Two Concepts of Authority

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When European fur traders, soldiers, and missionaries first began to move into the western Great Lakes region around 1650, they found a group of Central Algonkian tribes.

The Central Algonkians were village-dwelling Indians, each tribe averaging about 3,000 people. Although some agriculture was practiced, hunting was the primary subsistence activity, and hunting and warfare the focal interests of tribal members. They were extremely skillful hunters and, as the incoming Europeans soon learned, equally effective fighters.

But these same Europeans were struck by what appeared to them a most remarkable phenomenon: The Central Algonkians seemed to carry out their subsistence, religious, administrative, and military activities in the virtual absence of any sort of recognizable authority! One of the first Europeans to contact the central tribes was Nicholas Perrot, a French fur trader and cour-de-bois. He recorded these impressions around 1680:

"the savage does not know what it is to obey ... It is more necessary to entreat him than to command him ... The father does not venture to exercise authority over his son, nor does the chief dare give commands to his soldier ... if anyone is stubborn in regard to some proposed movement, it is necessary to flatter him in order to dissuade him, otherwise he will go further in his opposition..."

Similar impressions were recorded by Jonathan Carver, one of the first Englishmen to explore the Central area. He wrote, about 1770:

"Although (the Indians have both military and civil chiefs), yet (they) are sensible of neither civil nor military subordination. As every one of them entertains a very high opinion of his consequence, and is extremely tenacious of his liberty, all injunctions that carry with them the appearance of a command are instantly rejected with scorn ... there is no visible form of government; they allow of no such distinction as (that between) magistrate and subject, everyone appearing to enjoy an independence that cannot be controlled..."

It is apparent from these reactions that the Europeans saw in the Central Algonkian situation, not a system for co-ordinating collective action that was different from their own, but rather the absence of any kind of regulatory system. Such perceptions were evidently influenced in large part by what the Europeans were accustomed to.


Frenchmen who contacted the Central Algonkians in the middle 1600's were products of a society whose government was based on the doctrine of royal absolutism. The relationship of Louis XIV to his subjects represented in many ways the culmination of a long development of European ideas on the nature of authority.


In present-day European societies there are numerous role-relationships that share, in less extreme form, certain characteristics of these earlier prototypes. Some of these are: master-servant, officer-enlisted man, boss-employee, teacher-pupil, parent-child, foreman-worker, pastor-parishioner, captain-crew member, doctor-patient.

It would seldom occur to the average European to question the validity of such relationships. The amount of authority they involve is not seen as excessive, but as normal and right. But a member of sixteenth-century Algonkian society would regard such authority as oppressive and intolerable. It would be difficult to point to a single role-relationship in Algonkian society that was essentially analogous to the European type of authority relationship.

In the European cultural tradition authority equated with height or elevation. This metaphorical way of thinking about authority is closely tied in with European religious conceptions, many of which utilize the notion that power originates in a supernatural being or group of beings located in the heavens, or some elevated location. Central Algonkian religion places its deities at the four corners of the universe, and on the same plane as humans. While the Central Algonkian conceives of authority as the resultant of ongoing interaction between individuals, the European tends to reify authority -- authority can be quantified, and thus we speak of a great deal of authority, little authority, no authority.

In general, the structure of authority is pictured as pyramidal, with greatest authority at a relatively narrow apex, and more diffuse authority at increasingly lower levels.

The vertical authority relationship is a fundamental building block of European society. Without it the phenomenon of "ranked" authority -- where given individuals are permanently empowered to others -- would be impossible, and ranked authority is an indispensable feature of European organized systems.

A society where authority is conceptualized in a different way would have to organize collective activity according to different principles.


Of the eight central Algonkian tribes that flourished in the Great Lakes region in 1650, the best documented is the Mesquakie (Red Earth) tribe, better known as the Fox. The Fox have retained their tribal identity despite three hundred years of violent and disruptive pressures, and are today a cohesive community of some five hundred Indians in the state of Iowa. The obduracy of Fox resistance to European attempts at control was outstanding even among a group of tribes noted for its resistance to subordination. Father Claude Allouez, the first Christian missionary to proselytize the Fox, said of them, "These people are self-willed beyond anything that can be imagined!"


A number of formalized agencies in Fox society operated to bring about the co-ordination of collective action. Such agencies were limited in number, and highly circumscribed in the amount and kinds of authority exercised.

The nominally paramount authority-role was that of village chief. The role was a permanent one, in that it was held by the same man over an extended period of time. Incumbency was determined by hereditary factors, each village chief being selected from the Bear totemic group. The functions of the village did not involve any directive authority. On the contrary, the role-definition called for mild, nonaggressive, noninitiative behaviour. The Fox name for this role was "peace chief," or sometimes "kindly chief." The village chief acted to symbolize peaceful and harmonious intergroup relations, nonaggressive behaviour, and the unity of the village group. The closest his role functions came to permitting direction was that he was expected to act as arbiter and peacemaker in the event of dissension in council meetings.

