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.

Reading :: The Notion of Tribe

The notion of tribe
By Morton H. Fried

This text was published in 1975 (with a groovy 1975 cover, I should add). It's a slim text, but slim in a good way: concise, focused on its thesis:
Although we are accustomed to think about the most ancient forms of human society in terms of tribes, firmly defined and bounded units of this sort actually grew out of the manipulation of relatively unstructured populations by more complexly organized societies. The invention of the state, a tight, class-structured political and economic organization, began a process whereby vaguely defined and grossly overlapping populations were provided with the minimal organization required for their manipulation, even though they had little or no internal organization of their own other than that based on conceptions of kinship. The resultant form was that of the tribe. (Preface, unnumbered page). 
That is, although we often think of tribes as representing a sort of organization that precedes the State, Fried argues that tribes actually result from the contact between states and less complexly organized societies. Indeed, "tribes, as conventionally conceived, are not closely bounded populations in either territorial or demographic senses. They are not economically and politically integrated and display political organization under hierarchical leaders only as a result of contact with already existing states, although such contact may be quite indirect" (Preface, unnumbered page).

Fried goes on to trace the roots of the term—and concept—of tribe (Chapter 1), demonstrating that in its roots in the Latin tribus and the Greek phyle, it was consistently applied by states to groups outside the state.

The rest of the chapters then address different applications of the concept. For instance, in Chapter 2, Fried examines how "tribe" has been applied to breeding populations, laying out the evidence that (for instance) supposedly endogamous tribes aren't strictly endogamous (p.14). In Chapter 5, Fried attacks the notion of tribe as economic system, demonstrating that "there was no tribal mode of production in pre-state societies" (p.47). In Chapter 9, he questions the understanding of tribes as ideological groups, arguing that "all self-declared tribes are secondary tribes"—tribes that are named and delineated after "contact with state-organized societies" (p.74). Indeed, Fried argues that "pre-state social structures were more frequently open than closed, and generally looser knit rather than tightly woven (so much so, in terms of economic and political organization, as to lack clear-cut boundaries, except in unusual circumstances)" (p.76).

Although it's a slim book, Fried marshalls a broad array of evidence for this thesis. Importantly, Fried doesn't see himself as convincing cultural anthropologists—who had long ago abandoned the idea of tribe (p.11)—but rather physical anthropologists and the general public.

If you're interested in the concept of tribe, this slim book is well worth your time—if you can find a copy. The UT library had one, but I see that copies go for $99 on Amazon. That's about 73 cents per page!

Monday, March 11, 2013

Topsight > Discussing Topsight with Gregory Zobel

This Thursday, March 14 at about 3pm Mountain Time, Greg Zobel will be interviewing me about Topsight. You can watch us live on UStream. Better yet, you can ask questions, which we'll answer in the second half of the show. Interactive video, my friends.

The Society for Technical Communication's practitioner magazine, Intercom, is pleased to sponsor this 45 minute interview with Dr. Clay Spinuzzi. Spinuzzi is a professor of rhetoric and writing at The University of Texas at Austin. After publishing two successful texts--one with MIT Press and the other with Cambridge--Spinuzzi has just self-published his new book, Topsight
Topsight is practitioner-oriented and accessibly written. Knowledge and information workers will draw useful theory and actionable tools to support their efforts in complex information systems. Academics will find methods and protocols they can use in graduate and undergraduate classes. Technical Communication and Rhetoric academics will find chapters for use in their classes as well as an effective modeling of how academic research can transition into practitioner, and possibly popular selling, texts. 
The first half of the interview will center on Spinuzzi's approach to understanding and adapting complex information environments, like high-tech start-ups, while the second half of the interview will be driven by user and participant questions. The interview will be conducted live at the Conference on College Composition and Communication in Las Vegas, Nevada. 
The interview will be broadcast live on uStream at: http://www.ustream.tv/channel/tc-ed-tech-and-accessibility-with-gz