Social Organization in the Postmodern World

Orangutan using a tool
Tool use at the San Diego Zoo

Near-instant communication, inexpensive travel, manufacturing, and trade have all changed the shape of the social world. Or have they? We’re still who we always were: a bunch of primates with language, tools, and a penchant for social organization.

Pundits talk with ease about a globalized culture, but many people in the world (including Americans!) wonder where their own cultures have gone. There’s no doubt we’re in a period of rapid change, with shifting meanings and mores. Some of the changes are for the better, some for the worse. It doesn’t seem like we get to pick and choose.

But there are other changes going on as well. With the development of social media, we’ve suddenly been able to divide our social links from our geography for the first time. We can build social networks farther and faster, creating connections that once would have been impossible.

True, almost everyone now lives in nation-states. But while the nation-state is a political reality, in many ways it is not an everyday social reality. While we might live in nations of laws, our relationships are–as always–with people. Though our cities have populations in the millions, we mostly live isolated in our own social networks.

Don’t Blame Darwin for “Evolution”

Early social organization theories in anthropology were evolutionary. The proponents declared that all human societies work their way up an evolutionary ladder, from less complex to more complex. They took a useful classification system (bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and states–more on that below) and mixed it with the ideas of evolution and progress, to come up with a way to make sense of the world that left the Europeans on top.

These “evolutionary” theories came out of the popular debates surrounding Charles Darwin and On the Origin of Species, but that doesn’t address the question of where these ideas came from in the first place. First of all, On the Origin of Species doesn’t argue that evolution is linear and inevitable. It argues, rather, that all populations adapt to their environments. But somehow this idea of linear evolution got tied in.

These theories–which elide complexity, inevitability, and morality–didn’t come out of nowhere. These notions are deeply rooted in Western culture, and (as I have mentioned before) can be traced back at least as far as the Neoplatonists and the the Great Chain of Being.

E. B. Tylor
E. B. Tylor (1832-1917)

Perhaps that is why the theories of social evolution that we see, even (or especially) from such luminaries as E. B.  Tylor, didn’t change the world so much as justify its shape at the time. These ideas weren’t new. They were simply very old ideas dressed up in scientific clothing and given the weight of truth in an age when the meaning of “truth” was rapidly changing.

The older way of justifying colonial hierarchy had been religious and philosophical. With the rise of science as a belief system that could justify social action, the status quo needed to be dressed up in the clothes of science, or the whole system would fall apart. In other words, Colonialism needed science to prop it up. Evolutionary social theory provided that prop.

Levels of Social Organization

As far as anthropology can tell, humans are evolved to work in groups called bands. These groups of people are generally limited by cognitive boundaries and capabilities to about 150, though the “magic” number may be as high as 230. This number, known as “Dunbar’s number,” is the proposed number of social bonds that an individual can recognize.

General cultural anthropology theory defines four levels of social organization. As you look at these types of social organization, see if you can pick out how they relate to ways we still organize ourselves.

1. Bands
Bands are small groups, generally under 150 members, all of whom are usually bound by kinship. This kinship may be through blood or marriage, and may even in some cases be what is called “fictive kinship.” Relationships are managed through cultural rules. In other words, the relationships of the whole band come down to familial relationships, though they extend much further than the Western-normative nuclear family.

These same rules that governed “family” back then still do today. The authority, and responsibilities, of parents rests on their kin relationships. And yes, you do have to respect your uncle, simply based on the fact that he’s your uncle and your elder.

Crow Tribe
Crow tribal members

2. Tribes
Tribes, then, are groups of bands working together. Though there may be precedence both within and between groups, there is no inherited status; a child doesn’t get to be leader because his or her parent was a leader. Leadership statuses need to be achieved. This is known as “Big Man” and “Big Woman” leadership.

This level of organization is similar is some respects to sports leagues. If we think of individual teams as “lineages” within the larger tribe, then our fanatical, unthinking support of “our” group suddenly makes much more sense–even if it is the White Sox.

3. Chiefdoms
Chiefdoms are the next level of social organization. Not surprisingly, chiefdoms are led by chiefs. In a chiefdom, status is at least partly ascribed (or given, as opposed to achieved) based on kinship. A person’s ability to trace kinship relations with the chief, or leader, defines their place in the social hierarchy. The sibling of the chief, therefore, is more highly placed than the cousin of the chief, and an outsider has no way to trace their way into power, short of fictive kinship.

