Paradigms Bridged: Institutional Materialism and World-Systemic Evolution

Christopher Chase-Dunn


Johns Hopkins University


Thomas D. Hall


Depauw University

draft v. 10/16/97 A paper to be presented at the session on "Macro-Historical Dynamics: Bridging Paradigms" organized by Nikolai S. Rozov and Stephen K. Sanderson at the annual meeting of the Social Science History Association, Washington, D.C. October 18, 1997.

The Comparative World-Systems Perspective

Despite the post-modern disparaging of "totalizing theories" many social scientists continue the effort to construct and test theoretical explanations of long-term, large-scale social evolution. We have recently contributed to this literature by formulating a theoretical research program based on a reconceptualization of the world-systems perspective for the purposes of comparing the contemporary global system with earlier regional intersocietal systems (Chase-Dunn and Hall 1997). We contend that world-systems, not single societies, have always been the relevant units in which processes of structural reproduction and transformation have occurred, and we have formulated a single model for explaining the changing scale and nature of world-systems over the past twelve thousand years. This essay discusses the different major strands of social science that were brought together in our theoretical formulation and revisits the problem of how institutional inventions, especially the emergence of states and capitalism, altered the operation of the basic model.

Though we are sociologists we have long engaged in serious dialogue with social scientists from other disciplines, especially archaeologists, ethnographers, political scientists, historians and geographers. Our original intent may have been to raid these auslanders for their data, but in learning the required foreign languages we have also learned how the natives think, and our own thinking has been subsequently reconstituted. Our reconceptualization of world-systems concepts is obviously indebted to those who created the world-systems perspective - Fernand Braudel, Immanuel Wallerstein, Samir Amin, Andre Gunder Frank and Giovanni Arrigui. We also drew heavily upon the evolutionary work of Marshall Sahlins, Morton Fried, Marvin Harris, Robert Carneiro, Robert Cohen, Patrick Kirch and Stephen Sanderson. Our formulation was also influenced by world historians, especially William McNeill and Philip Curtin. The sociologists who have most influenced us have been Gerhard Lenski, Randall Collins, Janet Abu-Lughod and Michael Mann. The geographers who inspired us were Owen Lattimore, David Harvey and Peter Taylor. From political science we have been most greatly influenced by George Modelski, William R. Thompson and David Wilkinson. From archaeology we have been inspired by Richard Blanton, Gary Feinman, Philip Kohl, Kristian Kristiansen, Robert Mc C. Adams, Joseph Tainter and Peter Peregrine. The ethnographers who have most influenced our theory are Jane Schneider, Kasja Ekholm and Jonathan Friedman. Economist Ester Boserup also contributed greatly to our understanding of population pressure and evolution.

II. Institutional Materialism

Due in part to its multidisciplinary sources of inspiration our formulation bridges many disciplinary chasms. The term we now use for our general approach is "institutional materialism." We see human social evolution as produced by an interaction among demographic, ecological and economic forces and constraints that is expanded and modified by the institutional inventions that people devise to solve problems and to overcome constraints. Solving problems at one level usually leads to the emergence of new problems, and so the basic constraints are never really overcome, at least so far. This is what allows us to construct a single basic model that represents the major forces that have shaped social evolution over the last twelve millennia.

This perspective is obviously indebted to the "cultural materialism" of Marvin Harris and its elaboration by Robert Cohen, Robert Carneiro and Stephen Sanderson. Our approach to conceptualizing and mapping world-systems is greatly indebted to David Wilkinson, though we have changed both his terminology and his meaning to some extent (See Chapters 1-3 in Chase-Dunn and Hall 1997).

It is the whole package that is new, not its parts. We contend that world-systems have evolved because of the basic demographic, ecological and economic forces emphasized by cultural materialism, but we do not thereby adopt the formalist and rational choice individual psychology that is bundled with the cultural materialism of Harris and Sanderson. Our approach is more institutional because we contend that there have been qualitatively different logics of accumulation (kin-based, tributary and capitalist) and that these have transformed the nature of the social self and personality, as well as forms of calculation and rationality. We remain partisans of Polanyi's (1977) substantive approach to the embeddedness of economies in cultures. This does not mean that we subscribe to the idea that rationality was an invention of the modern world. We agree with Harris and Sanderson and many anthropologists that people in all societies are economic maximizers for themselves and their families, at least in a general sense. But it is also important to note the differences in the cultural constructions of personality, especially as between egalitarian and hierarchical societies. Here we follow the general line explicated by Jonathan Friedman (1994).

