The highly influential writings of American anthropologist Morton H. Fried have made key contributions to explaining the origins of the state and its attendant modes of social stratification. Fried devised an evolutionary framework to describe the basic processes that account for general similarities in independent sequences of cultural complexity. Asserting that all significant differences among modern and historical world societies can be regarded as distinct stages of cultural development, from simple to complex, Fried argued that political integration covaries with economic differentiation.
By focusing on the interplay of resources, wealth, power, and political authority in the context of redistribution and reciprocity, Fried argued that states emerge from an ordered succession of less complex social forms, including egalitarian, ranked, and stratified societies. Egalitarian societies are those in which status differentiation and political leadership are situational and based on personal achievement (within the limits of age and sex) under conditions of generally equal access to economic resources. Out of these groups emerge societies that employ ranking as a structural principle for integrating multiple communities along kinship lines. Ranking of individuals and lineages is based on primogeniture, in which rank is hierarchically related to descent from an apical ancestor (the “chief” is Elman Service’s typology).
According to Fried, stratified societies emerge from ranked groups that develop differential access to basic productive resources, such as land and water. Control and management of strategic resources provides opportunities for certain individuals to accumulate material wealth, which can be manipulated to generate social or political capital, for instance, by establishing reciprocal return obligations vis-à-vis contractual debt relationships. Fried believed that this social form is an ephemeral, fragile, and volatile condition that rapidly gives rise to complex political economies expressed as state developments or else breaks down into less complex socioeconomic forms. This is an important observation, because it acknowledges social devolution, in which complex societies decompose into less complex forms.
While many scholars have characterized Fried’s framework as a unilineal evolutionary typology, Fried recognized an important distinction between “pristine” (or “primary”) and “secondary” developments. Pristine evolutionary developments refer to new levels of sociopolitical integration that emerge autochthonously in the absence of external influences from more complex societies. Secondary developments involve evolutionary changes that emerge as a result of intercultural interaction with more complex societies. Thus, Fried’s model is dendritic and accounts for cases that fall outside of unilineal models of progressive cultural evolution (band tribe chiefdom state), such as those of Elman Service and Marshall Sahlins.
Despite the elegance and explanatory power of Fried’s model, a tremendous amount of variation in intermediate social formations has been documented with ethnological and archaeological evidence since Fried’s initial publications in the 1950s and 1960s. This growing body of information suggests that an emphasis on nomothetic processes and general unilineal evolution is inadequate for explaining variability in specific sequences of change in complex social systems. Instead, recent scholarship contends that variation must be explained by historically contingent circumstances, where unique cultural trajectories derive from, or are shaped by, local differences in social and natural landscapes.
- Fried, M. H. (1960). On the evolution of social stratification and the state. In S. Diamond (Ed.), Culture in history: Essays in honor of Paul Radin (pp. 713-731). New York: Columbia University Press.
- Fried, M. H. (1967). The evolution of political society: An essay in political anthropology. New York: Random House.