2022.07.26 Henri Claessen passed away

On July 26, Henri J. M. Claessen passed away. 

Claessen, Henri Joannes Maria (Hans), Henri J. M. Claessen, Prof. Dr. H. J. M. Claessen

(30 November 1930 Wormerveer-26 July 2022 Wassenaar, NL)

We are sad to share the news that the world-known scholar, one of the founders and the main proponent of the Early State theory, and a long-time member of the Editorial Board of the Social Evolution & History journal Henri Claessen passed away on July 26, 2022.

Claessen’s impact on Cultural Anthropology is immense. It would be hard to overestimate the influence of Claessen's works on early states on both his colleagues in the academy and generations of students.

He served as Professor in Cultural Anthropology at Leiden University from 1984 to 1994, Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Leiden University from 1989 to 1991, and Vice-President of the IUAES (International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences) from 1982 to 1992. He was Honorary Member of Koninklijk Instituut voor Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde/Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (Royal Academy of Sciences), Center for Asian and Pacific Studies (University of Nijmegen), and an Honorary Lifetime Member of the IUAES.

He had a collaborative spirit and always looked for interdisciplinary projects. He was always willing to read drafts or give advice. Prof. Claessen will be missed by everyone who knew him, and those involved in Cultural Anthropology will miss his new contributions to the field.

When the founders of Social Evolution & History were reaching out to the leading scholars, they were so pleased that Prof Claessen agreed to join the Editorial Board of the new journal and remained on board for 20 years, until passing away. His humanity, his dedication and participation in SEH will be sorely missed.

Education and background

His scientific background can be traced back to the University of Amsterdam where he was trained as a social geographer and cultural anthropologist. His scientific interests were influenced by the comparative approach of Andre Kobben, who guided the inchoate phase of his work in political anthropology and later supervised Claessen’s PhD thesis.

After getting his Ph.D. in 1970 Henri Claessen was appointed Associate Professor at Leiden University in the Department of Cultural Anthropology. Claessen's main teaching load consisted of the introductory courses and lectures in political anthropology. He developed political anthropology into a flourishing specialism which was attractive to many students as an alternative to the general, cultural-area-focused and structuralist-dominated interests then current in the department. Apart from this he devoted his qualities as an organiser and team-worker to the development of the study of 'Early States'. In 1984 he became full Professor there, and in 1994 he retired from the University. From 1982–1992 he served as Vice-President the IUAES. Since his retirement he has been teaching for twelve years courses in the University for Elderly People.

Early State Research

Henri Claessen has devoted much of his scholarly career to the study of the origin and evolution of the Early States. Shortly after the first conference on The Early State in Leiden in 1979 he founded a rather informal Early State Society, a group of Dutch scholars studying The Early State from various angles. Claessen also developed a dense international network setting up and maintaining a theoretical discussion on the evolution of medium-sized and Archaic polities.

The rapid development of national and international contacts induced Claessen to initiate the 'Early State Project' with the goal of assembling dispersed students and appropriate data on that subject. Together with Peter Skalník he started to edit a series of influential important volumes on this topic and that way contributions by many scholars in the field of political anthropology were brought together. The theoretical perspectives of the authors often varied considerably and Claessen and Skalník attempted to synthesize various theoretical perspectives in their editorials and summaries of these studies. At the same time these contributions provided them with a much wider range of states for their research. (Oosten 1994)

To quote Skalník (2004: 79):

‘The term “early state”, which I suggested to Hans Claessen instead of his “primitive state” when we first met in 1973 was a reaction to the inadequacy of the Russian Marxist term “early class state”’.

In The Early State (1978), the first volume of an array of studies on this subject, Claessen and Skalník applied a comparative approach to distinctive features of political organizations in a sample-survey of 21 states (Claessen 2008). In their introductory chapter they noted that there was no commonly accepted definition of the state, that there were 'insufficient or premature data', and that much confusion existed regarding the origins of the state (Claessen and Skalník 1978: 3.) The Early State was proposed as an evolutionary level or stage between Chiefdom and State; research on the origins of the state should focus on this level. As a working definition they assumed: 'the Early State is the organisation for the regulation of social relations in a society divided into two emergent social classes, the rulers and the ruled' (Claessen & Skalník 1978: 21.). From the existing literature on the subject, they inferred the following characteristics of Early States:

  1. A sufficient number of people to make possible social categorization, stratification and specialization.
  2. Citizenship is determined by residence or birth in the territory.
  3. The government is centralized and has power to maintain law and order through the use of both authority and force, or the threat of force.
  4. The state is independent, at least de facto, and the government possesses sufficient power to prevent fission, and the capacity to defend itself against external threats.
  5. The population shows such a degree of social stratification that emergent social classes (rulers and ruled) can be distinguished.
  6. Productivity is so high that there is a regular surplus, which is used for the maintenance of the state organisation.
  7. A common ideology exists which legitimises the ruling stratum.

By studying these aspects in the papers in The Early State they hoped to answer questions regarding origins, characteristics and typology, and to arrive at a minimal definition of the Early State. They concluded that demography, conflict and diffusion were instrumental to the emergence of state polities, while the ideological and socio-economic 'characteristics' were thought to be relevant for the continuity of these organizations (Oosten 1994).

