Complex society

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A complex society is a concept that is shared by a range of disciplines including anthropology, archaeology, history and sociology to describe a stage of social formation. The concept was formulated by scholars attempting to understand how modern states emerged, specifically the transition from small kin-based societies to large hierarchically structured societies.[1]

A complex society is characterized by features such as:

  • State with a large population wherein its economy is structured according to specialization and a division of labor. These economic features spawn a bureaucratic class and institutionalize inequality.[2]
  • Archaeologically, features such as big architectural projects and prescribed burial rites.[2]
  • Large scale agricultural development, which allows members of society time for specialized skill sets.
  • Organized political structure.

The term is mostly used as short hand to indicate a society with intricate political organization and using technology to expand economic production.[3]


Before human beings developed complex societies, they lived in primitive societies; the historical consensus is that complex societies emerged from primitive societies around 4000-2000 BCE in Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley and China.[4] According to traditional theories of how states emerged, the initial spark for the development of complex societies was an agricultural surplus;[5] this economic specialization leads to divisions of labor. The economic transition from an agricultural economy to a division of labor is the most basic explanation of how societies go from primitive to complex.[6]

Before the rise of complex societies there was little need for a strong, centralized state government; the increase in populations in these societies meant that the society was too big to rely on interpersonal and informal connections to resolve disputes. This meant there was a need for a hierarchical authority to be acknowledged as the final arbiter in such scenarios; this judicial authority was also able to claim military, economic and religious authority. Often a claim to one realm was enough to support political ambitions in other realms; this hierarchical decision making structure became the state, which distinguishes primitive from complex societies.[4]


There are core components which together enabled the creation and development of an organized power structure with monopoly on rule enforcement, protection and punishment; the concept of a complex society and modern state were born from the need for cohesive organization, and a need for protection from external threats. The emergence of a civilized or complex society is derived from agricultural developments, necessary division of labor, a hierarchical political structure, and the development of institutions as tools for control. Collectively, they create the conditions for a structure governed by a few who hold monopoly on decisions, this in exchange for responsibility to provide necessary protection; the relationship emerging is a dependency between one group providing wealth and food and the other enforcing rules and providing protection.

Division of labor[edit]

A core tenet of complex society is a transition from agrarian and kinship obligations to complex, industrial societies; the transition occurs as a result of specialization in the means of labor, with some people becoming rulers and administrators, while others remaining into food production and agricultural roles.[7] Division of labor contains market-based connotations, it also entails development of coordinated social networks and interactions for increased access to goods and services.[8][9] Full-time labor division and specialization allows better social cohesiveness as one focuses on what they do best; those seeking leadership and administrative positions specialized in power, as they often act on personal gain and against collective community distribution efforts.[10] Hence, the division of labor helps arrange coordinated society efforts to determine means of production and move into complex, specialized roles.

Political hierarchy[edit]

Complex and industrialized societies consist of people divided into different sectors of the labor spectrum. Leaders and administrators are in charge of providing security, safety and coordination of the state activities. Control based on ranking from centralized power first presupposed modern states in the form of chiefdoms;[11] such rulers possess monopoly on resources, as well as the mechanisms to resolve conflict and deliver punishment.[6] Political hierarchy entails a division between specialization, placing some members in charge of administration and institutions with the highest controls of enforcement.[12] Political hierarchy and organization renders the vast majority of people away from centralized power roles and allocates decisions into a few hands enabling them to pursue policies which might benefit the state or the power holder.[13]

Agricultural development[edit]

The transition to form agrarian, nomadic individuals to industrial and sedentary habits emerged out of the improvements made in agricultural and central food planning. Early sedentary societies have been argued to emerge as early as 1600 BCE along southern Mexico, as there is a correlation between domesticated plant production, sedentism and pottery artifacts;[14] the establishment of a nomadic society entails an emergence of social relations, affecting the patterns and roles each person is tasked with as means for survival. Farmers often found ways to expand agricultural posts by planting on hills and slopes, finding ways to work around environmental and land challenges.[13] Similarly, developments in agriculture enabled societies to focus on central organization, planning and the development of urban centers.[15]


The creation and sustainability of civilization and a state entails social, cultural and institutional complexity, otherwise called “ultrasociality.” [16] High position holders, through the arm of the state, hold the power to define, enforce and execute rules and violence. States hold unanimous power to resolve disagreement and possess the mechanisms to coerce people as means to achieve order.[7] Institutions assist rulers in the coordination of behaviors and norms, enabling the control of behaviors among large groups of humans.[16] In fact, institutions with flexibility to absorb different polities are crucial to the development and stability of an emerging state;[17] the role of institutions is thus crucial in the implementation of standard practices to ensure cohesive order and rules for interactions.

