Neoevolutionism: banishing the concept of ‘tribe’
Neoevolutionism hasn’t been a hot topic in the social sciences for a while now. But it has been present over the years, sotto voce, at the foundation of multiple lines of inquiry. As two examples, during the ’90s chiefdoms were all the rage in Southeastern archaeology, as was the anthropology of the state within the discipline more broadly.
One of the basic neo-evolutionary questions is, “What is the largest autonomous local polity?” This allows for a typologizing of societies. The orthodox choices are drawn from Elman Service’s 1962 monograph Primitive social organization:
band → tribe → chiefdom → state
Service’s friend Morton Fried published work in 1975 pointing out that ‘tribe’ was a muddled unit of analysis, and a phenomenon that owes its existence to Euro-American patterns of political interaction with indigenous peoples. A good example is the way in which smaller Southeastern groups, such as the Natchez residing amongst the Cherokee and the Yuchi residing amongst the Creek (see Kay 2014 for discussion of the latter) were considered part of those larger groups for the purposes of U.S. Indian affairs, in spite of possessing a measure of political autonomy outside of that political context.
In a 1985 publication Joan Townsend put forth what I consider to be one of the best concept most anthropologists have never heard of. She proposed the autonomous village as a polity intermediate in size between the band and the chiefdom. This works well for the Cherokee, the people with whom I am most familiar, for whom township organization is at the center of traditional political life.
Modifying Service’s 1962 typology by removing his ‘tribe’ in favor of Townsend’s ‘autonomous village,’ one arrives at the typology below.
The result would be more difficult to teach in an Introduction to Anthropology course. But 100 level courses are supposed to teach simplified material, not incorrect material. The new typology also continues to be too clean to encompass all of the ethnography—the clan is the political unit of analysis that matters for the Native peoples of the Northwest Coast, for example (see Thornton 2002).
I do think it is a good point of departure, though. At the very least, more awareness of the autonomous village concept would benefit anthropologists (and political scientists, and sociologists, and economists…) in both their teaching and research.
Carneiro, Robert L. 1987. “Cross-currents in the theory of state formation.” [Review of Development and decline: the evolution of sociopolitical organization, eds. H. J. M. Claessen, Piet Van De Velde, and M. Estellie Smith]. American Ethnologist 14 (4) (November): 756–70. doi:10.1525/ae.1987.14.4.02a00110.
Fried, Morton H. 1975. “The myth of tribe.” Natural History 84 (4) (April): 12–20.
Kay, John. 2014. “Yuchi folklore with Jason Baird Jackson.” Artisan Ancestors, episode 40. http://www.artisanancestors.com/2014/01/10/episode-40-yuchi-folklore-with-jason-baird-jackson/.
Marcus, Joyce. 2008. “The archaeological evidence for social evolution.” Annual Review of Anthropology 37: 251–66. doi:10.1146/annurev.anthro.37.081407.085246.
Roscoe, Paul. 2012. “Before elites: the political capacities of big men.” In Beyond elites. Alternatives to hierarchical systems in modelling social formations, Vol. 1, eds. Tobias L. Kienlin and Andreas Zimmerman, 41–54. Vol. 215 in Universitätsforschungen Zur Prähistorischen Archäologie. Bonn: Rudolph Habelt.
Service, Elman. 1962. Primitive social organization. An evolutionary perspective. Random House Studies in Anthropology, AS3. New York.
Thornton, Thomas F. 2002. “From clan to Ḵwaan to corporation: the continuing complex evolution of Tlingit political organization.” “Sovereignty and Governance, II,” ed. William Willard, special issue, Wicazo Sa Review 17 (2): 167–94. doi:10.2307/1409579.
Townsend, Joan B. 1985. “The autonomous village and the development of chiefdoms: a model and Aleut case study.” In Development and decline: the evolution of political organization, eds. H. J. M. Claessen, Piet van de Velde, and M. Estellie Smith, 141–55. South Hadley, Mass.: Bergin & Garvey.