Complex society (Anthropology)

The term ‘complex society’ came into increasing use in anthropology in the post-World War II period as more scholars turned their attention to peasant societies, and as urban anthropology developed. It is used somewhat imprecisely to refer mostly to societies with a developed division of labour and with sizeable populations. State organization, urbanism, organized social inequality and literacy tend also to be aspects of the complexity involved. The rather loose usage may be criticized — what society is really not complex? — but anthropologists have obviously found it a convenient alternative to such terms as ‘modern society’, ‘industrial society’ or ‘civilization’, with which it may partly overlap but which entail emphases or connotations one may prefer to avoid.

Varieties of small-scale units

No doubt influenced by the tradition of local ethnographic field study, anthropological research has often focused on smaller-scale units of analysis within complex societies, with varying degrees of attention to the embeddedness of such units in wider structures. The attempt, particularly in the 1940s, by American students of ‘national character’ to generalize from culture and personality analyses of interpersonal relations to national cultures is an extreme example; a part of their work was motivated by the desire, during World War II and the period following it, to understand the peculiarities of both adversaries and allies (Mead and Metraux 1953). Another, more durable line of research has been that of community studies. A great many of these have been done, especially in towns and villages of Europe and North America, by anthropologists or ethnographically oriented sociologists, from the late 1920s onwards. Community studies have often succeeded in offering well-rounded portrayals of places and ways of life, and some even have a certain literary merit. On the other hand, it has been complained that they have contributed little to theory-building or comparative analysis. Frankenberg (1966), however, could draw on a generation of such studies in the British Isles in his comparative exploration of tendencies of social change.

From the 1950s to the 1970s, research on various types of informal organization was prominent in the anthropological study of complex societies. As tEric Wolf (1966: 2) put it, ‘the anthropologist has a professional license to study such interstitial, supplementary, and parallel structures in complex society and to expose their relation to the major strategic, overarching institutions’. The study of household and kinship had a part here, but especially characteristic were the increased interest in friendship, patrons and clients, social and cultural brokerage, the management of information and reputations (for example through gossip), and network analysis. Studies of such topics tended to be strongly micro-sociological, actor-centred, and theoretically oriented towards ttransactionalism, and this probably made them less intellectually attractive in the following period with the ascendant interest in Marxism and anthropology.

A continuous interest in the more recent anthropology of complex societies has been groups whose forms of life for one reason or other diverge from whatever is thought of as the ‘mainstream’. Often such groups are defined in terms of ethnicity. Although the latter term came into more common use only in the 1960s, in North America many ethnographic studies of such groups and their relationships to the surrounding societies had already been carried out under the rubric of ‘race relations’ or the study of ‘minorities’. In Western Europe, similar studies have increased with the growth of immigrant populations.

Clearly, however, these ethnically distinct groups are often at the same time economically and politically disadvantaged, and it has occasionally been a matter of some controversy where the analytical emphasis should be placed: on poverty or ethnicity, on class or culture? It may well be that arguments in either/or terms are not always the most helpful here, and that the ambiguity of key concepts is a source of confusion. The debate over the ‘culture of poverty’ concept in the United States in the late 1960s and the early 1970s offers both an obvious example of how different emphases could be seen to have importantly different policy implications, and of the need for conceptual clarity (Leacock 1971).

Studies of ethnically distinct and disadvantaged groups may well attract anthropologists because they entail both an involvement with a culturally different ‘other’ and an opportunity to contribute socially relevant understanding; even the possibility of advocacy or action anthropology. On the other hand, the ethnographic genre has occasionally met with some disapproval; a critical concern with the structure of society, it is argued, would be better served by research on the powerful than on the powerless. Nader (1972) has summarized this view in her plea for ‘studying up’. Limited resources and restricted access may well tend to make ethnographic studies of elites rather difficult, yet some such work has also appeared.

