|Cuexcomate, an Aztec community|
I’ve been struggling with the problem of relating some of my archaeological findings to social issues in the world today. In this case, my focus is on the concept of “community.” I have two reasons for exploring how Aztec communities (whose remains I have excavated) are similar or different from modern communities. One reason is public communication. I am writing a book about Aztec communities intended for a popular, non-specialist audience, and I want readers to see connections between communities today and the contexts I am describing in the book. The other reason is scientific. In line with my strong beliefs that archaeology is a social science, I want to forge conceptual and empirical links between the results of my fieldwork and research on contemporary communities.
The major work on the archaeology of communities, for state-level societies, is the book with that title (Canuto and Yaeger 2000). I never much liked the concept of community promoted in that work, and I withdrew my name from one of the chapters to avoid being associated with the book and its approach (that is, I would have been co-author of one of the chapters, which was then published without my name). For a number of years I couldn’t put my finger on just what I disliked, beyond a vague uneasiness with the book’s emphasis on “the community as a socially constituted institution” and its celebration of “a multiplicity of perspectives” (Yaeger and Canuto 2000). I could not see how to operationalize the concepts in that book to analyze ancient communities as I understood them, and I disliked the vague interpretivist approach of the editors and some of the authors. To me, things like subjective meanings, identity, agency, and social construction—major components of that approach—were not the most important things about communities, today or in the past.
As my reading expanded into sociology, economics, and political science over the past few years, I found an approach to community that seemed more rigorous and useful. The major focus is on social interactions among people. A community is an institution with particular kinds of social interactions. This chart (from Bowles and Gintis 1998:6) illustrates how communities relate to states and markets, other institutions also based on interactions. Here is how Bowles and Gintis define community:
“By community we mean a group of people who interact directly, frequently and in multi-faceted ways. People who work together are usually communities in this sense, as are some neighbourhoods, groups of friends, professional and business networks, gangs, and sports leagues. The list suggests that connection, not affection, is the defining characteristic of a community. Whether one is born into a community or one entered by choice, there are normally significant costs to moving from one to another.” (Bowles and Gintis 2002:F420).
“By ‘community’ we mean a structure of social interaction characterized by high entry and exit costs and nonanonymous relationships among members. As with biological ‘groups,’ interactions among community members are more frequent and extensive than interactions with ‘outsiders.’ “ (Bowles and Gintis 1998:3).
|Bungamati, a community in Nepan|
- Frequent interaction among the same agents;
- Low-cost access to information about other community members;
- A tendency to favor interactions with members of one’s own community over outsiders;
- Restricted migration to and from other communities.
“These structural characteristics, we will show, contribute to the ability of communities to promote pro-social behavior.” (Bowles and Gintis 1998:6) One of their big points is that communities today can accomplish many things more successfully than can markets or states. This, of course, is closely related to the insights of the late Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom (1990; 2010) on common-pool resource exploitation.
There is a HUGE literature on community in sociology and other social sciences. Here are some other sources with similar interaction-based views of community that I find congenial and very useful for archaeology: (Hechter 1987; Taylor and Singleton 1993; Sampson 1999; Talen 1999; Tilly 2008; Brower 2011; Sampson 2012).
This is the literature I draw on in discussing ancient communities and how they compare to modern communities. When a new reference work came out recently, I was interested to see an update on The Archaeology of Communities (Canuto and Yaeger 2012). My initial hope was that these authors may have gotten into some of the contemporary literature cited above, but instead I found that their initial interpretivist perspective had fossilized. Although they claim to be interested in social interaction, this is a very different take on interaction than is used in sociology, economics, political science, and planning today:
- “Of all the topics recently addressed under the rubric of the archaeology of communities, identities and identity formation have been most salient.” (p.701)
- “These scholars focus on the constitution of past social groups through dialogic relations to other subjects as well as the material world. In this approach, community is a social group with an explicit discursive identity that develops through participation in meaningful practices, at meaningful places, and using meaningful objects.” (702) [Editorial remark from the peanut gallery: Do you think they are interested in meaning?]
- There is a major focus on “intersubjectivity” (702).
|Hierarchical community structure (Amos Rapoport)|
As readers of this blog will know, there is a strong epistemological gap between this kind of interpretivist viewpoint (soft postmodernism, social archaeology, whatever you want to call it) and the materialist, social scientific epistemology that I like to promote. I find Canuto and Yaeger’s concept of community problematic for a couple of reasons. First, it prevents objective comparisons among cases. If subjective meaning and social construction are paramount, then you just can’t make rigorous comparisons among communities, ancient or modern. Second, continued adherence to this line of thought keeps archaeology isolated from contemporary thought and research in the social sciences. Archaeology is kept “down on the farm” and unable to contribute to wider debates about communities and other social phenomena.
If you are not familiar with this (non-archaeological) literature on community, you should check it out. I am not the only archaeologist getting into this area of social science research; see the papers in Carballo (2013). I have avoided mentioning the big literature on community in the American Southwest. Much of this work is quite good, well worth considering if you work on non-stsate societies. Schachner (2012) is a good introduction and empirical study.
Bowles, Samuel and Herbert Gintis
1998 The Moral Economy of Communities: Structured Populations and the Evolution of Pro-Social Norms. Evolution and Human Behavior 19: 3-25.
2002 Social Capital and Community Governance. The Economic Journal 112 (483): F419-F436.
Brower, Sidney N.
2011 Neighbors and Neighborhoods: Elements of Successful Community Design. APA Planners Press, Chicago.
Canuto, Marcello A. and Jason Yaeger (editors)
2000 The Archaeology of Communities. Routledge, New York.
2012 Communities in Ancient Mesoamerica. In The Oxford Handbook of Mesoamerican Archaeology, edited by Deborah L. Nichols and Christopher Pool, pp. 697-707. Oxford University Press, New York.
Carballo, David M. (editor)
2013 Cooperation and Collective Action: Archaeological Perspectives. University Press of Colorado, Boulder.
1987 Principles of Group Solidarity. University of California Press, Berkeley.
1990 Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge University Press, New York.
2010 Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems. American Economic Review 100 (3): 641-672.
Sampson, Robert J.
1999 What Community Supplies. In Urban Problems and Community Development, edited by Ronald F. Ferguson and William T. Dickens, pp. 241-292. Brookings Institution Press, Washington, DC.
2012 Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
2012 Population Circulation and the Transformation of Ancient Zuni Communities. University of Arizona Press, Tucson
1999 Sense of Community and Neighbourhood Form: An Assessment of the Social Doctrine of New Urbanism. Urban Studies 36: 1361-1379.
Taylor, Michael and Sara Singleton
1993 The Communal Resource: Transaction Costs and the Solution of Collective Action Problems. Politics and Society 21 (2): 195-214.
2008 Explaining Social Processes. Paradigm Publishers, Boulder, CO.
Yaeger, Jason and Marcello A. Canuto
2000 Introducing an Archaeology of Communities. In The Archaeology of Communities, edited by Marcello A. Canuto and Jason Yaeger, pp. 1-15. Routledge, New York.