The role of war leader involved a modicum of directive authority. During a war expedition the war leader was authorized to size up the situation and suggest desirable action. But this authority was limited in two ways. First, no one was obligated to accept the direction of the war leader if he didn't want to. Any warrior in the tribe who was granted manitu power in a vision could lead a war party, but war party membership was entirely voluntary, and members could leave at any time during a war expedition if they were not satisfied with the way things were going. No war-party leader would be imprudent enough to issue direct commands. The incumbent of the war-chief role, by far the most "powerful" authority role in Fox society, communicated his directives in the form of suggestions as to desirable action, which war-party members could act on or not, as they saw fit.

Second, incumbency of the war-chief role was strictly limited in duration. The authority prerogatives of the war leader, circumscribed as they were, were confined to the duration of the war expedition itself.

The role of ceremony leader similarly involved very little authority. The ceremony leader was a man who had committed to memory one or more of the many religious rituals which played so important a part in Fox life. He put people through the paces of a given religious ceremony. His functions did not include formulation or initiation of religious activity; he did not serve to mediate the relationship between man and manitu; and like the war chief, his authority functions were limited to the duration of the ritual itself.

The village council served as the tribal decision-making agency in matters involving collective welfare or concerted action. The council was composed of the headmen of each of the extended family groupings that composed the tribe, plus any other man who demonstrated ability in council affairs. The amount of influence exerted by any councilman depended on his own personal capability and not on the status of the totemic group he represented. The village chief served as the presiding officer of the council, but had no more influence by virtue of his position than any other member; in fact, he was expected to participate only minimally in council discussion.

No course of action was agreed on by the council unless all members were in accord with the final decision. If there was any considerable opposition to a course of action involving full tribal participation, such a course could not be adopted, since this would make impossible the necessary unanimous decision; there was no necessity to force dissidents to participate in a policy of which they did not approve. The line between the people and the council was thinly drawn; all were welcome to attend and participate in council sessions; if a matter were of sufficient import, a formal meeting of the whole tribe was called.


Since authority roles were so weakly invested with the right to direct, how in fact, was action co-ordinated? Even today an observer of Fox society is struck by the fact that organized activity appears to proceed in the absence of any visible authority.

Just as each individual related himself directly to the source of supernatural power, each individual participating in organized activity related himself directly to the body of procedural rules governing that activity. He was free to select and execute appropriate modes of action; his access to procedural rules was not mediated through another person who transmitted these rules to him.

It seems obvious that this system would hardly be adequate to insure success in a modern military landing operation, the construction of a skyscraper, or the production of a moving picture. Why, then, did it work in Fox society? In the first place, the range of activities involving co-ordinated action was quite limited. Only about five or six such activities (the war party, religious ceremonial, council meeting, some group games) were frequently recurrent. Second, the size of the group participating in such activities was limited. The war party consisted of about five to fifteen men; the religious ceremony involved fifteen to forty participants. Third, since the rate of social change in Fox society was slow, the procedure of such activities was familiar to all participants. Fourth, the "division of labour" in Fox society was neither complex nor ramified. In important co-ordinated activities such as ceremonials and council meetings, the whole range of the population -- all age groups and both sexes -- was customarily participant.

It was as if the action plan for each activity were "built into" each participant. In activities such as the ceremonial, where a person in a position of authority presided over the proceedings, he exercised only "nominal" authority functions, such as signalling the beginnings and endings of set episodes, or recalling the proper sequence of events.


To early European observers the Fox individual appeared unusually haughty, self-contained, and quick to resent anything he perceived as limiting his right to independent action.

The intensity of Fox resentment of external direction was matched by an equally intense conformity to internalized cultural directives. The Fox individual was highly moral; he felt individually responsible for knowing and acting in accordance with the regulations of his society. An order was an insult; it implied that he was inadequate in his knowledge and performance of traditional rules of correct behaviour.

Success in hunting expeditions required that individuals spend long periods in complete solitude, traverse many miles of difficult wilderness, undergo extended hardship and deprivation, and exercise considerable initiative and ingenuity to contend with animal quarry. Such a subsistence system put a premium on qualities of individual initiative, self-dependence, forbearance, and the capacity to size up a situation and act on one's estimate.

Fox child-rearing practices produced and encouraged such qualities. From the earliest years children were encouraged to go alone into the woods and fast, learning to endure in solitude the terrors of the forests; they were sent on long trips by themselves as training for future hunting and war expeditions.

The relationship of child and father, the prototypical "authority" relationship in most European societies, is especially significant in this connection. The vertical-type authority relation between Freudian father and son, with the father the chief disciplinarian and internalized symbol of moral authority ("super-ego"), does not exist in Fox. The relationship is far closer to one of equality, a "horizontal" as against a vertical relationship.

Excerpted from Miller, Walter B. "Two Concepts of Authority." American Anthropologist. New Series 62:2(1955):271-289.

Last updated 10 May 1999

Posted by Duen Hsi Yen


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