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date: 16 February 2019

Abstract and Keywords

From an anthropological perspective, political leadership is a system of social relationships involving authority, charisma and other forms of personal or institutional power, whose rules are specific to, and embedded within, particular cultural contexts. More specifically, it is the art of controlling followers through the strategic mobilization of morality, rituals, and symbols. This article critically reviews anthropology’s contribution to the study of political leadership from the 1960s to the present. The article is in four parts. The first considers what political leadership is and why it matters. The second assesses pioneering works on leadership from 1960–1980 and the implications of the shift from small-scale, third-world communities towards more complex societies. The third considers studies since 1980, including seminal work on the relationship between political leadership, ritual and power, drawing on examples from Madagascar, Europe and the USA. The author also shows how post-1980, anthropological studies of leadership were subsumed within broader debates over ideology, hegemony, resistance, nation and state-formation, post-colonialism, and performance. Finally, the author considers some promising recent work that indicates new analytical directions. Anthropology’s key contribution lies in its attention to local social/cultural contexts, its understandings of how power is practised, and its concern with understanding the meanings of political leadership rather than simply its forms.

Keywords: Social Context, Followership, Ritual, Symbolism, Oratory and Power, Cultural Capital, Ethnography

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