Cool anthropology article correcting the record on popular narratives (even among more academic work) of the development of human societies.


"Instead, over tens of thousands of years, we see monuments and magnificent burials, but little else to indicate the growth of ranked societies."

....ok? There's a lot of logical leaps in the article. It's is predicated on the obsession with inequality which is a late twentieth century Western thing. So other anthropology divisions have different views?


There's also some odd pronouncements

"Clearly, it no longer makes any sense to use phrases like β€˜the agricultural revolution’ when dealing with processes of such inordinate length and complexity. "

Does anyone truly think that the agricultural revolution was overnight? Evolution can go in fits too but nobody calls it's biological micro-revolutions.

When rules are mentioned, what they're really talking about are laws. And early written laws were hardly equitable.

@dulcet The notion of a "revolution" involves a key foundational change that changes the trajectory of something. The point being made is that calling it a revolution reinforces the narrative that the development of civilization is primarily accounted for by agriculture, when it's actually a result of convergence between already existing phenomena in addition to the institutionalization of agriculture.

@dulcet In biology it can tend to make more sense to apply this notion since a single trait can make a significant difference in survival outcome, but when we're talking about societies and we simply use it to mark a stark change we're unwittingly also implying something about how that change occurred.


But that's true of many revolutions. The setting has to be right and then one element can cause an upheaval and then people realize the changes that have been happening subtly *insert 2016 election analogy here*

@dulcet Right, but you're in that case still implying that whatever it is that was gradually changing was foundational or pointed to something foundational casually for this sudden new thing. So if you think the Trump presidency can be primarily tied to one factor or a set of them nonetheless within a particular domain, calling what happened a revolution albeit culturally in hindsight may make sense.

@dulcet People reject it was mostly about economic anxiety. On the other hand, people reject it was mostly just a matter of race relations. Poli sci people want to say it's the rise of special interest groups and diminishing of party participation. None of them reject that it's a more complicated story with many factors--even the people looking for a primary factor. They're just arguing about what was the actual object of change in scope and scale.

@dulcet Because they take the approach of some sort of revolution in the political arena occurring. Though in this case I think the appropriate term is "crises" since at the same time nothing has actually fundamentally changed. In a weird way, Trump happened because any change that would've needed to happen in response to other changes didn't happen. Even calling something a "crises" implies something about how something happened! I digress though.


Isn't there something foundational that happened? The tools humans had available changed. For much of human history (arbitrary date of 50K years ago), not much happened. Rope wasn't invented until ~15,000 years ago and it wasn't standardized until ancient Egypt. It's weird to think of prehistoric humans living in caves without rope but they did.

@dulcet Yes! But the linear history under critique is the Rousseaun one, and in a history with "Rousseaun" concerns, technology doesn't necessarily have the most exhaustive explanatory power. The article doesn't explicitly say this because it's focus is social organization, but I speculate that would be the stance. Technology could still be foundational for histories in other terms, e.g. the development of culture or infrastructure, or in the nature of violence, etc.


It would have been beneficial for the authors to make the narrowness of their thesis more clear. Separating social organization from the technology of communication and production is not a trivial assumption.

@dulcet You're correct, but for example the point about social organization varying on a seasonal basis intragroup provides some bulwark already for saying: it seems that high levels of variation can occur in short periods of time even if technological levels are kept somewhat equal. If technology and social organization had a one-to-one relationship and much of human history involved technological stagnation, would we not expect the opposite?

@dulcet These observations are also enough to challenge a Rossuean linear narrative, which was the scope of the article. Specific points made could be challenged by introducing technology, particularly the claim about the central role of agriculture in certain patterns of social organization, but I think that's a symptom of focus rather than neglect and need for further elaboration. The writer is an anthropologist iirc so I'm assuming he's familiar with technological arguments.

@dulcet I myself place a huge importance on technology when it comes to the development of human society and its culture, but I nonetheless don't think a proper characterization of that importance requires a linear history of social development.

@dulcet Basically, it may even be possible to reconcile "technology is a huge driver of social organization" and "technology and the presence of certain kinds of social organization are not tightly related." But you're ultimately right that the article is a bit rambley. The first section gives you an idea of what the article is about, but the second one being a bit of an excursiΓ³n through other var d claims makes it hard to see the point of what is being said.

@dulcet The article gives the impression of being obsessed with inequality because it is meant to complicate narratives that naturalized inequality by tying it to other key developments. The article even questions whether "inequality" is a coherent standard to measure in a scientific context without specifying the sort we're talking about, and that it often projects certain kinds of metrics into past societies.

@dulcet In other words, it's simply taking the concept and showing BY USING IT why it's inadequate, but also why it's more interesting if we actually look at the narrative as not so straight-forward if we want to examine long-term development of societies in terms of inequalities.


It's hard to complain about the projection of others then insist that early societies were often egalitarian. It's odd to think that Ice Age societies won't be different from later ones by the influence of technology even though they imply otherwise.

@dulcet In the article's case it is a bit more concrete since it is exploring practices that tell us something about attitudes towards hierarchy and the enforcement of those attitudes as opposed to using metrics. It is to some extent a qualitative approach. Which is not to say metrics are irrelevant, but alone we misunderstand what may be going on.

@dulcet For example, a household that stores a surplus can be automatically viewed as exploitative in a modern lens, but it may actually be an insurance policy in the point of view of that society where that households power is restricted to storage and management of this surplus for emergency purposes. Hence the focus on specific exceptions where interpretations make a big difference (e. g., burial mounds with relative luxury).

@dulcet Ultimately, it is important to establish this more concrete meaning because it tells us something important about what the causal story of what moderns would call "inequality" might be. E.g., if attitudes of the sort noted were prevalent early on, and in some cases heavily expressed through provisos and reminders, why did society go largely the other way? It wasn't simply a natural progression, especially if there was at first high variability even in the same group.

@dulcet Just so you know, I'm saying this as someone influenced by Marxism and that is not afraid to engage in speculations about grand arcs of history. Not as hesitant as Graeber. But I like to see it in terms of degrees of freedom related to changes in probability and not necessarily linear stories.

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