This article applies Bourdieu's notion of symbolic capital to an analysis of political processes in the small chiefdoms of South Pare Mountain in northeastern Tanzania between 1700 and 1900. Regional exchange of cattle and exotic goods interacted with other social processes to create political change in societies with incipient political centralization. Political legitimization was based on the symbolic capital of ritual preeminence which demanded investment of economic resources. Regional exchange and the development of long-distance ivory and slave trade on the East African coast increased the cost of symbolic capital and exacerbated competition for political power. (East Africa, South Pare, history, political economy, chiefdoms, exchange, politics, ritual)
The emergence of political centralization and the dynamics of chiefdoms have recently become central issues in archaeology (Earle 1991; Johnson and Earle 1987; Upham 1990; Hayden 1995). Although that research builds upon earlier theoretical work by cultural anthropologists and is based on ethnographic material, the topic has declined in salience in the field of ethnology. Many archaeologists are also now of the opinion that the utility of ethnographic comparisons has reached its limit, and that research should focus instead on long-term archaeological sequences of chiefdom developments (e.g., Earle 1991). However, in a recent article, Roscoe (1993; cf. Thomas 1996) calls for renewed attention from cultural anthropology to the topic and for collaboration between the two fields in order to develop models based on current social theory (e.g., Giddens 1986; Bourdieu 1990).
This article takes up that challenge by applying Bourdieu's notion of symbolic capital to an analysis of political processes in the small chiefdoms of the South Pare Mountain in northeastern Tanzania between 1700 and 1900.(1) During this period, South Pare societies were part of an exchange system involving food, ivory, and slaves. These items were bartered for prestige goods in the form of livestock from pastoralists, and exotic valuables such as cloth, beads, and metals from coastal traders involved in the Indian Ocean trade. This article takes a diachronic perspective to demonstrate how the exchange of prestige goods interacted with other social processes to create political change in societies with incipient centralization. The analysis leads to a hypothesis about how political centralization may have emerged in these chiefdoms.
Several authors have observed a relationship between the density of exchange networks and availability of prestige goods on the one hand, and the degree of political centralization on the other (Ekholm 1977; Kipp and Schortman 1989). For Melanesia and Polynesia, Brunton (1975), Friedman (1981), and Persson (1983) show that where valuables necessary for social payments cannot be controlled by any group, political organization is highly competitive and acephalous; while in regions where sources of valuables are few and exchange networks circumscribed, chiefly hierarchies occur. However, the development of incipient political centralization from acephalous social organization involves something more than the control of prestige goods. Cross-culturally, chiefly status and institutions were based on legitimacy, often of a ritual nature. The ritual power of chiefs in Africa is well known. The structural-functionalists saw it as an integrative force for maintenance of the social system (Fortes and Evans-Pritchard 1940). The Marxists view ritual power as legitimizing ideology; a smoke screen for exploitation by elites (Meillassoux 1981:86f.). Both approaches pay little attention to the fact that ideology is costly. Emerging elites cannot simply claim ritual power and expect to be believed. Ideology is rooted in prevailing cosmologies and social norms which may not lend themselves to easy centralization. But Bourdieu's (1990) notion of symbolic capital, while admittedly vague, may better reflect the role of ritual in the politics of chiefdoms and acephalous societies (cf. …