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How-Do-You-Know about Society

It is often useful to think of society in terms of (a) the patterned organization and interaction of groups in a population that share a common language and culture, (b) the social positions, relative status, or rank of these groups, and (c) the roles each group plays that insure appropriate behaviors are adhered to so the society is not beset by anarchy.

That is, all cultures have subsets of people that form groups defined by age, sex, kinship, wealth, type of work, shared history, education, or religious belief. Each group, club, or association has its own interests, some of which may be loosely shared by all members of society while others reflect specific concerns and priorities of that particular association. The status and importance of a group in enforcing social rules of behavior necessarily vary with the size and wealth of the group. Consequently, the manner in which groups interact will vary depending on the situation and status of the groups affected. Archaeologists can detect many of these relations by examining the organization of cemeteries and the contents of graves, settlements, the contents of different houses, and the settlement system.

Although other schemes are possible, anthropologists often place a society in one of four classes (Service 1962): (a) band, (b) segmented or tribal, (c) chiefdom, or (d) state. Anthropologists must ask a number of questions in order to classify human societies. The types of data and questions posed for clues about a prehistoric society's level of social organization include the following:

  1. Settlement patterns: Are the sizes, composition, and configurations archaeological sites for the period in question similar? Or do they fall into distinct types? Are they all located in the same physical environment, or does site type, size, or composition vary by location?
  2. Architecture: Are all structures residential in nature? Are they permanent or temporary? Are some structures monumental and have obvious non-residential, special functions related to public or religious activities?
  3. Organization of labor: Would the structures have required some organization of labor for their construction?
  4. Status differentiation: Are all members of that culture of roughly equal rank, or do some have more wealth, status, and power than others? If some people are more important than others, how is status, wealth, and power attained?
  5. Craft specialists: Do all people do the same sort of work, or are there specialists responsible for making certain goods, or performing certain ceremonies? Do the specialists sell their goods or services to anyone, or are they employed by wealthy and powerful people?
  6. Religion: Can anyone perform ceremonies concerning the supernatural, or is an elderly status and training required? Do all people have equal access to the supernatural, or are there full-time religious specialists? Are religious positions an inherited birthright, or can anyone participate?

Archaeologists must try to address these questions and classify past societies by examining the patterning of their material remains. The following references provide introductions to the archaeological study of human societies.

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