Dateline 2010: the world-historical situation

In the twilight century of western civilisation, the US, the last resting place of western power, has as its primary purpose the containment of rising China. China has as its primary purpose to put the world 'back to rights'. It is playing a waiting game, and is anxious not to jump the gun.

Dark Age Watch (DAW on hold.)

Issue du jour 1: War with Iran--important to containing China but delayed over two years

Issue du jour 2: The world economy--unbalanced, interwoven, delusional--some predict its unravelling

Issue du jour 3: Somalia--leading the world into a dark age

Issue du jour 4: Pirates exploit the decline of international order

Saturday, 30 June 2007

Friends, acquaintances, strangers, and the three dimensions of society

Friends, acquaintances and strangers behave differently with respect to the three dimensions of society.

These differences are summarised in the following table and explained below.













Personal contact



  • Political dimension. This scarcely exists. Among friends there are no power relations. Some may be respected and listened to in particular situations, but none are allowed to put themselves above others. There is equality.
  • Economic dimension. There is no concept of debt or of the exact measuring out of how to pay someone back for a service they have provided. Instead, there is an attitude of share-and-share-alike. Everybody pools what they have and all get equal benefit from the common stock. This has been called 'primitive communism'. In sum, there is sharing.
  • Social dimension. People know each other on the most intimate terms, often as close relatives or at least as very close friends. Their loyalty to each other is based on this direct emotional bond. What connects the members of the group is personal contact.
  • Political dimension. This is relatively weak, but certain people have influence over others, obtained through the force of their personality. They must work hard to keep up their authority over networks of clients whom they place under their obligation either with material support or by brokering activities on their behalf. It is their personal qualities and activities that cause them to be listened to. The ability to determine the behaviour of others is based on prestige.
  • Economic dimension. People trust each other and do not demand immediate repayment for goods or services that they might have supplied. Nevertheless, there is a requirement that exact repayment should be made in the long run. People who have been given help owe something to those who helped them. The system of exchange is based on a concept of credit.
  • Social dimension. People know each other by sight. Even if they are not friends directly, they are connected through others. They share a way of life down to every detail of language, dress and custom. They call the same general area home. They participate in the same festivals and public activities. There is a sense of community.
  • Political dimension. Some people have power over others, based not on personal charisma but on the threat of force. There is a pyramid or hierarchy of power and power-holders are supported by the rest of the hierarchy, so that power can be assigned to the very young or old or others who could not secure it on their own behalf. Since the hierarchy mobilises to protect itself and imposes its will rather than merely exerting influence, power is experienced as domination.
  • Economic dimension. People are not prepared to give credit to those they cannot be sure of meeting ever again. When they give each other services they require immediate satisfaction in the form of a counter-service of equivalent value, and they expect nothing further in future. Every transaction comprises a balanced and completed exchange.
  • Social dimension. People do not necessarily share things in common. They may dress differently, speak differently, behave differently. Their sense of home may be different. In so far as they feel part of one group it is by acknowledge loyalty to a flag, a figurehead, a nation or some other abstraction.

Sunday, 17 June 2007

Friends, acquaintances and strangers

Hunter-gatherer or family-level societies are characterised by sharing and egalitarianism.
This means that...

  • Sharing: people readily lend or give away food and possessions, and, instead of precise reckoning of debts, there is a general expectation of give and take. This does not mean that people are always happy to share. They can find it a burden. Fred Myers, who studied the Australian Pintupi tribe, once lost his temper when he ran out of cigarettes because the aborigines had cadged them off him. One of his aborigine contacts advised him to hide his cigarettes in his sock and pretend that he did not have any next time he was asked, saying "that is what I do".
  • Egalitarianism: there are no definite leaders and those who try to dominate are shunned or mocked. Richard Lee, who studied the Kalahari San, once tried to thank his hosts by giving them an ox to feast on. Instead of showing gratitude, they teased him, saying what a measly ox it was. In this way they prevented the appearance of any feelings of superiority/inferiority caused by his obviously greater wealth as a western anthropologist.
Anthropologists have contrasted such attitudes with the selfish and hierarchical nature of 'developed', or high-scale, societies, where shopkeepers do not share food with their customers and where politicians exercise power over other people's lives.

A moment's thought reveals, however, that members of high-scale societies behave like hunter-gatherers when it comes to those closest to them. Inside the household, there is sharing and equality: shopkeepers are not mercenary at home, nor do politicians lord it over their family in the way they show their authority in public.

