Warfare and Society: Archaeological and Social Anthropological Perspectives

By Ton Otto; Henrik Thrane et al. | Go to book overview

9 War and Peace in Societies without Central Power:
Theories and Perspectives

JÜRG HELBLING

Since the late 1960s that is, after the decline of structural functionalism and under the impact of the various wars of independence and postcolonial wars in the Third World anthropology has again become more interested in conflicts and wars (Bohannan 1967; Fried, Harris and Murphy 1968). Various theories of war in societies without a central power have been fiercely debated in the last few decades.1 In the following article I will examine some aspects of war and peace and discuss those theories of war, which are in the centre of current discussions. I will not deal with civil wars and ethno-political wars, which have also occupied anthropological thinking in recent decades, nor will I discuss the contribution of war to the formation of states. Instead I shall concentrate on war and peace among tribal populations, which are not (no longer, or not yet) completely subordinated to a state power (Ensminger 1992: 143).2 These so-called tribal wars as can be observed still today in Amazonia, in the Highlands of New Guinea, in East Africa and elsewhere are of course not ‘modern wars’ (i.e. in the sense of wars for secession from a state or for the control of the state apparatus). But they are, nevertheless, wars occurring in the present world of states and in the context of an economic world system contexts, which have manifold impacts on these wars and modify their character.3

Besides discussing some concepts (such as war, conflict, feud and violence) as well as five important theories on war, I will deal with four issues which may be considered important for future research on war in anthropology. First, we should take into account theories of international relations, which may considerably inspire the anthropology of war. These theories are relevant for anthropology because states are political units waging war, as local groups in societies without a state are, and the logic and dynamics of war between states are, despite all the differences between ‘primitive’ and ‘civilised’ war (Keeley 1996), comparable to those in war between local groups. Second, the phenomenon of alliance has been neglected by anthropology so far, but this must be taken into consideration because whoever has to wage war also needs allies. Alliance formation influences the regional relation of force between warring local groups, and both victory and defeat may depend on the support of allies. Third, any theory of war also has to explain why in some (but few) tribal societies conflicts between local groups are never carried out by warlike means. Hence, we have to tackle the problem of explaining tribal societies without war. Fourth, the anthropology of war also has to consider the question of pacification. Pacification of warlike tribal groups is not only an interesting

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