An Eclectic Bibliography of World History Democracy: Local Self-Government

An Eclectic Bibliography of the World History of Democracy

by Steve Muhlberger, Associate Professor of History, Nipissing University.

Local Self-Government

Phil Paine and I have offered an analysis of democracy that is based, in part, on the importance of democratic and quasi-democratic institutions on the local level. (See our article "Democracy's Place in World History," Journal of World History 4 (1993): 23-45 and the treatment pre-published at my World History of Democracy site.

This bibliography includes further reading for people who might want more information about such institutions. All of these books and articles provided us with either interesting information, theoretical insights, or an understanding of how historians, anthropologists, or political thinkers have interpreted local institutions.

I make no claim that all of these works support our interpretation of the evidence. Some of the communities described are rather weak examples of democracy at best. Also, some of the more interesting authors disagree with Phil and me in important respects. However, any reader who works through them will learn a lot about local institutions.

This bibliography excludes a lot of material: it focuses on relatively recent times. I have put material on communities of the ancient Mediterranean and ancient India in separate bibliographies.


Griffeth, Robert, and Carol G. Thomas, eds. The City-State in Five Cultures . Santa Barbara and Oxford: ABC-Clio, 1981.

The five cultures are Sumer, classical Greece, medieval Italy, medieval and early modern Germany and Switzerland, and the Hausa city-states from 1450-1804. Useful as an introduction to city-states in history, and for comparing political institutions. There is an interesting discussion of what conditions allow for the creation and maintenance of long-lived, autonomous city-states.

Magagna, Victor V. Communities of Grain. Rural Rebellion in Comparative Perspective Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991.

An excellent and thought-provoking book, one that gives the reader a good grasp of the common features and tendencies of rural communities in their relations with outside authority.

M. does not believe that class analysis has done much to explain rural rebellion or even define that elusive figure "the peasant. For him, local communities (which he calls "communities of grain") are the heart of rural life. The necessity of cooperation, despite the variety of legal and economic structures and situations, creates a community that is determined to exercise jurisdiction over its members to enforce whatever degree of cooperation is necessary, and to define its own membership. Much of the book is devoted to showing that despite cultural differences, communities all over the world do these things, and that loyalty to the local community is primary and rational. This explains why peasant revolts are almost always very local in their causes and organization, and arise not from any central direction or over-all class consciousness.

M. insists repeatedly that these rural communities were not egalitarian or egalitarian utopias." He does not look very closely at the internal institutions of any of his sample communities, though he mentions councils, elections, headmen and others. He prefers to invoke hierarchy, hierarchies of reciprocal rights and duties, as the organizing principle of the rural communities (especially the hierarchies of age and gender).

In the last chapter (pp. 268-272) M. addresses the tendency of modern communitarians to use such local communities as an example of their goal and their methods. M. says that two aspects of such communities should make people skeptical of such a procedure. First, the solidarity of the community arises out of a specific economic and political way of life, in which everything important for the rural dweller is bound up in local cooperation and autonomy; second, in such communities, individual rights are extremely restricted. Modern communitarians who are attached to individual rights and the possibility of wider citizenship (=transferable rights of citizenship between one locality and another) cannot hope to recreate old-style rural communitarianism in the modern world.

Maine, Sir Henry Sumner. Village-Communities in the East and West . 1889. Reprint. New York: Arno Press, 1974.

Reprinted from a New York edition of 1889, but the lectures which make up the book are from 1871 or earlier. The "Village-Communities" series was one of six delivered at Oxford.

Because of its age, this book is most interesting for historiographical reasons.

Maine was a great believer that Indian villages preserved many features of earlier European ones. The most important feature, of course, was the common ownership of the village lands. There is much reference to the then-fashionable Teutonic Mark system, in which the arable mark was divided between households, but managed in a highly-regulated way, and the common mark or waste was used in common.

Ostrom, Elinor. Governing the Commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. Cambridge, 1990.

An important book. Ostrom provides the reader with examples of both village-level and regional-level institutions that attempt to manage common resources and thereby avoid the "tragedy of the commons." One of the strengths of the book is that it shows instances both of success and of failure. It does not, however, examine the actual decision-making processes in great detail.

Sahlins, Marshall D. Tribesmen . Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968.

A well-written and concise anthropological survey. It is organized around the idea that the author's job is to distinguish types of social organization and rank them as lower and higher. Thus hierarchy is emphasized throughout.

