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Societies, Small

Societies, Small


“Small” is obviously a relative term. When applied to societies it usually refers to area, population, or both; for purposes of sociological analysis a distinction must be drawn between a small-scale society and a small territory. It is possible to have a small-scale society in a very large territory (e.g., the Eskimo or the Bedouin). It is also possible to have part of a large-scale society in a very small territory (e.g., Luxembourg or Monaco). The criteria of size for territories are area and population; the criteria of scale for a society are the number and quality of role relationships. In a small-scale society the individual interacts over and over with the same individuals in virtually all social situations. In a large-scale society the individual has many impersonal or part-relationships. As Mair puts it, “Every member of the large-scale society is party to a great number of relationships, some ephemeral, some lasting, which do not overlap” (1963, p. 13).

Sociologists and social anthropologists have treated “smallness” in terms of the small groups found within a society. Usually this has been termed the “primary group” or the “face-to-face” group. Sometimes the general characteristics of such groups have been the focus of interest (e.g., Romans 1950); sometimes it has been the study of particular types of groups, such as the family (e.g., Bell & Vogel 1960), the gang (e.g., Whyte 1943), or some other form of association. Such face-to-face groups exist in all societies and are not a particular characteristic of small territories.

The study of “small-scale” societies has been the particular concern of social anthropologists. Indeed, smallness in scale has been cited as a distinguishing feature of the subject matter of social anthropology (Firth 1951, p. 17) and as a defining characteristic of “primitive” (Evans-Pritchard 1951a, p. 8). One should distinguish between two major types of small-scale societies. Both are composed chiefly of primary groups, but in one the total social field is small and in the other it is composed of a series of interlocking similar small groups which extend through a considerable population. Island societies such as those on Tikopia (Firth 1936) or Dobu (Fortune 1932) are examples of the former type. The latter is exemplified by the segmentary societies such as the Nuer (Evans-Pritchard 1940; 1956), the Tiv (Bohannan 1957), and the Tallensi (Fortes 1945; 1949). Nadel has constructed the model for this type of society:

Think, for example, of a tribe divided into a number of sub-tribes or extended families; these all duplicate each other, both in their structure and their modes of action; each is relatively self-contained, and such relations as obtain between them (intermarriage, economic cooperation, and so forth) do not follow from their constitution (their “statutes”), but are contingent upon circumstances and outside interests. Though such segments may in fact “combine” to form the society at large, they could exist without each other and in any number; one could add to or subtract from it without affecting the working either of each segment or of the embracing group. (1951, p. 178)

Societies of this type are characterized by what Durkheim (1893) called “mechanical solidarity.” Thus it is that the Tiv of Nigeria, who number perhaps a million, can still be described as a small-scale society.

The question arises as to whether such peoples as the Tiv are a “society” at all. This depends on the criteria we use to define society. There are a large number of possible criteria, such as common language, descent, origin, religion, political allegiance, and so forth. Most anthropologists would accept the criterion of the widest effective political group, i.e., the group that could employ force against outsiders and that effectively prevents or limits the use of force within the group (see Nadel 1951, p. 183-188; Mair 1962, part 1; Schapera 1956, chapter 1).

One other type of small group frequently studied by anthropologists and sociologists is the village community. Redfield has stressed the following as characteristics of the small community: distinctiveness both from the observer’s and the inhabitant’s point of view, smallness, homogeneity, and “all providing self-sufficiency” (1955, p. 4). Yet it is obvious that a village community is only what Kroeber ([1923] 1948, p. 284) called a “part-society.” It is less self-sufficient than either the island society or the segmentary society, although, of course, there are considerable variations in this respect. [SeeVillage.]

Scale and roles. The number of roles to be played in any society is to some extent dependent on its size, but size alone in terms of population does not mean that there are large numbers of different roles to be played. This is demonstrated in the populous segmentary societies. There must also be what Durkheim termed a condensation of society, multiplying social relations among more individuals and leading to a greater division of labor (1893). While the division of labor need not take place in a large population with a simple economy (as in the segmentary societies), it is more difficult for it to occur in very small-scale societies. Such societies may have a considerable proliferation of roles in the politico-ritual sphere, but they have very little specialization of economic and technical roles. Thus it is not only in the numbers of roles but also in the kinds of roles that small-scale societies differ from those of larger scale.

In their discussion of scale, the Wilsons state: “A Bushman, we maintain, is as dependent on his fellows as an Englishman, but the Englishman depends upon many more people than does the Bushman” (1945, p. 25). Yet it is obvious that there is a difference in quality in the dependence of the Bushman and of the Englishman on his fellows. The Wilsons describe this as a difference of intensity of relations, the intensity of the Englishman’s relations being “more spread out.”

