The question is not, about an area which had had government and has fallen into (or achieved!) anarchy, nor about areas which are considered by the inhabitants to be a settlement in continuation or expansion of some dominant group's former country.

Edit To clarify, the society would be characterized as not having anything beyond family units.

Edit 2 Wilderness, or March, are words which cover some aspects of the idea; and, the word I seek (if such exists) is that which would refer to the area itself, not so much, refer to the characterization of the people living within it.

I appreciate the inputs though! The closest I can think of is frontier, but that is too broad, imprecise.

~3 July~ From all the thoughtful comments and answers, it would seem that any number of descriptive phrases could be concocted to serve, perhaps only an archaic word, or a loaner word, might still be thought of. I am not experienced enough with this site and community to know how far afield the question can wander, since it is after all a site about the English language. Cheers!

  • 1
    Interesting question, but what level of govermental organization are you referring to? All forms of human communities tend to have some sort of social/political organization , even though a very basic one.
    – user66974
    Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 6:57
  • Like where....?
    – WS2
    Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 7:23
  • Better check with the domain guys first.
    – Kris
    Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 7:49
  • They sound a bit like the state of nature which the philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) described in his great work on sovereignty, and where he said life was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. It was the Peace of Wetphalia in 1648, following the 30-years war in Europe, that gave birth to the idea of the modern nation state. Prior to that the continent of Europe was to all intents run by two families - the Bourbons in Paris and the Habsburgs in Vienna and Madrid. But they were empires, and not quite what you had in mind, I suspect.
    – WS2
    Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 9:04
  • Right. Areas like Australia in pre~history, perhaps the Steppes before the rise of empires there, or, Arctic lands... wildernesses. But if one uses the word wilderness, it connotes non~habitation or habitation so sparse, it is not what I am looking for really. Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 9:21

6 Answers 6


A stateless society

From Wikipedia

A stateless society is a society that is not governed by a state, or, especially in common American English, has no government. In stateless societies, there is little concentration of authority; most positions of authority that do exist are very limited in power and are generally not permanently held positions; and social bodies that resolve disputes through predefined rules tend to be small. Stateless societies are highly variable in economic organization and cultural practices.

While stateless societies were probably the norm in human prehistory, few stateless societies exist today; almost the entire global population resides within the jurisdiction of sovereign states. In some regions nominal state authorities may be very weak and wield little or no actual power. Over the course of history most stateless peoples have been integrated into the state-based societies around them.

  • Can you provide examples?
    – WS2
    Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 7:22
  • Sounds more like it; gotta cross check with the politics-government/ sociology-anthropology guys.
    – Kris
    Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 7:49
  • @WS2: According to Wikipedia, such societies are extremely rare today. But it wasn't so in historic/prehistoric times. The term stands.
    – Tushar Raj
    Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 7:49
  • To my knowledge, only Antarctica is not encompassed by a "state", and that continent is still regulated by international agreements. So it seems impossible that there could be any area that is "not governed by a state". Of course, there are areas where the state is ineffective, but that's a different matter.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jul 3, 2015 at 12:24

Probably tribal (society) comes close to your idea of a society with a low level of political organisation:


  • A unit of sociopolitical organization consisting of a number of families, clans, or other groups who share a common ancestry and culture and among whom leadership is typically neither formalized nor permanent. (AHD)

Wild West is an expression used to refer to a lawless territory:

  • The western United States during the period of its settlement, especially with reference to its lawlessness.

In the U.S. there are actually areas that don't belong to any government other than happening to be part of a state. These are termed unincorporated areas. Some actually grow into towns that haven't yet legally declared township and so remain unincorporated towns. Actually, some become financially insolvent and so fall back into an unincorporated state.

I suspect you mean something more "primitive" than that, in the sense of a place where only traditional filial ties count and there has never been any greater organization, in which case all the words I know carry connotations.

Badlands refer to areas no one but the locals govern, although the implication is that they govern with undue force. Think mad max.

Hinterlands refers generally to places away from urban centers, but in so doing is often used to refer to remote areas without government.

Terra incognita is a western centric term that literally means "unknown lands". It was often used to refer to remote places that were sometimes populated but had barely been visited and remained mysterious and thus presumed to be ungoverned.

Frontier was used specifically at a particular period in US history to denote areas in which the colonialists hadn't yet established the rule of their law. So again, from a western centric perspective, frontier towns were considered towns outside of the reach of more established government.

Finally, there are a few adjectives that might approach what you're thinking of, although each comes with its own connotations. Primitive, tribal, simple, free, wild, anarchic, open, unruly or untamed can all be used as adjectives for area words like place, land, valley or expanse, and would get you in the ballpark. Entirely uninhabited areas are untouched or virgin, btw. But they can also be wild and untamed. Because of the nature of English's evolution, there is a whole set of words that overlap between the two meanings and can only be disambiguated by the context in which they are used.

I guess the real question is why do you need the word and what do you intend to imply with it?

  • I believe you have identified exactly my difficulty "..there is a whole set of words that overlap between the two meanings and can only be disambiguated by the context in which they are used." Commented Jul 3, 2015 at 19:39

In international law this is called terra nullius.

  • Nice! the wikipedia article on terra nullius could use more depth, but includes some insightful material. "Barbarous" for instance, I'd not been aware of in its legal sense. Thanks! Commented Jul 3, 2015 at 19:31

Look at Merriam-Webster's definition of anarchy.

1a : absence of government,
1b : a state of lawlessness or political disorder due to the absence of governmental authority,
1c : a utopian society of individuals who enjoy complete freedom without government.

You don't like the word anarchy because it makes you think of (1b), when you're really trying to describe (1c). But they're both anarchy; the difference is that (1b) is reality while (1c) is fantasy.

  • I agree and certainly considered both senses, as may be inferred from a close reading of the question and my clarifying edits. How awkward though and how little used, is it, to refer to a geographical region as an anarchy? Particularly without imparting a negative sense to many listeners. Commented Jul 3, 2015 at 19:18

I might go with outlands or "the outland" if you're dying for a word for the area that sounds idiomatic and doesn't describe either the people or geography. But it's a stretch:

It's easy to imagine how the word outlandish originated. The Old English root is utland , which literally means "out-land," or foreign.

It seems, to me, less negative than lawless and less airy-fairy than something like arcadian or pastoral. And those are adjectives anyways.

You could also consider hinterland, backcountry, and outback, but they all tend to suggest something that doesn't quite fit your description. Like wilderness, they're inapt. The problem with finding a natural-sounding word for the sort of society you describe is that it never happens.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.