Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Reading :: The Evolution of Political Society

The Evolution of Political Society: An Essay in Political AnthropologyBy Morton H. Fried

In this 1967 book, Morton Fried examines what was then known about how politics evolved in societies. He follows societal development through simple egalitarian societies, rank societies, stratified societies, and finally the state.

First, some definitions. Fried defines "culture" as "the totality of conventional behavioral responses acquired primarily by symbolic learning" (p.7). To define "society," he quotes Abrele et al. 1950: "A society is a group of human beings sharing a self-sufficient system of action which is capable of existing longer than the life-span of an individual, the group being recruited at least in part by the sexual reproduction of its members" (p.8).

And a caution. We don't know a lot about political society in pre-state societies, simply because every society we can observe has already been contacted by the state to some extent—and the ones with the least contact live in atypical environments. "Simple extrapolation from observations of Eskimo, Bushman, or other cultures in marginal habitats to paleolithic cultures in the Pleistocene is dangerous" (p.38). But, he says, we can draw some conclusions despite these limitations (p.38).

The earliest known societies were egalitarian—but, Fried tells us, that doesn't mean they were wholly equal: "Equality is a social impossibility" (p.27). Indeed, "all known societies do create status hierarchies" (p.32). Nevertheless, we can call some societies egalitarian: "An egalitarian society is one in which there are as many positions of prestige in any given age-sex grade as there are persons capable of filling them" (p.33).

In simple egalitarian societies (Ch.3), ranking and stratification are unknown. "Ranking exists when there are fewer positions of valued status than persons capable of filling them. A rank society has means of limiting the access of its members to status positions that they would otherwise hold on the basis of sex, age, or personal attributes" (p.52). "Stratification, by contrast, is a term that is preferably limited to status differences based on economic differences. Stratification in this sense is a system by which the adult members of a society enjoy differential rights of access to basic resources"(p.52).

So how does a simple society operate without ranking and stratification? Fried argues that most simple societies developed in less hostile environments (p.53), with very low population density (pp.54-55), with simple means of production (such as tools made from natural materials and common hunting groups; pp.58-59); with a broad division of labor between the sexes, but general competence in all roles within that division of labor (p.62); with distribution relationships based on reciprocity (pp.63-64). The general social structure is of two types: the family (generally nuclear) and the band ("a local group composed of a small number of families," p.67). Leaders can't compel (p.83), and military pursuits demonstrate "a complete absence of command or coordination" (pp.104-105).

In rank societies (Ch.4), "positions of valued status are somehow limited so that not all those of sufficient talent to occupy such statuses actually achieve them" (p.109). The spectrum of such societies is greater than that of simple egalitarian societies (p.110). Interestingly, while egalitarian bands are inevitably hunter-gatherers, rank societies are usually agricultural (p.110). A domestic food supply means a more certain, concentrated food supply, leading to larger, more permanent communities, resulting in a more formalized kinship network (p.116). A major development in such a society is a clearly distinguished descent principle (p.116). And although reciprocity continues to be an important redistributionist principle, "in rank societies, the major process of economic integration is redistribution, in which there is a characteristic flow of goods into and out from a finite center. Invariably that center is the pinnacle of a smaller component network within a larger structure" (p.117).

As noted above, kinship begins to play a more important role in rank society (p.120). Whereas in band society, the ideology is that of coresidence, in rank society, the ideology is that of kinship (p.121). But the specific kinship system can vary considerably across rank societies (p.121). Unilateral descent groups—clans—are taken to be descended from some stipulated common ancestor (p.124); the clan structure tends to be inclusive rather than exclusive, sometimes even incorporating members who are clearly alien but now assimilated, and its key challenge is "to clarify the relative kinship statuses of the members so that they may act properly toward each other" (p.125). In contrast to clans is the lineage, which is structurally similar to the clan but involves demonstrating relationship "to all the other members of the lineage" (p.125).

Again, leadership in the rank society is of the command-not-control variety; the chief cannot force compliance (p.137).

Near the end of his section on rank society, Fried gives us a miniature version of the argument against tribe that he develops more fully in his later book. "If I had to select one word in the vocabulary of anthropology as the single most egregious case of meaninglessness, I would have to pass over 'tribe' in favor of 'race.' I am sure, however, that 'tribe' figures prominently on the list of putative technical terms ranked in order of degree of ambiguity" (p.154). Tribalism, he says, resembles and overlaps racism (p.156).

In stratified societies (Ch.5), "members of the same sex and equivalent age status do not have equal access to the basic resources that sustain life" (p.186). Once a society is stratified, the state is not far behind (p.185).

In Chapter 6, we finally get to the state. All contemporary states, he says, are secondary; no pristine states remain (p.231), that is, no states that developed directly from stratified societies. "The state... is a collection of specialized institutions and agencies, some formal and others informal, that maintains an order of stratification. Usually its point of concentration is on the basic principles of organization: hierarchy, differential degrees of access to basic resources, obedience to officials, and defense of the area"(p.235).

Let's leave it there. Many books examine the development of the state, but Fried provides a survey that compares societal arrangements across different points of development. (Granted, the survey is 45 years old.) I found the book to be interesting, though dry in spots, and well worth the time if you're looking for an introduction to the evolution of political society.

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