Political Authority According to Ed and Fred

Both Edmund Leach (“Ed”) and Fredrick Barth (“Fred”) disputed the British Structuralists conception of society as a socially cohesive, culturally homogenous and territorially bound entity that used coercion (military force) to maintain itself. In their fieldwork, both anthropologists found proof of inherently unstable and diverse societies that used other means than coercion to maintain the political authority of its leaders. The following essay will compare and contrast each of their explanations of the forces that underwrote power and authority in Kachin and Pathan tribal societies respectively. Leach, who did his fieldwork during World War II in the Kachin society of Highland Burma was an mentor to Barth at Cambridge University. Barth did his field work with the tribal Pathans of the Swat Valley in highland Pakistan in the late 1940s.

Edmund Leach– “Ed”

Kachin House in northeast Burma

Kachin House in northeast Burma

The book Political Systems of Highland Burma by Edmund Leach is a description of the social structure of the Kachin hill tribes in northeast Burma from his fieldwork in 1939-46. In the book Leach challenges the British Structural-functional perspective that society exists in equilibrium and coheres and behaves like a living organism (Leach 2004[1959]:xii). Leach shows us that it is the inherent self-interest of individuals seeking power that collectively creates a social structure. However, Leach also shows that the social structure is inherently unstable and only appears to be organized systematically when the “facts fit [linguistic] categories” of each of the Kachin group’s contradictory ideals and values of what proper society is supposed to look like (Leach 2004[1959]:xii). At the time of his field work in Burma, Leach called himself a Functionalist but he also incorporates symbolic interpretation in his analysis of the myths and linguistics of the Kachin dialects.

Kachin State, Burma

Kachin State, Burma

Leach categorized and contextualized the different types of Kachin society based on their different values and social organization: autocratic Shan (who subsisted via wet-rice farming in verdant flat lands), democratic Kachin gumlao families (who subsisted as egalitarian dry-land rice farmers and traders in hillsides) and the intermediary group between the autocratic Shan and democratic Kachin: Kachin gumsa families (the ambitious Kachins who had the economic means to emulate the aristocratic Shan’s lifestyle and values (Leach 2004[1959]:8).

All three social types share a region and Buddhist religion but hold different values and, as such, have different associations with words that communicate their differing values and social organization. For example, the difference in the term “trade” to a land-owning autocratic Shan and tenant farmer Kachin communicate different values associated with commodity objects: the former as a source of profit, the later as a source of status. According to Leach, there is linguistic uniformity in socially stable communities but not in unstable ones where “some Kachin groups change their language very readily” in order to gain social status, power (Leach 2004[1959]:288).

One of the more interesting facets of Leach analysis to me was the inverse relationship between the importance of status objects and stability of social organization (Leach 2004[1959]:120). Individuals in a relatively unstable and upwardly mobile gumsa faction of Kachin society are required to re-assert their social status with frequent and ostentatious religious rituals with huge community feasts. In addition to being constantly pressured to re-distribute their wealth, they strive to own large homes, expensive status objects (with the less practical value the better) and ornate spirit houses (alters for local land spirits or hkungri) that give them a local supernatural legitimacy. The area all relatively perishable things they use to legitimize their status and political authority. The Kachin’s upwardly mobile gumsa factions contrast with the more stable “old money” social organization of the Shan and the Naga who have lifelong status from their elite lineages. As rich landowners or poor tenants, they “are born great” and their social status is ascribed at birth similar to a caste system (Leach 2004[1959]:162).  The few material status symbols they do have are stone menhirs that last for generations.

The Kachin society is inherently unstable. The gumsa political state tends to develop fractures as their Shan-like autocratic values clash with the egalitarian ideals of the Kachin gumlao factions, leading to rebellion. The gumlao political state lacks adequate cohesion and distinigrates over time (Leach 2004[1959]:198)

The political authority of a Kachin chief (duwa) depends on the support of his relatives and his personal economic prosperity. The factors that legitimized his political authority include:

1.     Mythology re-told to associate the chief with an elite lineage (the stories change with the chief’s changing status–history is re-written to support his political claim to authority); Each faction has it’s own version of myths where gumsa lineages claim aristocratic origins and glory in class distinctions and gumlao repudiate class distinctions

