The Headless State

The Headless State: Aristocratic Orders, Kinship Society, and Misrepresentations of Nomadic Inner Asia

David Sneath
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 288
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/snea14054
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  • Book Info
    The Headless State
    Book Description:

    In this groundbreaking work, social anthropologist David Sneath aggressively dispels the myths surrounding the history of steppe societies and proposes a new understanding of the nature and formation of the state. Since the colonial era, representations of Inner Asia have been dominated by images of fierce nomads organized into clans and tribes--but as Sneath reveals, these representations have no sound basis in historical fact. Rather, they are the product of nineteenth-century evolutionist social theory, which saw kinship as the organizing principle in a nonstate society.

    Sneath argues that aristocratic power and statelike processes of administration were the true organizers of life on the steppe. Rethinking the traditional dichotomy between state and nonstate societies, Sneath conceives of a "headless state" in which a configuration of statelike power was formed by the horizontal relations among power holders and was reproduced with or without an overarching ruler or central "head." In other words, almost all of the operations of state power existed at the local level, virtually independent of central bureaucratic authority.

    Sneath's research gives rise to an alternative picture of steppe life in which aristocrats determined the size, scale, and degree of centralization of political power. His history of the region shows no clear distinction between a highly centralized, stratified "state" society and an egalitarian, kin-based "tribal" society. Drawing on his extensive anthropological fieldwork in the region, Sneath persuasively challenges the legitimacy of the tribal model, which continues to distort scholarship on the history of Inner Asia.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51167-4
    Subjects: History, Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. [Maps]
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. 1 Introduction
    (pp. 1-38)

    This book has two aims: the first is to expose a misconception that became firmly rooted in twentieth-century social science, journalism, policymaking, and popular culture. Since the colonial era, representations of Inner Asia and its traditions and histories have been dominated by images of fierce and free nomads organized by the principles of prestate kinship society into clans and tribes. Anthropological fieldwork in Inner Mongolia and Mongolia in the 1980s and 1990s convinced me that nothing like the popular image of kinship society had existed recently in Mongolia, and the more I studied the history of Inner Asia, the more...

  5. 2 The Myth of the Kinship Society: Evolutionism and the Anthropological Imagination
    (pp. 39-64)

    The notion of the tribe as a descent group stretches back to the original thirteenth-century appearance of the Latin word tribu in English, when it was used for the thirteen divisions of the early Israelites.¹ By the fifteenth century it was being used in nonbiblical contexts in a way that overlapped with later notions of lineage and clan, and was, for example, applied to Irish groups having the same surname ( OED 1933, 339). However, the association between the notion of the tribe and kinship society was given a particular form in the nineteenth-century evolutionist formulation of primitive society and...

  6. 3 The Imaginary Tribe: Colonial and Imperial Orders and the Peripheral Polity
    (pp. 65-92)

    The stereotypical representation of exotic peoples as barbarians is by no means a uniquely Euro-American phenomenon. As Hostetler (2001, 99) puts it, “the politics of representation encapsulated in the idea of ‘orientalism’ is not simply a feature of Western modernity, but of the colonial encounter itself, wherever colonial relations are played out. This capacity or inclination to ‘orientalize’ is not unique to the Western world.” She demonstrates that Chinese representations of “barbarian” outsiders are susceptible to a comparable analysis. “The central issue is … how centers of power with a monopoly on the production and dissemination of knowledge define peripheral...

  7. 4 The State Construction of the Clan: The Unilineal Descent Group and the Ordering of State Subjects
    (pp. 93-120)

    In 2004, thousands of Mongolian citizens rushed to choose a new sort of name for themselves, a surname, or obog ovog ner. The hurry was caused by government deadlines: new state regulations stipulated that all citizens must have a registered surname so that they could be issued with new identity cards. The conventional Mongolian method was to use the patronymic or matronymic in an analogous way to a surname, so that a full name such as Tsevegiin Naranbat would be made up of the personal name Naranbat plus the parental identifier “of Tseveg,” rather like the Icelandic system. But the...

  8. 5 The Essentialized Nomad: Neocolonial and Soviet Models
    (pp. 121-156)

    In his monumental study of world history, Toynbee describes nomadic society as one of several “arrested civilisations.” Along with the Eskimos and Polynesians, “nomads” represented “cases in which civilisations have remained static” (Toynbee 1946, 193). This was an essentialized vision of nomadism as a social form that had remained unchanged for countless generations, like the societies of ants and bees. Toynbee’s treatment set the scene for ecologically determinist accounts of nomadic pastoralism. He emphasized the “formidable environment which he [the nomad] has succeeded in conquering” (Toynbee 1946, 169), arguing that the adaptations required for survival had trapped them in a...

  9. 6 Creating Peoples: Nation-state History and the Notion of Identity
    (pp. 157-180)

    As Martin Thom points out in his paper “Tribes Within Nations: The Ancient Germans and the History of Modern France,” the concept of the nation that emerged in the nineteenth century was powerfully influenced by debates about the Germanic tribes that invaded the Western Roman empire from the fifth and sixth centuries C.E. In his famous 1882 lecture “What Is a Nation?” Renan declared that “it was in fact the Germanic invasions which introduced into the world the principle which, later, was to serve as a basis for the existence of nationalities” (Renan 1990 [1882], 9).

    In Renan’s time, the...

  10. 7 The Headless State: Aristocratic Orders and the Substrata of Power
    (pp. 181-204)

    On September 20, 1640, a great assembly was held in Western Mongolia. It was attended by the most powerful lords of the eastern Eurasian steppes—the Zasagtu and Tüshiyetü khans of the Khalkha (Outer Mongolia); the Oirat rulers Erdeni Baatur Khung-Taiji, Khoo-örlög Taishi, and Güüshi Khan; along with some twenty other senior nobles. They were meeting to form a new “state” (törö) and to draw up its code of laws. But although it was described using the word for a state, the political formation they created would seem impossible in terms of the Weberian model of the ideal-typical bureaucratic state....

  11. Notes
    (pp. 205-238)
  12. References
    (pp. 239-260)
  13. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 261-262)
  14. Index
    (pp. 263-273)