The relationship between Political Science and Social Anthropology

On principle, social anthropology is concerned with the social struc­ture and culture of the primitive peoples. Social anthropology, despite its variants in the US, Europe and Asia, restricts itself to the study of the cultural and social ways of life of the people.

On the other hand, quite opposite to the anthropological tradition, politics and for that matter political science is concerned with power and authority. The realms of focus are different; access to society is also different. But there are very close relations between the two disciplines.

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The traditional textbooks of social anthropology tread the oft-re-peated track of defining a particular discipline, show its subject matter and scope and finally mention the relationship. This does not take into consideration the empirical research position of the relationship of the two disciplines. We have taken a departure from such a tradi­tion.

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Sometime back M.J. Swartz observed that “politics is parasitical on other social relationships”. If we make an effort to study the role of politics in society, it would soon be evident that all societies have some mechanism to maintain law and order. There are some agencies that exercise constraint on property taxes, torture and genocide.

The all-embracing concern of politics is to maintain law and order and im­plement the rights of citizens, effect conflict resolution and encourage social integration. Thus, political science and social anthropology go hand in hand. This establishes the relationship of these two disci­plines.

There is a special branch of anthropology which is known as po­litical anthropology. John Gledhill has brought out a study on the political behaviour of primitives, Power and its Disguises: Perspectives on Political Anthropology. A similar study by John Middleton and David Tait deals with the African tribes who do not have rulers and states.


Works of this kind very well establish that social and political anthropologies are very close in their perspectives. Both have a com­mon theme of political activities.

The only difference is that political science is concerned with the political behaviour of the modern socie­ties, whereas social anthropology studies the political behaviour of primitive peoples. Thus, in the domain of approach and perspective, both the disciplines are quite close. The differences arise when we dis­cuss their perspectives.

One very important thing about politics is that all the primitive societies, which anthropology has studied, do not have political insti­tutions. In modern state societies, it may seem fairly easy to delineate what is politics and what is not.

Political science, as we find it today, deals with the formal political institutions; with a legislative assembly, local administration, voting patterns and other aspects of a society rec­ognized as political.


The situation of primitive society is altogether different. A few of them do not have any state. Very often, in such stateless societies, kinship and religion are, in practice, indistinguish­able from politics.

The basic question raised by political anthropologists in the study of primitives is: when there is no state in these tribal communities, how are they integrated and what keeps them disciplined? Such an en­quiry made by political anthropology brings it closer to social anthropology.

One very common feature of social anthropology and political science is that they both study power. In short, power as it was defined during the old days by Max Weber, is the ability to en­force one’s own will on others’ behaviour.

It means that power gives the ability to a person or a group to make someone do something they would otherwise not have done. According to Weber, people have power over each other. What is important about the distribution of power is that it is not equally distributed.

Thus, it can be concluded that both these disciplines start on a similar track, but as they go ahead and bring out their empirical gener­alizations, the differences arise.


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