This level of social organization mirrors how many companies are run. Leaders are clearly labeled, and closeness to that leadership often defines both privileges and duties. The kinship ties have been replaced, but the overall structure is similar. All we need to do is stop thinking in terms of lineages, and replace them with departments. And, yes, Susan got promoted because she’s been with the company longest.

4. States
States are considered the most complex level of social organization. States have social classes and formal systems of government. This is where “traditions” become “laws.” All states are theoretically autonomous, and have a number of social powers:  the ability to enforce borders and determine membership (citizenship), to determine laws, to keep people under arms to enforce the borders and the law, and to levy taxes to pay for it all.

The original evolutionary theories of social organization assumed that these forms were exclusive–each “people” had one form of social organization. But the truth is that they can all be in play at the same time. I can be a member of a family, root for my hometown team, work for a company led by a chief (executive officer), and live in a nation-state.


Why “Teaching to the Test” Is Shortsighted, and Necessary

The profession of teaching has been undergoing a crisis over the past fifteen years. In universities, there has been a move from tenured professors to part-time faculty, to the point that approximately half of university faculty are part-time, and probably don’t make a living wage.

In public schools, teachers are losing ground, with both their economic stability and classroom autonomy constantly being eroded. Essentially, teaching is being moved from a professional model to a factory-production model. Teachers are being moved from respected members of the middle-class into less stable and more regimented jobs.

Teaching to the Test

A Teacher and His Pupil by Claude LefèbvreIt’s become critically important for schools to “teach to the test.” This hasn’t been done for any reason associated with actual teaching. It relates to changes in the cultural value of the actual teaching experience, and also to the changing needs of our culture.

The move toward “teaching to the test” is tied to more and more limited educational funding, the increased power of administration in education, and the need for resources to be used to adjust to a changing economy and increased globalization.

Education funding has, in many states, not recovered to its pre-recession levels. Further, what education funding does come through is often offered with requirements for “measurement” that may or may not reflect actual teaching.

With this increased measurement, power (and money) is being moved more and more away from the actual teachers and toward administrators. Yet administrators are not the “big bad” here. Like police who must enforce an unjust law, they are caught between doing their duty and their commitments to education. And, like the teachers they administrate, opening their mouths to complain is a surefire way to end up on the unemployment line.

Digging Deeper

But if it’s not the administrators who are driving the changes, then who or what is? Two external factors are at work here.

First, the lower levels of education funding available force administrators to make decisions about who goes and who stays. Even if no one likes the decisions, a lack of cash requires that these decisions be made. The rising pressure on this area of the workforce means that people who increase an administrator’s stress level are walking a thin line. Some of them are pushed over it.

Second, an increased reliance on teaching technology requires more capital investment, and that money has to come from somewhere. We might complain about unfair treatment of teachers, but we’re also loathe to pay more taxes. We’re “robbing Peter to pay Paul,” and both of them are responsible for training our children. It’s a shortsighted maneuver that we’ve forced onto the administrators.

Needed Changes in Education

Like many other areas of the economy, education is undergoing changes that are linked with the digital revolution. The very real pains of teachers, the brutal and sometimes nonsensical decisions required of administrators, and the incessant testing of students are all part of a huge effort at social engineering.

No one seems to talk about education as necessary social engineering. But if we look below the surface, we can quickly recognize that we’re trying, successfully or not, to adjust to a Brave New World. Whole swaths of jobs have evaporated and are not coming back. Management has been streamlined, paperwork has been automated, and face-to-face relationships with customers have been priced out of the market.

The changes in teaching aren’t separate from this radical shift. As a culture, we’re making teaching less personal, and investing in technology. In other words, we’re reflecting the rest of the economy. Students are becoming less “people” and more “collections of numbers.” This isn’t a shift in education. It’s a shift in the meaning of “personhood” in the digital economy. Serving students comes more and more to mean making sure that they have the “right” numbers.

Are these changes going to benefit us, as people and a culture, in the long run? Probably not. But we can’t just react to these changes in the world piecemeal. The massive changes in the American education system haven’t been adopted because of some primal drive for standardization and efficiency. They’re a reaction to a changed, and changing, situation.