Socioeconomics during pre-industrial era[edit]

During the pre-industrial era, population size within cities were small with elites had only covered 2% of the population, it was important for cities to be located close to watered areas and would depend on trade through ports and this would include rivers. With cities being located near water areas, they depended on farmers for agricultural produce. Agricultural was the main source of wealth and food. Farmers, cattle farmers, fisherman and hunters were the main producers of food. Farmers were not as fortunate to trade, for which they were limited to because of the cost of the transportation; this would mean that trade was limited to a four mile radius. Because agricultural was the main source of wealth, farmers would have sell their harvest right away, having them sell their produce for a low price. In other cases, farmers would feed on their cultivation instead of selling their produce.[6] Many peasants would live on the lands on elite and cultivate their produce within the lands and give it the elites once it was harvest. During they beginning of the pre-industrial area this was how farmers would pay their rent and the landowners would sell the produce at high price.

Labour work was not only achieved by everyday workers but it was also accomplished with slaves. Many of these slaves were captured during wars, were enslaved from different countries, and lost children.In some occasions people had been sold by either their spouse, parent(s) or had debt and become a slave in order to pay their debt. With slavery dating as far back to early 300 BCE, from a census taken in Attica, had occupied around 400,000 slaves.[18] During the pre-industrial era, labour was forced and was implemented by the government and landlords; this would also mean that many peasants were forced into labour. It was very important for employers to hire someone when they were recommended,[6] it was important for the employer to trust the employee, many would form networks in helping each other by proving a recommendation in exchange of returning the favor. Many people who lived in the countryside or within the city, would find themselves moving around looking for an afford place to live; some countryside folks would find an occupation by working for an elite.


Southeastern Mesoamerica became the first to develop into a complex society. Maize was very important in early pre-classic period. Even though farming was very important, there were also hunters, gatherers and fisherman. Food produce besides corn, bean and squash, squirrel, deer, birds, snakes, crocodile, iguana were also consumed.[19] Labor was also presented in making crafts. Important objects that were created were stone bowls and jade beads. Social status was seen by the goods a person had, such as jade, fine pastry


Prior to 3000 BCE the Nile river valley and delta were, like the majority of the world, small agricultural societies loosely associated with little cohesion; the first unified kingdom was founded by King Menes in 3100 BCE which led to a series of successful dynasties which cultivated the development of an Egyptian cultural identity. By the Third Dynasty of the Old Kingdom, Egypt was a fully integrated empire with a complex vertical hierarchical bureaucracy which enacted the will of its ruler and interacted with every citizen; the economic strength and military might of these dynasties spread their influence and presence through the Eastern Mediterranean as well as into North Africa and southward in Nubian controlled territories.[20]


The evolution of ancient Gaul into early modern France provides an example to how complex societies have come into being. There existed a degree of continuity in the hierarchical organization of France from the Iron Age to the 18th century; when the Romans attempted to organize Gaul, they altered the tribal structures which were not simple rather complex chiefdoms. [21]

The integration of a large territory in France happened repeatedly between the Iron Age and the early modern age, it did not happen all at once however, occurring in small steps. The integration proceeded in a hierarchical manner.

Disintegration also occurred in a multi-step process. France was disintegrated into units which were fragmented into counties and in some regions, even further into castellanies. By the end of the ninth century, at least twenty-nine independent politics were in France. Nearly a century later, the number had grown to at least fifty-five.[22]

Alternative theories[edit]

In a 2009 paper Turchin and Gavrilets argue that the emergence of complex societies is a response to the existential threat of violent warfare,[21] they build upon the work of Karl Jaspers' conception of the Axial Age, whereby in the era 800 - 200 BC human societies undergo a revolutionary shift.[23] The central mechanism which pushes societies into a complex stage is the intensity of the warfare; when war takes place across a metaethnic frontier, such as between agricultural and nomadic peoples, is when warfare is sufficiently intense to shift the society into a different state. Within the Axial Age, an increase in warfare intensity between the steppe peoples and the Persian and Chinese peoples forged the Achaemenid Persian empire and the Han Chinese empire, both complex societies.

