What is a complex society?

I’m currently reading Ancient Jomon of Japan by Junko Habu, and it has brought to my attention a massive issue about how we think about societies. When it comes to prehistory, people are often interested in the markers for things like civilization, and complex society. What are the key indicators of these things? 

There’s a school of thought that says you’ve got a complex society if it’s doing more complex things – material culture, food storage and more involved subsistence strategies would be obvious examples of a more complex society, and all of those things could be true of hunter-gatherers.

However, it turns out there is also a school of thought that defines complex societies in terms of hierarchy and inequality. This might be a bit out of date, the book I’m reading comes from the 1990s, but even if this isn’t a contemporary issue, the impact of it stands some thinking about. What happens to our sense of both the past and the present if we define complexity in terms of inequality? It is so limiting and distorting to see things like hereditary privilege and the exploitation of labour as defining signs of social complexity.

Given that we tend to value ideas of complexity, associating them with development, sophistication and civilization, defining more egalitarian societies as less complex has a lot of implications. It means we are bound to miss things about historical societies that don’t seem to fit this model. It is also bound to inform how we think about ourselves now.

Societies that depend on cooperation rather than dictatorship must, surely, be more complex and nuanced? It takes a lot more communication and effort to work as a team than it does to have someone in charge telling you what to do. I feel that recognising our fundamental equality as living beings is a good deal more sophisticated than deciding some people are born special and therefore should be in charge. I find the idea of inherited power barbarous and loaded with superstition. 

As a Druid I am drawn to looking at how we imagine ourselves and how the stories we tell about humanity shape what we do. I think we need better stories.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, polyamourous animist, ant-fash, anti-capitalist, bisexual steampunk. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

3 responses to “What is a complex society?

  • alainafae

    I’ve thought a few times that inherited power, sometimes called “divine right to rule”, is an expression of societal privilege that confuses nature & nurture, oversimplifying a complex the social phenomenon of privilege into “because [insert authority here] said so”.

  • darrack1

    I think, and I am aware this is a bit of a digression but to be fair isn’t it always, that there is nothing wrong in principle with the Devine right to rule, if we accept that the ‘king’ is a conduit through which we communicate with the Devine.
    So in good years when everything is going fine then we just trundle along.
    However on the other hand when its been a bad year, floods, famine, excessive inflation, obscene rises in the cost of fuel, our favourite tv show being cancelled. We get to send a message of our disgruntlement to the Devine through the medium by which we communicate with it, by sacrificing the ‘king’
    Frankly you see I believe it all went wrong when we cease to have year kings…
    Also, as an added benefit our leaders have to be really committed to the idea of leading if they know that the cost of failure, indeed the only way any leaders tenure ends, is being sent to the powers that be with messages from your subjects on a one way trip. Rather than a retirement doing speaking engagements and summering in Tuscany.

    It should be noted I am writing this in a air BnB above a pub which has a karaoke machine and tone-deaf regulars at ten to midnight . This may be colouring my desire to sacrifice people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: