Academic journal article Southeastern Archaeology

What I Believe: Structure and the Problem of Macrosociality

Academic journal article Southeastern Archaeology

What I Believe: Structure and the Problem of Macrosociality

Article excerpt

When Jim Knight invited each of us to participate in the SEAC 2012 plenary session "What I Believe," one of his challenges was to offer, in twenty minutes no less, "your best understanding of how human sociality fundamentally works, and how this helps structure your research outlook." For me, one of the most rewarding aspects of his challenge has been to think about my own interests this way and to look for the threads that tie the different strands of my research together. I won't explain human sociality in the next few pages, but I would like to discuss some problems of human sociality that I am drawn to exploring in my own work.

I begin with an analogy to physics and its sister science, astronomy. Physicists take as their domain everything from the formation and movement of galaxy clusters to the movement of quarks, Higgs bosons, and other particles-maybe even strings-that many of us learned nothing about when we took high school physics and thought it all ended with protons, neutrons, and electrons. As much progress as physicists have made toward understanding and explaining how these vastly different scales of the universe work, they have been stymied by the fact that the rules and laws that seem to explain one scale of phenomena-the movement of galaxy clusters, stars, and planets-cannot explain the movement of those electrons, quarks, and Higgs bosons, and vice versa. Although physicists know that each must have a profound influence on the other, it has thus far proven difficult, if not impossible, to develop a unified theory that effectively links these macro and micro scales.

I believe that we face a similar problem in the social sciences, a domain that includes everything from individual decisions and actions-let us call this microsociality-to the rise and fall of civilizations, which we might think of as macrosociality. The rules and theories that help us to understand and explain one scale of phenomena-that of the whispered conversation, for example-often do not work for understanding larger scale phenomena, and vice versa. In archaeology, processualism tended to put its energies into explaining macrosociality with frameworks such as cultural ecology and social evolution. Postprocessual studies have tended to emphasize microsociality (think practice theory and agency, semiotics, actor-network theory, and a host of other theories, frameworks, and perspectives). In recent years, there has been an almost wholesale shift in many of the humanities and social sciences-including Southeastern archaeology-to an emphasis on microsociality. There are important exceptions, and here I think about Ken Sassaman's recent work, particularly in The Eastern Archaic, Historicized (2010), Robbie Ethridge's (2009, 2010) conception of the Mississippian shatter zone, and the recent volume Big Histories, Human Lives, edited by John Robb and Tim Pauketat (2013). Largely, though, what we now have is robust set of analytical perspectives and vocabularies for understanding microsociality in a range of cultural contexts and situations. Indeed, when we think of social theory these days, we usually think of conceptual work on this scale.

But what of macrosociality, of social continuity and transformation at larger scales, both spatial and temporal? In thinking over the challenge that Jim presented this panel, I realize that my own proclivities tend toward this macro perspective (e.g., Beck 2003, 2006, 2013; Beck and Brown 2012), and it is interesting to consider why work here has lagged in recent years. For more than three decades, a specific theory of macrosociality- neoevolution, with its familiar stages of "band-tribechiefdom-state" and the various revisions of types and subtypes-drove much of the archaeological agenda and dominated much of our discipline's discourse. Neoevolution has since been thoroughly critiqued and discredited, most of which is justified. I will not belabor the critique, as it is old news for most of us. …

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