Bands, Tribes, Chiefdoms, and States Research Paper

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The cultural anthropologist Elman Service devised a model in 1962 for classifying human societies into four general categories—bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and states—based on their capacity to support larger populations at higher densities. Societies are said to vary in complexity from bands, loosely organized groups of a few dozen people, to states, highly centralized and efficient societies comprised of millions, even billions, of people.

The differences among human societies around the world and through time are often striking and often challenge our understanding. Although a simple distinction between “primitive” societies and “civilization” has been popular and persistent in the West, this distinction obscures significant variation within the “primitive” category and has not been useful for investigating the processes that led to the development of civilization. When addressing such issues, anthropology has found that a model recognizing four levels of sociopolitical complexity—band, tribe, chiefdom, and state—has greater utility. These levels are based on cross-cultural ethnographic (relating to the study of cultures) data as well as archaeological evidence from both prehistoric and historic periods.

In this context complexity is seen as society’s ability to integrate people into larger, more diverse groups and more densely populated communities. This ability is closely linked to political integration in the form of increasingly centralized decision making and hierarchical power relations and economic integration by which individuals and communities become less self-sufficient and more dependent on others for critical resources, including food. The classic model was first proposed by the U.S. anthropologist Elman Service (1915–1996) in 1962 and, with minor modifications, is still widely used by anthropologists and archaeologists as a generalized descriptive framework.


Bands are the smallest and least sociopolitically complex human groups. A band usually consists of related families who camp together and collaborate closely, rarely numbering more than one hundred people and frequently closer to one dozen or two dozen. Most bands are hunters and gatherers or foragers who do not use domesticated plants or animals for food. In order to exploit the wild foods available in their environments most efficiently, many bands are nomadic, moving within a large, vaguely defined territory to take advantage of seasonal bounties and allow declining resources time to recover. This strategy is generally feasible only when population densities are very low, and bands usually have densities below one person per 2.5 square kilometers.

When so much space and so few people exist, centralized political control is difficult: people avoid socially aggressive or disagreeable people by moving elsewhere or joining another band. Consequently no formal offices of leadership exist, group decisions require consensus, and social relations are highly egalitarian; age, gender, and personal abilities are the primary determinants of social status. Some statuses—for example, those of shaman or healer, good hunter, good gatherer—are more valued, but these must be achieved by a person’s actions, and groups welcome as many talented people as they can attract. When coordination with other families or bands is necessary (during a communal hunt, for instance), such highly competent and respected people can become situational leaders. Their authority, however, ends when the situation does, and their attempts to dictate to others on unrelated points are not tolerated. When a more hierarchical society came into contact with such a group, the society expected to deal with a single “headman,” but—to the society’s frustration—this headman was not able to bind the whole group by its decisions and agreements.

Low levels of economic integration reinforce the difficulty of political control. Bands tend to use simple technologies by which every family can make all of the tools it needs to acquire the necessities of life. This material self-sufficiency encourages high levels of autonomy, and nomadism (as well as the lack of domestic animals to transport family possessions) discourages the accumulation of wealth. Economic relations are based almost entirely on the principle of reciprocity, the mutual exchange of food surpluses and symbolic, relationship-affirming gifts.

People often consider bands to be the original form of human society, the norm before the development of farming about 10,000 BCE. However, most bands inhabit marginally productive environments unsuitable for farming, and groups inhabiting more bountiful environments in the preagricultural past may have had more complex societies.


In common usage the word tribe often refers to any “primitive” society, and so we hear of “tribal art” and “tribal warfare.” In Service’s model, however, tribe has a narrower, more specific meaning: a tribe consists of a number of small communities, often semi-autonomous bands or villages that consider themselves to be a collective unit. This unit usually numbers from hundreds to a few thousand people. Whereas some tribes are foragers, most practice horticulture (small-scale hoe or spade farming) or pastoralism (animal herding).

Tribes, like bands, have generally egalitarian social relations and informal leadership. The feature that distinguishes tribes from bands is the stronger sense of connection between a tribe’s constituent communities, as opposed to the more independent bands. Although these constituent communities retain significant levels of autonomy in day-to-day affairs, they come together in mutual support and act as one unit when under threat, which includes environmental stresses such as crop failure as well as competition from outsiders. This coordination is fostered by social groups who crosscut the allied communities, creating and maintaining the interpersonal relationships that bind members of the tribe together. These allied communities can be kinship-based clans, age-grade divisions, and/or voluntary associations such as dance and curing societies.

In some more complex tribes, powerful people known as “Big Men” can emerge as local leaders. Like headmen, Big Men have achieved status and no formal authority; their elevated status comes principally from their skill at manipulating reciprocity relationships. By accumulating surpluses of food and symbolic wealth, they are in a position to make loans and give gifts to others and demand social and political support until they have been repaid. Their positions are rarely hereditary, however, and because several people usually are competing for the status at any given time, little centralization of political control is seen.

Why Become Complex?

