African Societies Belong to History and are Thoroughly Political

Training for Vietnamese Translators in Social Sciences and Humanities,
a project funded by EUNIC Global.


A review of Georges Balandier, Political anthropology,  Allen Lane, 1970.

By Etienne Rolland-Piègue, Director of Institut français du Vietnam

Originally published in French as: Georges Balandier, Anthropologie politique, Presses Universitaires de France, 1967.

Leopold Sedar Senghor, the late president of Senegal, once confided to the anthropologist Georges Balandier that he knew his work so well he could give a lecture on his political anthropology. Well, I couldn’t. Not that I chose to ignore Georges Balandier: I recently re-read two of his major works, Political Anthropology and Ambiguous Africa, and I have also read some of his recent books in which the patriarch of African studies in France comments on the issues of the day. In total, he has published more than twenty books, and he is indeed the author of an oeuvre. But for me, Georges Balandier is not a social scientist that inspires devotion, or one figure one should discuss at full length in an academic lecture. As a head of state, Senghor certainly had more pressing things to do.

This being said, I do not want to diminish the importance of Balandier’s work. He is rightly credited for having been one of the first social scientists to insist on the historicity of African societies. For him, Africans belong to history, not to the repetition of an eternal present or to the remnants of a lost past. He has also showed that all societies, even the stateless tribes studied by classical anthropologists, are in a way political. Politics is everywhere, and one should use the observations of ethnographers to build a general theory of the political that would account for its role in all types of societies. As a third contribution, Balandier showed the importance of African cities as crucibles of modernity and also as a legitimate place for the anthropologist to do fieldwork. He helped shift the focus of anthropology from primitive societies to modern ones, to the point that he was often considered by his peers as a sociologist rather than an anthropologist. He also pioneered the sociology of new religions by studying the messianic cults that were spreading in coastal West Africa. He emphasized the importance of economic factors without versing in the excessive dogmatism of Marxist anthropology.

Anthropological tradition

In the anthropological tradition, the people among whom the anthropologist pitches tent are people without history. They have no written records or oral traditions that would account for historical events and the succession of time. Of course, the first generation of professional ethnographers who studied African societies could not deny that they were heirs to ancient civilizations, and that their entry into history predated the colonial encounter. But they chose to de-historicize them and to ignore their inscription into time in order to study their repartition in space. They sometimes did so with good intentions: Marcel Griaule placed the societies he studied on a timeless pedestal, equal in dignity and philosophical relevance to the pre-socratic Greeks. But anthropology as it was taught and displayed in the Museum of Man in Paris still treated primitive societies as if they reflected the dawn of mankind, and insisted on their racial characteristics. Lecturers and museum curators isolated cultural artifacts and myth components and rearranged them into complex classifications that bore little relation to their original use.

For Balandier on the contrary, African societies had to be grasped in their own temporality. He was concerned with the present, and more specifically with what he called the “colonial situation”: he did his fieldwork on the eve of the African independences, and was an active player in the debates of the day. He took positions that were sometimes at odds with the French administration. He was convinced that colonialism had introduced a fundamental break in the history of Africa. He sometimes clumsily identified this rupture with the opposition between tradition and modernity, between the village and the city. As a consequence, he underscored the new living conditions of Africans in cities like Brazzaville, where a new civilization was in the making. He was one of the first social scientists to take an interest in the new prophetic religions that were flowering in central Africa. For him, African prophets like Andre Matsoua or Simon Kimbangu heralded the dawn of a new era when traditional folk religions no longer had their place, and when colonialism and its established Christian churches were sidestepped.

The colonial situation

This intellectual posture, in the second half of the 1940s and in the 1950s when he did most of his fieldwork, was truly revolutionary. He influenced a whole generation of researchers who were strongly engaged against colonialism and who supported the new ideologies that were getting favor in the Third World—a term he himself coined. By attending his teaching, they discovered an Africa that was both historicized and politicized. Balandier summoned the great warriors who built kingdoms and empires from the Middle Age on, highlighted the rich cultural heritage that these civilizations left behind, and analyzed the complex political systems that perpetuated their power. His Political Anthropology owed a great deal to the Manchester School of anthropology founded by the South-African-born Max Gluckman. By grafting British social anthropology onto French ethnography, he shook French Africanists from their theoretical slumber and gave a new political potency to the discipline. With him, African studies entered modern debates, and contributed to the shaping of opinions at a crucial moment in the history of the African continent.