The selfishness and hierarchy that seem typical of high-scale societies are characteristic of how people deal with strangers. It is just that, among hunter-gatherers, meetings with strangers are rare. Nevertheless, when they do have to deal with strangers, hunter-gatherers do not go in for their normal casual sharing. For example, they conduct trade with other groups, and, although this can take on what to us are unfamiliar forms (owing to communication barriers, lack of a medium of exchange, and mutual suspicion/hostility), it boils down to immediate and balanced exchange just like trade in high-scale societies.

Therefore, rather than hunter-gatherers and citizens of 'developed' societies having fundamentally different attitudes to sharing/not-sharing, they can be regarded as having exactly the same attitudes. The difference is in the amount of time they spend dealing with strangers versus friends and relatives.

How one person acts towards another depends on two factors:

  • Intimacy: whether the person is only happy if the other person is happy
  • Trust: whether the person expects to meet the other person again

These factors combine to produce three different types of relationship:













Some comments on this model:

  • A 'person' is not necessarily an individual human being, but can be any legal or corporate 'person' such as a business firm or a nation state.
  • The terms introduced above have the technical meanings given to them, not their natural meanings in informal, everyday language. For instance, a mother would be considered her son's friend in the above technical sense though probably not in the everyday sense. Similarly, a person's bank would be that person's acquaintance in the technical sense, in that there is an expectation of meeting again (they have each other's address) = trust.
  • The above table leaves out a fourth possible relationship, involving intimacy but no trust. One might think that such a relationship would never occur and that intimacy would always involve trust. However, this relationship is seen when people give charity towards those they do not know and do not expect to see again. A classic example is that of desert tribespeople accepting unfamiliar travellers into the camp and giving them food, water and shelter. The hosts do not expect direct recompense, but they do expect indirect recompense through being treated similarly when they are travelling and in need of refreshment. I will not make much use of this relationship.

Saturday, 2 June 2007

Three dimensions of society

When characterising eigenmodes below, I described the typical behaviours of each society under three headings: political, economic and social. These may be defined as follows:

  • Political: power relations, or the ability of some parties to control the activity of others.
  • Economic: mechanisms for distributing scarce resources through exchange of goods and services.
  • Social: perceptions of unity, mutuality and membership of groups with definite identities.
These three dimensions of society have long been recognised. They are common in everyday speech as well as in academic work.

Some people talk about the dimensions using different terminology, perhaps of their own invention. For example:

Rudolf Steiner (philosopher)PoliticalEconomicSpiritual-cultural
Arnold Toynbee (historian)PoliticalEconomicCultural
Pitirim Sorokin (sociologist)CompulsoryContractualFamilistic
Kenneth Boulding (economist)Threat (do this or else)ExchangeIntegrative
Peter Cruttwell (independent theorist)PowerSubsistenceMetaphysics
Guy Siebold
(defence scientist)
VerticalHorizontalOrganisational or social

It does not really matter what we call them. The important thing is to recognise that collective human behaviour has these three distinctive aspects.

The reason why some writers prefer 'cultural' instead of 'social' is perhaps that 'social' can be used in a general sense to describe all collective behaviour, including the political and economic. However, the phrase 'political, economic, social' is well established and, so long as we are aware of the issue, it should not cause any problems. Context is enough to indicate which sense is meant in a particular case.

Note also that, as Steiner's and Cruttwell's terminology implies, 'social' or 'cultural' implies ideological aspects. To be part of a social group means to subscribe to values and beliefs that characterise that group, including religious, spiritual or metaphysical ideas.

It is worth remembering the ancient Greek and Latin origins of these terms:

cityThe city is the focus of power relations, where elites have their governmental bureaucracies or where people come together to argue, debate and seek office.
Economicοίκος (oikos)householdThe household has to feed and provide for itself, through its own production and through exchange in the market.
SocialsociusfriendFriends share their outlook on life and feel themselves bound together with a common interest and obligations of mutual support.

Some theorists have denied the three-dimensional model.

  • The sociologist Talcott Parsons supplemented the model with 'military' and 'religious' dimensions. However, military affairs could be seen as an aspect of the political dimension, in its widest sense of power relations, while religion could be seen as an aspect of the social dimension, in its widest sense of common identity and group membership.
  • 'Rational choice theory' contends that all behaviour can be reduced to just one dimension: the economic. According to this, people obey the law or help out loved ones because of what they get out of it, i.e. the benefit of not being punished or the sheer pleasure of being kind and loving. However, this fails to deal with the common-sense perception that a motorist stopping at a traffic light or a mother feeding her baby is engaging in a different kind of activity from buying and selling in the market. With rational choice theory everything interesting is treated as a trivial background assumption about what people would prefer, whereas the behaviours giving some people power over others or giving others a sense of shared interest are really what we need to model and explain.

