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.


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