Partly Sahlins is simplifying. He admits that there are many intermediate arrangements between the "most advanced chiefdom and the simplest segmentary tribe." (p. 21) But he does not discuss them or how they work. It is worth comparing his presuppositions and attitudes with those of Philip Curtin (see below in "Africa" section).

Service, Elman R. Primitive Social Organization. An Evolutionary Perspective . New York: Random House, 1962.

This book is a good survey touching on many aspects of human organization. Its purpose is to discover what circumstances, both organic and superorganic (i.e. cultural), produced different types of social organization in the period before the formation of the state.

Integration and stability take pride of place in Service's discussion. He is looking for the most stable configurations possible at each technological or cultural level, or the configurations that occur when stability has existed for a long time. If there is no clearly definable organization, Service tends to conclude that there is no organization. In particular, in connection with chiefdoms, Service does not consider that there might be systems where redistribution could take place without one person being consistently the key to its workings. In his view, one suspects, this is not a system or an organization at all. In other words, he has defined politics out of existence.

Wolf, Eric R. Peasants . Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1966.

A brief anthropological survey of peasant ways of life around the world. Peasants are primary producers, esp. cultivators, who are subject to others who do not share a reciprocal relationship with them: "It is this production of a fund of rent which critically distiguishes the peasant from the primitive cultivator. This production in turn is spurred by the existence of a social order in which some men can through power demand payments from others, resulting in the transfer of wealth form one section of the population to another." (p. 10).

Wolf has little to say about the methods of decision making in peasant communities. He visualizes peasant associations above the family level as being "coalitions" that are not very strong because peasant families cannot take big risks and do not have the resources to build lasting organizations. There is a detailed discussion of the different types of possible coalitions.


Alagoa, Egiegberi Joe. The Small Brave City State: A History of Nembe-Brass in the Niger Delta. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1964.

Nembe (or Brass) is in the eastern Niger delta. It is a monarchy with two monarchs, but the basic unit of social structure is the canoe house. On p. 21, the author, a member of the Alagoa house, describes the election of Francis O.J. Alagoa as head of his father's house.

Curtin, Philip D. The Rise and Fall of the Plantation Complex. Essays in Atlantic History . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

This book includes on p. 35 this interesting remark on the historiography of African society: "But much of sub-Saharan Africa was not organized in states...West Africa had many regions of "stateless society," where kinship patterns formed the basis for settling disputes and where no one individual was permenantly in charge; no individual, or any small group, held or claimed a monopoly on the right to use force. In the past, some historians thought that these stateless societies were "primitive" or "less developed" forms of government that would naturally give way to the state forms as soon as people found out about state styles of government. More recently, it became clear that a powerful state is not necessarily an advantage for those who live under its control. Stateless societies have therefore persisted alongside states for centuries, apparently by choice. Many of these stateless peoples, for that matter, have had more advanced agricultural techniques than those who lived in states. Historians now beleive that statelessness was often preferred, but that states were soemtimes essential to meet the threat of foreign military power. States were also useful, though not essential, for the protection of long-distance trade."

Ejiofor, Lambert U. Dynamics of Igbo Democracy. A Behavioural Analysis of Igbo Politics in Aguinyi Clan . Ibidan: University Press Limited, 1981.

A discussion of the internal dynamics of the clan by a member with a political science degree. A very useful treatment of a very democratic society.

The keys to the Igbo democracy are these: The Igbo are strong believers in both individual worth and community responsibility; they argue very hard but do not hold grudges; all political decisions, including court cases concerning minor local crime, are taken in councils in which anyone can and does speak. The chief limitation of Igbo democracy is the subordinate position of women and their organizations, although women can and do speak up in public forums. Their position results from the practice of exogamy at the ward level. Many women living in the village are not from the village.

Gellner, Ernest. Saints of the Atlas . London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1969.

Gellner is most interested in describing how a group of hereditary saints help the segmentary society of the High Atlas live in a certain amount of peace without strong governmental institutions. A segemtary society is one where every group on every level is divided among itself, and has the power to combine with other groups to keep any one segment from getting too powerful.

The book has good discussions of elections, collective oaths, feuds, and the role of important lineages in regulating conflict. Pp. 26-29 discusses the question of whether the Berber tribes are democratic, and concludes that the Berbers have no democratic theory or social commitment to democracy, despite their occasionally democratic practice.

See also James A. Miller's book (below).

Jones, G.I. The Trading States of the Oil Rivers. A Study of Political Development in Eastern Nigeria . London: Oxford University Press, 1963.