The word “intensity” is by no means clear. The Wilsons imply that there is some total store of intensity which is invariable for all societies, but that it has various distributions in different societies. As the range of interrelations increases, the intensity of relations with near neighbors, etc., decreases. This is very difficult to prove, because we are not sure how intensity is to be measured. One could argue that the intensity of relations between spouses in London was greater (Bott 1957) than in a society in which, as in that of the Bushmen, there was greater dependence on neighbors and kinsmen. We can carry the analysis further than this by looking more closely at the nature of the roles themselves. Not only are there fewer roles in a small-scale society but also, because of the smallness of the total social field, many roles are played by relatively few individuals. It is a commonplace in anthropological studies of small communities that economic, political, religious, and kinship systems are very often congruent or nearly so. The same individuals are brought into contact over and over again in various activities. “Different types of primary groups tend to coincide or overlap in large measure” (Firth 1951, p. 47). Relationships are what Gluckman calls “multiplex,” in that “nearly every social relationship serves many interests” (1955, pp. 18-19). Parsons (1939; 1951) has characterized such role relationships, which he terms “particularistic,” as being affectively charged. There are strong positive or negative attitudes between individuals involved in them. They also extend over a considerable time span. Such roles are usually ascriptive. The standards of judgment in the role depend on who the individual is rather than what he does. They are characterized by personal relations.

Particularistic relationships can be contrasted with impersonal relations. Parsons calls these “universalistic” because they are based on more or less fixed standards and criteria. The incumbent of a universalistic role treats all others with whom he comes in contact in terms of universal categories. A shopkeeper should treat all his customers alike, and a doctor all his patients. The roles are functionally specific in definition. The relationship, at least ideally in terms of a model, is affectively neutral. It also has a very limited time span, even though it may be repeated at intervals. The standards of judgment are based on criteria of achievement—what an individual does rather than who he is. Performance and efficiency, not ascribed hereditary qualities, are relevant. These are polar models, and it is obvious that both sets of features are characteristic of most role relationships which could be placed along a continuum. Role relationships change over time. As the same individuals continue to interact in the same roles, the relationship moves from the impersonal toward the personal pole.

In a small-scale society where the total social field is small, relationships tend to be personal. Who a man is matters very much more than what he does. For example, in business, professions, and government, family connections and friendships determine positive or negative attitudes; these are not based on role performances as shop assistants, doctors, and clerks. Occupational roles become diffuse when they have to be looked at in terms of kinship connections and influence in other spheres of activity. [SeeRole.]

Values and alternatives. An actor playing a role based on impersonal criteria is using one set of values, e.g., whether a customer owes one money; whereas the same actor acting in a personal frame uses another set of values, e.g., whether one’s kinsman needs the money one loaned him. In a small-scale society one’s customer is likely to be one’s kinsman.

There is another sense in which the general values of a society may be related to its scale. Where kinship, economic, political, religious, and other systems tend to be coincident or nearly so, there may be a greater consistency of values than in a large-scale society, where there may be different values for individuals acting in different situations or even for whole sets of individuals engaged in very different sorts of life (Redfield 1941). In a small-scale society anonymity is impossible. In a large-scale society, particularly in an urban setting, it is possible by moving, by changing one’s job, name, or style of life. As there are more kinds of jobs and ways of life in a large-scale society, so there are more alternatives for the individual. In a small-scale society choice is limited, alternatives are few, and the choice of an individual may have considerable effects throughout the social structure. Degrees of social cohesiveness will vary from society to society even when we are only dealing with small territories. A society like that of Mauritius (Benedict 1961), with its different ethnic elements, each having its own religion and style of life, is less cohesive than the kingdom of Tonga. Yet both societies are rapidly affected by any major decisions or changes. A strike at an industrial plant in the United States has little immediate effect on most Americans; a strike at a sugar mill in Mauritius has very serious effects throughout the island, not only economically but also politically. Nearly everyone would be affected. Decisions in the economic, political, and legal fields have a pervasiveness in small-scale societies which they lack in societies of larger scale. Again, this is because people are connected with each other in so many different ways in a small-scale society. Similarly, natural disasters are more devastating in small-scale societies because their effects are so pervasive, not just on the physical environment but throughout the social fabric as well (Spillius 1957).

Magico-religious practices. The worship of local saints, deities, or ancestors is a characteristic of many small-scale societies and has been shown by anthropologists to be intimately bound up with personal relations within the community. This form of worship carries personal role relationships to a supernatural plane. Ancestors are an extension in time of the kin group and are intimately concerned with its welfare. Neglect of ancestors can bring misfortune in a way analogous to neglect of living relatives.

