Social Organization. Boat-dwelling and strongly maritime communities tend to be internally egalitarian. Others, particularly those closely linked in the past to the trading polities of the region, developed systems of stratification much like those of the dominant Tausug, Maguindanao, Bugis, and others, comprised of nobles, commoners, and slaves. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, slave raiding was characteristic of most areas of Bajau settlement and local populations absorbed large numbers of slaves, most of them captives from other areas of the Philippines and Indonesia, many of whom eventually gained their freedom, some rising to positions of prominence and wealth.
Political Organization. In Sulu and southeastern Sabah, the sultan of Sulu historically claimed proprietary rights over all boat-dwelling Bajau. Outside of Jolo these rights were generally delegated to regional leaders acting locally as the sultan's representatives. In practice, proprietorship was expressed in patron-client relations. As patrons, local shore leaders asserted "ownership" over individual moorage groups. Implied was a willingness to defend the rights entailed from outsiders. The relationship involved privileged trade, boat-dwelling clients supplying their patron with fish and other sea products, formerly including trade commodities like mother-of-pearl and trepang, in return for assurances of physical security, a moorage site, and agricultural foodstuffs. Should a patron fail to protect his clients, or impose oppressive terms of trade, a boat group might quit its former anchorage site and seek out a rival leader willing to take the place of its former patron. Thus mobility and competition for clientage among shore leaders checked abuses of the relationship and assured the Bajau Laut a considerable degree of political autonomy. However, boat-dwelling groups traditionally lacked parish organization, and therefore had no formal representation in the state except through their patrons. In contrast, shore and land-based groups have always had their own parish, village, and regional leadership, with personal authority operating largely through leader-centered coalitions. While the power of individual leaders is locally based, each historically owed allegiance to the sultan or local head of state. The position of more powerful regional leaders was legitimized through their investiture with titles. Thus the sultan incorporated local communities into the larger polity by appointing proven local leaders to act in his name as representatives of the state. In return for tribute and political fealty, titleholders were granted rights to conduct and regulate trade, levy taxes, maintain order, and administer the law. Today regional leaders operate largely in the context of electoral politics or through state appointment and serve generally as links between community leaders and the national administrative structure in any of the three countries involved.
Social Control. Responsibility for resolving disputes falls chiefly on house elders and parish and village leaders. Above the village level, factional rivalries tend to be pervasive.
Conflict. Boat-dwelling Bajau Laut see themselves, in contrast to their neighbors, as nonaggressive people who prefer flight to physical confrontation; in the past, individual moorage groups looked to their patrons ashore to insulate them from the endemic feuding and competition for power occurring around them. As a consequence, the politically dominant groups of the region have historically viewed the Bajau Laut with disdain as timid, unreliable subjects. Among shore groups vendettas occur, sometimes resulting in long-term enmity, but endemic armed conflict is generally lacking. In the past, many groups engaged in slave raiding, often in conjunction with trade, and were recruited from time to time by the regional states of the area as a naval fighting force.