Creating an education system that will prepare us for this uncertain future is going to require commitment, cash, and a clear vision of what America not only wants to be, but needs to be, in the coming years.

What Anthropologists Know (and you should, too)

Sure, anthropologists know lots of disparate facts about far-flung places, like those anthropologists we see on TV. In our professional training, we study other cultures, and eventually go to live in places that are not so familiar to us. We know lots of details that make fun conversation starters at cocktail parties.

We know that the San (who don’t like to be called Bushmen) were traditionally hunter-gatherers who were moved to a farming lifeway as a result of government intervention.

We know that the Jivaro followed a similar path, moving from their famous, head-hunting, traditional way of life to something more influenced by modernization.

Balinese Performer in MaskWe know that Indonesian religion (agama) interplays with the country’s many cultures in interesting and unexpected ways, and for that reason the semantic category hardly ever means the same thing twice.

We know that “traditional” lifeways are being heavily impacted by Globalization.

Culture Is Something We Do

But we also know that while these lifeways are changing, cultures always change; that’s what they do. Through anthropology, our understanding of the word “culture” has changed. “Culture,” as an idea, has gone from something relatively static to something that, through the choices and will of members, changes in relation to the rest of the world.

In other words culture, while a noun in the English language, isn’t simply a thing that can be poked, prodded, examined, and stored. It’s something that people do. It’s the choices we make, but it’s also something that’s tied into how we’re wired.

Culture changes through “organic” processes, and can’t just be changed with the flip of a switch. Attempts at social engineering are met with resistance, negotiation, and unexpected results.

Culture Is Deeper than Belief

ChimpanzeeWhen people talk about what one culture or another “believes,” we’re taking a system of actions and beliefs and reducing it to only beliefs, as if we know for certain that belief precedes action. Yet we can also see that even that assumption is probably a result of Western beliefs about the nature of the world (e.g. orthodoxy and Neoplatonism).

In other words, we’re grossly simplifying the situation so that we can function in a complex world. Anthropologists, on the other hand, are trained professionally to delve into that complexity and see where the holes in our everyday models are. Otherwise, our models get old and stale. It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it.

Back to Basics

Thinking monkey
“The brain is the most important organ you have. According to the brain.”

It’s easy for us to remember that we’re the descendants of the great philosophical traditions of culture. It’s harder for us to remember that we’re also primates; we’re animals, with animal drives.

Science, mathematics, poetry, philosophy–and all abstract thought, really–seem to be the hallmarks of humanity. But separating out these accomplishments, seeing them as somehow apart from the rest of human experience, is intellectually dishonest. We haven’t accomplished great things as a species despite our animal natures. That nature is part of who we are.

Nature Vs. Culture

In Western Culture, we have a pretty skewed idea of what “animals” are. Specifically, I’m referring the everyday cosmology of the West, not the beliefs of scientists.

Graphic (1895) Spearing Wolf on Horseback in India
Does Culture really dominate Nature?

Here in the West, we believe that animals wholly belong to Nature. Further, we believe that Nature is somehow opposed to Culture. Separated from Culture, we see nature itself is, as Tennyson wrote, “red in tooth and claw.”

By placing animal nature in opposition to human nature, we’ve assigned a brutality to that “lower” animal nature. We forget, perhaps, that these two natures (intellectual and animal) aren’t actually in conflict, but working together to make us who and what we are.

In the common Western conception, human nature has been glossed as somehow less violent than the animal nature. Sometimes, we even complain about the brutality of people’s “animal natures” while chowing down on hamburgers made from a cow killed in a mechanized slaughterhouse.

I’m not some Luddite arguing against slaughterhouses and hoping that we go back to living in roaming bands and killing our protein sources with sticks. However, we could stand to open our eyes to both sides of ourselves, and recognize that we’re not as divorced from Nature, or our own natures, as we’d like to think.

Human Nature Isn’t Peaceful

We’re not really these beautiful, peaceful, ordered cultural beings who are somehow held down, or back, by our chaotic “animal” natures. Humans are social primates who use organization and hierarchy to keep us working together.

