Monday, February 20, 2006

Segmentary States and Burmese Historiography

Do historians sometimes back project contemporary political organizations such as the nation-state onto earlier periods of history?

Do historians sometimes make false analogies with highly successful states or "empires", like the Roman or Chinese empires, to bolster the prestige and importance of present-day nation states that they owe some political allegiance to?

Are there systematic analytical practices or models that can help overcome this mode of thinking? The idea "segmentary state" is one model that may help. Scholars from Weber to M.I Finley to Paul Wheatley have criticized scholarship that attempted to attribute advanced poltical development to societies where there was not evidence to support the conjecture. The general concept of "segmentary state" may be a good way to approach these criticisms of scholars that are similar in nature but scattered widely over time and disciplines.

I was reading a book over the weekend on chieftainships in Mozambique on the east coast of Africa during the 16th century where the Portuguese played an important role in state formation (Malyn Newitt (1995) A History of Mozambique). The author referred to the Maravi 'empire' with single quotes that meant, it seems, that the reach of political authority was larger than it had previously been, but of course never reached the size or strength of control of what we would normally call an "empire"..

Anyway, if we are going to compare different social or political organizations we must be precise in the terminology we use or we won't even be able to communicate much less compare.

There's an online paper with good definitions for Burton Stein's concept of the early south Indian "segmentary state" that originated with the work of Southall:

"...Southall's (1956,1988) Segmentary state model, constructed in deliberate opposition to the Unitary state (Fortes and Evans-Pritchard 1940) to characterize political relations among the Alur, is an example. Fundamental features of the model are that a primary ruler has administrative power in the central area which fades into a ritual hegemony that diminishes with increasing distance...The influence exerted by the central ruler over secondary rulers is based on his/her ritual authority which can be used to legitimize these lesser elite. Rulers of secondary centers have the same administrative functions and right to use force among their own subjects as the primary ruler, but at a smaller scale. This lack of functional interdependency means that secondary centers are not structurally prohibited from switching allegiance to another primary center, or even going independent if the secondary ruler is sufficiently powerful. These structural features lead to a lack of fixed or stable boundaries."

[All of this is found during the period 1350-1600 in Burma. Many examples in my paper]

"...As for Segmentary or Hegemonic strategies, different scholars have tended to focus on distinct aspects - kinship ties, personal qualities of rulers, ritual authority, inter-elite negotiated arrangements, often in concert with military threat - with different goals - tribute, prestige, power. Realistically, an elite probably drew upon several, and most of these tactics can be considered different forms of patron-client arrangements between elites of different levels of power and influence to allocate human and natural resources. The result, however, was similar - primary rulers may have directly administered their own center or territorial core, but held only a shifting authority over secondary rulers, who in turn controlled their centers, and dictated to lesser rulers. The resultant nesting of polities within polities is a nightmare for archaeological interpretation, should we continue to use political types based on autonomous units and normative depictions of power relations."

"With political relationships of this type, it is not surprising that Segmentary or Hegemonic strategies tend to be practiced in regions with prior complex political organization, as it would be far less efficient to attempt to restructure and integrate existing polities into a Unitary bureaucracy. There is also a tendency to use these strategies when a polity extends its authority over different ethnic groups, where cultural differences may inhibit absorption and direct control. While the primary ruler of such a system may well have the ability to mobilize labor and delimit its core territory, he/she had little reason or authority to incorporate subsidiary centers within a controlled boundary when the affiliation of those centers is very unstable and likely to shift" (Beekman, Christopher S. (1997) "The Link Between Political Boundaries and Political Models: a Case Study from Classic Period Jalisco, Mexico," pp. 3-5)

The concept of the "segmentary state seems to be built upon the concept of the "segmentary lineage". A segmentary lineage society is characterized by the organization of the society into segments [source, Wikipedia].

"A simple, non-anthropologist's explanation is that the close family is the smallest and closest segment, and will generally stand with each other. That family is also a part of a larger segment of more distant cousins, who will stand with each other when attacked by outsiders. They are then part of larger segments with the same characteristics. Basically, brothers will fight against cousins, unless outsiders come, and then they will join together. An old Arab saying expresses this idea: 'Me against my brothers, me and my brothers against my cousins, me and my cousins against the world.'"

"The ancient Hebrew nation (the Israelites) is one of the more well-known examples, with 12 tribes originating from one common ancestor (Abraham)."

"Segmentary societies...may be defined as societies that are divided into a number of units, such as lineage...or clan...groups, which are structurally similar and functionally equivalent [source].

The concept of segmentary state may help facilitate comparison between Burmese state formation and similar processes in other, perhaps distant, societies such as Mozambique Africa, and make Burmese history more relevant for the study of World History.