Dialectical Anthropology

, Volume 32, Issue 1–2, pp 59–86 | Cite as

Interrogating the neo-pluralist orthodoxy in American anthropology

  • Anthony Marcus


For most of the twentieth century the state was not a major part of the anthropological toolkit. Despite significant archaeologically driven work on evolution and state formation, most socio-cultural anthropologists have viewed the state with empiricist scepticism, populist hostility, or ethnographic indifference. Typically, state-theory has been left to other disciplines, such as political science and sociology. Since the end of the cold war there has been a greatly increased interest in the state among anthropologists. Philip Abrams, Michael Herzfeld, and Akhil Gupta, who coined the phrase “ethnography of the state”, have been particularly important to this development. However, there remains no serious engagement with the body of state-theory generated, over the last century, by political activists, scientists, sociologists, and anthropologists. It will be argued that this has allowed for the growth of an unproblematised orthodoxy around an ethnographically informed variant of classic American pluralist state-theory. This orthodoxy has hobbled the understanding and explanation of complex political phenomena, led to confusion between hypotheses and conclusions, and tied parts of the discipline to a partisan political project that remains largely un-interrogated. This essay seeks to provide context and clarification on state-theory as a step towards discussion of anthropology’s contemporary engagement with the state and broader questions of political action and social change.


State theory Ethnography of the state Pluralism Imagined state 



I would like to gratefully acknowledge the useful commentary and debate provided to me on this essay by my colleagues Nadeem Malik, Charles Menzies, Hans Baer, Peter Dwyer, and Jo Sanson. I should also mention Gerald Sider and Kirk Dombrowski, who were at the core of the 4 h impromptu symposium on anthropology and the state held along Interstate 95, that inspired me to write this essay.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Social and Environmental EnquiryUniversity of MelbourneMelbourneAustralia

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