Cultural Anthropology

Trends in the Evolution of Cultural Complexity



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Trends in the Evolution of Cultural Complexity:

In the anthropological literature, cultural complexity refers to both the scale of social organization and the level of technological sophistication. Anthropologists speak of more and less complex societies in order to avoid value laden terms such as "primitive" and "advanced" societies, since these terms tend to imply that more complex societies are better. Such labels also tend to equate increases in cultural complexity with social "progress."

From an anthropological perspective, however, evolution and progress are two different things. Evolution simply implies change, which may be better or worse, depending on the standard by which this is judged, and may involve increases or decreases in cultural complexity. Nor is there anything "inevitable" about the direction of cultural evolution.

Progress, on the other hand, clearly implies not only change, but directiveness and improvement as well. Social progress is also generally equated with increases in cultural and technological complexity. The concept of social progress is therefore inherently ethnocentric, since it assumes that contemporary capitalist society, being the most complex in human history, is also the "best." The implication is that all other societies, both cross-culturally and historically, are "inferior."

Historically, this view was also consistent with the missionizing, colonization and assimilation of less complex societies to Western ways of thinking and living (which continues to this day).

That said, there /has/ been a long term trend towards increases in cultural complexity on a global scale in recent centuries. This development began with the origins of capitalism in Europe during the early colonial age. In the centuries since the capitalist system has evolved into a system which is increasingly global in reach and scale.

John Bodley (2001) refers to global capitalism as "commercial scale culture," which he contrasts with the "political scale culture" of state level societies and the "domestic scale culture" of tribal societies in terms of its cultural complexity. Thus, whether the evolution of this society was inevitable or not, or desirable or not, there /has/, in fact, been a clear tendency towards an increase in the scale and complexity of social organization.

More specifically, Bates and Fratkin (2003) propose that there have been "five long term trends" which have characterized the evolution of cultural complexity. All of these tendencies originally appeared in ancient times in some societies in some parts of the world, but only with the expansion of the capitalist system out of Europe did they become the dominant global trends which we know today. The over-all trend, of course, is towards greater organizational and technological complexity.

1. The first trend is towards "intensification." This refers to material production. The implication is that both food production and other production technologies have tended to become more "efficient" over time, especially in the sense that they derive more production, (more food for example) from a unit of land or human labor. In other words, they are more "efficient" in an economic (rather than an ecological) sense.

A capitalist assembly line, for example, is more "efficient" at producing large amount of goods cheaply than small-scale production by many local craftspeople, such as was the practice in feudal Europe. Similarly, with regard to food production, horticulture produces more food than foraging, while intensive agriculture and industrial agriculture, in turn, each produce more than their predecessors.

2. The second trend is towards greater "specialization." Specialization refers to the general decrease in the number of roles individuals have within society. More specifically, increased specialization implies that particular individuals will have an increasingly limited range of productive tasks in which they engage.

For example, foraging and horticultural societies tend to organize as self-sufficient households, where the only specialization is based upon gender and age. In more culturally complex ancient states, on the other hand, craft specialists appeared, along with other specialists such as rulers, soldiers and priests. The ultimate in specialization, perhaps, is the factory worker on a capitalist assembly line, who spends his or her life putting the same bolt on the same piece of machinery over and over, 40 hours per week, with the over-all task being broken down into parts performed by a team of such workers (or, increasingly, by cybernetic machinery).

3. The third trend refers to changes in human demography and settlement patterns, which is a trend towards greater "settlement nucleation." This refers to the tendency for populations to cluster in settlements of increasing size and population density, and is clearly related to population growth.

Foragers, for example, were highly mobile societies with very low population densities. Horticulturalists tended to settle in larger, relatively permanent village. Intensive agriculturalists organized in states characterized by permanent towns and cities. In the contemporary world this trend expresses itself in the global movement from rural to urban life, which we now refer to as "urbanization."

The fourth and fifth trends are closely related, both to one another, and to an increase in political complexity.

4. The fourth trend is towards greater "stratification" within society, which refers to the increasing division of society into classes with differential access to wealth, resources and social power. In other words, class distinctions and differences in wealth tend to become more pronounced as society become more complex.

5. Finally, the fifth trend is towards greater "centralization," which is defined as the concentration of wealth and economic decision making (or social power) in the hands of fewer and fewer individuals or institutions.

Increasing political centralization appears to have begun not long after the appearance of intensive agriculture, which has always tended to be found in state level societies, or political scale cultures. The larger process continues today, however, as transnational corporations continue to grow in both size and influence in the global system.

In fact, as Robbins (2005) points out, many of the largest financial entities in the world are no longer nation-states, but rather transnational corporations. This is why Bodley refers to contemporary capitalism as "commercial scale culture," since he argues that such massive international commercial institutions now have more influence in the world than democratically elected governments at the political level.

Many would argue, therefore, that increases in cultural complexity are not, in fact, a good thing. Scale theorists such as Bodley, for example, have suggested that the trends towards increasing stratification and centralization erode the prerequisites for democracy at the political scale. Ecological philosophy more generally, has argued for several decades that massive, centrally planned transnational conglomerates are inherently anti-ecological (Schumacher 1973).

Thus, while there certainly has been a clear trend towards an increase in cultural complexity over the past several centuries, the jury is still out as to whether this is a good thing. Is it desirable? Or does it represent the destruction of democracy? Is it sustainable? Or does it represent an anti-ecological trend?

The answer depends upon one's politics and values. It also depends upon whether one considers these trends to be the embodiment of "progress," or simply another example of cultural evolution, for better or worse.

References, additional readings:

Daniel G. Bates & Elliot M. Fratkin (2003) Cultural Anthropology, Pearson Education.

John H. Bodley (2001) Anthropology & Contemporary Human Problems, Mayfield Publishing Company.

Richard H. Robbins (2005) Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism, Pearson.

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

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