In science, a theory or model cannot be judged by its correspondence to some intrinsic or absolute truth. Even if such absolute truth exists we do not have access to it. Instead, we must judge theories by how useful they are. It is therefore not a case of Parsons or rational choice theory being 'wrong' and the three-dimensional model being 'right', but of which is richer and more satisfying in describing human sociality. The three-dimensional model is consistently popular in this respect, while that of Parsons has not been taken up and rational choice theory is less in vogue than it was. Nevertheless, the model's merits will not be found in a priori arguments, but depend on its ability to deliver worthwhile results.

Important. Although these three dimensions can be distinguished from each other theoretically, they are mixed together in actual human behaviour. For example, tax-paying is compulsory and therefore belongs to the political dimension, but there is an element of exchange, in that taxpayers receive benefits in return for their taxes, and they are perhaps motivated too by a sense of community responsibility, so that the economic and social dimensions are also involved. It is rare, if not impossible, for an activity to be classifiable as purely political, purely economic or purely social.


In characterising the three basic eigenmodes, an important factor was the size of the community. I argued, for instance, that a small group of hunter-gatherers could not support the social complexity of a large city.

However, it can be difficult to define the size of the community.

  • Although the San split into groups of about a dozen adults most of the time, they come together in bands of fifty or more for festivals or rabbit drives.
  • A city like New York not only belongs to a larger nation, but need not have clear-cut boundaries and includes people who commute in and out during the day.
The important issue is people's ability to interact. The point about the city is that people come into contact with perhaps thousands of people over the course of a year, so that they can access all sorts of specialist services and find enough customers for their own specialist skills.

This is captured by the concept of scale:

The scale of a society is the number of distinct persons with whom a member of that society interacts in a given time.

The advantage of this definition is that we do not need to worry about how to draw the boundaries of the society.

Some theories (e.g. A W Johnson and T Earle The evolution of human societies) talk in terms of population density. However, it is not just the number of people per square mile that is important, but their ability to interact with each other, and this can be affected by transport and communications improvements, which bring people into contact without them necessarily living closer together physically.

The scale concept properly captures the importance of the community's size and density along with people's ability to move and communicate.

Emil Durkheim called this dynamic density.

'Interaction' should be interpreted in a very general sense. It does not just mean interaction with people we know.

  • A fleeting encounter with someone serving in a shop is an interaction.
  • Someone reading a plumber's advertisement in the yellow pages can be an interaction, since there is a flow of information from the plumber to the reader.
A society's scale is the key to its eigenmode (figures in brackets below represent scale in terms of the number of distinct persons encountered per year).

  • Low scale (10s of persons) -> family mode
  • Medium scale (100s of persons) -> village mode
  • High scale (1000s of persons) -> city mode
Although scale is closely connected with eigenmode, it would be wrong to say the society's scale causes its eigenmode. Scale is an aspect of the eigenmode. We should not think of it as coming first, even though we might want to. It is not productive to think in terms of cause-and-effect but instead we should think in terms of interdependency.

With the definition of scale given above, the comparison between two societies depends on the timescale used.

  • If we take scale as the number of distinct persons encountered per day, then it might be around 10 for both a hunter-gatherer and a New Yorker, but if we take scale as the number of distinct persons encountered per year, then it might still be around 10 for the hunter-gatherer but in the 1000s or even more for the New Yorker. In other words, if we use a day as the time interval, the scales of the two societies seem similar, but if we use a year they seem very different.

Although we could adopt say a year, which gives a reasonably realistic result, as the standard time span, it would be preferable to have a measure of scale that does not depend on time span.

Let Zij(t) be the amount of time that the ith member of the society spends interacting with the jth member of the society during a period of time of length t. Define zij by

zij represents the proportion of time, taken over the long term, for which this member of the society interacts with the jth other member. The society's scale from the perspective of this member is then given by

The society's overall scale, S, is the mean of the scales from the perspective of each member. If N is the number of persons in the society:

With this measure, some possible scale calculations are as follows (these are simplified illustrations and are not meant to be fully realistic):

Family of 10 persons; people divide their time equally between the other members.Scale = 1
Village of 1000 persons; people spend much time within a close family group of 10 members and encounter other members of the village one tenth as often.Scale = 2.9
City of 100,000 persons; people spend much time within a close family group of 10 members, encounter a wider circle of 1000 colleagues one tenth as often, and encounter the remaining citizens one thousandth as often.Scale = 4.2

Calculations in the above table use base-10 logarithms. This is not important; using other bases will change the absolute but not the relative values.