- The Headless State: Aristocratic Orders, Kinship Society, and Misrepresentations of Nomadic Inner Asia by David Sneath
More than two decades ago, I wrote the first book dealing with the debates of Russian scholars concerning nomadic feudalism (Kradin 1987). The peculiarities of nomadic societies have been of interest to me for many years. Because of this, I opened the first page of The Headless State by David Sneath with great excitement and stopped reading only when the book was finished.
The book consists of seven chapters. In the introduction, Sneath starts with an intriguing critique of early theories explaining the evolution and structure of societies characterized by nomadic feudalism. He rejects sequential evolutionism, structural functionalism, egalitarian interpretations of nomadic societies, and Marxist approaches. In the seventh chapter, he addresses the major problem of forming identity in the great polities of nomads. That final chapter is an exposition on his own position using the example of modern Mongols.
The book left a dual impression. On the one hand, I read it as a detective novel. The author brings us progressively to a new answer to an old puzzle that I also wanted to solve and even proposed an answer to in the early 1990s (Kradin 1992). On the other hand, I could not help feeling that his approach imitates that of Edward Said (1978), who offered a post-modernist critique against all previous approaches and would only accept a new synthetic theory. Post-modernism is a convenient instrument for criticism because it can be used against everyone. One can accuse every anthropologist of colonialism and essentialism and any theory of unfounded constructivism. Charging the majority of Western and Russian nomadologists with colonialism, Sneath’s analysis nevertheless exemplifies colonialist anthropology. For example, he uses only publications written in English (mainly authors from Great Britain and the United States) as if all other scholarly works on this issue published in other countries (even those published in English) or other languages are on the periphery of research on nomadism.
This approach is even more egregious when addressing the nomadic societies of Central and Inner Asia. Russia, for example, has a long tradition of research and publication on these societies, but Sneath does not seem to be acquainted with modern scholarship on nomadism in the post-communist world. He summarizes the Soviet debates about nomadic feudalism based on one chapter from Gellner’s 1988 book (see Kradin 2003 concerning Gellner). Several decades have passed since Gellner’s treatment of the subject; many articles by Russian authors have been published in English that should have been accessible to Sneath.
Sneath also seems to have only a vague impression of current discussions about state origins. His references end with classic books by Service (1975) and Fried (1967), although over the past 35 years many good books have [End Page 130] been published concerning this issue, including books written in English. I want to mention only two very important works that would have contributed to Sneath’s analysis: How Chiefs Come to Power by Timothy Earle (1997) and Myths of the Archaic State by Norman Yoffee (2005). Sneath should have consulted these and the considerable number of other books with cross-cultural and theoretically relevant investigations of the political structures of states that have been published recently.
Sneath’s arguments concerning the absence of clan organization seem strange. He indicates there is no clan organization in contemporary Mongolia based on his field experience. It is indeed the case that Mongols and Buryats have no clans at present. However, I have often noted that the attitude of Buryats to kinship differs from that of Russians, for example. Among Buryats, the rule is to maintain relations and render services to cousins; Russians do not maintain such relationships in practice. Is this not evidence that even now the relations of Buryats with their alliance networks are not the same as in Russian and European cultures? In the contemporary life and politics of Central Asia, clans and...