Political Organizations: Bands, Tribes, Chiefdoms & States

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  • 0:02 Types of Political Structures
  • 0:40 Bands
  • 1:31 Tribes
  • 3:16 States
  • 4:08 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 seek to explain the different social structures that exist across the globe. In doing so, it will highlight bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and states. It will also define mana and redistribution.

Types of Political Structures

My daughter's social studies class is studying the political structures of our society. In doing this, my little one has brought home all sorts of coloring papers with words like town, county, state, and country peppered all over them. However, if my family and I lived outside the industrialized West, these words might be replaced with words like band, tribe, chiefdom, or even state. Now, although many of these words are familiar to our ears, not many of us can readily distinguish between them. Today's lesson will seek to remedy this as we discuss each of them, giving just a brief overview of each.


Usually being the smallest of the four, bands are where we'll start. A band is usually a very small, oftentimes nomadic, group that is connected by family ties and is politically independent. With nomadic meaning moving from place to place, usually in search of food, bands are most often made up of hunter-gatherers.

Due to their small size and their tendency to move around, bands usually have little to no formal leadership. In other words, when to move and when to stay is usually based on group consensus rather than one governing official calling the shots. With this, bands are usually referred to as being egalitarian societies, societies in which all persons of the same age and gender are seen as equals. Now notice, this doesn't mean that men and women are always equal, it more means that men are equal to men and women are equal to women.


With this, we sort of move up the non-industrialized political ladder to tribes. Speaking technically, a tribe is a combination of smaller kin or non-kin groups, linked by a common culture, that usually act as one.

Sort of multi-grouped and usually bigger than bands, tribes tend to contain communities that are a bit larger. Many social scientists assert that this is because rather than just being hunter-gatherers, tribes often dabble in agriculture and herding, making it easier to support a larger yet still rather small population. However, similar to bands, and very unlike the old cowboy movies that show a bunch of warriors surrounding a chief, most tribes have no formal leadership. Instead, they, too, are egalitarian in nature.

However, this is a great segue into our next topic, chiefdoms. A chiefdom is a political unit headed by a chief, who holds power over more than one community group. With more than one community involved, chiefdoms are usually more densely populated. Also, as the name chief implies, chiefdoms are not egalitarian but instead have social rank, with the chief and his family holding power.

Since chiefs are usually chosen by heredity, this usually gives his family and their inner circle the reigns to power. In fact, many chiefdoms practice redistribution, in which goods are accumulated by one central person or power, who then decides how to allocate them among the people.

Adding to this, many chiefdoms believe their chiefs are endowed with mana, a supernatural power that gives the right to rule. However, despite this powerful force, chiefdoms usually have no form of bureaucracy or written laws that help support the chief. For this, we need to move onto our last term, states.

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