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Columbia University Press
The Headless State: Aristocratic Orders, Kinship Society, and Misrepresentations of Nomadic Inner Asia

The Headless State: Aristocratic Orders, Kinship Society, and Misrepresentations of Nomadic Inner Asia

by David SneathDavid Sneath
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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 Asia.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780231140546
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Publication date: 12/21/2007
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

David Sneath is director of the Mongolia and Inner Asia Studies Unit at Cambridge University and a lecturer in social anthropology. He conducted doctoral research in Inner Mongolia in the 1980s and since then has carried out research in Mongolia and other parts of Inner Asia.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction
2. The Myth of the Kinship Society: Evolutionism and the Anthropological Imagination
3. The Imaginary Tribe: Colonial and Imperial Orders and the Peripheral Polity
4. The State Construction of the Clan: The Unilineal Descent Group and the Ordering of State Subjects
5. The Essentialized Nomad: Neocolonial and Soviet Models
6. Creating Peoples: Nation-state History and the Notion of Identity
7. The Headless State: Aristocratic Orders and the Substrata of Power

What People are Saying About This

Christopher P. Atwood

David Sneath's The Headless State is a long-overdue challenge to the conventional picture of Inner Asian nomads divided up into kin-based 'tribes' and 'clans.' Classic histories and ethnographies are given a provocative new reading via an incisive history of social anthropological doctrines and dogmas. What emerges is both the centrality of the state in Inner Asia and the analytic dangers implicit in the state-society dichotomy. Boldly argued, The Headless State will place Inner Asia at the center of writing on state formation.

Christopher P. Atwood, chair, Central Eurasian Studies Department, Indiana University

Signe Howell

In this provocative book, David Sneath provides a scrupulous and erudite critique of concepts such as pastoralism, kinship societies, tribalism, and the state as used in the analysis of Inner Asian polities. He argues instead for the presence of an aristocratic order; the existence of rulers and ruled as distinct social strata; and the presence of 'state relations' in societies that do not seem to match the older models of the centralized state. An important work that will be of interest to anthropologists and political theorists regardless of their regional specialization.

Signe Howell, professor of social anthropology, University of Oslo

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