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essays

March 1978

Order Without State

Madagascar’s Tsimihety people “have no chiefs or kings,” while “prospering and multiplying.”

“The Problem with Simple Folk.” Natural History (USA), 86 (1977): 26–32.

For an anthropologist, the Tsimihety people of Madagascar prove maddening to describe because they do not conform to the normal models that anthropology uses to classify human societies. The Tsimihety do not betray any metaphysical curiosity; they lack a coherent social or economic system; they appear to be pragmatic, utilitarian, and wary of the constraints of a systematic ordering structure.

Deeper probing, however, reveals that the Tsimihety exhibit a systematically structured social organization, but one seldom studied by anthropologists. It is a society whose members choose to live and work individualistically. Individualism, nonconformity, and freedom characterize their social mores.

The Tsmihety individualistically choose their vocations as either herdsmen or farmers. They live in one village or another, as it pleases them. They have no chiefs or kings. Each villager has an equal say in village affairs; if he dislikes the village ruler, he is free to pass on elsewhere. Such freedom of movement militates against artificially imposed status, hierarchy, or authority. Fiercely egalitarian, the Tsimihety recognize no office of authority to which they owe obedience. Each village is a voluntary union of households, and no two villages are in political alliance. Yet the Tsimihety people’s lives are neither chaotic nor “anarchic.” Socially and demographically, they are prospering and multiplying.

In the face of tribal invasion, the Tsimihety flee to the mountains. If that is impossible, they treat the enemy with passive resistance and social boycott. As rugged individualists, some of the Tsimihety accept schooling, others do not. Religion plays only a small role in their lives. There is no trace among them of an orderly kinship system or order of inheritance.

We can best describe this people as “wholeheartedly dedicated to the possibilities of freedom,” refusing to be fettered by the demands of system or symbol. Free from social chaos or disintegration, the Tsimihety have developed a flexible and pragmatic solution to their social life. They choose to retain all their freedom by avoiding any confining metaphysical system that might organize their life in an authoritarian fashion. They view the world piecemeal and are free to interpret it in accord with their own needs.

Scientific anthropology has been unable to devise a model of a liberty-centered society, which could serve to organize and explain the research data collected on the Tsimihety. The lack of a suitable model suggests that anthropology is inadequate in some respects. Given its present paradigm of social systems, anthropology is tempted to ignore data that stretch beyond its limited framework.