III.Semiperipheral Development

We also add the important hypothesis of semiperipheral development - that semiperipheral regions are fertile locations for the emergence of new innovations and transformational actors. This is the main basis of our claim that world-systems are the most important unit of analysis for explaining social evolution.

As we have said above, the units of analysis in which our model is alleged to operate are world-systems. These are defined as networks of interaction that have important, regularized consequences for reproducing and changing local social structures. By this definition many small scale regional world-systems have merged or been incorporated over the last twelve thousand years into a single global system.

IV. The Iteration Model

Our basic model shows what we think are the main sources of causation in the development of more hierarchical and complex social structures, as well as technological changes in the processes of production. We call our schema an "iteration model" because the variables both cause and are caused by the main processes. It is a positive feedback model in which systemic expansion, hierarchy formation and technological development are explained as consequences of population pressure, and in turn themselves cause population growth, and so the sequence of causes goes round again. We use the term "iteration" because the positive feedback feature repeats the same processes over and over on an expanding spatial scale. Figure 1 illustrates the variables and our hypotheses about the causal relations among them. Positive arrows signify that a variable increases another variable. Negative arrows indicate that a variable decreases another variable. Stronger effects are indicated by thicker arrows.

The model is not alleged to characterize what has happened in all world-systems. Many have gotten stuck at one level of hierarchy formation or technological development. Our model accounts for instances in which hierarchy formation and technological development occurred. There were many systems in which these outcomes did not occur. Our claim is not that every system evolved in the same way. Rather we hold that those systems in which greater complexity and hierarchy and new technologies did emerge went through the processes described in our model.

At the top of Figure 1 is Population Growth. We realize that procreation is socially regulated in all societies, but we contend, following Harris, that restricting population growth, especially by premodern methods, was always costly, and so people tended to let up when conditions temporarily improved. This leads to a long-run tendency for population to grow. Population Growth leads to Intensification, defined by Marvin Harris (1977:5) as "the investment of more soil, water, minerals, or energy per unit of time or area." Intensification of production leads to Environmental Degradation as the raw material inputs become scarcer and the unwanted byproducts of human activity modify the environment. Together Intensification and Environmental Degradation lead to rising costs of producing the food and raw materials that people need, and this condition is called Population Pressure. In order to feed more people, hunters must travel farther because the game nearest to home becomes exhausted. Thus the cost in time and effort of bringing home a given amount of food increases. Some resources are less subject to depletion than others (e.g. fish compared to big game), but increased use usually causes eventual rising costs. Other types of environmental degradation are due to the side-effects of production, such as the build-up of wastes and pollution of water sources. These also increase the costs of continued production or cause other problems.

As long as there were available lands to occupy, the consequences of population pressure led to Migration. And so the whole Earth became populated by humans. The costs of Migration are a function of the availability of desirable alternative locations and the effective resistance to immigration that is mounted by those who already live in these locations.

Circumscription (Carneiro 1970) occurs when the costs of leaving are higher than the costs of staying. This is a function of available lands, but lands are differentially desirable depending on the technologies that the migrants employ. Generally people have preferred to live in the way that they have lived in the past, but Population Pressure or other push factors can cause them to adopt new technologies in order to occupy new lands. The factor of resistance from extant occupants is also a complex matter of similarities and differences in technology, social organization and military techniques between the occupants and the groups seeking to immigrate. When the incoming group knows a technique of production that can increase the productivity of the land (such as horticulture) they may be able to peacefully convince the existing occupants to coexist for a share of the expanded product (Renfrew 1987). Circumscription increases the likelihood of higher levels of Conflict in a situation of Population Pressure because, though the costs of staying are great, the exit option is closed off. This can lead to several different kinds of warfare, but also to increasing intrasocietal struggles and conflicts (civil war, class antagonisms, clan war, etc.) A period of intense conflict tends to reduce Population Pressure if significant numbers of people are killed off. And some systems get stuck in a vicious cycle in which warfare and other forms of conflict operate as the demographic regulator, e.g. the Marquesas Islands (Kirch 1991). This cycle corresponds to the path that goes from Population Pressure to Migration to Circumscription to Conflict, and then a negative arrow back to Population Pressure. When population again builds up the circle goes around again.