Recognizing our “animal” nature means going beyond seeing it as some violent, bestial urge barely held in check by our “higher” nature. We’re primates. We’re social animals. We’re territorial and competitive.

Everyday Western cosmology, influenced mostly by religion and philosophy, tells us that our true selves are separate from that animal side. Science, by contrast, tells us that we’re often slaves to it. The truth is somewhere in between–that it is our nature as humans to be both.

We’re not somehow caught between Culture and Nature. We’re part of both at the same time.

Language and Values: Sapir-Whorf and Pierre Bourdieu

Does changing how we talk about things really change our values?

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is often taught in intro-to-anthro classes. It is a linguistic theory that discuss the role of  language in shaping values, rather than just reflecting them or interrelating with them. Thus, it has been argued that it should be possible to reduce “unwanted” parts of culture by changing the language used to discuss it.

The proponents of the hypothesis argue that since culture is written in language, it should be possible to modify culture by changing the language we use. If true, it would make social engineering incredibly efficient and predictable.

Do What I Say, Not What I Do

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is the theoretical background of political correctness–the idea that if we change how we talk about certain subjects, it will change how we think about them. Unfortunately, while language does play a role in shaping values, it probably doesn’t play a role as strong as some readings of the theory suggest.

Instead, the “language” of political correctness has become a new status language, and become a social tool for inclusion and exclusion. Choosing the correct words has become a marker of status and education. But like other status markers, it is subject to both manipulation and individual agency. Saying the right things doesn’t mean making the right decisions.

If we step back and look, there are costs for political correctness as well as advantages. On one level, changing the way we talk about race, gender, and other contested categories does affect positive change. But on another level, socially shunning (not hiring, or even firing) people who don’t take part in the new “status language”–even one that ostensibly promotes equality–makes honest discussion of such topics more challenging.

Praxis Makes Perfect

Past the Sapir-Whorf hypothsis, we might look to Bourdieu‘s praxis theory, which suggests that we learn values through modeled behavior (action) rather than by being told (language). With this approach, language is simply one category of action that we model. If this theory is right, or if it at least models actual processes better, social engineering becomes understandably more difficult. But at the same time it helps explain the intransigence of culture–culture just doesn’t change the way we want it to.

“Do what I say, not what I do” often fails–just ask any parent. Bourdieu‘s praxis theory explains why. While our cultural ideas of education often revolve around reading books and listening to lectures, people often learn better from, if you’ll pardon the phrase, “monkey see, monkey do.”

Dreams, Time, and Human Primates

Jacob's Dream by Adam ElsheimerLike other animals, we humans dream when we’re asleep.  Unlike every other animal in the world (as far as we know), humans can think about the future, and things that are far away. Unlike other animals, we can think abstractly. That makes our dreams into something more.

Through language, we are capable of thinking about times that are not now, and places that are not here. These features of language are described as “displacement.”*

Linguistic displacement refers to our ability to use language to talk about things that happen in other times and places. It is by using this feature that we can talk about last Tuesday (not now), or the moon (not here). Without language, we’re limited to referring to things that are in our sphere of sensation using the good old “grunt and point” method.

Words from the Subconscious

Sleeping Dog (French) by Théodule Devéria
It’s Better to Let Sleeping Dogs Dream

We’ve all seen or heard about our best friend, Fido the dog, dreaming. In his dream, he runs (we think), and we watch the cuteness as his legs go back and forth–all while he sleeps on his bed.

Does Fido dream in words? No. Dogs can develop a significant catalog of  words they understand. But they don’t think in words. Even when they understand them, there’s no sign that they are using language in the complex ways that humans are. A dog might understand “walk” or “car” but doesn’t understand “Sunday night poker game.”

But because humans are the animals that talk and think in language, our dreams become more complicated. Our subconscious doesn’t just provide us with scenarios, like Fido chasing a rabbit in his dreams.  Instead, it speaks to us. Of course, this is our subconscious, so the dreams don’t always make sense…but if we think about social interactions, sometimes even our friends don’t always make perfect sense.

Nonetheless, dreams can give us a path of communication with the subconscious. Here, I’m referring to the parts of the mind that aren’t part of our usual consciousness. In my experience, we remember everything that we sense–but often can’t recall all of that information. It’s not a matter of memory, but of knowing how to recall the information.

