Political Sociology and the Anthropological
Study of African Politics
The most basic question to which this work draws our attention is, quite simply: what is "the political"? The problem is of more than definitional interest, for only by means of some generally applicable conception of the political field can systems of widely varying kinds be made commensurable—be brought within range of comparative analysis. Faced with an extraordinarily wide variety of polities, from the great kingdoms of the Western Sudan and the interlacustrine region to the tiny autonomous kinship groups of the Khalahari Bushmen, anthropologists working in Africa have sought to define a field of comparative political study which would encompass them all. Clearly the former have kinds of political apparatus that the latter have not—hence the common practice of terming the latter "stateless" or "acephalous." But this need not mean that the less differentiated societies lack politics or political systems of any sort.
The solution to which social anthropologists concerned with African polities have tended in their search for a universal conception of the political— and in this their thinking has converged with that of many sociologists and political scientists—involves considering the polity and its major constituent elements as analytical, functional concepts. As in the work of Parsons, Levy, Easton and others, the polity or political system is viewed, not as a concretely distinct part of the social system, but rather as a
functional aspect of the whole social system: that aspect concerned with making and carrying out decisions regarding public policy, by whatever institutional means. 1 Of course the political system operates through actual social groups and relations, but these need not be specialized "governmental" or "state" organizations. Just as political scientists have increasingly come to the view that in modern Western societies the political system cannot be adequately understood if attention is confined to the formal organization of government, so social anthropologists working in Africa have concluded that the absence of such organization is not most profitably interpreted as an absence of political institutions and processes as such. And just as political scientists and political sociologists have been led to examine the political functions of classes, occupational groups, religious communities and "non-political" associations, so social anthropologists have found polities, where none seemed to exist, by examining the activities of multifunctional social groups—particularly the unilineal descent groups, or lineages, which are so common in Africa. Even where over-arching state organization, consisting of rulers and their subordinates, does not exist, they have concluded, decisions regarding public policy are made and carried out through the activities of such groups. 2 Of course the fact that political organization in such societies is not clearly differentiated from, say, that of economics and religion—the fact that the people who are together concerned with the formation and execution of public policy are the same as those who work and worship together—has important consequences for the nature of the political process in____________________