A very interesting look at the "Oil Rivers" of the eastern Niger Delta. In early modern times, the trade in first slaves and then palm oil made possible the growth of trading city-state kingdoms. What is most interesting about this history is that from the outside, it seems one of monarchy and nobility holding an absolute power over a suppressed population. But from the inside, there are important elements of democracy. In the wards (older organization) and in the canoe houses (newer, 18th-19th c.), there was wide participation in the chosing of leaders, and such leaders often had a collective responsibility for the whole community.

MacGaffey, Wyatt. Custom and Government in the Lower Congo . Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1970.

A classic work on the European effect on colonial society, specifically the role of colonial administrators and social theorists in encouraging authoritarian models in the local community.

The work was done in Mbanza Manteke, in the province of Lower Kongo (Zaire) in 1965 and 1966, and some time was spent in a nearby town, Kasangulu.

In this culture there are two ideals of government, kinkazi or government by committee, and kimfumu, "authority" or "chiefship." In pre-colonial society there was a role for charismatic chiefs, and an important distinction between chiefly and slave families (though no one admitted to belonging to the latter), but there were no stable structures of chiefly authority.

European administrators set up chiefs and delineated boundaries, while theorists (mostly amateurs) described native society in terms of chiefship. The theories they came up were taught to the local people in missionary school and have become part of tradition. In fact the whole book is about the concept of custom or tradition, and how it has been manipulated, in large part to allow for the construction of a hierarchical government to rule over a very decentralized society. The present condition of the country, according to MacGaffey, juxtaposes a popular level of dispute resolution against a government that is the source of special privileges, and which devotes almost all its resources to assuring that the distinction between officials and others are maintained.

Miller, James A. Imlil. A Moroccan Mountain Community in Change . Boulder and London: Westview Press, 1984.

Discusses the Ait Mizane, one of many autonomous tribes in Morocco. Miller's interest in Ait Mizane is to see how well the people are adjusting to their contact with the outside world, a contact that has been intensified by a road, that has allowed tourists to come to the area for mountain climbing. Miller concludes that despite many changes, Imlil has maintained control of its own ecology and economy, and by small, incremental changes has adjusted to outside influences. They have done it themselves and avoided becoming part of anyone else's master plan. The book is very good if sometimes obscurely written, and has a good bibliography and a guide to scholarly approaches to Moroccan tribes. Miller has some doubts about the complete adequacy of Gellner's segmentary model in Saints of the Atlas.


Adair, James. Adair's History of the American Indians, ed. Samuel Cole Williams. New York, 1930.

Adair wrote in the 1770s, basing his observations of Indian life primarily on his personal experience of the Chickasaws. It is an interesting example of how admiration for some aspects of Amerindian society influence political thought among the English colonists in the revolutionary period -- a fact only now re-emerging into scholarly awareness.

Jennings, Francis. The Invasion of America. Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest . Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975.

Detailed discussion of events (in Part II) is restricted to the history of New England from the 1630s up till the resolution of King Philip's war. Part I is from a theoretical standpoint more important, because in it Jennings dissects every doctrine that has been used to characterize the Indians as savages, their land as empty, or their societies as lacking an essential "civility," all of which doctrines have as their goal the justification of the dispossession of the Indians.

Jennings does not talk about democracy per se. At one point, in fact, he says that Indian societies were less egalitarian than they have often been presented, because in most polities, a hereditary claim was essential to become a peace chief. He does talk about the essential independence of Indian men and the generally non-coercive means that were used to gain agreement. There is no detailed discussion of the workings of Indian assemblies or councils.

Miller , Perry. Orthodoxy in Massachusetts 1630-1650 (1933; rpt. ed., Gloucester, Mass, 1965).

M. thoroughly investigates the origins of English and New England congregational theories of church government, and the efforts of leaders to control the democratic implications of those theories.

Trigger, Bruce. The Children of Aataentsic: A History of the Huron People to 1660. Montreal and London: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1976.

The Huron never struck their children but routinely tortured to death captive enemies. The loosely organized society was based on the blood feud by which families protected their members. Within a clan, a tribe, or a confederation, the blood feud was suspended and compensation was paid. But the prosecution of the blood feud against tribal enemies was the chief and most prestigious sport of the Huron men (a custom they held in common with other Iroquoian peoples).

The institutions of the Huron are in some ways strikingly similar to those of early medieval Iceland.

Powell, Sumner Chilton Puritan Village: The formation of a New England town (Middletown, Conn., 1963)

A detailed look at the democratic attitudes and style of government that emerged in one New England village early on in the colonization of Massachusetts Bay. Powell's book has the advantage of comparing early New England local institutions to the English ones known to the colonists.

