How is Political Organization Related to Disease?

Red and orange bacteria

In a previous post, I explained that Medical Anthropology is a branch of Anthropology that studies health and illness from an anthropological perspective. So, what is this anthropological perspective? Well, there are a few different ways that Medical Anthropologists approach the study of disease. But right now, what is most important to know is that Anthropology recognizes more factors in disease than just the pathogen. For example, there are socioeconomic factors in disease, such as poverty.

Here’s an example. In a certain region of Guinea-Bissau (a country in West Africa), lots of people get cholera, which is a diarrheal disease that can be fatal. The cause of cholera is a type of bacteria that lives in contaminated water. So, if you ask a Western-trained medical doctor why people in that part of Guinea-Bissau get cholera, they would say the people are infected with the bacteria that causes cholera. But if you ask a Medical Anthropologist why those people get cholera, they will explain that poverty is the cause. The people in that region of Guinea-Bissau don’t have toilets because they are too poor. And so their wells get contaminated with feces. And then people drink the contaminated well water because that’s the only drinking water they have access to, and they get infected with cholera. So, this is an example of how socioeconomic factors are related to diseases.

Political organization and disease. A metal water pump for a well with a metal bucket of water.

Now, in this post, I’d like to talk about how some other factors are related to diseases. I’ll be focusing on political organization, and how that is linked to disease. In Cultural Anthropology, there are four basic types of political organization: bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and states. I’ll describe each of these in a moment. These different types of political structures affect exposure to diseases and transmission of diseases, through their group size, contact with other groups, mobility, and relationship to the environment.


So, what is a band? A band is a small autonomous group of hunter-gatherers. And by small, I mean about 30 people. They have an informal leader and no formal legal system with formal laws or punishments. Their type of economic exchange is called reciprocity, which basically means sharing. For example, they all hunt and gather, and then share food so that everyone has enough to eat. Their social structure is egalitarian, which means that everyone is equal–there are no social classes like rich and poor. Their religion is animistic, meaning they believe everything has a spirit. Medical care is done by a shaman, or medicine man, who uses their special relationship to the supernatural for healing people.

So, how is a band structure linked to disease? Let’s first look at group size. Bands are small groups of people, and there is a low population density. As a result, bands can’t indefinitely support density-dependent diseases like smallpox. Now let’s look at their contact with other groups. Since bands are autonomous, they have little contact with other people, and so less transmission of disease occurs. Next, let’s look at mobility. Since bands are hunter-gatherers, they are nomadic and have high mobility. This protects them from diseases related to human waste buildup–when their camp gets too full of human waste, they move. Finally, let’s look at their relationship to the environment. Since they are hunter-gatherers, they do not domesticate animals, which means they have less exposure to the diseases animals carry.

Political organization and disease. African hunter-gatherers sitting in a group holding an egg.


So, what is a tribe? A tribe is a group of bands that are linked through special groups. One type of group is an age-grade, which is made up of people who are about the same age. This is like being in 3rd grade at elementary school. It links all 8 or 9-year-olds living in a certain area. Another type of group is a sodality, which is kind of like a club. One example is a warrior sodality. This is like being in the drama club at school–everyone is of different ages, but they all have the same interest. Tribes make a living through horticulture (which is basically gardening) and pastoralism (which is herding). They have a charismatic leader, but the leader does not hold any real power and the legal system has no formal laws or punishments. The economic system is based on reciprocity like with bands, but there is more involvement in trade with other groups. The social structure of a tribe is egalitarian, just like with bands. And, religion is based on shamanism.

So, how is a tribe structure linked to disease? Let’s first look at group size. There are more people in a tribe than a band, so there is increased amounts of disease transmission. Now let’s look at their contact with other groups. In tribes, more people are interacting, like through age grades and sodalities, and also trade networks between tribes. So, they are exposed to more diseases. Next, let’s look at mobility. Tribes are settled in villages, and this creates hygiene problems due to all the human waste. This creates more exposure to diseases related to poor hygiene, like dysentery. Finally, let’s look at their relationship to the environment. If the tribe members are pastoralists, they have close contact with animals, so they are exposed to zoonotic diseases (spread by animals), like TB. If they are horticulturists, this also increases exposure to certain diseases. For example, cutting the underbrush so you can plant a garden exposes you to mites and flies that carry scrub typhus and trypanosomiasis (which is sleeping sickness).

Chiefdoms & States

African woman wearing traditional clothing and standing in front of a hut.

Now, I will discuss chiefdoms and states together, since they have similar issues relating to disease.

So, what is a chiefdom? A chiefdom is when there is a large dense population, and the people live in large villages or cities. They make a living through extensive agriculture. Chiefdoms are led by a chief, and the legal system has informal laws and punishments. The economic system involves redistribution, where people give stuff to the chief (which is like paying taxes) and then the chief redistributes things among the people (which is like getting a tax return). The social structure consists of a ranked society, which involves at the minimum a group of elites and a commoner class. Religion involves priests, and often ancestor worship.

So, what is a state? A state also has a large dense population, with people in villages or cities. There is a leader with a lot of power, and a formal legal system with set laws and punishments. Subsistence is from intensive agriculture, and the economic system involves redistribution and market trade. The social structure is stratified, which means there are different social classes. Religion involves full-time priests.

So, how are chiefdoms and states linked with disease? Let’s first look at group size and contact with other groups. Since there are large populations that interact a lot, and lots of interactions with surrounding groups in the region, now we see the development of crowd diseases like smallpox, measles, influenza, and mumps. These diseases need populations over a certain size in order to stay active. Below that number, the disease dies out and only comes back if it is reintroduced from outside the population. Now, let’s look at mobility and the relationship to the environment. Chiefdoms and states sometimes have a densely populated urban center with a rural population. The rural population is exposed to animal diseases, and there is lots of mobility between the urban and rural areas, which spreads these diseases. For example, the smallpox virus is related to the virus that causes pox in cattle, and the measles virus is related to the virus causing canine distemper. Also, the influenza virus is related to the flu viruses of swine and poultry.

"Slum" area outside of a city, showing crowded shack housing.

In addition to these factors, there are some special issues relating to diseases seen in chiefdoms and states. Since these societies are socially stratified, there are class differences in hygiene. So, the lower classes have more exposure to diseases related to clean water, sanitation, and hygiene (like cholera). Also, the ruler can make decisions and statements on diseases that can affect exposure and transmission either in a positive way or a negative way. For example, in 2004, the President of the National House of Chiefs in Ghana announced that condoms cannot prevent HIV. Many people listened to him, and so they didn’t use condoms, which increased exposure and transmission of HIV. As another example, in 2004 the Chief of the Dahsei people in Africa made the 18 communities he oversaw support a guinea worm project created by the United States. As a result, there was less exposure and transmission of the guinea worm disease.

Learn More

I hope you enjoyed learning about how political organization is related to exposure and transmission of disease! To learn more about the four types of political organizations in Cultural Anthropology, check out Palomar College’s website.

Thanks for reading!