Human groups have developed ways in which public decision-making, leadership, maintenance of social cohesion and order, protection of group rights, and safety from external threats are handled. Anthropologists identify these as political systems or political organizations. In studying political systems, anthropologists have learned about the myriad ways that people acquire power, or the ability to get others to do what one wants, and authority, or socially acceptable ways in which to wield power. While political anthropologists and political scientists share an interest in political systems, political anthropologists are interested in the political systems from all different types of societies while political scientists focus on contemporary nation-states.
Anthropologists use a typological system when discussing political organization. Introduced by Elman Service in 1962, the system uses “…types of leadership, societal integration and cohesion, decision-making mechanisms, and degree of control over people” (Bonvillain 2010: 303) to categorize a group’s political organization. Service identified four types of political organizations: bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and states that are closely related to subsistence strategies. As with any typological system, these types are ideals and there is variation within groups. Political organization can be thought of as a continuum with groups falling in between the ideals. It is important to note that today the various types of political organizations operate within the modern nation-state system.
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