Weltfish, Gene. The Lost Universe: Pawnee life and culture. (Lincoln, 1965).

A very personal account of Pawnee life from the point of view of an outsider who shared it. The author explicitly makes the connection between Pawnee values of independence and dignity and democratic attitudes.


Bunge, Frederica M., ed. Thailand. A Country Study. 5th ed. Washington, 1981.

A U.S. Army publication from the Foreign Area Studies, Washington University.

Pp. 81-84 discusses the communal institutions of the typical Thai rural village, especially the role of the wat (village temple) and the temple management committee.

Carrasco, Pedro. Land and Polity in Tibet . Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1959.

A survey of pre-1951 Tibet that suggests parallels to early medieval societies. Especially noteworthy is the fact that if all the material on peasant self-government and family institutions was eliminated, one could easily be convinced that the description of aristocratic, ecclesiastical and central governmental institutions was the entire picture. Indeed, the coverage of peasant communities here is rather spotty.

There are, however, a few accounts of peasant institutions with quasi-democratic elements. Most notable is the discussion of the Bhotias of northernmost Sikkim in the late 19th century (pp. 57-61). The notes provide references to other descriptions of peasant self-government.

Fraser, Thomas M., Jr. Fishermen of South Thailand. The Malay Villagers. New York: Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1966.

Discusses the village of Rusembilan in the southern, ethnically Malay portion of Thailand. The research was done in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Pp. 40-45 describe the leadership of the village. It is based on the leadership and mediation of certain "good men" orang baik , elders of the village, who seem to be informally recognized. In general there are boat owner and steersmen, whose economic leadership and ability to deal with people give them prominence. They gather to mediate conflicts or make decisions for the whole community. Small groups or single good men often decide issues. People who need help can approach any of them.

The Imam, the local Muslim teacher, has some authority, and often decides whether outside authority should be brought in. Often outside authority is not brought it, even when by the rules it should be.

Geddes, William Robert. Migrants of the Mountains: The Cultural Ecology of the Blue Miao (Hmong Njua) of Thailand . Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976.

The Miao or Hmong are shifting cultivators who live in the hills of south China and SE Asia. Their villages are impermanent communities, that may move, split up, or join together on a new territory quite frequently. This is an excellent discussion of self-government in a people who live entirely in wandering communities.

Hu, Hsien Chin. The Common Descent Group in China and Its Functions . New York: The Viking Fund Publications in Anthropology, 1948.

An excellent and detailed discussion of tsu or clan organization throughout China, with 62 appendices (translated documents).

Concentrates on three functions: the building of ancestral halls to honor the ancestors; the support of schools; and the provision of special help or a continuing dole to the members. All three require the accumulation of income producing lands, and the administration of them. Hu does not talk about the decision-making procedures in detail or about electoral techniques, but he makes it clear that procedures are usually fairly informal. The appendices provide details of organization in some cases. Appendix 53, pp. 169-180, is the most interesting.

Inamdar, N.R. Functioning of Village Panchayats. Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1970.

A sociological investigation of four village panchayats (elective councils) in the Poona area between 1960 and 1962. Two were rated as successes, two as failures. The book analyzes the factors that distinguished the two groups. The basic factor is that, where the panchayat became vigorous self-governing bodies, local initiative preceded government reforms aimed at democratization.

Leong, Yü-kao . Village and Town Life in China. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1915. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Hyperion Press, 1973.

Hobhouse's preface, sets the tone: "The China that European statesmen know is the China of the official hierarchy...But the real China is not a centralized despotism, whether monarchical or republican in form, but a great aggregate of democratic communities, ordering their affairs peacefully and happily in the main through the government of heads of families."

The book itself focuses on ancestral halls and village temples as organs of village self-government.

Maddick, Henry. Panchayati Raj: A Study of Rural Local Government. London, 1970.

A report on the development and structure of local government in modern India.

The modern movement for democratic decentralization draws its inspiration from ancient village communities, but there is no direct historic link. The old system, which was never as good as its partisans insisted, was finished off by British centralization. M. depicts modern local government as a system imposed from above by democratic or development-minded reformers.

Maddick himself is one of the reformers: he believes that neither democracy or development is possible without involving the mass of the people in the decisions that influence their own lives. He rates the experience between 1958 (the Mehta report) and the time of writing as a slow but satisfactory start.

Seaman, Gary. Temple Organization in a Chinese Village . Taipei: The Chinese Association for Folklore, 1978.

