Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Mutual Constraints of Identity and Social Fabric – Part 2 – The Rise of Agricultural Society

In my last post I began to outline a line of reasoning about how shifts in fundamental social organization are related to intensive conditions such as population size and density. I’m going to follow this line of reasoning through four main stages: early humans & hunter-gathering; agricultural; industrial and a projection into the emerging digital environment.

The argument thus far makes a case that the fundamental social fabric of small hunter-gatherer groups was shaped by an attractor that both constrains and is constrained by population size and density; basic bio-socio parameters of social structure and cognitive capacity such as the ‘Dunbar number’; and developments of some key technologies.

Group size in early hunter-gather conditions was limited by the cognitive capacity required to ‘compute’ social organizational parameters (e.g. pecking order, status and role structures, divisions-of-labor, kinship networks, and territorial embeddedness). Group size was also limited by the mechanism that enabled the memory of all individual exchanges and other forms of ‘moral’ accounting history essential to maintaining group cohesiveness.

What this meant was that individual identity was constrained within a group defined ‘public’ role, status and character that were bound to group dynamics and history. In this context there could be no sense of the ‘private’ self, no one could have their identity stolen, no one had to have their identity ‘verified’ (identity was self-evident – pun indented) and certainly no concept or experience of anonymity. Anyone who tried to step out of their status/role/character/kinship-network/link-to-their-territory would be seriously challenged and face significant sanctions – or cause significant perturbation to the group. A person was who the group agreed they were.

The constraints that kept a group member within their role/character/network also enabled a social fabric sustained by the warp and weft of moral/social/exchange accounting. An accounting process that was built upon the social structures and increasingly social processes and could also be maintained through group and individual memory. Many activities became increasingly social processes – as hunting, cooking, material productions of clothing & shelter all replaced the primate activities of ‘grooming’ as means of social cohesion that also required forms of constraining moral/social accounting to maintain social fabric. These mutual constraints seem to illuminate a fundamental attractor forming the boundaries and processes of group size, structure and individual identity.

Breaking free of the attractor constraining the gatherer groups required a key technology, one that extended human memory and enable human groups to undergo a phase transition into a new attractor inherent in an agricultural mode of social organization. The capacity to externalize memory via symbolic forms of accounting (which eventually formed foundation of writing about 5,000 years ago) enabled human to manage orders of magnitude of quantitative and qualitative increases in complicated types of surpluses, of new products, and new exchanges extended through longer periods of time.

It was agricultural surpluses and other related conditions that enabled significant changes in intensive conditions such as increases in population and population density, as well as in food and other forms of surpluses. These changes in conditions of intensive variables inevitably produced a proliferation of bifurcations in roles, statuses, divisions-of-labor, specializations, ways of being, domains of knowledge and correspondingly complex forms of exchange. The proliferation of bifurcation represented a phase transition into a radically different form of society. New institutions emerged as various means and mechanisms to handle the ever greater complexity of exchanges necessary to do the work of enabling social fabric.

New institutions included more formal religious processes and organizations, forms of local markets for exchange, collective infrastructures such as granaries and commons, village networks, occupational domains with master-apprentice knowledge transfer and knowledge control, and more. The social organizational parameters of gatherers (e.g. pecking order, status and role structures, divisions-of-labor, kinship networks) became the content that helped shaped class-like social and institutional stratifications.

While most people still lived in relatively small local village-groups – the villages tended to be connected via trails, roads and/or waterways. Therefore, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of people never ventured outside of a very local territory, the encounter with ‘stranger’ became a more familiar experience. In these situations identity remained largely constrained within a now larger range of roles, status structures, occupational and kinship networks. There still wasn’t a private self or anonymity. But encounters with strangers were mediated through markets where trust was established through extended personalized networks (cousin of a cousin, etc.) and/or through arrangements from local forms of governance. There was no need for external sources of accreditation or validating identity. Although the possibility that a stranger could now claim another identity arose, the possibility of being trusted remained based on establishing known personalized networks.

During this time the first civilizations arose creating unprecedented social conditions in a few larger trade centers. These were the first social laboratories for enabling experiments in new institutions and social customs that would serve as ‘seeds’ for later development. This is a topic that is much too extensive for me to discuss at this point (even if I knew the requisite history). What is important for this discussion is the shift in attractor – a new condition with related constraints to fundamentally change identity.

Graeber (2012) argues that currency arose as a consequence the increased violence during the Axial Age. In essence, currency was necessary when violence required impersonal exchange because of the lack or destruction of the social fabric that enabled systems of more personalized accounting and corresponding exchange. For example, when an invading or occupying military force needed to obtain supplies, coins enabled soldiers to purchase these supplies, and then these coins-as-currency could be taxed back by invaders. What is important with the development of currency is that social fabric was no longer necessary as the fundamental system of accounting. In essence, what currency enabled was exchange that was ‘stripped’ of social fabric, but required a larger context of social organization – such as a kingdom or (city)state. The currency became a means of impersonal exchange – a concrete means of circulating trustworthy (enough) IOU’s from unknown (anonymous?) debtors/creditors – but guaranteed by the (at least partially) inherent value of the currency plus the promise of the currency issuer.

The development of currency was an extension of social exchange accounting systems that externalized human memory in a manner that no longer required the constraints of personalized networks. In essence, currency is anonymous debt-as-IOU – the first emergence of a social acceptance (if not yet comfort) with some form of anonymity.

Along with the rise of currency and the requisite increase in size and density of population came the rise of the hierarchy as the attractor that shaped the most efficient means of organization large collective efforts. The ‘hierarchy in forest’ (Boehm, 2001) a social fabric sustained and sustaining anarchist self-governance was not scale-able to incorporate larger levels of population and social complexity. It was Ronald Coase, who in 1930 developed the economic understanding of hierarchy as a fundamentally efficient means of organizing social endeavors. And in this way the transaction costs arising with increased population and density – shift social organization to a new attractor of effective efficiency – the hierarchy – who’s content remained the social status structures of inherent in the pecking order.

The constraints of hierarchy and extended personalized networks arose due to ever increasing new forms of complicated social exchange occurring over longer time periods. These constraints also now required currency in order to do the work of resource allocation, since the trust founded on small group social fabric was increasingly inadequate to the work necessary to maintain ever larger societies. With entrenched hierarchy and currency came greater inequity.

The whole story is of course far, far more complicated and extensive that I can possibly recount in this blog. Hopefully a fuller version will come later. However, I hope that the basic idea of a shift in attractor based on intensive aspects of the human condition is clear enough to understand. The next blog post will explore further the shift in attractors of efficiency with the coming of the industrial age. After that we will be better able to explore the emerging further shift in the attractors of efficiency inherent in the evolving digital environment and the corresponding plausible constraints on identity and social structures. 

Boehm, Christopher. 2001. Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior. Harvard University Press. http://www.amazon.com/Hierarchy-Forest-Evolution-Egalitarian-Behavior/dp/0674006917/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1420701789&sr=1-1&keywords=hierarchy+in+the+forest

Coase, Ronald, 1990. The Firm, the Market, and the Law. University Of Chicago Press; Reprint edition. http://www.amazon.com/Firm-Market-Law-R-Coase/dp/0226111016/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1422945063&sr=8-2&keywords=ronald+coase

Ingold, Tim. 2011. The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. Routledge; Reissue edition. http://www.amazon.com/Perception-Environment-Essays-Livelihood-Dwelling/dp/0415617472/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1420971819&sr=1-3&keywords=tim+ingold

Lakoff, George. 1995. Metaphor, Morality, and Politics. http://www.wwcd.org/issues/Lakoff.html