General Categories

Social Organizational Forms
Systems of kinship and descent have organized human life for most of our history and until recently it was vitally important in everyday life in all societies. Thus, it has become an essential part of anthropology because of its importance to the people from whom we learn. Kinship is the tie that binds humans together.

There are several basic types of kinship groups: the nuclear family, the expanded family, and various types of descent groups (that is, a group of people who claim common ancestry). Nuclear families last only as long as parents and children live together; descent groups are corporate groups in that they are permanent units that continue to exist even though their membership changes. Membership is usually determined at birth and last for one's lifetime.

Political Organizational Forms
Purely for convenience's sake, many anthropologists classify human societies into two broad groups, which do not necessarily evolve into one another: decentralized (bands and tribes) and centralized (chiefdoms and states). Below is listing of the salient features of each of the four basic kinds of political systems followed by a chart summarizing these.

A band is a small group of kin-related households occupying a particular region, that come together periodically on an ad hoc basis, but which do not yield their sovereignty to the larger collective.


Big Man
This form of organization, in which trade, reciprocity, and political leadership are intimately linked, is associated with the work of two anthropologists, Bronislaw Malinow and Marshall Sahlins, both of whom studied isolated island communities in the wouthwestern Pacific. They noted that these communities were linked, not by ties of kinship, but rather by the ties formed by entrepreneurs, who exchanged symbolic figts and acted as political and economic brokers in egalitarian, autonomous societies. The Big Man - almost always a male - is an elaborate version of a village leader, but unlike a village leader, he often has supporters in several villages and is a somewhat more effective regulator of regional political organization. Big Men combine a small amount of interest in their group's welfare with a great deal of self-interested entrepreneurialship for personal gain. A Big Man's authority is personal - one does not come to office nor is one elected and one's status is the result of acts that raise one above most other group members and attracts to the Big Man a band of loyal followers.

A tribe is a group of nominally independent communities occupying a specific region, sharing a common language and culture, which are integrated by some unifying factor.

A chiefdom is a regional polity in which two or more local groups are organized under a single chief, who is at the head of a ranked hierarchy of people. An individual's status is determined by closeness of one's relationship to the chief. Those closest are officially superior and receive deferential treatment from those in lower ranks.

The state is the most formal of political organizations with political power centralized in a government which may legitimately use force to regulate the affairs of its citizens, as well as its relations with other states. States maintain civil order and socioeconomic contrasts through a central government and specialized subsystems. The populations are divided into socioeconomic classes, or strata, and states draw a line between elites and masses with the former clearly spearated from the latter in activities, privileges, rights, and obligations. The ruling class takes no direct part in subsistence activities - instead state officials have specialized jobs to do as administrators, tax collectors, judges, advisers, lawmakers, generals, scholars, and priests. The major concerns of government officials are to defend hierarchy, property, and the power of the law. Society at large works to support the ruling class and the state decresss that a certain area will produce certain things or forbids certain activities in other zones.

Total Numbers Less than 100 Up to a few thousand 5,000 - 20,000+ Generally 20,000+
Social Organization Egalitarian
Informal leadership
Segmentary society
Pan-tribal associations
Raids by small groups
Kinship-based ranking under hereditary leader
High-ranking warriors
Class-based hierarchy under king or emperor
Economic Organization Mobile gatherers-hunters Settled farmers
Pastoralist herders
Central accumulation and redistribution
Some craft specialization
Centralized bureaucracy
Settlement Pattern Temporary camps Permanent villages Fortified centers
Ritual centers
Urban; cities, towns
Frontier defenses
Religious Organization Shamans Religious elders
Calendrical rituals
Hereditary chief with religous duties Priestly class
Pantheistic or monotheistic religion
Architecture Temporary shelters Permanent structures
Burial mounds
Large-scale monuments Palaces, temples, and other public buildings
Archaeological examples Paleo-Indians Archaic peoples Formative societies Urban Mesoamerican civilizations
Modern examples Inuit Pueblos Northwest Coast All modern states

Most recent update: 1 December 1999