There cannot be two male crocodiles in a single pond, says the African proverb. At the time, the French intellectual marigot was dominated by the towering figure of Claude Lévi-Strauss. He dispensed his teachings from the Collège de France, and gave a highly theoretical turn to French anthropology. Structuralism became the academic flavor of the day, and Lévi-Strauss achieved intellectual hegemony by having his disciples trust positions of power and by occupying a theoretical high ground that put him beyond the reach of his enemy’s arrows. However hard he tried, Balandier could not rival with Claude Lévi-Strauss on the intellectual plane only. His criticism of structuralism—that it is not historical enough, or not political enough—appears mechanistic and tautological. His tentative to put his own “dynamic anthropology” on an equal footing with Lévi-Strauss’ structuralism fails to convince. His Political Anthropology textbook, which was widely read and discussed among social scientists at the time of its publication in 1967, illustrates why.

Africa’s entry into modernity

First, rather than offering his own ideas, he borrows a lot from others—from Max Gluckman to Edmund Leach—and his theoretical construction is the result of a bricolage, with odd pieces and protruding angles. Second, his view of history is often limited to the artificial opposition between tradition and modernity, between pre-colonial time and the colonial administration by European powers. Indeed, although Balandier devoted a book to Daily Life in the Kingdom of the Kongo, he tended to believe that Africa’s entry into modernity really began through European imperial rule. In doing so, he minimized the importance of the slave trade, which predated the colonial situation, and he took a biased view of Islam. Indeed, his vision of the African continent was shaped by the scholarly division between Africanism—the study of sub-saharan societies, with its emphasis on oral traditions and participant observation—and Orientalism, focusing on the Arab civilization and Islam and based on written sources and scholarly discussions. Balandier came into contact with many Muslim societies and individuals, from the Lébous of Senegal and Moors of Mauritania the Fula and the Malinke of the Fouta-Djallon, but for him Islam was a foreign agent in the African body, somehow perverting the authenticity of African civilizations. This bias, shared with the colonial administration (and with Lévi-Strauss), contrasts with his positive view of the messianic cults he encountered in Central Africa and that he considered as authentically African.

Balandier’s historicity of African societies therefore eludes pre-colonial times and is biased towards Islam. It is built on a false opposition between tradition and modernity and, by seeing politics everywhere, it tends to take the political as synonymous with power or authority. He misses Edmund Leach’s crucial insight, later developed by Pierre Clastres, that stateless societies like the Kachin of Burma can only be conceived in relation to neighboring states like China or the Chan kingdom, even when they actively reject state-like organizations. Similarly, the segmentary lineage societies studied by Africanist ethnographers do not constitute a political category per se, a point in a continuum that would go from stateless tribes to nation-states and empires. Rather, they must be analyzed in relation to larger political formations, from chiefdoms to kingdoms and empires, for which they provide an endless reserve of slaves as well as a refuge for breakaway groups. If one finds the political everywhere, even at the level of the tribe or the village, it is not because local societies are laden with conflict, alliance and compromise—all human groups are. Stateless societies are political because they are shaped by their proximity with larger political formations and because they produce in their midst state-creating or state-resisting processes. They do not constitute a political category on their own, but only in relation to others—something structural analysis is better equipped than Balandier’s dynamic anthropology to explain.

A general theory of the political

Balandier’s Political Anthropology is still haunted by the old approach exemplified by the Museum of Man: the impulse to put etiquettes and categories on human groups, to establish typologies and mappings as the ultimate horizon of the science of man. He acknowledges that he often falls short in this endeavor: his typologies are incomplete, and identifying criteria for classification exposes the researcher to the pitfalls of functionalism. Typologies cannot account for transitions, hybridization, and mixed-types. They are more descriptive than explanatory. He attributes his failure to a lack of empirical material, and calls for political anthropologists to expand the empirical resource base before building a theory that would compete with, and renew, political philosophy. But his conception of anthropology is still limited to the classical terrain of “primitive” people and local communities. The program of research he advocated therefore fell flat before really taking off, and it never succeeded to produce the general theory of the political that he was heralding. It seems today that the sub-discipline that now calls itself “social history of the political” does a better job of accounting for the diversity of political systems and the dynamics of state formation.

Catégories : Book reviews