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Origin of Human Social Institutions

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Human Social Institutions

Origin of Human Social Institutions

A central, if not the central, question in the study of human social evolution is that of the origin of our social institutions. Early in our history, simple groups of hunters and gatherers developed the complex societies of the Neolithic Era. But how and why did this occur? How and why did marriage develop? How and why did religion develop?


Title: The Origin of Human Social Institutions
Author: edited by W G Runciman
Publisher: Published for the British Academy by Oxford University Press. Proceedings of the British Academy, Vol 110
ISBN: 0197262503

•  Varied perspectives offer unique and different insights in social evolution
•  Latest scholarship on anthropology, archaeology, and more

•  Very technical — may not be appropriate for average readers

•  Exploration of development of social institutions from various perspectives
•  Papers presented at meetings of the British Academy in the year 2000
•  Topics include sedentism, property, social hierarchies, monumental architecture, etc.


Book Review

We may never have a final answer to such questions, but a wide variety of academic disciplines have useful insights and ideas to offer on the topic. Even when archaeological evidence has been preserved excellently, many interpretations are possible — especially when trying to determine the state of social structures and social relationships.

For that reason, Runciman’s recent volume is particularly important. It consists of papers on archaeology, anthropology, sociology, psychology and game theory, all presented at meetings of the British Academy in the year 2000, and all from leading experts. Topics include sedentism, the notion of property, the development of social hierarchies, domains of knowledge, and monumental architecture.

A key factor appears to be sedentism, or the development of permanent villages and settlements:

    “The initiation of intentional cultivation, which eventually culminated in plant and animal domestication, meant major changes not only in workloads, division of labour, and permanent storage facilities, but essentially in the establishment of communal and private property, and increased control over territories. Hence, the new social structures of sedentary groups that replaced the egalitarian mobile foragers enjoyed rapid population growth and an increase in social inequality.”

This becomes a focus for many of the papers. Ofer Bar-Yosef explores whether or not sedentism may have occurred cyclically rather than all at once and permanently. Richard Bradley discusses how the development of sedentism lead to the development of monumental architecture, perhaps as public displays of a stable social order. Colin Renfrew writes about how sedentism created new social rules regarding property which, in turn, allowed for the development of new concepts entirely — thus, new social relationships and institutions:

Human Social Institutions

Origin of Human Social Institutions

    “...the social context, the necessary matrix for the development of technological innovations during the increasing engagement with the material world, is dependent upon social relationships which in many cases are based upon cognitive advances. They depend upon values, ordered values, and upon rules of conduct and behaviors. These in turn are regulated by social roles and by distinctions of status. Many of these social realities depend upon what may be termed ‘institutional facts.’”

Runciman’s book is fascinating, but it is also difficult — it is not designed for the casual reader or even, in some cases, for informed lay people. Many of the essays were written with scholars and experts in mind; others who read them will have to work harder to get much out of them. If anthropology and archeology are your subjects, then this volume is worth taking the time to read.

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