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Welcome to ANTH 423, Political Anthropology
Concordia University -- Dr. Maximilian C. Forte


“An anthropology that takes cultures to be collective creations, that reifies them into texts and objectifies their meanings, disguises and even mystifies the dynamics of knowledge and its uses [is problematic]…. cultures do not simply constitute webs of significance….They constitute ideologies, disguising human political and economic realities as cosmically ordained. Even in classless societies, cultural ideologies empower some, subordinate others, extract the labour of some for the benefit of those whose interests the ideologies serve and legitimate. Cultures are webs of mystification as well as signification. We need to ask who creates and who defines cultural meanings, and to what ends.”
—Roger M. Keesing (1987: 161-162)

“Each agent, wittingly or unwittingly, willy nilly, is a producer and reproducer of objective meaning. Because his actions and works are the product of a modus operandi of which he is not the producer and has no conscious mastery, they contain an 'objective intention'...which always outruns his conscious intentions”
—Pierre Bourdieu (1977: 79)

In opposition to what are sometimes exaggerated portrayals of earlier anthropological depictions of local cultures as organic and homogeneous wholes seemingly existing outside of forces such as colonialism, slavery and the world market, anthropologists have argued in recent decades that cultures are not merely local but translocal, and are shaped by unequal access to resources and inequalities in power. Kwame NkrumahIn addition, anthropology as a discipline came in for serious critique. Many began to charge that anthropology had neglected not only the impact of Western colonialism but also anthropology’s own fruition in colonial settings, seemingly collaborating with colonialism itself. In summary, anthropologists began to take note that the “remote” and “exotic” communities they had been studying had been subject to, and made dependent on, a global system of unequal development and power relations. Within these same local communities, once portrayed as egalitarian, homogeneous, organic wholes, anthropologists also re-examined internal inequalities in power relations, and the unequal distribution of knowledge and other resources. As a result, the dominant anthropological interest in this particular camp turned squarely to ideology, hegemony, class, political economy and power.

Mao Zedong“Power” emerged as critical focus of investigation and theorizing in anthropology and has remained central in various approaches, e.g.: Marxist anthropology, cultural materialism, political anthropology, feminist anthropology, post-structuralist anthropology, and post-modernism. As a result, anthropologists have sought to uncover the ideological, cultural, and social organizational means by which some groups seek to attain or assert power as well as the resistance faced by such groups.

On the other hand, we cannot treat any critique as necessarily offering a solution or an incontestable set of counter-propositions. We might thus be wary of overly conspiratorial notions of power as absolute, of institutions exercising total control, of persons Malcolm Xas either pawns or all-knowing subjects that master their own destinies, or of all cultures as lacking coherence, intelligibility and affective value to those who share in those cultures. The notion of cultures as unceasingly contested, rife with conflict, unable to achieve stability and consensus might also be one that is sometimes problematic. Therefore given the various positions we will encounter on culture, power and anthropological understandings, you should be most alert and critical, without being inflamed.

Haile Selassie I, Emperor of EthiopiaIn this course we will investigate various sources and expressions of power, as well as the ways in which anthropologists have sought to theorize and study power in ethnographic and theoretical terms.



This is only an abridged version of the many questions that this course will raise. We can expect, however, that these questions will recur in the manner of overarching questions binding the course.

  1. What are the key concepts of “power” utilized by anthropologists?

  2. What are the diverse sources and manifestations of power? Cultural? Economic? Political? How do they interrelate?

  3. What are the theoretical and ethnographic formulations of ethnicity, class, and gender in relation to culture and power?

  4. How do we connect the role of states to the ethnography of power

  5. How do we theorize the relations between the conditions of material production, class, power and culture, without recapitulating reductionist or determinist theories?

  6. How do we theorize the agency of the individual in light of structures of power?

  7. In which ways have colonialism and globalization structured local power relations?

  8. What are the relationships between colonial power and anthropological knowledge?

Fidel Castro

(These are available for purchase in the Concordia Bookstore, SGW, and one copy of each is available on the Course Reserve, Webster Circulation Desk)

Anthropology of Politics edited by Joan VincentVincent, Joan, ed. 2002.
The Anthropology of Politics: A Reader in Ethnography, Theory, and Critique. Malden, MA: Blackwell.


Power and its Disguises by John GledhillGledhill, John. 2000.
Power and its Disguises: Anthropological Perspectives on Politics. London: Pluto.