Unit Nine – The State and Politics

What to Do for Unit Nine

Start your ethnographic notes for this unit by introducing what the concept of the state to your audience.

1) Ethnographic Notes A – Who Rules America?
Visit the site titled “Who Rules America?”

Read and review the site’s content.

Choose one of the topics discussed per group member, tell your audience  what you have learned about that topic(s).

Give feedback to a different post (Unit Nine – Ethnographic Notes) as an individual class member on Canvas.


The Class-Domination Theory of Power

Wealth, Income, and Power

The Corporate Community

Social Cohesion of the power elite

Opposition to the Power Structure

 Power at the local level





2) Research Project – Power, Political, Legal, or State Aspects

Please do some research and thinking on power, political, legal, or state (government) aspects of your topic and post the results with proper citation.

Provide feedback (comments, questions, …) to a different research project as an individual class member on Canvas.



Who Rules America?

G. William Domhoff, Research Professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz



What to Read for Unit Nine:

Read notes and review links below

Unit  Nine Notes Power and Politics


How to Study Power

Studies of power and politics in the U.S. up to some four decades ago were mostly limited to the studies of the State.

During the last few decades studies of power in various private and public aspects of American life have become more widespread. Anthropologists are particularly interested in symbolism of power relations.

Resources for power are historically, geographically, and culturally specific. These resources are confined to specific times, locations, groups.

Think about the power symbolism in the following:

a)      The power of suntan symbolizing a summer vacation.

b)      Cars as power status

c)       Fashion as power status

d)      Dress and uniforms as an indications of status and position in a hierarchy (e.g., at a hospital).

A suit and tie vs. jeans and a baseball hat – encodes values inherent to the particular subcultures.

Power is one of the most contested terms in the social sciences.

In the 20th century, there was a transition in American politics. The imperial presidencies of Johnson, JFK, and Nixon gave way to the more lax presidencies of Carter (who acted as if he had no power), Reagan (who delegated everything), and Clinton (who was checked by lobbyists and law suits). Two of these presidencies provide evidence of how power corrupts.

But in the 1970s, there were social movements pushing for popular participation, and democratic checks on public power, that decisions be subject to the will of the people, sometimes called the cultural revolution or the rights revolution. The idea was to change social norms, make them more diverse, create alternatives to formal law and authority, encourage mediation and conciliation, and importantly, reform corporate management.

Some of the proposals were enacted. The movement was in part a reaction to the imperial presidencies and their abuses of power, in part reactions to the Vietnam War, in part outgrowths of the civil rights movement and the women’s movement that emerged at the time.

Some examples of the institutional changes – police review boards were installed to check police violence, students were put on committees to participate in governing universities, etc.

In the 1990s, the corporations became more assertive, but they are beginning to be subject to scrutiny nowadays (e.g. the Sarbanes-Oxley law that mandates extensive corporate reporting). Although some of checks on organizational power have been institutionalized, become accepted, it appears that the imperial presidency is on the rise again.

Power is also manifest in everyday interactionsnot only the state.

Power is formed and expressed in a duality of structure and agency.

There is a dialectic of human desire/will and “agency” and social and cultural structures.

For a brief discussion of “agency” see Unit One Notes on Culture.

Structure refers to the cumulative consequences of institutions.

Examples of institutions as defined in the social sciences are the economy, state, law, family, and religion.

Institutions constitute patterns of practices that persists over time and particular groups.


American Elections as Ritual

The following is a summary of an article by James R McLeod, titled The Sociodrama of Presidential Politics: Rhetoric, Ritual, and Power in the Era of Teledemocracy, and published in American Anthropologist (1999. Vol. 101, Iss. 2; 359-74).

McLeod examines the American presidential campaign cycle as a series of ritualized sociodramas.

Examples are used from the campaigns of 1988, 1992, and 1996 to illustrate the role of ritual, rhetoric, symbol, and media in the process of presidential power acquisition.

The author’s analysis is based on utilizing the concepts of sociodrama and rituals of rebellion from in the literature of political anthropology.

 The goal of McLeod’s article is to provide an anthropological perspective on the process of choosing the American President in the era of teledemocracy.   

Data Gathering Method: The author lived and worked in the United States in the periods described, collected data from archival sources, watched and analyzed media outlets during the campaigns, analyzed presidential speeches and debates, and took extensive notes available from the public record throughout the periods described.

Participant-observation was relied upon as the key fieldwork instrument. It was combined with rhetorical analysis and significant observations of the political rituals of the American presidential cycle.

Conceptual or Theoretical Framework: McLeod looks at the presidential campaigns as a rhetorical and symbolic arena in which voters and candidates participate ritually in the complexities of the presidential struggle for power.

The article points that through the ritual electoral sociodramas, American society is disarticulated metaphorically every four years and then rearticulated through the election/inauguration cycle.