Under the right conditions a circumscribed situation in which the level of conflict has been high will be the locus of the emergence of more hierarchical institutions. Carneiro (1970) and Mann (1986) contend that people will run away from hierarchy if they can in order to maintain autonomy and equality. But circumscription raises the costs of exit, and exhaustion from prolonged or extreme conflict may make a new level of hierarchy the least worst alternative. It is often better to accept a king than to continue fighting. And so kings ( and big men, chiefs and emperors) emerged out of situations in which conflict has reduced the resistance to centralized power. This is quite different from the usual portrayal of those who hold to the functional theory of stratification. The world-system insight here is that the newly emergent elites often come from regions that have been semiperipheral. Semiperipheral actors are unusually able to put together effective campaigns for erecting new levels of hierarchy. This may involve both innovations in the "techniques of power" and innovations in productive technology (Technological Change). Newly emergent elites often implement new production technologies as well as new waves of intensification. This, along with the more peaceful regulation of access to resources organized by the new elites, creates the conditions for a new round of Population Growth, which brings us around to the top of Figure 1 again.

V. Short-cutting: How Institutional Inventions

Modified the Iteration Model

We also contend that the institutional inventions made and spread by semiperipheral actors qualitatively transform the logic of accumulation and alter the operation of the variables in the iteration model. But these qualitative changes are themselves the consequence of people trying to solve the basic problems produced by the forces and constraints contained in the model. The independent rise of complex chiefdoms, class distinctions and states in at least four different regional world-systems is best explained by the model displayed in Figure 1. But these institutional adaptations modified to some extent the operation of the variables in the model. And likewise the long rise of commercialization and capitalism again modified the operation of the processes and added new causal arrows to the basic model.

Figure 2 illustrates in a general way what we think happened with the emergence of new modes of accumulation, especially states and capitalism. The new modes allowed some of the effects of Population Pressure to more directly cause changes in hierarchies and technologies of production, thus short-cutting the path that leads through Migration, Circumscription and Conflict. How can the emergence of states allow Population Pressure to more directly affect Hierarchy Formation and Technological Change? Once there are already states within a region the phenomenon of secondary state formation occurs. Population pressure in outlying semiperipheral areas combines with the threats and opportunities presented by interaction with the existing states to promote the formation of new states. This is the main way in which state formation short-cuts the processes at the bottom of Figure 2.

We do not mean to say that conflict disappears, but rather that it does not need to reach the same levels of intensity in order to provoke the formation of new states once states are already present in a region.

State formation also articulates the rising costs due to intensification with changes in technology. The specialized organizations that states create (bureaucracies and armies) sometimes use their powers and organizational capabilities to invent new kinds of productive efficiency and to implement new kinds of production. Governing elites sometimes mobilize resources and labor for irrigation projects, clearing new land for agriculture, developing transportation facilities and so forth. The portrayal of the early states and agrarian empires as technologically moribund is due mainly to comparing them with the much more powerful tendency of capitalist societies to revolutionize technology. But compared to earlier, less hierarchical, systems the tributary empires increased the rate of technological innovations and implemented them across vast areas.

The emergence of market mechanisms and capitalism also articulated the forces produced by population pressure with new forms of hierarchy formation and technological change. Obviously markets provide incentives to economize and to develop cheaper substitutes for depleted resources that are becoming more expensive because of intensification. But markets and capitalism also alter the way in which hierarchy formation occurs. Once capitalist accumulation has become predominant in a system of regional core states the sequence of the rise and fall of core-wide empires is replaced by the rise and fall of hegemonic core powers in which hegemonic power is based as much on comparative advantage in the production of core commodities as on superior military capabilities. Capitalist hegemons more directly respond to the changing economic and political forces produced by ecological degradation and population pressure than tributary empires did. Again, conflict is not eliminated, but the intensity of conflict that is necessary to produce new levels of hierarchy formation is reduced. Competition comes to be based less on military factors and more on economic ones. Many now believe that this trend has gone so far that future hegemonic rivalry will not involve military conflict. Though we must all hope that this is true, there are good reasons to be somewhat skeptical. Another round of world war among core states might well prove to be fatal for the human species. But it might also lead to the formation of a global state that would outlaw warfare, as in the future scenario painted by Warren Wagar (1992). Our main point here is that capitalism transmits population pressure to the hierarchy formation process, creating incentives for the emergence of global governance.