Social anthropologists following Durkheim (1912) have shown how such beliefs reflect and symbolize the solidarity of local groups, kin groups, or the whole society itself. Yet such beliefs may only symbolize the cohesion of small groups within a society of any size.

Ancestor worship is found in China as well as in small-scale societies. The notion of a high god is found in both large-scale and small-scale societies. Magico-religious practices may be an index of the homogeneity of a society but not necessarily of its scale. It may be that very small-scale simple societies are more likely to be characterized by a single set of religious beliefs, but many small-scale societies (e.g., Guyana, Fiji, Mauritius) are remarkable for the diversity of religious beliefs found within them.

It is often assumed that secularization accompanies the growth of impersonal relationships (e.g., Redfield 1941; Wilson & Wilson 1945), but it is by no means clear how beliefs in witchcraft, sorcery, ancestors, or local deities are related to the scale of a society or whether and in what manner they inhibit the development of impersonal role relationships. The expectations that such beliefs would rapidly disappear with the spread of education and scientific knowledge have been frequently disappointed. [SeeMagic; Religion.]

Jural relations. Maine’s distinction between status and contract and his famous dictum that societies have progressively moved from the former to the latter have relevance in any discussion of the sociological aspects of smallness (1861). Status in Maine’s sense refers to personal role relationships. These depend chiefly on birth and who a man is. A number of anthropologists have pointed out (e.g., Bohannan 1957) that procedure in native courts is often devoted to finding out who the litigants are in terms of descent and affiliation rather than in finding out what occurred, for it is believed that an individual’s behavior cannot be judged apart from who he is. The important thing is to restore good social relationships among all parties concerned (including the judges), not to conform to an impersonal law. Because of the multiple connections between litigants, lawyers, and judges in small-scale societies, there are often difficulties in applying impersonal law.

Contractual relations pose similar problems. In a contractual relation involving the payment of money, the only relevant question is whether or not the money is owed. It does not matter whether the creditor needs the money or whether the debtor can afford to pay. Where one is doing business with one’s relatives, friends, and neighbors, it is difficult to apply impersonal standards. Questions of need and ability to pay may take precedence over the strict terms of the contract (see Parsons 1939). A shopkeeper havng close personal ties with his clientele will find it very difficult to be an impersonal creditor, and this may well lead him into bankruptcy. It is common in many small communities for the shopkeeper, who is the principal manipulator of creditor–debtor relationships, to be an outsider, of a different ethnic or religious origin from his clients. Thus he is not so closely connected to them by kinship and friendship ties, which enables him to be a more impersonal creditor and hence a more successful businessman (Benedict 1964, p. 344).

Political structure. Apart from external political factors, there are sociological factors affecting the political structure of small-scale societies. Foremost is the ubiquitousness of government. In a small-scale society one cannot progress very far up any occupational or prestige ladder without running into government. Government is an active party to nearly every sizable enterprise, not only officially but also because of the multistranded personal networks connecting the members of a small society to each other. In many technologically underdeveloped societies there are small elites marked off from the rest of the population by either ethnic criteria or class barriers. They often have control of the wealth and technical skill (including education) of the society. They usually have a large number of dependents or clients attached to them and are very often able to control the internal political machinery of the society. In small-scale societies the elite must necessarily be small. Opportunities for upward mobility are limited and more easily controlled by those in power—again because the social field is smaller. Obviously the homogeneity or heterogeneity of a society is important in this respect. Where factions form they are not apt to be simply on the basis of political issues, but extend to numerous social relationships. Where there are ethnic, religious, or linguistic differences, social cleavages may become even wider and more irreconcilable (e.g., Mayer 1963, chapter 12). Whereas in a large-scale society political relationships are only partial relationships, in a small-scale society they are much more inclusive. Closely knit family organization, personal ties within the community, traditional bonds of clientage or servitude, color bars, and so forth all militate against social mobility, whether in the political or the economic sphere.

The form of government as related to scale also deserves attention. A small governing elite is, after all, not a peculiarity of small countries. Literal democracy in the sense that everyone has a direct say in government can exist only in very small communities where everyone can meet and discuss a problem until agreement is reached (Mair 1961, p. 2). But even in small territories, with the exception of some of the very smallest islands, this is impossible. Representative government takes the place of democracy in its pure form. Theoretically, a small society with an informed electorate should operate a representative democracy very well; but the multiplex ties connecting leaders to their followers mean that cliques or factions form which are based not on issues of policy but on ties of kinship and patronage. It is at least questionable whether very small-scale societies can successfully operate a party system. The small elites with multiplex relationships among their members may make it difficult for an opposition to develop. In a large-scale society politicians out of power can take leading roles in industry, local government, or the professions, but in small-scale societies there are relatively few such roles, and those that exist tend to be integrated with the governing elite.

