In Fredrik Barth’s Political Leadership among Swat Pathans the character of political life is the character of the circle; not wholly of the concentric brand (as Barth himself offers up) but rather fleetingly mobile, short-term, overlapping and cross-cutting circles of interest and access to personal gains through contract and conduct; geographical and  hereditary subdivisions of permanent and more variable assemblages of individuals.  In Barth’s account, leaders lie at the center of these portable circles and it is their ownership over land that serves as the precondition for political machinations aimed at securing political positions. Land earns one equality and the right to speak at assemblies, the ability to have subordinates, the ability to enter into contracts as the dominant party. Nothing new here. But those without land, those who enter contracts as the subordinate party, Barth tells us, possess some kind of choice. What kind of choice is this?


Barth centers on the authority and political power of two influential groups, the contract issuing chiefs on the one hand and the mediating saints on the other. The authority of these groups, the one’s authority not excluding the other, rests on two quite dissimilar sets of model behavior.  For chiefs, authority is dependent on both material and non-material factors.  A chief is required to provide to his submissives, through contracts and the use of his home as dorm and meeting center, material security and community.  His non-material obligations concern his honor.  For a chief, the readiness to mete out retribution in feuds with violence equals the reckless generosity he shows in the men’s house. Among the qualities that secure him his position and show him to be a competent leader and hero we might list bravery, willingness to defend his honor, and impetuousness (85). The chief’s authority is precarious and, Barth points out, rather than being an abstract office, “Depends…on the mandate he is able, at any given time, to wrest from each of his followers individually” (90).   The chief is thus continually at the whim of his constituents. While Barth sometimes makes it appear as if every day were election day, he also makes clear that through his actions, the chief is able to accumulate political capital which he can in turn spend through shows of power vis-à-vis individuals or rival groups. The precise workings of this balance between loyalty and upkeep is rather unclear in the case of individual interactions as well as on the level of corporate groups.


While the chief maintains his power with wild gestures of generosity and violence, the Saint’s authority is contingent upon his knowledge, reasonableness, miraculous powers, and his ability to peacefully mediate between groups and individuals. As with the chief, the authority of the saint rests ultimately upon control of land, but their land, (mostly acquired through gifts and purchases), in contrast to the chiefs who use land to centralize their base, is spread out and thus enables them “to extend their influence over many communities” (99). 

In the opening pages of this work, Barth pursues the strong-armed argument that the authority system is built upon a series of choices made by individuals, “many of which are temporary and revocable” (2).  The argument points in the direction of a localized notion of rational choice theory. In the end, however, while the book at many points seeks to explain the tenuous hold that leaders have over their subjects, he gives us very little indication of where they might go if they cease to be part of a man’s house.  Is it as simple as picking up and visiting another? Maybe so. But Barth’s gives us no indication that this is indeed the case.  Instead what we are given is a fairly well-oiled example of the old saw, whose bread I eat, his song I sing.  That is, while we are told the chief is always in danger of losing his authority, we aren’t given much indication of how, or how often, this happens.  We are however presented with one quite compelling story of a man who is operating at a loss under the logic that if he weren’t to continue to be generous beyond his means, (“keeping the vultures at bay” with hospitality), he would lose his authority still sooner (81). 


The more lasting image though is not one of choice, but of necessity.  While it may be true that “each separate villager clearly sees himself as exercising a choice” (69).  Barth himself recognizes immediately after putting forward this argument, that the subordinates tend as a rule to be poor and that “the rights which are obtained through these various contracts—are thus of great value to them. In return they have only their services to offer” (70). The individual’s position within the societal framework is governed as much by contraint as by any other factor.  Barth discusses ways in which one’s position is fixed fast in terms of birth into a particular territory, hereditary castes, patrilineal descent. “The territorial system lumps persons together in local units, and caste lumps them together in ranked social groups” (22).  He then also looks at ways in which position is created through neighborhood and association, kinship, and marriage, one’s life takes on a certain amount of variabiliity (31). Again, while the possibility for change does present itself through this latter group of associations, Barth’ data show, for example, strong reproduction of caste through marriage, and only contingent, weak sentimental alliance.


Is it in the end something like Henry Ford’s quip that you can get the model T in any color you like, just so long as that color is black? While choices may ‘represent the attempts of individuals to solve their own problems,”(4), I feel like Barth concentrates too much on pointing out the mutual advantages of alliance, and too little on explaining the array of options available to an individual.  Choice without options is simply a round about way of describing contingency.  In order for Barth to successfully worm his way out of the functionalist trap, a firm distinction must be drawn between choice and contingency.  I wonder almost if Barth’s assessment of the precarious positions of the leaders vis-à-vis their constituents lead him to attribute to them more agency than his evidence would suggest on its own.


But up to this point, my comments have all concerned the individual.  Perhaps I am guilty here of misunderstanding Barth’s level of analysis.  It is true that of much more concern to him, despite the promises of the first few pages of the work, is the political leaders, their groups, and the blocs that they comprise.  “politically corporate groups are created by the actions of leaders” (72) ‘Actions’ means nothing other than the exercising of the political capital a leader derives from his authority.  (72).  Authority, as we have already said, is bought through gifts, won through prestige and ‘ethical fitness’ or compelled by force.  Political leaders are like salesmen, or sharks, in that they must always keep moving or they will lose their political support—they are never secure in their position. But even with the insecurity of particular leaders, I am still unclear as to why Barth pushes the point because the structural position of the leader is not threatened at all (except by the state), insofar as the fall of one leader should, so long as land holds the important and inaccessible position that it does, always be at the expense of the rise of another. 

ryan sayre

anthropology

tokyo japan

architecture

ryan sayre

anthropology

tokyo japan

architecture