This theory has also been extended to explain the rise of complex states in Africa and Asia; the colonization of these places by European powers functioned as a metaethnic frontier in which warfare met the necessary level of intensity to forge the complex society.[24]

Another theory deals with the social evolution of altruism versus selfishness in the context of conflicting forces. D.S. Wilson and E.O. Wilson state that selfishness beats altruism within a group but groups that are altruistic beat out groups which are selfish as there is a higher level of cooperation and coordination within an altruistic group. Whether or not a group will be altruistic and cohesive is dependent on both individual efforts as well as exterior forces; the success of a group in competition with other groups is dependent upon cooperation within.[21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Richerson, P. J., and Boyd, R. 1998. The Evolution of Human Ultrasociality. In Eibl-Eibesfeldt, I., and Salter, F. K. (eds.), Ethnic Conflict and Indoctrination (pp. 71–95). Oxford: Berghahn Books.
  2. ^ a b Darvill, Timothy (2008). "The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Archaeology".
  3. ^ Dictionary of the social sciences. Calhoun, Craig J., 1952-, Oxford University Press. New York: Oxford University Press. 2002. ISBN 978-0195123715. OCLC 45505995.CS1 maint: others (link)
  4. ^ a b H., Judge, Edward (2015). Connections : a world history. Langdon, John W. (Third ed.). Boston. ISBN 9780133842746. OCLC 890971716.
  5. ^ Carneiro, Robert L. (1970-08-21). "A Theory of the Origin of the State: Traditional theories of state origins are considered and rejected in favor of a new ecological hypothesis". Science. 169 (3947): 733–738. doi:10.1126/science.169.3947.733. ISSN 0036-8075. PMID 17820299.
  6. ^ a b c d 1945-2015., Crone, Patricia (2015-07-20). Pre-industrial societies : anatomy of the pre-modern world. London. ISBN 9781780748047. OCLC 961882718.
  7. ^ a b Crone, Patricia (2003). Pre-Industrial Societies: Anatomy of the Pre-modern World. New Jersey, USA: Oneworld Publications. ISBN 978-1851683116.
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  9. ^ Robson, Simon K. A.; Traniello, James F. A. (2016-06-03). "Division of labor in complex societies: a new age of conceptual expansion and integrative analysis". Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology. 70 (7): 995–998. doi:10.1007/s00265-016-2147-6. ISSN 0340-5443.
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  11. ^ Stein, Gil J. (1998). "Heterogeneity, Power, and Political Economy: Some Current Research Issues in the Archaeology of Old World Complex Societies". Journal of Archaeological Research. 6 (1): 1–44. doi:10.1007/BF02443149. JSTOR 41053151.
  12. ^ Rothman, Mitchell S. (2004). "Studying the Development of Complex Society: Mesopotamia in the Late Fifth and Fourth Millennia BC". Journal of Archaeological Research. 12 (1): 75–119. doi:10.1023/B:JARE.0000016695.21169.37. JSTOR 41053205.
  13. ^ a b Nichols, Deborah L. (2015). "INTENSIVE AGRICULTURE AND EARLY COMPLEX SOCIETIES OF THE BASIN OF MEXICO: THE FORMATIVE PERIOD". Ancient Mesoamerica. 26 (2): 407–421. doi:10.1017/S0956536115000279. ISSN 0956-5361.
  14. ^ Rosenswig, Robert M. (2006). "Sedentism and Food Production in Early Complex Societies of the Soconusco, Mexico". World Archaeology. 38 (2): 330–355. doi:10.1080/00438240600694115. JSTOR 40024504.
  15. ^ Adams, Matthew J.; David, Jonathan; Homsher, Robert S.; Cohen, Margaret E. (2014). "THE RISE OF A COMPLEX SOCIETY: New Evidence from Tel Megiddo East in the Late Fourth Millennium". Near Eastern Archaeology. 77 (1): 32–43. doi:10.5615/neareastarch.77.1.0032. JSTOR 10.5615/neareastarch.77.1.0032.
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