Arguably, what we experience as intuition–or the prompting of the subconscious–is actually the mind processing information that doesn’t fit into our usual schemas or at least processing information in the absence of those schemas. Dreams can be one of the ways that we open the bridge between the conscious and subconscious minds.

BUT, if the intuition is the mind working with information that doesn’t fit into schemas, then it is necessarily much more difficult to think about these experiences in organized ways.

Language and Dreams

Dreams might give us a bit of a window into what being a human without language would be like. The links that we make are not entirely bound by the rational mind. In a dream, maybe we fly, and our father is also our sixth-grade math teacher. Dream interpretation revolves around finding the links that the mind is trying to make.

Subconscious by Goyamaduer
The subconscious is just another part of the self–and is just as capable of self-deception as the rest of us.

The subconscious mind isn’t any more focused than the conscious mind, so we shouldn’t take it too seriously. Sometimes the subconscious, like the conscious, just wants to be entertained. Have you ever had dreams that amounted to nothing more than what we’d see in a movie? Sure, we could say that the subconscious is “highlighting our need for adventure” but it would be just as valid to say that the “subconscious was watching TV.”

In Western culture, when we talk about the subconscious at all, we are heavily influenced by the early Freudians, who took the subconscious very, very seriously. But stepping back from how important it seemed to the people who discovered it, we can see it as just another part of the self. We can accept it as part of ourselves without reifying or denying it.

We shouldn’t ignore our dreams. But that doesn’t mean we should always believe them! If we can take them in context, and with a grain of salt, then they can open us up to communication with other parts of the self.

* The linguistic principal of displacement  shouldn’t be confused with the more commonly known “displacement” from psychology–distancing ourselves from something we’re feeling ourselves.

What Is Culture? (BrainOS 1.0)

Deep in thought
What we think is limited by how we think.

More than ten years ago, at a family dinner, the conversation turned to the advances in genetics that were just beginning to link behavior with genetic propensities. A close family friend, a well-respected doctor and the guest of honor, was speaking about research that had shown how behaviors could be linked to specific choices and actions.

Ever the anthropologist (and sucker), I piped up, “has this data been tested cross-culturally?” I figured at least we could get into the discussion of relative merits of cross-cultural analysis for deeper understandings and avenues for further research.

With what amounted to a sneer, the doctor responded, “why would we want to do that?” Since the party was in his honor, I declined to take the bait.

Culture: The Second Most Powerful Force in the Universe

The answer to the question above is that the categories that we use to understand behavior aren’t a priori, and cross-cultural analysis allows us to get at what the genes actually do, rather than just how they’re expressed in our one culture. In other words, it would be “better” science.

Sometimes it amazes me how little we’re aware of the strength of our own culture upon our thoughts, choices, and mental categories–many of the things that we daily accept (at least provisionally, but often wholly) as true.

Because of the Western definition of “Truth” as being true in all times and places–a definition formed under the historical influence of both monotheistic religion and positivist science–we find it very difficult to understand that there’s more to the world than just two categories:

  1. A priori categories (things that are true in all times and places)
  2. Stuff that’s made up (everything else)

Partly because culture fits into the space between, it’s hard for people to really wrap their heads around the idea that there are a lot of things in the world that can be effectively true without always being true in all times and places.

Culture: Operating Systems for Humans

When we look at culture, the challenge that we face is that we elide our perceptions with some objective perception of ultimate reality. In other words, against the advice of philosophers across the ages, we don’t take into account that not only our perceptions, but also our thoughts themselves are imperfect.

Imperfect. Not “flawed”–because that seems to assume that there could be some kind of flawless thought. Our thoughts aren’t independent of physical reality. They’re more like “software” running on primate wetware.

As much as we “think” by using the “hardware” of the brain,  we also think by using the “operating system” of culture. Functionally, for most people, there’s no distinction between the two. We just think certain things are true because they work.

Dipping into extended metaphor, most people don’t care about computers or operating systems, they just want to run their applications in peace. In this same way, most people don’t care about any distinction between physical facts and social facts–they just mix the two together in a way that works.

For those of us who do study human behavior, maybe it’s time to stop trying to win the argument (we’ll leave that for dinner parties), and work together to develop models of behavior that take all the facts into account, not just the convenient ones.