Cultural Anthropology

An Introduction to Cultural Scale Theory



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Appropriate Cultural Scale Theory: An Introduction

Cultural scale theory is a theoretical orientation in the social sciences, which has especially been popularized by cultural anthropologists. In essence, scale theory focuses upon just that-the scale at which social, economic and political systems are organized, and the characteristics of social organization at various scales.

One of the first authors to emphasize the importance of appropriate scale was E. F. Schumacher, who is widely acknowledged as the founder of Green economics (or ecological economics). The concept of appropriate scale was central to his ecological critique of capitalist society and technology.

Schumacher argued that both capitalist technology and its scale of social organization were characterized by what he called "four unecological trends." These were its tendencies towards: giantism, increased size, increased complexity and increased violence. He argued that such increases in scale were not only ecologically destructive but also dehumanizing, because they removed the meaningfulness and creativity from people's work and reduced humanity to being servants of machinery.

In its place Schumacher proposed the development of what he called intermediate technology, or /appropriate/ technology. This was to be a technology which was both well adapted to, or appropriate to, its ecological context and respected human dignity.

He proposed four characteristics to guide the development of appropriate technology:

1. production should be /decentralized/ to the greatest degree possible

2. such technologies should be relatively cheap, both so everyone could afford them, and so production facilities could be produced in large numbers

3. the technology, marketing and organization should not require great amounts of specialized knowledge and,

4. production should be /from local materials/ and /for local use/ to the greatest degree possible.

Such a decentralized production and distribution system, Schumacher argued, was far more efficient in an ecological sense. This is because the use of local materials to meet local needs uses far less energy and materials both in the transportation of raw materials to production facilities and finished goods to market.

Contemporary scale theory in the discipline of anthropology has been influenced not only by earlier ecological thought and cultural ecology, but also by the political economy literature.

John Bodley, for example, has suggested that human societies have been organized on three scales throughout history. These include the domestic scale, the political scale and the commercial scale. As he acknowledges, these three scales are based upon the three modes of production which Eric Wolf identified in his earlier writings on political economy: the kin-ordered mode of production, the tributary mode of production and the capitalist mode of production.

While the way in which each classifies societies is very similar the theoretical implications of the two positions are vastly different. Political economy, following Marx, is primarily concerned with identifying social classes and which class is in power. Social classes are identified with the varying degrees of access which different groups within society have to the means of production (land, tools, technology, etc.).

For example, in a tributary mode of production (a feudal system) there is a landed aristocracy who control access to land and a peasant class which actually works the land in exchange for tribute, or a share of agricultural produce, which is expropriated by their Lord. Similarly, in a capitalist mode of production there is the capitalist class who own the means of production and the working class who do not, and who therefore must sell their labor in exchange for wages.

While the classification is much the same in appropriate cultural scale theory, the emphasis is much different. First of all, scale theory is explicitly /ecological/ in orientation while political /economy/ is just that. In fact, some scale theorists call themselves political /ecologists/ to emphasize just this difference.

Scale theory emphasizes not classes and the mode of production, but the /scale/ at which societies are organized and the dominant organizing principles of society at each scale. It also emphasizes the concept of /social power/, or the distribution of economic and political decision making within society.

Domestic scale cultures refer to tribal peoples. Such societies are kin-based, organized largely around kinship and marriage. In such societies social power is also widely dispersed throughout society. There are no classes. Such societies are egalitarian both politically and economically. Everyone is able to participate directly in decisions affecting the group (which is known as participatory democracy) and there is a relatively equitable distribution of wealth based upon generalized reciprocity (or general sharing of food and other goods within the group).

The dominant goal or organizing principle in domestic scale cultures is what Bodley calls "sapienization." This refers to the process of becoming a better person. In such a society, a "better" person is someone who is both productive and generous in terms of sharing with others. Also someone who is knowledgeable and whose opinions are respected or followed by other members of the group (an informal "leader").

Political scale cultures refer to state level societies-such as ancient Egypt, Rome, the Incas and Aztecs-as well as to feudal societies such as those of medieval Europe, China and Japan. Such societies are divided into classes: the ruling class or landed aristocracy and the peasants who work the land (as discussed above). The dominant organizing principle in such societies is political, and based upon the use of force or the threat of force on the part of the state, which is the means by which tribute is collected from the peasants.

The dominant organizing principle in such societies is not kinship, but politics, a process which Bodley refers to as "politicization." Politics is central, not kinship, in the organization of production and the distribution of wealth and social power. The Lordly class use politics and the threat of force to increase their social power at the expense of the peasantry, whose opinions are largely irrelevant in the organization of the larger society.

Commercial scale culture refers to the present patterns of organization of the global capitalist system. Bodley argues that at this scale of organization, commerce comes to be dominant over politics and "commercialization" becomes the dominant social process. The implication of this is that transnational organizations (transnational corporations, the World Bank, Free Trade agreements) come to be more important to the functioning of the larger system than the decisions of democratically elected governments at the national level. Social power comes to rest increasingly in the hands of the transnational capitalist class-those who own significant amounts of shares in such economic institutions, and who largely direct and control them.

In general, scale theory argues that a local or regionally organized society, such as that of domestic scale cultures, is a more ecologically appropriate society. In fact, as Bodley points out, tribal societies are the only societies which have an archaeologically demonstrated record of long term success. This is because political scale cultures have tended to be unstable and subject to collapse throughout history. They have also tended to be ecologically destructive.

Scale theory also suggests that democracy tends to work best at a smaller scale. Participatory democracy-such as that practiced in domestic scale cultures-tends to work well only at a relatively small scale, and representative democracy-such as we practice-becomes less and less democratic, and less and less representative of the will of the people with increases in scale.

Finally, scale theorists also point out that global scale organization is anti-ecological because global scale managers, or centralized planners, have no direct knowledge of the people and things they are managing. Thus, it is not surprising that the production systems centralized planners create are often both ecologically destructive and socially exploitive.

As I often make this point in my lectures, "You cannot adapt to that which you do not know." In other words, adaptation is only made possible by /direct/ or first-hand knowledge of ecosystems, and this is only possible at the local or regional scale. The same scale at which domestic scale cultures organized themselves.

Scale theorists conclude that the most ecological pattern of organization is bioregional. In other words, one would expect that well adapted political and economic systems would be as diverse as climatic and ecological conditions themselves, just as they were among domestic scale cultures.

Clearly, this is the precise opposite of current trends towards global scale organization in commercial scale culture, and to the increasing homogenization of human material culture on a global scale which is implied by it. This is because appropriate cultural scale theory, from its very origins, has always been a critique of centralized planning in any form-whether Soviet communist or transnational capitalist-for both ecological and democratic reasons.

References, additional reading:

John H. Bodley (1999) "Victims of Progress," Mayfield Publishing Company.

E. F. Schumacher (1973) "Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered," Harper & Row.

Eric Wolf (1982) "Europe and the People Without History," University of California Press.

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