What is it about?

How do traditional leaders with customary attributes retain and perpetuate their influence in modern democracies? There are instances where the provision of constitutional democracy on traditional institutions and customs per se is questioned in the legitimation process. However, customary institutions with authority based on oral traditions persist. This study emphasised the historical evolution of culture and language and contextual metaphors that influence public opinion and thus the pervasive political behaviour of the customary institution in two erstwhile British colonies to explain their resilience. The study found that there is continuity in how language is used strategically despite the significant socio-cultural changes. The findings also suggest that the political influence of language is contextual, although the linguistic and cultural significance is harnessed in both societies. While traditional leaders in South Africa retain most of their powers, the case is otherwise in the Tangkhul Nagas. The differences lie in how the use of language navigates the capital-society interface and how education is received in the respective societies that are instrumental for the varying political salience of traditional leaders.

Featured Image

Why is it important?

Modern forms of governance in democracies mainly characterised by elections have constantly been interfacing with traditional authority. This interface has brought the justice system issues, service delivery, overlapping local governance structure, and land ownership to the fore in the political process. It creates abrading tension between tradition and forms of democratic institution, making addressing inclusivity, accountability and equitable development more arduous. A comparative analysis of the legal developments on customary institutions alongside the attempt to understand their political behaviour can add to knowledge production in this context. It highlights the indigenous knowledge system perpetuating the institutional forces in the respective societies. So, the paper adds to comparative politics literature from the lens of cultural studies and the sociology of language.


Several theories explain why traditional leaders claim legitimate authority in the state's governance structure but less on how they perpetuate their claims which could amplify other means like the politics of patronage. This paper seeks to probe the understudied strategies of control and influence, perhaps consciously, across the respective community through cultural studies and the sociology of language. It maintains that cultural metaphors and aphorisms perpetuate power. However, the ability to materialise this cultural and linguistic potential also depends on historical context, political situations and agency of the institutional forces in respective societies acting upon exogenous forces like capital and education.

Shimreisa Chahongnao
Jawaharlal Nehru University

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: The Legitimacy of Traditional Leaders in Democracies, Comparative Sociology, December 2021, Brill, DOI: 10.1163/15691330-bja10044.
You can read the full text:




The following have contributed to this page