Regions, nations and globalization

Anthropologists have given comparatively little attention to developing frameworks of macro-anthropological analysis for complex societies as ‘wholes’. There has rather been an inclination to draw, a little too easily, on other disciplines (or on broader intellectual orientations, especially Marxism) for wider frameworks. Yet one may remember here the work of A.L. Kroeber (more in cultural than social terms) and Robert Red-field on civilizations (especially the concept of great and little traditions), Julian Steward on levels of sociocultural integration, and M.G. Smith and others on plural societies.

In later years there has been some interest in developing regional analysis, drawing inspiration partially from human geography (Smith 1976). The anthropological study of the state was earlier preoccupied with phases of state formation, but more recently there has been an increasing concern with contemporary states and state apparatuses, and with the nation-state and nationalism as cultural constructs. This interest, not confined to anthropology but paralleled in neighbouring disciplines, can perhaps be seen against a background of proliferating transnational linkages and accelerating globalization; in the late twentieth century, it has become ever more problematic to take the state for granted as a universe of analysis, or even as the referent for the term ‘society’ itself. Globalization itself is also emerging as one focus of ethnography and conceptual work, in varying degrees tied to ‘world systems’ formulations elsewhere in the social sciences. Much research has been concerned with earlier periods of Western expansion and colonialism, and may be seen in part as a critique of classical anthropological conventions of depicting autonomous exotic communities in an ‘ethnographic present’ (Wolf 1982). The current era of large-scale intercontinental migration, organized institutional diffusion, and spread of mass media technologies, however, appears to require even more fundamental rethinking of social and cultural thought (Featherstone 1990).

Culture, history and anthropology at home

If much of the anthropology of complex societies has been devoted to the shape of social relationships, there has naturally also been an ethnographic concern with culture. To a considerable extent this has been a matter of detailing the meanings and meaningful forms of neighbourhoods, communities, work settings and other smaller units of face-to-face interaction within which field studies tend to be carried out. In such studies culture has often been understood in the traditional anthropological terms of a ‘replication of uniformity’; it is taken to be rather unproblematically shared among the members of the unit. To understand the culture of complex societies in a more macro-anthropological manner, on the other hand, it is obviously necessary to think rather in terms of an ‘organization of diversity’: there are interrelated subcultures, a more or less overarching cultural apparatus (for example of educational institutions and mass media), and a division of knowledge in large part matching the division of labour (Hannerz 1992).

While the anthropological study of such cultural complexity can be expanded in many directions, the most vigorous development in later years has been in the research area of ideology, hegemony and cultural resistance. Perhaps the long hesitation of anthropologists to engage with such areas as youth culture, popular culture and the media in complex societies has had some part in the development of the new quasi-discipline of cultural studies, a discipline also sometimes inclined toward ethnography.

The fact that complex societies are media-using societies (or at least involved with literacy) is surely one reason why anthropological study in these contexts has tended toward an awareness of history. All human societies have a past, but complex societies have more elaborate records, and with additional media technologies the records become yet more diverse. The possibility of reconstructing past ways of life is there, and a considerable part of the anthropology of complex societies is now historical anthropology in this sense. But there is often an understanding that the anthropology of contemporary life is also the understanding of a moment in history, a portrayal of unfolding processes (Moore 1987).

This sense of the passage through time may also often be intensified by the nature of the anthropologist’s personal involvement with the complex society, for relatively frequently this happens to be ‘anthropology at home’ (Jackson 1987). Although complex society is now everywhere, and it is entirely possible to go far away to study it, the site of research nonetheless often turns out not to be so far away from the anthropologist’s home base, and thus its passage through time is more likely to be somehow entangled with the researcher’s own biography.

If the study of complex society is conducted ‘at home’, it may have other intellectual implications as well. Does insider knowledge have a particularly important part in the way anthropology is done there, and is there sometimes a detrimental lack of detachment? Such issues are under continuous debate. It is also true, however, that precisely because complex society is in cultural terms an ‘organization of diversity’, what is close at hand, in one’s own city or country, is not necessarily altogether familiar.

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