Chiefdom: Defining Features

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  • 0:08 A Chiefdom
  • 1:07 Mana
  • 2:28 Redistribution
  • 3:26 Multi-Leveled Chiefdoms
  • 3:56 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will explain the political structure of a chiefdom. In doing so, it will highlight the concepts of mana, redistribution, and multi-leveled chiefdoms found within many less industrialized societies around the globe.

A Chiefdom

Growing up in the Western world, we're very familiar with terms like towns, cities, counties, and states. However, for much of the world, specifically the non-industrialized world, these words have very little meaning. With this is mind, it may be easy for someone from a more industrialized society to assume that these societies have little to no political structure. In today's lesson, we'll take a look at this misconception by studying the idea of a chiefdom.

Found all over the globe, a chiefdom is a political unit with a chief at its head, bringing together more than one community. Making it stand out from some of the more loosely affiliated political units of the non-industrialized world, a chiefdom has a formal structure of power. Adding to this, a chief doesn't usually just rule over one community. Instead, his power usually stretches to several different communities within his area. Sort of like a retail district manager who oversees more than one department store in his area, a chief will oversee the workings of several different communities.


However, unlike a district manager who has probably worked himself up through the ranks and who can lose his job if things don't go well, the position of chief is usually hereditary and is most often permanent. In other words, chiefs don't run for office, and they don't often get ousted for inefficiency. They inherit their position, and they usually hold it until death. So strong is this system, that in some societies, chiefs are actually considered to have supernatural power that gives the right to rule.

Known as mana, this power is believed to be passed down from generation to generation. So powerful is this sway, and so recognized, that there have been cases of Western missionaries being able to convert an entire chiefdom simply by converting the chief. On the contrary, there have also been cases where no conversions would occur because the chief refused to convert to the Westerner's beliefs.

With this in mind, we come to a very interesting point. Many leading social scientists assert that most chiefs don't actually have a formalized means to control the people. They have no police force or a written set of laws to enforce. Although not formalized, many social scientists assert there just might be a bit more than respect or the belief in mana going on when it comes to a chief's power.

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