Yapese say the land is chief. It is this primary focus on land that structures the social and political aspects of Yapese life.
The estate group and village are the primary units that structure Yap social life. Within each village, family estates place individuals in a hierarchy of relationships within the community. Particular estates own titles that confer authority and prestige upon the members of that estate group. Villages in Yap are also ranked according to two major divisions: "Pilung," or "autonomous villages," and "Pimilngay," or "serf villages." Autonomous villages are further divided into three ranks: chief villages, noble villages, and commoner villages. Serf villages are divided into two ranks: chief's servants and serfs. All inhabitants born in a particular village automatically carry the rank of that village. One may marry people from other ranks, but one can never change the rank of birth. Within each village, people are also ranked according to age, sex, and the title from their estate.
Each village in Yap is led by at least three titled estates: village chief; young men’s chief; and ritual chief. The men who speak for these titled estates oversee a council made up of men who represent lesser titles in the village. To hold political authority, one must be the eldest living member of the family estate and be capable of speaking articulately for its interest in public. Decision-making on Yap is characterized by indirect communication and consensus. The village chief articulates for the public the decision that has been made by group consensus. Prior to American administration, the chiefs of the main villages scattered around Yap organized the government of the Yap Islands. Three main villages located in Gagil, Tamil, and Rull provided the locus of power from which were formed two major alliances of villages and chiefs. These leaders maintained power primarily by controlling communication through legitimate channels connecting villages and estates, and by planning punitive wars against those individuals who violated the decisions and expectations of the alliance majority. Today, the Yap state government has supplanted the traditional system of alliances, and governs through the legislative, administrative, and judicial branches. While contemporary Yapese officials are elected to their positions, many hold traditional titles and maintain traditional support bases. However, in light of contemporary politics, education and expertise in modern government roles are essential for political success.
In the traditional village setting, the Council of Elders maintained social control through a system of punitive fines and mediation by chiefs between families in conflict. In contemporary life, the state court plays a major role in adjudicating disputes between the Yapese. The court has effectively replaced village elders as the arena and process for resolving contemporary disputes, with exception of land ownership disputes, which can only be solved by a council of chiefs.