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The Autonomous Village in Anthropological Theory

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:


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.

neoevolutionism anthropology

Service’s neo-evolutionary typology, with ‘tribe’ replaced by ‘autonomous village.’

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.

Matthew Timothy Bradley


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.

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  1. bkmeans says:

    Interesting notion. Certainly better than replacing tribe with “tribe” which seemed silly to me. However, you can have a network of villages that are autonomous but still have a sense of group identity, which is why the term tribe is so persistent. Although, Service did note that his typology were points on a continuum………

    Getting the focus on villages is certainly better for archaeologists and maybe more conducive to studies of social organization than trying to figure out what linguistic group(s) are represented at a site.

    Nice post.


    • Thanks! I’m predisposed to like Service’s work because of his time in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, but I think I would like it anyway. ツ

      Getting the focus on villages is certainly better for archaeologists and maybe more conducive to studies of social organization than trying to figure out what linguistic group(s) are represented at a site.

      I doubt it is what Boas had in mind at the turn of the 20th century given the state of archaeological method and theory then, but the Boasian notion that race, language, and culture may or may not correlate fits well with that, I think.


  2. Tom Pluckhahn says:

    If you have not already seen it, check out Becoming Villagers, a volume edited by Matt Bandy and Jake Fox and published a few years ago by Arizona.


  3. […] 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 voc… Neoevolutionism: banishing the concept of ‘tribe’ (400 words)I put together a blog post today about a common typology for the study of social complexity. I don’t think the topic is too inside baseball for non-anthropologists, but some of the terminology may be. I would be interested in any and all comments folks might have in that regards. If you are interested in having a look, the post is athttp://consanguinityandaffinity.wordpress.com/2014/02/23/neoevolutionism-tribe/The gist of the blog post is this: the common typology for sorting societies for social complexity goes as follows, with the question being which of the four best represents the largest autonomous polity applicable to a society. 1. band 2. tribe 3. chiefdom 4. stateBut a scholar by the name of Elman Service pointed out in the mid-’70s that the tribe as a political unit seems to be directly related to European efforts to deal with indigenous groups (think federally recognized tribes in the United States and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan).There is also the trouble of confusion between the word ‘tribe’ to mean “political unit” and the word ‘tribe’ to mean “a people.” For example, the Cherokee are a people, and there are currently three federally recognized Cherokee tribes (two in Oklahoma, one in North Carolina).In 1985 Joan B. Townsend published a contribution to an edited volume that put forward the concept of ‘autonomous village’ as an intermediate level between band and chiefdom. Revising Service’s typology by replacing tribe with autonomous village, one arrives at the following: 1. band 2. autonomous village 3. chiefdom 4. stateI would be most interested in feedback from folks on my original post, which may be accessed athttp://wp.me/p3CBgb-71. I am working to get better at communicating to non-anthropologists, so comments from those outside of the discipline are especially welcomed.#anthropology #archaeology  […]


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