In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Political Anthropology

  • Introduction
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Evolutionism and Historical Particularism

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Anthropology Political Anthropology
Ajantha Subramanian
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0018


Political anthropology emphasizes context, process, and scale. The field has been most concerned with the contextual specificity of political processes and the mechanisms through which localities are differentially incorporated into larger scales of social, economic, and political life. Whereas political anthropology inhabits much of the same analytical ground as political science in considering phenomena such as state formation, democracy, citizenship, rights, and development, political anthropologists challenge normative assumptions of what counts as “politics” by illuminating connections between formal and informal political arenas, and among cultural, social, and political processes. There is a key internal distinction that has marked political anthropology virtually from the outset: that between a structuralist approach emphasizing the systemic nature of power and the role of political behavior and institutions in social reproduction, and a processual approach that highlights conflict, contradiction, and change. Significantly, political anthropology has been distinguished from other fields of anthropology by its relative lack of preoccupation with “culture” as an analytical category; most political anthropologists focus instead on social inequality, institutional dynamics, and political transformation. To put it differently, political anthropologists typically think of their research sites relationally and dynamically, and not in terms of enduring difference from a purported mainstream.


Several volumes provide overviews of work in political anthropology, and together they mark shifts in the themes and approaches of the field. Swartz, et al. 1966 marks a shift from an older structuralist analysis to a focus on political processes, highlighting in particular the role of conflict, authority, ritual, and boundary-making in the politics of decolonization. Vincent 1978 also elaborates a processual approach to politics but draws attention to interest, strategy, and the role of individuals within wider political dynamics. Lewellen 1992 offers a comprehensive survey of 20th-century trends in political anthropology, whereas Vincent 1990 situates Anglophone anthropological work on politics in its broader historical context. Finally, Vincent 2002 and Nugent and Vincent 2004 are masterful collections of essays that convey the breadth of political anthropological scholarship, including the thematic continuities and shifts that comprise the field.

  • Lewellen, Ted C. 1992. Political anthropology: An introduction. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.

    Very useful and comprehensive overview of the history of political anthropology that illuminates shifting trends in context, from structural-functionalism, through process theory, to the impact of theoretical work on postmodernism and globalization.

  • Nugent, David, and Joan Vincent, eds. 2004. A companion to the anthropology of politics. Oxford: Blackwell.

    Follows Vincent 2002, offering essays on central themes in political anthropology by leading anthropologists. Themes include citizenship, cosmopolitanism, development, feminism, globalization, hegemony, identity, and postcolonialism.

  • Swartz, Mark, Victor Turner, and Arthur Tuden, eds. 1966. Political anthropology. Chicago: Aldline.

    Essays documenting the shift from a structuralist to a processual approach to political analysis, with a particular focus on contexts of decolonization.

  • Vincent, Joan. 1978. Political anthropology: Manipulative strategies. Annual Review of Anthropology 7:175–194.

    DOI: 10.1146/

    Review essay that highlights work on strategy, interest, and individual agency in wider political processes.

  • Vincent, Joan. 1990. Anthropology and politics: Visions, traditions, and trends. Tucson: Univ. of Arizona Press.

    Wide-ranging critical review of Anglophone political anthropology from 1879 to the present, situating it in national and international contexts of production, and considering how intellectual, social, and political conditions have influenced the field. Also examines reasons for the survival of particular schools of thought and the influence of certain individuals and departments.

  • Vincent, Joan, ed. 2002. The anthropology of politics: A reader in ethnography, theory, and critique. Oxford: Blackwell.

    A masterful collection of essays that includes key Enlightenment texts whose ideas continue to find resonance within anthropological work on politics, classics in political anthropology, and contemporary works organized under imperialism and colonialism, and under cosmopolitics. Also includes an extremely useful introduction by Vincent on trends, continuities, and ruptures in political anthropology.

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