Warfare and Society: Archaeological and Social Anthropological Perspectives

By Ton Otto; Henrik Thrane et al. | Go to book overview
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7 War as Practice, Power, and Processor:
A Framework for the Analysis of War
and Social Structural Change



This is an inquiry into the relation between war and social change and an attempt at constructing a framework for analysing this relation. On the most general level, it is based on a simple question: How do war and military organisation contribute to social structural change? I use the term ‘structural’ in order to stress that I do not aim to consider how wars or military organisations enabled an actor or a group of actors topple and replace one power-holder and become the new person(s) in power. Nor do I aim to examine how, for example, conquest enabled the incorporation of new or re-incorporation of old territory, or how war and conquest led to famine and devastation for one group and conspicuous living for another. These are matters of life and death to the people involved, but in the perspective taken here they will only feed into the discussion if the new power-holder, conquest or acquisition of new resources, for instance, led to new social structures.

Whilst there is no doubt that wars have been fought throughout human history (Keeley 1996; Martin and Frayer 1997; O’Connell 1995), and that their consequences for people and their societies can be vast and devastating, it is a matter of dispute whether war should be seen as a having a role or being a factor in the development of human history.

The old evolutionist Herbert Spencer (1967) and his more contemporary heir Robert Carneiro (1970) argue that war is the driving force in human evolution, and the renown historian John Keegan asserts that all civilizations owe their origin to warriors…’ (Keegan 1993: vi), even though he also emphasises how warfare is embedded in the societies of which it is part. On the other hand, the anthropologist Henri Claessen (2000) argues, very much like the sociologist Bruce Porter (1994), that war is a derived phenomenon and thus cannot be a ‘factor’ in human history, though both acknowledge that the consequences of war for humans and societies are immense. I will sidestep this discussion first of all by rejecting any evolutionary schemata in human history. While I think that it does make sense to establish categories for different kinds of society such as ‘tribe’, ‘chiefdom’ or ‘state’ and ask how one kind of society could develop into another, I do not presuppose any historical or systemic logic in these processes. Secondly, I do not think it is constructive to discuss war as a unitary phenomenon; instead, I propose to subdivide war into different elements e.g., physical violence, military organisation, conquest and look at war at three different levels: that of practice, that of society and that of process.


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Warfare and Society: Archaeological and Social Anthropological Perspectives
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