Complex society refers to societies with states and social classes. Three kinds of complexity are involved: there are socially and culturally differentiated and unequal groups; social segments have specialized activities and roles; and these societies are geographically complex, with unequal exchange between specialized regions. The term “complex society” is typical social scientific jargon, being both dull and unfamiliar. However, its usage is justified. Civilization, an alternative term, has biased connotations, favoring the written and artistic products of upper classes. States and class society are terms that point to only the political and economic aspects, respectively, of the whole.
Complex society rests on a contrast with small-scale or simple societies. In the latter, people have equitable access to resources and enact similar activities, with differentiation deriving only from age, sex, and personal qualities. Foundational theories (e.g., Herbert Spencer’s) emphasized the “evolution” from uniformity to differentiation, and anthropologists focused on the simple and uniform end. The topic of complex societies thus challenges standard anthropological approaches (such as fieldwork in small, bounded places) and concepts (such as singular, integrated culture).
Complex society has been a central concern of archaeology, especially the causes of change from non-state to state organization, and the economic, social, and cultural changes accompanying that transition. Leslie White’s unilinear evolutionary formulation of increasing energy control was influential, but probably the most influential argument was Julian Steward’s case (derived from Karl Wittfogel) for the centralized management of irrigation. This argument quickly encountered empirical objections (rather sophisticated irrigation systems can be managed under local control, meaning that centralized power is not needed), but the real impact of Steward was his careful comparison of the rise of complex societies in diverse world regions.
After Steward and White, much effort was devoted to formulating types of cultures and identifying single causes (“prime movers”) of change from one stage to the next. Morton Fried postulated population growth as a prime mover, while Robert Carneiro proposed political-geographical circumscription. In this elegant model, societies remain small in scale by hiving off identical units until they reach a point of closure by other, similar units; at that point, political centralization begins. However, recent scholarship has changed focus.
First, this work moves away from prime movers toward multi-causal, interactive models of change. Second, it explores, through systems theory, the morphology and dynamics of complexity itself. Third, the dividing lines between simple and complex are no longer straightforward matters of correct typology and classification, let alone unidirectional evolution. Instead, social formations move dynamically between different levels of centralization and specialization over time and space. All these trends are illustrated by recent studies of ancient core-periphery relations. Complex societies emerge from and create unequal exchange relationships between geographic zones that are politically powerful, socially hierarchical, and densely populated (and thus appear to be core “complex societies”) and other zones that are politically dependent, less hierarchical, and more sparsely populated (and thus appear to be “simpler societies”), but which produce valued raw materials for the core.
Shifting focus from simple to complex societies has particularly challenged cultural anthropology. The biases in favor of functioning social wholes (in British and French anthropology) and singular, integrated cultures (in U.S. anthropology) do not fit the differentiation and unequal power characteristic of complex societies. Initial approaches—such as the study of “national character,” treating vast nations as if they had one typical personality—were not satisfactory. Community studies became widespread, but scholars quickly realized that single communities could not represent entire complex societies. Community studies were also biased by the anthropological predilection toward the rural, culturally distinctive, and seemingly least modern.
Steward and his students first responded to this challenge by envisioning complex societies in terms of levels of integration, that is, a nested hierarchy of local ethnographic parts forming larger regional and national wholes. Though certainly an improvement, such levels were more an abstract architecture of units than the study of relations between them. Steward’s students Sidney Mintz and Eric Wolf next explored the synapses between social segments, such as regional market systems and labor and resource exchanges between great landed estates and peasant communities. They also introduced the idea, to become influential subsequently, of major historical processes—such as world capitalism—unifying apparently differentiated places across space. Meanwhile, ethnographies of community types crucial to complex societies became more common in anthropology, such as plantations and cities.
By the 1960s and 1970s, it became clear to cultural anthropologists that the diverse range of modern ethnographic cases, whether simple or complex in their local manifestations, formed one unified world system organized around differentiated and unequal but interrelated roles in the capitalist economy. Furthermore, the world had many different processes of interaction, ideas as well as commodities. This favors methods—multi-sited ethnography—suited to processes with multiple local manifestations.
Anthropology’s “integrated, meaningful whole” concept of culture could not survive confrontation with this degree of social complexity and processuality. The initial conceptualization was that of subcultures, that is, complex societies were assemblages of group or regional/local cultural variants. The subculture concept in practice was flawed, since it was applied to subordinate groups (e.g., African Americans), while dominant groups (e.g., Euro Americans) simply had “culture,” which remained largely unexamined anyway. Recent work, especially by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, instead draws on theories that emphasize cultural construction over time within a web of power relations to examine the making of internally differentiated but coordinated cultural wholes, such as nations. Claudio Lomnitz, for example, built a complex model of Mexican society around communication among disparate and unequal actors in local, political, and national arenas, by documenting political rituals in public settings.
State and class societies may be organizationally complex, but the processes orchestrating them involve radical simplifications of cultural content, most notably commoditization. The global market in sugar described by Sidney Mintz brought about monocrop cultivation and drastic simplifications in diet, and similar arguments can be made for oil, the driving force of the contemporary world. Meanwhile, supposedly “simple” societies have distributed among their members, in a horizontal, cellular fashion rather a hierarchical one, immensely complex knowledge of plants, animals, and the spiritual world.
- Johnson, A. W., & Earle, T. K. (1987). The evolution of human societies: From foraging group to agrarian state. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
- Lomnitz-Adler, C. (1992). Exits from the labyrinth: Culture and ideology in the Mexican national space. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Sanderson, S. K. (1990). Social evolutionism: A critical history. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.