Lecture. Tribal Politics
The challenge for EP was to uncover political structures where none seemed apparent.
This was a radically egalitarian society that recognized no central authority or common
political organization. On the round, it looked chaotic, especially to colonial administrators.
But EP argued there was indeed a political structure and he called it tribal politics.
On page 102, EP argues that a “Tribe” has the following distinctive features:
1. A common and distinct name.
2. A common sentiment.
3. A common and distinct territory.
4. A moral obligation to unite in war.
5. A moral obligation to settle feuds and disputes through arbitration.
6. A tribe is segmented, with some opposition.
7. There is often a dominant clan in a tribal area.
8. A tribe is one unit in a system of units.
9. Age sets are organized tribally.
Part of the confusion in understanding Nuer tribal politics is that they are often expressed
in terms of patrilineage and kin relations. So remember, politics is always concerned with
territory and power over that territory. Often, those with whom you share territory are
family, agnates (male kin traced through your patrilineage) and cognates (men and women
you are related to through the patrilineage) and affines (those to whom you are related
The Nuer are exogamous. They cannot marry anyone to whom they are related. So one
must know one’s kin relations so that one can determine whom one might be allowed to
marry. But one’s tribal affiliation is determined by where you live. Age sets are determined
by territory, residence. The Nuer say: “Home is where the cattle are”. This is the first
important tribal sentiment.
Kinship Structure Political Structure
Agnates, Cognates, Affines Clans (Dominant)
- Bull of the Camp
Kinship determines whom Residence determines
you may marry, etc tribal affiliation
Both over lap and are marked by segmentation and structural oppositions.
Segmentary lineage system Primary, Secondary, Tertiary
E-P says on page 147-148: “political values are relative and … the political system is anequilibrium between opposed tendencies towards fission and fusion, between the tendency
of all groups to segment, and the tendency of all groups to combine with segments of the
What might cause segmentation?
Class Enactment: The Feud
Two brothers with young families live side by side on the land they were brought up on.
Draught is severe. Their herds graze too closely together and a dispute erupts. They begin
to feud, raiding from each other, arguing about access to watering holes etc.
At this point family member and tribal members come together to insist that the brothers
settle the feud. It is determined that one brother will take his cattle and family and go live
with his wife’s people. He leaves his agnates, and goes to live in another tribal area. This is
Things are okay for a while, but soon the two brothers find that their respective tribes are
fighting over the same herd at a watering hole. The two brothers come to blows, and one
murders the othe