Anthropologist Victor Turner introduced the concept of social drama.   For Turner conflicts bring fundamental aspects of society, normally overlaid by the customs and habits of daily intercourse, into frightening prominence.  

The rhetoric used in these sociodramas includes debates over family values, race, worldviews, economic realities, the nature of the universe, and proper behavior in society.

For McLeod, the symbolic mythology of the electoral ritual deals with issues that are political, legal, economic, religious, and even familial.

He emphasizes that the political ritual and political rhetoric in the American modern cultural contexts are designed and organized events. They are created for mass consumption and orchestrated for quantitative effects.

Political campaigns in the United States, for McLeod, are also “rituals of rebellion” in which the voices of the constituent units of the society are vented publicly through the process of campaigning.

Anthropologist Gluckman described rituals of rebellion as cultural ceremonies whose overt purpose or manifest function was the expression of antagonism against central political institutions. The covert or purpose or latent function of rituals of rebellion was the reintegration of society through a kind of integrative catharsis.

The rituals of rebellion allow the expression of sectional and hierarchical disharmonies within a culturally approved matrix of rule-governed dramatic presentations.

The rituals of rebellion are a means for the various segments of a society to come together in a quasi-violent manner that was ultimately a reinforcement for the continuity of political institutions.

Gluckman’s goal was to demonstrate that when socio-political tensions and conflicts of a potentially violent and disintegrative nature are set within ritual discourse, they are thereby rendered harmless and result only in the continuation of the status quo.”

Gluckman has pointed out that rituals of rebellion usually occur in societies in which social orders and political systems enjoy full legitimacy. In these type of societies the hegemonic discourse is unchallenged and the idea of some alternative arrangement of society is inconceivable for the decisive majority of the population.

During the rituals of rebellion the immunity of the established sociopolitical order is suspended for a moment, so it can be mocked, reversed, and ridiculed, but within strict limits of cultural form. Very often what is being attacked are not public offices per se, but merely the people who occupy them.

After the ritual of rebellion is over the whole political and social order remains intact, even strengthened, since various hostile energies have been channeled and safely discharged in the performance.

McLeod thinks that through rhetorical skills, sound bites, debates, and televised performances, American voters participate ritually in the sociodramas of presidential rebellion.  

McLeod also points to another function of presidential campaigns; that they also act as a means for the introduction of new values and symbolic elements in American civil religion.

During the presidential election rituals American dominant values are rearranged, reexamined, reconstructed and reintegrated into a new synthesis.

Presidential rhetoric provides the symbolic means through which these values are tested, examined, contested and claimed by the electorate.

Ritual can be seen as a form of rhetoric, the propagation of a message through a complex symbolic performance.

Rhetoric creates an emotional state that makes the message uncontestable because it is framed in such a way as to be seen as inherent in the way things are.


Political rhetoric and political rituals are the principal means by which American political elites create these presidential sociodramas for themselves and the members of their culture.

These dramas incorporate the in-group symbolically and exclude the out-group symbolically, and they provide political justification for elite behavior.

These powerful political symbols utilize political persuasion and political rhetoric that is based on a system of fundamental beliefs about what it means to be an American.

The population is supposed to “get to know” the candidate through his highly ritualized appearances, while the candidate uses the rites to present a certain image of himself or herself and to use symbols to both define and ignite the emotions.

An important insight to be gained from McLeod’s study of rhetoric and symbolism in presidential campaigns is the rethinking of the concept of secularization.

According to the classical view of ritualization and secularization complex political systems, such as that of the U.S., are less likely to ritualize political contests than are traditional systems.

McLeod stresses that “the reverse is true; the more complex and larger the units of society become, and the more diverse the population, the more important rituals of integration become in the political process.”

A central question for political anthropologists to answer in presidential campaigns is the degree to which these ritual sociodramas actually impose themselves upon the consciousness of the governed.

McLeod thinks that rhetoric and ritual in presidential campaigns have roles decisively similar to that described for mythology and ritual in traditional societies.

The Media Environment in the Post-Modern Society: McLeod points out that, Media continuously translate each other; thus they constitute an environment, rather than a simple plurality.

Post-modern society is constituted by a media environment characterized by the continuous circulation of signs and messages.  

Campaigns have now become made-for-TV productions. Rallies and speeches are staged as media events, and on-air interviews are also standard fare. Political advertising, designed to reinforce positive and negative candidate and party images, regularly consume more than  

In sum, McLeod’s article is an attempt to show that the United States is disarticulated politically during the election campaign through the use of very powerful rhetoric of unity, disunity, order, anarchy, and chaos. It is then rearticulated through the election/inauguration ritual cycle. The process of electing the president a national ritual of integration and revitalization.  

Question: What are the dominant social relations and cultural values and ideas that are being represented, contested and reconstructed during the 2008 American presidential elections?


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