in Hymes 1969), ‘studying up’: to really learn how those who held institutional power did so, and to use that knowledge to address—rather than simply document—social inequalities.

Concept of Hegemony in anthropology and power:

Hegemony, the concept of totalizing power (in which the state and/or a popular majority dominate, through every means, ‘civil society’) articulated by Gramsci (1971), provided anthropologists with a way to think about pervasive institutionalized power. The Subaltern Studies group (Guha and Spivak 1988), worked through a critical deconstruction of colonial historiography to recognize the powerful ways in which colonial subjects had been left without a voice in strategic discussions of their dentity, resources, and future. Earlier, as anthropologists in the US and in France rethought the political role of intellectuals in reaction to their nations’ protracted war in Vietnam, the concept of hegemony became a way to think about how the state did indeed have agency, through a militarized institutional apparatus, to repress—ideologically, socially, and physically– those citizens who held contradictory views about state actions. That was also a time when, in anthropology, theories of resistance took their cue from political movements.

Foucaultian influence over anthropology of power:

The social theorist who has most shaped anthropologists’ recent discussions of power is Michel Foucault (1980), although not all those writings influenced by him reproduce Foucault’s views of power.
‘Power in the substantive sense, “le” pouvoir, doesn’t exist…power means…a more-or-less organised, hierarchical, co-ordinated cluster of relations’ (1980:198), despite the fact that it ‘is never localised here or there, never in anybody’s hands, never appropriated as a commodity’ (1980:98), never alienable or transferable. Foucault rejects what he calls the juridical/liberal/economic view of power as ‘that concrete power which every individual holds, and whose partial or total cession enables political power or sovereignty to be established’ (1980:88). Yet he sometimes reifies power as beyond individual or even collective control: ‘the impression that power weakens and vacillates…is…mistaken; power can retreat…reorganise its forces, invest itself elsewhere’ (1980:56).
In contrast to the binary views of power articulated by so many, whether cast in terms of gendered power relations focusing on patriarchy and those oppressed by it, or domination and resistance, Foucault saw power as being produced and reproduced through constant social interaction, from many different directions. He countered arguments about power as constituted through structural positions between individuals or social classes with arguments about power as being problematic, contested, and requiring constant, disciplined persuasion to convince those construed as powerless of their powerlessness and those construed as powerful of their powerfulness. Although he wrote about institutional sites as important for reproducing power relations, Foucault (1981:93) described power as ‘not an institution, and not a structure; neither is it a certain strength we are endowed with; it is the name that one attributes to a complex strategical situation in a particular society’. Influenced by Foucault’s analysis, Kondo (1990:307) stated in her ethnography of the crafting of identity in Japan that power is ‘creative, coercive, and coextensive with meaning’. A view of power as not simply embedded in structural relations—maintained by force of one kind or another—but also as constituted through language and everyday practice (Bourdieu 1991) engendered many ethnographies exploring the specific, historicized ways in which power has been constructed and challenged in different social contexts (cf. Comaroff 1985). Foucault’s work has drawn anthropological attention to the relational aspects of power, with a concentration on the contexts of actions and interpretations, and away from structural control of resources by individuals with fairly static institutional authority. Some critics of Foucault think that attention has strayed, in the late 1980s and 1990s, too far from structural power; some feminist theorists, for example, have argued that Foucault and other writers of postmodern social criticism have—while meaning to eliminate ‘big stories’—replaced binary structural models of power which have been useful for theorizing oppression (especially by those working to understand the social mechanism of their own disempowerment) with a less useful totalizing model of overdetermination (e.g. power is everywhere, thus what social site does one go about working to transform?). They also argue that, once again, the ‘powerless’ have not been left space, or agency, in the discussion to articulate their own theories of power. (This, of course, has continued to happen despite the actions of any social theorist.) The historical focus that Foucault brought to his discussion of the disciplining of bodies and minds through hospitals, prisons, courts, and schools, has had its effect in medical, legal, and educational anthropology, or at least coincided with trends in these and other areas of anthropological study, as more anthropologists have turned from synchronic ethnographic studies to diachronic discussions of social institutions. For example, Emily Martin’s comparative study of birthing practices (1987) demonstrates the institutional ways in which women are empowered or disempowered in relation to control of their own bodies and actions. Anthropologists have been informed, also, by researchers working in sociology and other disciplines on collective—or participatory—research strategies that challenge the epistemological leverage of an ‘expert,’ whether the researcher or some other person asserting ‘legitimate authority’ in a social setting, and recentre the ‘subjects’ of study as those with the power to legitimize research design and documentation.

Further reading:

Cheater, A. (Ed.).(1999). The Anthropology of Power: Empowerment and Disempowerment in Changing Structures. London: Routledge
Lem, W., and Leach, B. (2002). Culture, Economy, Power: Anthropology as Critique and Praxis. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Lewellen, T. C., (2003). Political Anthropology: An Introduction. London: Praeger


  1. Hi Suman,
    I am writing an essay about power and how anthropologists have produced more complex notions of 'power'. I have no idea where to start. If you have ideas please please help me :)
    Thank you

    1. Emily,

      I can send you some electronic materials if you want. In a couple of days I am going to post an updated version of "Anthropology of Power" in this blog. Do check with that as well. The topic on which you are going to write an essay is formidable if you want to consider domain of power outside the strict purview of so called political anthropology. Mail me if you need study materials.