Definition of Acephalous Society
A society that doesn’t have a formal leader, like one without a chief or a permanent political leader, is called an acephalous society. These kinds of societies are frequently referred to as non-stratified societies. Usually, these civilizations operate on a smaller scale and are organized into bands or tribes. Instead of choosing permanent heads or monarchs, decisions are often reached via a process known as consensus decision-making.
Power is distributed throughout society in such communities rather than centralized in any official leadership position. Elders and other individuals who have accumulated significant knowledge in a particular field may provide insightful counsel, but they cannot compel others to comply with their recommendations. Their capacity to persuade others and forge a consensus within the group is the foundation of their influence. There will always be some people in a group who want to be in charge or push their ideas on others. But without a formal way for these people to get their way, most people can ignore or avoid them. Instead of social disorder and conflict, this situation leads to a generally cooperative social order.
Fortes and Evans-Pritchard – Three forms of acephalous societies
Fortes and Evans-Pritchard identified three distinct forms of acephalous societies: band societies, segmental lineage, and age set.
The first is consistent with our description of band societies, whereby groups of 20–30 individuals engaged in a subsistence lifestyle of gathering and hunting. These communities emphasize mutual aid, collaboration, and sharing and are characterized by a strong egalitarian spirit. Discussion and reaching a consensus are necessary steps in the decision-making process. There are no official leadership roles, although persons with specialized expertise and experience may wield influence.
A lineage is a group of individuals connected via the maternal or paternal line to a common ancestor. In lineage societies, communities are comprised of two or more lineage groups, each with an elder or group of elders who play a pivotal role in forging consensus and resolving disagreements within the lineage. These leaders do not have official leadership roles but rather wield informal power by their amassed knowledge and ability to convince lineage members to follow their directions.
Similar to band societies, lineage orders are often egalitarian. Some lineage societies are segmentary, such as the Nuer of South Sudan. These are familial units known as minimum lineages, which are absorbed by bigger groupings known as maximal lineages, which are in turn subsumed by even larger groups known as clans.
In certain acephalous societies, age sets are used to organize communities on a basic level. A group of like-aged individuals in a society who share a similar social status with approved roles, activities, and duties constitutes an age set.
Example of Acephalous Society
It is said that the Igbo, also known as Ibo, who reside mostly in southern Nigeria and speak Igbo, is an acephalous society.