'Stone Age Sociology'-Or Sociology of Early Language-Using Society?

By Goody, Esther | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, September 2005 | Go to article overview

'Stone Age Sociology'-Or Sociology of Early Language-Using Society?


Goody, Esther, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


Runciman's puzzle in his subtle and provocative article, 'Stone Age sociology' (2005), is in effect 'how did our Stone Age ancestors come to solve the problem of order while living in groups lacking leaders or any formal jural or political institutions?' In this the Stone Age hunter-gatherer groups differ sharply from both the ape bands which preceded them and the more complex societies which followed domestication of plants and animals. 'Why was it that would-be [human] alpha males became unable to acquire and hold positions of power in a way their [ape] ancestors had done before them, and their descendants were to do again?' (2005: 131). For in the more complex societies which later appeared, differentiation of wealth and power lead to rank and hierarchy, big men and chiefs, patronage, kings and armies. In his article on 'Violence and sociality in human evolution' (1991), Bruce Knauft describes this shift for primates from ape dominance roles, to egalitarianism, and back to elaborated dominance roles as 'U-shaped'. And he points out that such a reversal is unusual to find in evolution. Here Runciman is asking how such a reversal might have come about. How did this Stone Age 'sharing of food and possessions and their hostility to would-be alpha males ... evolve[e] in the first place[?]' (2005: 131).

Initially, Runciman looks to a neo-Darwinian framework to resolve this puzzle about the hunting and gathering peoples he takes as the subject of a 'Stone Age' sociology. After neatly examining this material in some detail, he concludes that neither genes nor memes can account for this pattern. Runciman sees human evolution as passing from nature through culture to society. Thus we must look not to nature, but to cultural patterns of behaviour for explanations of the egalitarian organization of Stone Age hunter-gatherers. Runciman does not consider that hunter-gatherers have reached society yet. Reviewing accounts of these peoples, he concludes that their lives seem based on reciprocities. 'Strong reciprocity' (Runciman 2005: passim) provides the critical basis for co-operation and the management of social relationships in the small bands of hunter-gatherers.

Since Mauss's paper on the gift (1970 [1925]) and Malinowski's study of the Kula ring (1922), social anthropologists have been fascinated with the social power of reciprocity. These are still among the first things a student reads. We continue to write about reciprocity; an up-to-date bibliography would fill many pages. So it sounds reassuringly familiar when anthropologists are asked to see 'strong reciprocity' as a central factor in organizing life in hunter-gatherer populations. Yes, of course.

What is new for us, and important, is to look at reciprocity as a particularly important feature of a phase in the emergence of human societies. This is so because we are not accustomed to thinking in terms of successive forms of human social organization. (1) Yet from an evolutionary perspective, it is almost predictable that before the emergence of the formal political and economic institutions of hierarchical societies, institutionalized forms of reciprocity would carry great socio-cultural weight.

For a social anthropologist an interesting puzzle is why the sociologist might find it strange that reciprocity carries such weight in simple, small-scale societies. A clue here is Runciman's assertion that only hierarchical systems can be considered to be societies. He writes that

  our Stone Age ancestors did not live in a world of social roles to
  which there attached formal institutional inducements and sanctions--a
  world, that is, of assemblies, markets, law courts, armies, and
  permanent, public positions of power within a transitive rank-order in
  which individuals replace one another independently of purely personal
  attributes (2005: 129-30).

Since they lack these things, hunter-gatherers do not have 'societies'. …

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