Seaman spent October 1970 to April 1973 in Pearl Mountain Village, part of the administrative town of Holi in Taiwan, listening to stories people told in the temple of the spirit-writing cult.

Seaman was impressed by the way the cult served as a unifying force for the village and a way of channeling collective energies toward collective goals.

The organization of the temple is not a good example of democratic practice. The Taiwanese govt. required an elected committee and head, but elections are essentially meaningless because the committeemen are mostly holders of ritual positions appointed by the gods. There are no formal elections. (69-70) This parallels the machine and logrolling politics of the village as a whole. But the temple is not run autocratically, either. A great deal of uninhibited discussion and occasional interventions by the gods through shamans accompany any decision.

This is an extraordinarily enjoyable book.

Smith, Arthur H. Village Life in China . 1899. Reprint. Boston: Little, Brown, 1970.

Written in 1899 by a missionary whose attitude to China is summed up by the title of the last chapter, "What Can Christianity Do for China?" He is a very good observer, but has a way of focusing on the failings of habits, customs, and institutions that he fully admits work reasonably well or better much of the time.

The most interesting parts of the book are chapters 11-15 and 20-21. The first set describes the wide variety of cooperative associations found in villages. The second set discusses "village bullies" and "village headmen."

Wade, Robert. Village Republics: Economic Conditions for Collective Action in South India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Wade argues that villages with the most need for collective management of irrigation water are the ones that have built common institutions capable of being used for other purposes. Compare his work to that of Elinor Ostrom (above).

Yang, C.K. Religion in Chinese Society. A Study of Contemporary Social Functions of Religion and Some of Their Historical Factors . Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1961.

Chapters 2-4 (pp. 28-103) talk about religion as an integrative device for family (28-57), non-family (58-80) and community groups (81-103). There is not much information on the practical workings of such groups.

Two exceptions are sororal groups for (usually) unmarried women, and those who decided not to return to their husbands; and earth god cults, especially important in the south.

Yang, Martin C. A Chinese Village: Taitou, Shantung Province . New York: Columbia University Press, 1945.

Discussion of village customs and institutions by a university-educated native of the village. It is an excellent and extremely well-written view of how village institutions appear from the inside.

Despite the detailed description of local initiative and self-government, Yang sees the Chinese village of his time as far from democratic, in fact as dominated by a village aristocracy. He clearly looks forward to large scale agrarian reform to correct this problem.


Howell, Martha C. "Citizenship and Gender. Women's Political Status in Northern Medieval Cities." In Women and Power in the Middle Ages . Edited by Mary Erler and Maryanne Kowalsecki, pp. 37-60. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1988.

The article investigates five specific cities to see why women were not allowed into the political structure, although they were often citizens and members of guilds. Howell must account for the fact that when guilds gained political power, women were excluded from them or dropped out. When citizenship meant a share in power and not just the right to work or do business, women were not allowed to claim the rights of citizenship.

H. believes that the early guild ideas accepted the household as the constitutive unit of public life. In this way, women were represented in the political sphere, and could even be somewhat active in public life if they came to head households. But as popular movements rejected the domination of both patrician families and noble dynasties, the idea of the household as the constituent unit of public life lost out to "civil society" principles in which the individual was the constituent unit: but only the male individual.

Miller, William Ian. Bloodtaking and Peacemaking : feud, law, and society in Saga Iceland. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Discusses the institutions and customs of a very decentralized agricultural society.

Ravi, Zvi. "Family, Land and the Village Community in Later Medieval England." Past & Present 93 (1981): 3-36.

Argues against Raftis, one of the reigning experts on English rural life, that an active village community continued after the plague. Ravi's discussion is based on a well-documented village, Halesowen in Worcester.

Reynolds, Susan. Kingdoms and Communities in Western Europe 900-1300 (Oxford, 1984).

Reynolds book discusses many examples of "collective judgement," or as I would call it, "conciliar government," in lay life. Note that Reynolds, in reaction perhaps to earlier medievalists enthusiastic about tracing democratic roots, denies that democratic impulses were behind such institutions.

Sabaen, David Warren 1984. Power in the Blood: Popular Culture and Village Discourse in Early Modern Germany (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984).

A book based on the records of Württemberg, a princely early modern state with effectively no nobility, between 1500 and 1800. Discusses the interactions between the organizing concept of "Herrschaft" (lordship) and electoral and representative institutions.

The workings of the latter are described on pp. 12-20.

Copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.