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Social Change: Globalization from the Stone Age to the Present

April 2016 (120.2)

Book Review

Social Change: Globalization from the Stone Age to the Present

By Christopher Chase-Dunn and Bruce Lerro. Pp. xxxii + 433, figs. 55, tables 30. Paradigm Publishers, Boulder 2014. $69.95. ISBN 978-1-61205-328-8 (paper).

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The authors of this book set a truly ambitious agenda: to analyze social change over the last 12,000 years, during which humans moved from foraging to farming, culminating in the emergence of states. They link large-scale systemic developments to the formation of individual social identity, the different forms of which respond to changes in a culture as a whole. To do so, they consider data from anthropology, archaeology, sociology, history, and psychology. No doubt experts in one field or another will find fault with some of the particular statements or ways that the authors handle specific data sets, but it would be a great folly to dismiss the work as a whole. The authors ask big questions that require appropriately large answers. We should pay attention to the major trends they identify and the framework they employ to study cultural evolution. This is a remarkable piece of scholarship that deserves a wide audience.

The book is divided into four sections, the first of which (chs. 1–4) presents the theoretical framework of institutional materialism and the comparative world-systems approach that underlie the subsequent analysis. They note that “scientific social change theory is about probabilities, not inevitabilities” (10). In so doing, they emphasize the mutual interaction between human agency and the constraints imposed by socialization. Core/periphery relations are framed in terms of different networks (political-military, bulk goods, prestige goods, and information) that define the nature of intersocietal interaction. Semiperipheries emerge as sources of innovation; semiperipheral marcher states (e.g., Achaemenid Persians, Macedonians, Romans, Ottomans, Aztecs) created the largest empires, typically through a tributary mode of accumulation. In addition, certain semiperipheral city-states in Europe developed capitalism and transformed the trade networks. To bridge the gap between large-scale social institutions and events on the one hand and individuals on the other, the authors incorporate key concepts from Mead, Goffman, and others to discuss the development of social selves in collectivist and individualist settings. They link the development of abstract thought over time to particular technological advances.

In part 2 (chs. 5–7), Chase-Dunn and Lerro deal with the development of stateless systems. They discuss foragers and early agriculturalists as horizontal collectivist selves because of the egalitarian nature of social and economic relations within such groups. Nonetheless, small world-systems in which various goods circulate among the groups over considerable distances can form. The authors then provide an excellent treatment of chiefdom systems in North America and Hawaii in which the prestige-goods network becomes more significant, and vertical relationships are stressed.

Part 3 (chs. 8–11) evaluates the rise of civilization. Core/periphery relations become more pronounced with the emergence of early states in which urban centers interacted, at times uneasily, with tribal groups that they occasionally attempted to dominate. Competition in interstate systems such as Mesopotamia, India, and Mesoamerica led to increased social differentiation. The authors also explore how the nature of public space and new conceptions of self affected cognitive development in states. They describe the somewhat chaotic but dynamic nature of life in early cities and then link the invention of writing and the use of money to increasing levels of abstraction as identified by Vygotsky. Semiperipheral development followed two paths in antiquity: (1) certain marcher states in various parts of the world created empires through conquest, while (2) other states adopted “a policy of profit making rather than the acquisition of territory.... They emerged in the ‘interstices,’ the spaces between the territorial states in world-economies” (182). The latter practiced a form of merchant capitalism. The various actions formed what the authors call the Central System, encompassing most of Eurasia. The authors provide an intriguing discussion of the immense impact of the invention of writing and money in this system, both of which enhanced connections within and between separate states.

Part 4 (chs. 12–20) discusses the rise of capitalism and the process by which Europe (and from there the United States), a semiperiphery of the West Asian Central System, rose to dominate the modern world-system. Many have written extensively about this process, but Chase-Dunn and Lerro present this material in a fresh manner and more comprehensively, citing the vast corpus of work and placing it within the context of their theoretical model. A process of commodification (esp. of land and other resources) made capitalism the dominant mechanism for “accumulating wealth and power” (215). The authors argue that the relatively small size and weakness of European states provided a space for merchants and others to develop the intellectual and commercial spirit of individualism that is the foundation of capitalism. They argue that a cognitive revolution took place in religion, the arts, and other fields. In what they call “the Reign of Measurement,” the authors suggest that a shift toward quantification permeated all fields and had far-reaching consequences. For example, double-entry accounting facilitated the calculation of interest, the development of insurance, and other economic activities that gave European capitalists an advantage over others. Capitalism in turn served as a catalyst for technological development, and the conjunction of the two was crucial to the development of European colonial empires.

A key aspect of world-systems analysis is the identification of cycles and trends. Chase-Dunn and Lerro provide a useful overview of basic concepts and describe how economic and political conditions ebb and flow in a regular sequence during the modern era. They identify waves of colonial expansion (e.g., the Crusades and the establishment of Portuguese colonies in Africa) and decolonization (e.g., independence of Spanish South America). In chapters 14 and 15, the authors track the historical development of the modern world-system. The discussion includes the establishment of the Dutch Republic as the first capitalist core state, the creation of an interstate system centered on balance of power through the Peace of Westphalia (1648), hegemonic rivalry in the 17th and 18th centuries between Britain and France that led to the former’s preeminent role, and the rise of Germany and the United States in the 19th century that framed key happenings in the 20th. Chase-Dunn and Lerro also list a series of transformative world revolutions “in which the hegemonic institutional structures of the modern system have been challenged and restructured by transnational social movements of resistance” (247). These events include the Protestant Reformation, the American Revolution, the uprisings of 1848 in Europe, the World Revolution of 1917 (Russia, China, and Mexico), the World Revolution of 1968 (followed by the Neoliberal Counterrevolution), and what the authors call the World Revolution of 20xx that is a reaction to neoliberal globalization (e.g., World Trade Organization protests). The authors provide a thought-provoking view of world history through their comprehensive approach. The book concludes with a look into the future, laying out three possible scenarios (a second phase of U.S. hegemony, global collapse, or global democracy).

This book is a major achievement. The authors demonstrate the value of archaeological data to the understanding of long-term social change. There are indeed lessons to be learned from the past; the study of hegemonic rise and decline in antiquity extends the substantive base that is vital to refining our models of social evolution and, when combined with information from later periods, demonstrates the cyclical nature of intersocietal interaction that provides the chronological depth to understand what modern states may expect in the future. This short review cannot do justice to the grand scale of the scholarship and the quantity and quality of the data and theoretical nuances the book contains. The authors implicitly encourage archaeologists to explore the nature of ancient social dynamics in a manner that contributes to the grand mosaic of human history through a comparative method that acknowledges differences but also notes key similarities. The interdisciplinary structure of this book would be a useful format to remedy the parochial nature of some current archaeological work, and it complements recent efforts by authors who employ the world-systems approach in a specific region (e.g., A. Greaves, The Land of Ionia: Society and Economy in the Archaic Period [Malden, Mass. 2010]) and explores globalization in various regions in the past (e.g., J. Jennings, Globalizations and the Ancient World [Cambridge 2011]).

P. Nick Kardulias
Department of Sociology and Anthropology and Program in Archaeology
College of Wooster

Book Review of Social Change: Globalization from the Stone Age to the Present, by Christopher Chase-Dunn and Bruce Lerro

Reviewed by P. Nick Kardulias

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 120, No. 2 (April 2016)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1202.Kardulias

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