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
Subjects: History, Anthropology
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