In bands and tribes each family meets its own basic subsistence needs. At higher population densities, by contrast, more sophisticated and costly technologies are necessary to intensify food production, and increased competition for resources increases the need for mediation and resolution of social conflicts, both internal and external. To meet these needs in a larger society, a variety of full-time specialists exists: craftspeople, secular and religious leaders, and warriors. These specialists support the larger society with their skills and services, permitting it to become more efficient, and in return are supported by the surplus production that their services make possible.

Such specialization, however, creates fundamental differences in access to resources and power within a society and provides the basis for hierarchical systems of social inequality. Although a perennial debate exists regarding the balance between the beneficial and exploitative facets of elite management of society (probably an unresolvable debate because that balance is different in each society and changes through time), experts broadly recognize the correlation between complex society and social inequality. As sometimes needs to be pointed out, states with egalitarian ideologies exist, but no egalitarian states exist. In fact, these internal sociopolitical divisions are precisely what make some societies more “complex” than others.


Chiefdoms have populations ranging from several thousand to hundreds of thousands of people. Although some chiefdoms may be supported by foraging in extremely rich environments, most rely on intensive agriculture or pastoralism, which provide the reliable food surpluses needed to maintain their comparatively small number of specialists. Scholars make a distinction between simple chiefdoms, which are smaller and have a single level of elites, and paramount chiefdoms, which have a hierarchy of chiefs and “chiefs over chiefs” who build larger polities (political organizations)—at the price of greater political instability as the different chiefly lineages compete for dominance.

Chiefdoms have social ranking by which high status is normally ascribed or inherited rather than achieved. Certain families or lineages retain possession of high-status positions, which are a small number of full-time offices with formally recognized duties and powers. Political power is centralized, to a greater or lesser extent, in the hands of the ruling chief, who has the authority to make decisions for the whole group and to use coercion to bring disruptive members in line. This authority is frequently legitimated by religion, by which the chiefly lineage has access to supernatural favor and power by virtue of divine ancestors whom “commoners” lack.

Chiefs also play an important role in the economic integration of their chiefdoms through redistribution, the collection—in the form of tribute or taxes—and management of surplus production. This surplus production supplies the chiefly lineage with its subsistence base, but it is also given back to society in the form of support for religious and craft specialists attached to the chief’s household; feasting and gift giving that legitimate his position; funding for military action or the construction of aggrandizing monuments such as temples, palaces, or tombs; and the provision of survival rations in times of need.


Today every human being is part of a state. States, highly centralized and highly efficient polities, can integrate populations numbering from the hundreds of thousands to more than a billion. To maintain this level of intensification and control, states have sophisticated recording systems and rely on large numbers of specialists, who often congregate in cities. These cities—the word city coming from the Latin word civitas—and literacy are two of the hallmarks of “civilization.” Only intensive agriculture can provide the food surpluses needed to feed the dense populations of cities.

Whereas chiefdoms may have only two social levels (chiefs and commoners), states have at least three: the “upper class” of ruling elites; the “middle class” of bureaucratic managers and merchants, who are often literate; and the “lower class” productive base, including most craft specialists and agricultural laborers. Such social statuses are ascribed; the possibility of social mobility distinguishes class societies, where mobility is possible, although rarely easy, from caste societies, where opportunities for changing one’s social status can be virtually nonexistent. To maintain social order in their internally diverse, often multicultural, populations, states have formal legal codes and restrict the use of coercive force to their authorized agents. By assigning responsibility for conflict resolution to officers of the state rather than leaving it in the hands of private citizens, states minimize the disruption caused by kin-driven blood feuds and faction fighting that make large paramount chiefdoms so unstable.

States use redistribution to fund the state apparatus or government, but the dominant economic mode in society is market exchange. This exchange allows the government to divest itself of the often-onerous responsibility for the distribution of resources throughout its territory by encouraging private citizens to move local surpluses to less-favored regions in hopes of profit. States encourage market exchange by recognizing standardized units of exchange, such as an official currency, and tap into the wealth generated by this exchange through taxation.

A World of States

Given their ability to amass substantial labor and commodity surpluses, states have an enormous competitive advantage over nonstate societies. History and archaeology amply illustrate this fact and document the trend through time toward a smaller number of larger sociopolitical units. In the study of state formation a term—secondary states—exists for societies that become states under the influence or pressure of neighboring states. This trend is not uniformly upward, however: numerous states have collapsed as the result of political and/or environmental instability. In these cases the affected populations restructured themselves at a lower level of sociopolitical complexity, often chiefdoms or tribes, that could be supported under the new conditions.

Nevertheless, this trend, which is widely but not unanimously seen as driven by population growth, has led to a dramatic loss of nonstate societies, especially during the last few centuries. Even in the mid-1900s, ethnographers could find and study autonomous bands, tribes, and chiefdoms. Now, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, these levels of sociopolitical complexity are essentially extinct. As bands, tribes, and chiefdoms cease to exist as functional units, some scholars see this model and its hierarchical rankings as an exercise in legitimating inequality and maintaining the marginalized status of “less-complex” groups. For those people involved in the study of social complexity, however, the model continues to provide a utilitarian framework for understanding the social, economic, and political variation among societies.


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