The industrial capitalism of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries has also altered the operation of population pressure by producing the "demographic transition" in core countries. Marvin Harris (1977) contends that this has been the consequence of the concurrence and interaction of three forces - the fuel revolution, the job revolution and the contraception revolution. The demographic transition means a decrease in mortality due to better public health measures and rising wages and then a decrease in fertility and family size. These changes lower population pressure in the core countries and, if they were replicable on a world scale, population pressure might cease to be such a driving force of social change. But Harris argues that the demographic transition in the core states since the latter quarter of the nineteenth century was due to conditions that will be difficult or impossible to replicate on a world scale.

Harris contends that average wages in the core did not rise above subsistence until the last quarter of the nineteenth century but other studies of wages show that returns to labor rise and fall cyclically with long economic cycles such as the Kondratieff wave and the long cycles of price inflation/equilibrium studied by David Hackett Fischer (1996). Fischer (1996:160) reports evidence of rising wages and returns to labor throughout the nineteenth century. The demographic transition was produce by a combination of rising wages with the invention of inexpensive and effective methods of birth control and the shift from coal to oil [which multiplied geometrically the amount of energy utilized in production (Smil 1994)].

Harris also emphasizes that these concurrent and interactive "revolutions" were probably a bubble rather than the early stages of a global transcendence of population pressure. The non-renewable character of oil-based energy and the ecological limits on extending the American level of resource utilization to the vast populations of Asia produce what Peter Taylor (1996) has called "global impasse." The best expert projections of proven oil reserves with current techniques and current consumption levels is around seventy years. That is not much time in the perspective of human social evolution.

All this is to say that the current system has probably not permanently transcended the nasty bottom part of the iteration model. As did states, capitalism has allowed the number of people on Earth to increase greatly. It has also produced the tantalizing possibility of a new system in which population pressure has been brought under control. But the failure to extend the demographic transition to the peripheral countries, or rather to reduce fertility after reducing mortality, has resulted in population pressure on a scale greater than ever before. Under such circumstances a return to some new version of the nasty route would seem to be likely.

Is our revised iteration model testable? In principle it is, but not with existing data sets. The Human Relations Area File might be a good place to start, but its unit of analysis is the society, not world-systems, and the characteristics of the societies are conceptualize as synchronic, whereas we would need to study processes of change over long periods of time. What is needed for formal comparative cross-world-systems research is a "representative sample" of each of the major types of world-systems.

In Rise and Demise (Chase-Dunn and Hall 1997) we have begun to study bounded world-systems over long time periods, but the numbers of cases remain small. This problem can be overcome by doing time series analyses on individual world-systems (or on PMNs) , and this is the research design that holds the most immediate promise for being able to evaluate the causal propositions contained in our model. Time series analysis using structural equations models can disentangle the kind of reciprocal causation we hypothesize in our iteration models. It would also be desirable to study as many separate systems as possible in order to see if the causal structures hold across different systems.

The practicalities of this kind of research are constrained in the current research funding situation. No one seems to care enough about "ancient history" to spend any money on it. But a number of scholars associated with the World Historical Systems subsection of the International Political Economy section of the International Studies Association have formed an informal collaborative project to pool data that are relevant for testing propositions about long-term structural change. Eventually a world history GIS (geographical information system) will combine events information with information on population, migration, warfare, trade, city sizes, polity boundaries, prices, climate, cultural characteristics, dynastic change, and etc. But such a project will have to wait for the powers-that-be to allocate resources to basic social science research. In the meantime those who care about the true nature of social evolution will do what they can with the resources they have.

Other problems are undoubtedly more pressing. We argued above that the near future may lead to systemic catastrophe. We do not mean to imply that ecological or nuclear dooms are inevitable. But we do think they are unacceptably probable. Because of the immense human tragedy that is likely to accompany future core wars or global ecological disaster we must educate the citizens of the world about how the forces of social evolution work, and we must organize the political forces that will try to reform the capitalist world-system in order to prevent these outcomes. But we should also prepare for the possibility that partial dooms may indeed occur, and be ready to reshape the system of survivors into a democratic and collectively rational global commonwealth that will eliminate warfare and poverty, protect the global ecosystem, and regulate population growth at a level that is sustainable.


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