For similar reasons small-scale societies often experience difficulties in developing an impersonal civil service. Civil servants form part of the governing elite. Their actions are apt to be seen as either supporting or opposing certain politicians. The network of multiplex personal relations makes it exceedingly difficult for an individual to play the role of a neutral civil servant. He is apt to be forced into partisanship (see Singham’s article in Benedict 1967).

Economic organization. Large-scale or even medium-scale economic operations require functionally specific roles. If such enterprises are to be efficient and competitive they must be based on impersonal criteria of performance and achievement and not on an individual’s personal ties with other individuals in the enterprise (United Nations 1955, p. 20). The affective component must be as neutral as possible or rational choices in terms of the efficiency of the enterprise become very difficult. Nevertheless, studies in industrial sociology have shown that where attempts are made to treat individuals as instruments rather than as individuals loss of efficiency often occurs and personal elements may have to be reintroduced (e.g., Roethlisberger & Dickson 1939). In large-scale societies there are always possibilities of bringing in outsiders. The social field is large enough to permit this. In small-scale societies outsiders must be imported from another society. Are there societies which are too small for impersonal criteria to prevail, and just how small is too small? Unfortunately, there do not seem to be any very clear-cut answers to these questions, although research could be designed which would give a more precise definition of the problem than we have now. For instance, a valuable question might be: What is the effect of the scale of a society on the specialization of roles within it?

Firth has mentioned (1951, p. 47) that there is less room for specialization of roles in a small-scale society. This is particularly noticeable in occupational roles. Even should specialist techniques be acquired, there is simply not enough work for an individual to earn his living by his specialization alone. This situation has serious implications for economic development, for it means that a specialist must be trained and paid for performing only a very few services each year, or the society must import him at considerable expense and loss of time and at competitive prices when he is needed. Alternatively, the specialist must be a jack of all trades with the possibility that he may be master of none.

There remain questions about the type of economic enterprise and its relation to personal-impersonal pattern variables. The economies of small territories present few alternatives. They are almost invariably limited to producing a very few commodities which are exported to a limited number of markets. The domestic market is small, and local enterprise can rarely compete with cheap imports from mass producers elsewhere. Isolation from markets often aggravates the inefficiencies of personal role relationships. As the Wilsons have pointed out (1945, p. 25), there is a sense in which the scale of a society increases the more it is in contact with other societies. We need only compare Luxembourg with Mauritius, which is more than twice as populous, to see the cogency of this point. Unquestionably, the factor of development is significant. The underdeveloped countries, even the large ones, are socially characterized by personal role relationships. Their small elites reach into all facets of social existence. It can only be predicted that they have a larger potential social field for developing impersonal role relationships than the small isolated territories.

Industrialization appears to be most dependent on impersonal role relationships, while cottage industries, agriculture, and commerce seem to be less so. But some types of enterprise may thrive on a personal basis. Family businesses may succeed in risky enterprises simply because family members are not tied to the enterprise merely on the basis of a wage that they draw, but also by multiplex personal obligations, which may tide them over a period of economic difficulties. Whether a whole territory, even a small one, can succeed on such a basis is doubtful. A strong network of personal relationships or great social cohesion does not mean social harmony or common goals. The affectivity of such roles can be negative as well as positive. The intense factionalism of small communities has been observed repeatedly (Firth et al. 1957). Such communities are no more cohesive and harmonious than groups found in large-scale societies.

What relation exists between small-scale societies defined in term of role relationships and small territories defined in terms of area and population? It is clear that small territories tend to be characterized by small-scale societies simply because of their relatively small populations. It is also clear that there are other factors involved, such as geographical isolation and economic and technological development. Luxembourg is a small territory, yet economically it exhibits large-scale characteristics as a result of its integration with its neighbors in the Common Market. Politically, however, it retains many characteristics of a small-scale society. Where there is greater physical isolation, as in the island societies of the Caribbean, the Pacific, or the Indian Ocean, the features of the small-scale society are even more marked. This is surely one of the sociological reasons attending the difficulties of federation in such areas as Indonesia, Malaysia, and the West Indies.

Burton Benedict

[See alsoEthnic groups; Social structure; Societal analysis.]


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