2.     Public rituals–ostentatious religious ceremonies and feasts–publicly legitimize the chief’s authority through tradition and resource re-distribution to the community

3.     Economic prosperity which allows purchase of status objects, land and makes possible the re-distribution of resources in ostentatious feasting rituals to relatives and regional supporters

4.     Language and dialects change as a formerly poorer Kachin changes his identity to a more elite Shan-like chief (Leach 2004[1959]:289)

To me there seems an obvious correlate with the materialism of American society. As a democratic society with gumlao-like egalitarian ideals, social status can be purchased via status objects. With enough economic means, an ambitious working-class gumlao type of American family can transform itself into a middle class and social climbing gumsa-type, and even into a wealthy and aristocratic Shan-type of family with adequate elite affinal associations and property ownership.

Fredrik Barth – “Fred”

According to Barth, a society’s political organization is produced collectively by  the choices of self-interested individuals.  Barth calls these choices “economic transactions” between individual actors as they are based on reciprocal acts of value (Erickson 2008:166; Gordon 2011:20). The Transactional Model directly challenged the British Structural model of political organization that held that a society must be “within a territorial framework” and was held together by social norms and the use or threat of physical force (Barth 1959:1). Barth first introduced the Transactional Model in his ethnographic monograph The Political Organization of Swat Pathans published in 1959 (Barth 2000[1959]).

White Palace, Swat Valley

White Palace, Swat Valley

In book Political Leadership Among the Swat Pathans describes the politics and social structure of the Pathans, an Islamic agrarian and feudal society with no centralized government in the remote Swat Valley in Pakistan during the time of Barth’s field work in the early1950s.

With no centralized government, the social order as well as the authority of the local secular chief or Pakhtun must constantly be re-affirmed through alliances based on his extravagant gift-giving (economic capital), his land-owning caste status and religious sanction through the local Islamic spiritual leaders of whom Barth calls Saints (symbolic capital). The Saints were, relatively-speaking in an area of endemic poverty, well-off landowners as well.

Swat Valley, Pakistan

Swat Valley, Pakistan

The political organization in the Swat Valley was based on social networks of authority/patronage and dependence. The relationships between the ruling chiefs and their followers were symbiotic and construed as webs with resources radiating from the chiefly center and lateral allegiances moving laterally and support moving inward towards the chief (Barth 2000[1959]: 87).  The factors of political authority included the following:

1.     Extreme social inequality that made most villagers dependent on their local wealthy landowning chief (khan) for subsistence; scarce land and “poverty and high child mortality rates made the majority of the village population completely dependent on the wealth distribution by chiefs” (Barth 2000[1959]: 79).

2.     Gifts and hospitality were the source of a chief’s authority “because of the recipients’ dependence on them” and the “continuous flow of gifts creates needs and foster dependency, and the threat of being cut off becomes a powerful disciplinary device” (Barth 2000[1959]: 79).

3.     Public feuds over “women, gold, land” created political contests that chiefs had to win in order to maintain their legitimacy as honorable men with military power and so  keep their influence over their followers (Barth 2000[1959]: 74).

In this analysis Barth refutes Radcliff-Brown’s structural-functionalist model of political organization as being based the maintenance of a social order with the threat of coercive force.  Barth maintains that the generation of political authority is through voluntary choices or economic transactions by individuals. It is Individuals who create the social order based on their individual self-interest rather than vice-a-versa per the structural-functionalist and Marxist views. Barth literally grounds his transactional theory in the material world with his ecological perspective, as well.

Cited Works

Barth, Frederik 2004 (1959) Political Leadership Among the Swat Pathans London School of Economics Monographs on Social Anthropology. Oxford: BERG.

Erickson, Paul A and Liam D. Murphy 2008 A History of Anthropological Theory. Buffalo, NY: Broadview Press.

Gordon, Robert, Andrew P. Lyons, and Harriet D. Lyons 2011 “Frederik Barth (1928–),” Fifty Key Anthropologists, Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 18-24.

Leach, E.R.  2004 [1959] Politcal Systems of Highland Burma: A Study of Kachin Social Structure, London School of Economics Monographs on Social Anthropology. Oxford: BERG.

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