A limited number of relevant factors in the development of Early States is selected, but not yet satisfactorily connected. In their next volume The Study of the State Claessen and Skalník discuss the selection of these factors; according to them they are functionally connected and may serve to formulate empirical generalizations (1981: 503.) In view of the quite strong importance accorded to demographic factors and conflict in The Early State, their complete silence regarding these 'factors' in the concluding chapter of The Study of the State is curious. Apparently Claessen was looking for a theoretical framework which would enable him to connect these features in a more satisfactory way; as he and Skalnik noted in their conclusion 'the primary problem appears to be one of theory, not one of more data' (Claessen & Skalník 1981: 485). When Leiden could no more employ him, Skalník joined the University of Cape Town in South Africa, thereby effectively ending his collaboration with Claessen, although they continued to meet at international conferences for a time.

In The Early State one can already find the basis of the Complex Interaction Model which became the central theme of Claessen's later research. Claessen and Van de Velde developed the Complex Interaction Model in terms of theories of systems and models. First, submitted to Current Anthropology, it was reformulated and presented in Antropologische Verkenningen in 1984 (Claessen & Van de Velde 1984,) and then more elaborately in Development and Decline (Claessen, Van de Velde & Smith 1985.)

The co-edited influential volumes on the Early State which have been acclaimed throughout the world:

  • 1978. The Early State. The Hague: Mouton. Claessen, H. J. M., and Skalník, P. (eds.)
  • 1981. The Study of the State. The Hague: Mouton. Claessen, H. J. M., and Skalník, P. (eds.)
  • 1985. Development and Decline; the Evolution of Sociopolitical Organization. South Hadley, Mass.: Bergin and Garvey. Claessen, H. J. M., van de Velde, P., and Smith, M. E. (eds.)
  • 1987. Early State Dynamics. Leiden: Brill. Claessen, H. J. M., and van de Velde, P. (eds.)
  • 1991. Early State Economics. New Brunswick: Transaction. Claessen, H. J. M., and van de Velde, P. (eds.)
  • 1996. Ideology and the Formation of Early States. Leiden: Brill. Claessen, H. J. M., and Oosten, J. G. (eds.)

Publications in Social Evolution & History:

Special issue
Thirty Years of Early State Research
Guest Editor: Henri J. M. Classen, Renee Hagesteijn, Pieter van de Velde
  • Claessen, Henri J. M. Ancient Ghana Reconsidered // Social Evolution & History. Volume 19, Number 2 / September 2020
  • Claessen, Henri J. M. Neandertals – Life, Work, Vanishing // Social Evolution & History. Volume 19, Number 1 / March 2020
  • Claessen, Henri J. M. Sacred Kingship: Cases from Polynesia // Social Evolution & History. Volume 17, Number 2 / September 2018
  • Claessen, Henri J. M. Inequality and More // Social Evolution & History. Volume 16, Number 1 / March 2017
  • Claessen, Henri J. M. The Emergence of Pristine States // Social Evolution & History. Volume 15, Number 1 / March 2016
  • Claessen, Henri J. M. Sacred Kingship: The African Case // Social Evolution & History. Volume 14, Number 1 / March 2015
  • Claessen, Henri J. M. From Incidental Leaders to Paramount Chiefs: The Evolution of Socio-Political Organization // Social Evolution & History. Volume 13, Number 1 / March 2014
  • Claessen, Henri J. M. Reconsideration of a Reformulation // Social Evolution & History. Volume 11, Number 2 / September 2012
  • Claessen, Henri J. M.; Hagesteijn, Renée R. On State Formation and Territorial Expansion – A Dialogue // Social Evolution & History. Volume 11, Number 1 / March 2012
  • Claessen, Henri J. M. On Chiefs and Chiefdoms // Social Evolution & History. Volume 10, Number 1 / March 2011
  • Claessen, Henri J. M. On Early States – Structure, Development, and Fall // Social Evolution & History. Volume 9, Number 1 / March 2010
  • Claessen, Henri J. M.; Hagesteijn, Renée R.; Pieter van de Velde. The Early State Today // Social Evolution & History. Volume 7, Number 1 / March 2008
  • Claessen, Henri J. M. Before The Early State and After: An Introduction // Social Evolution & History. Volume 7, Number 1 / March 2008
  • Claessen, Henri J. M. Developments in Evolutionism // Social Evolution & History. Volume 5, Number 1 / March 2006
  • Claessen, Henri J. M. Early State Intricacies // Social Evolution & History. Volume 4, Number 2 / September 2005
  • Claessen, Henri J. M. Was the State Inevitable? // Social Evolution & History. Volume 1, Number 1 / March 2002

Claessen, H. J. M. 2008. Before The Early State and After: An Introduction. Social Evolution & History. Volume 7, Number 1, pp. 4–18.

Claessen, H. J. M., and Skalník, P.1978. The Early State: Theories and Hypotheses. In Claessen H.J.M., and Skalník P. (eds.), The Early State (pp. 3–29). The Hague: Mouton.

Claessen, H. J. M., and Skalník, P 1981. Ubi sumus? The Study of the State conference in retrospect. In Claessen H.J.M., and Skalník P. (eds.), The Study of the State (pp. 469–510). The Hague: Mouton.

Claessen H. J. M., and van de Velde P. 1984. Complexe interactie; Een proces-model ter verklaring van de evolutie vande sociaal-politieke organizatie. Antropologische Verkenningen 3(2): 120-36

Claessen, H. J. M., van de Velde, P., and Smith, M. E. (eds.) 1985. Developments and Decline. The Evolution of Sociopolitical Organization. South Hadley MA: Bergin & Garvey.

Oosten J. 1996. Ideology and the Development of European Kingdoms. In Claessen H. J. M., and Oosten J. G. (eds.), Ideology and the Formation of Early States (pp. 225–247). Leiden: Brill.

Skalník P. 2004. Chiefdom: A Universal Political Formation? Focaal. Vol. 43. P. 76–98.