Chiefs, Chieftaincies, Chiefdoms, and Chiefly Confederacies: Power in the Evolution of Political Systems

Author: Earle, Timothy
Journal: Social Evolution & History. Volume 10, Number 1 / March 2011


Chiefdom is a social category, continuous with non-stratified social groups and states. The defining process of chiefdoms is an emergent political economy that mobilized resources used to finance institutions of rule and social stratification. Chiefdoms are highly variable, but they are all about power. This article reviews concepts of chiefs, chiefdoms and chiefly confederacies, and illustrates how Polynesian chiefdoms operated prior to state formation. The chief is a political actor seeking to control rather opportunistically the elemental powers of economy, warrior might, and ideology. The history of Kamehameha, first King of the Hawaiian Islands, illustrates how a chief fashioned a state superstructure. Following the formation of states, chiefs continue to operate as sub-state actors controlling interstitial spaces (illegal operations, rural areas, and the like) in competition and collaboration with an overarching state.