Compare, contrast, and assess attempts by at least two anthropologists to analyse politics in terms of temporal processes rather than (a-temporal) structure.
Edmund Leach published his account of the Kachin society in Highland Burma in 1954, fourteen years after Evans-Pritchard’s and Fortes’ classical structural-functionalist collection on ‘African Political Systems’. Only four years after Leach, Barth’s ‘Swat Pathans’ enters the debate. Both Barth and Leach differ remarkably in their methodological approach fousing on change and process. While Radcliffe-Brown (Fortes & Evans-Pritchard, 2006:vi) proclaims in his preface to ‘African Political Systems’ that the aim of anthropology is to "discover the universal, essential, characters which belong to all human societies, past, present and future", Leach (Leach, 2004) heavily criticises the implicit underlying assumption of equilibrium. Instead, he focuses on the study of the “constantly changing environment” and society as “a process in time” (ibid.:5). As I will argue his process is still very much structural, however. In contrast to structure, Barth makes individual action his centre piece that aggregates to higher political levels in temporal processes. In the following analysis, I will complement my analysis of the two core texts mentioned above with methodological writings comparing Barth’s and Leach’s account of political processes in Pakistan and Burma respectively.
Leach’s Burma – ‘dynamised’ structures in oscillation
In contrast to the structural-functionalist body-analogies and ‘butterfly-collections’, Edmund Leach prefers mathematics in his methodology. Symbolic logic, he proposes, serves as a starting point that leaves room for each particular case. From the collected empirical facts, possible general patterns in the peculiar ethnography can be discerned (Leach, 1966:10). In Leach’s view, a classical structural analysis that he equates with ‘typology making’ (ibid.:3), in contrast creates a “straightjacket of thought” (ibid.). Right from the beginning, it imposes a category of comparison on the entity studied and tries to “fit the facts of the objective world into the framework of a set of concepts which have been developed a priori instead of from observation” (ibid.:26). With his analysis of the Kachins in Burma, Leach wants to prove this methodological claim.
In his account, Leach applies his idea of dynamic in the concept of oscillation. His argument with regards to the political system of the Kachin is bluntly put as follows (ibid.:9):
“Kachin communities oscillate between two polar types – gumlao ‘demogracy’ on the one hand, Shan ‘autocracy’ on the other. The majority of actual Kachin communities are neither gumlao nor Shan in type, they are organised according to a system described … as gumsa, which is in effect a kind of compromise between gumlao and Shan ideals.”