Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Headless State by David Sneath

In April David Sneath of the Inner Asian Studies Unit at the University of Cambridge gave a lecture at the ACMS that drew from his then forthcoming book "The Headless State: Aristocratic Orders, Kinship Society, and Misrepresentations of Nomadic Inner Asia" (Columbia University Press). Over the Naadam holiday I had an opportunity to read the book.

This is hardly an academic review of the book, but rather one lay person's impression of the work. Overall I was quite intrigued by the main argument Dr. Sneath builds throughout the book supported by evidence in many instances that debunks what he considers long held but inaccurate interpretations of society
at the aggregate levels of community or within distinguishable polities in Inner Asia. The traditional Anthropological descriptions of Inner Asian Society, according to Dr. Sneath, have been used to support theoretical models which describe "pre-state" polities as clan or kin based tribal systems.

Within these models, the tribal society creeps towards non-kin based forms of administrative organization that is indicative of the modern state. These are theories of political evolution in which tribal society is an inferior precursor to the more evolved and resilient nation state. As a consequence, the historical interpretations of societies in Inner Asia have often been framed in terms of underdevelopment and approaching but ultimately receding from being a state-like entity back towards an ideal form of nomadic and pastoral society which is suited for the harsh environment of the steppe. These models, however outmoded or possibility discredited in certain areas of social science, seem to continue to find their way into historical and popular understanding of Inner Asian society. What Dr. Sneath argues, convincingly to me, is that the political and social order on the steppe has and continues to be far more complex than the perennial perception of egalitarian nomads living freely and rather haphazardly on the plains, only occasionally organizing themselves under a charismatic leader into a state-like entity of marauding hordes.

The book is interesting on many levels, but one of the points that resonated with me was his description of the Great Mongol Empire not as a singularly unique event or a revolution on the steppe under the charismatic leadership of Chinggis Khaan, but rather as an exceptional form of many of the administrative and state like systems in use before the Mongol Empire and even after its decline. The reason for this resonating with me was a comment a faculty member from the University of Missouri's School of Journalism made on a recent tour of sites related to the Mongol Empire. He said that the history of Inner Asia he learned in school often gave the impression that people such as Attila the Hun or Genghis Khan sprang from nowhere and after a time their empires receded back to nowhere. But, standing where Temujiin was crowned as Chinggis Khaan, the son of a great Khan himself, it became clear to this faculty member that at the very least an aristocratic order existed.

Dr. Sneath drives this very point home throughout the latter half of his book, presenting historical evidence to demonstrate that steppe society has been marked by a complex aristocratic order and political intrigue that has been generally reserved for historical treatments of Western civilizations before modern nation states formed. The evidence presented in the book points to a highly administrative social structure with fluid movement of aristocratic groups at the top of these societies. In other words, the history of Inner Asia has not been the supplanting of one tribe by another, but rather the supplanting of one aristocratic order by another with the rest of society, and more importantly the administrative structures used to control the society, remaining relatively unchanged.

Overall the book is an interesting read, and Dr. Sneath offers a compelling argument supported by historical evidence, logic, and instances of proof by contradiction with numerous points of accepted wisdom. I recommend the book if you have any interest in Mongolian history or nomadic societies.

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