Institutions again – What is a primitive society?

That is the rather provocative question that Richard Posner asked in a 1980 article that I only recently discovered – and I think should be on the reading list of a decent cognitive anthropology course, as the issues are certainly relevant to understanding the cognitive underpinnings of institutions. The term “primitive” may of course deter some from reading on – but that would be a pity, as nothing in Posner’s analysis hinges on the denizens of that kind of human group being less sophisticated than those of agrarian-state and industrial varieties. “Primitive” here means that some crucial elements of large-scale social organization, like economic, judicial and state institutions, are just not there in many small-scale societies. Understanding social life under such conditions is crucial for an anthropology of institutions.

Social organization and the cost of information
Small-scale human groups share some structural features that anyone who ever took an anthropology course will recognize – as these communities are the mainstay of the classical anthropological literature. Posner lists them as the following:
“Weak government, ascription of rights and duties on the basis of family membership, gift-giving as a fundamental mode of exchange, strict liability for injuries, emphasis on generosity and honor as high ethical norms”
What is the origin of this particular, highly recurrent bundle of features?

Posner points out that the economies of small-scale societies generally produce ony a very limited range of goods, many of which are perishable, and that trade with other groups is generally difficult or dangerous, in any case limited. One of the most important features is that transaction costs, particularly information costs, are very high in such conditions, partly because there is no effective government. Relative to groups with state institutions and reguated markets, more time and energy is required to obtain equivalent information about the natural world and social partners and to make sure that promises are kept, contracts enforced, etc. That would explain why trade with other groups is often minimal or nonexistent, while kin groups or extended kinship groups are the main corporate entities. Agriculture being the main form of production, the population is immobile – the cost of moving out is very high. Given these factors, insurance is highly desirable, and the best form of insurance is reciprocity driven by kinship relations. This would explain why people extend the idiom of kin relations to larger groups, as a form of insurance against variability in the productivity of different units (typically, households) over time. High information costs may explain other recurrent features of small-scale societies, such as the centrality of gift-giving as a mode of exchange. Gifts are valuable as an insurance premium, and also as providing information about the givers, their resources and their political affiliations.

Origins of institutions
What is so refreshing in Posner’s model, beyond its empirical interest, is the attempt to address fundamental issues of social and economic organization that have been sadly neglected by anthropology. It also deals with the largely taboo question of social evolution – how complex forms of social and economic organization emerged from simpler ones – a question that, strangely, only archaeologists are prepared to consider these days.
But is the model valid? It concurs with neo-institutional economics in assuming that transaction costs are one of the fundamental factors in explaining social structure, and that institutions, in the sense of formal and informal “rules of the game”, modulate transaction (including information) costs. The predictions that stem from the model are pretty straightforward. With lower information costs (e.g. In situations where people, for some accidental reason, have less latitude to conceal their purchasing power, needs, commitment, etc.) we should observe more extensive trade, less reliance on kinship as the central idiom of social relations, more innovation, etc. There is a rich research programme in comparing institutions in various kinds of “primitive” societies in terms of how they decrease transactions costs or make information cheaper.

Were primitive communities “primitive”?
Another question is whether the “ancestral” groups in which we humans evolved our modern cognitive equipment were in any sense similar to what Posner describes as “primitive”. Most classical anthropolgical monographs are about such small-scale societies, with gift-giving, large kin-based groups, reduced trade, etc. Was that the case in our ancestral conditions, in what evolutionary psychologists call our environment of evolutionary adaptedness? Clearly, some features of the classical small-scale group were absent, as production was so different. Foraging cannot sustain large groups. It also makes the cost of leaving a group very low. Transaction costs of the kind described by Posner are largely irrelevant to people who trade by occasional, explicit and direct exchange with other individuals.
We evolutionary folks often extrapolate from present foragers (with of course all sorts of precautions) and describe ancestral communities as largely unconstraining, with a potentially high turnover, great mobility, and therefore porous boundaries. Exit from such groups is not just possible for men in cases of disagreements, but required for women as they typically move to join their partner’s band.
But note that one may draw a different picture of early communities. For instance, Boyd and Richerson describe ancestral groups as “communities of norms”, that is, relatively hermetic groups of people with common standards. Circulation of goods and people between such communities would be difficult and dangerous, given [a] the difficulty of understanding other people’s signals (e.g. What counts as commitment), the absence of punitive attitudes towards transgresion against outsiders, [c] the absence of over-arching institutions that span several such groups. However, occasional migration to other groups would affect cultural evolution, by making some groups ore sucessful than others, as people “vote with their feet”.
These are very different pictures. In som places, modern tribal life, observed for instance in Papua New Guinea, illustrates an extreme form of the “community of norms” model. People live in autarkic, isolated groups, knowing full well that there are others around but not having any significant exchanges with them. When Jared Diamond asked one of his friends why he (or anyone else in the group) never visited the vilages on the other side of the hill, he replied that if he went there he would certainly get killed. The reason why he was so sure was that if some fellow from the other side came over, he would certainly try to kill him right away! But we do not know whether this is typical of early communities or typical of high-density agrarian communities.
So which is the right model for our ancestral communities? This is not just an academic question, as our predictions for evolved social cognition should be rather different, depending on early social conditions. If we had relatively closed communities with distinct norms, then one should expect evolved dispositions such as conformity biases and a high degree of ethnocentrism. If on the other hand we had fluid communities, then these phenomena would be occasional consequences of a more fundamental coalitional psychology, as some evolutionary psychologists have argued. What is sorely missing from these discussions is a firmer grasp of early settlements and early demography and their consequences on late human evolution.

By the way, Richard Posner is famous in the US as a practising Federal judge, a legal scholar specialized in the economic theory of justice, and a public intellectual advocating a broadly conservative approach to judicial matters. He is also the author of Public Intellectuals – a study of decline, a rather fascinating, empirically based, meticulous study of how American public intellectuals’ descent into irresponsibility coincided with their getting secure jobs in academia… bracing stuff!


  • comment-avatar
    david ronfeldt 12 April 2009 (09:06)

    I’ve been following your interesting blog for a few months. Now, this post prompts me to register and add a comment. Many thanks for spotting and presenting Posner’s marvelous paper. This is the first I’ve heard of it — and I thought I was fairly read-up on the literature on this stage of social evolution. Too bad he did not continue in this field. My own view, and I’m still working on it, is that social evolution has depended on four major forms of organization: tribes, hierarchical institutions, markets, and now information-age networks. Societies advance according to their abilities to use and combine these forms in a preferred progression. I won’t go into it here, but elaboration is available at a blog: [url][/url] Posner’s explanation of “primitive” societies (what I call “tribes”) in terms of information is particularly interesting to me. What I would like to add is that, across the centuries, the rise of each major form of organization is associated with a different revolution in the information and communication technologies of the time. The rise of the tribal form depended on a symbolic revolution: the emergence of language and early writing (runes, glyphs), enabling the storytelling and gossiping that is central to tribal cultures. The rise of the hierarchical institutional form — as in the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church, the absolutist states, and their vast administrative structures — reflected a mechanical revolution: the development of formal writing and printing, first penned script and later the printing press. This was important not only for keeping records and issuing commands, but also for inscribing laws that chiefdoms and states could apply to growing populations who were not kinfolk and often not well-known to each other. Next, the rise of the market form and its far-flung business enterprises was sped by the electrical technologies of the 19th century: the telegraph, telephone, and radio. Today’s spread of the decentralized, distributed network form extends from the digital revolution and its technologies, notably the Internet, fax machines, and cellular telephones, which are empowering civil-society associations around the world and across political spectrums. This does not mean that tribes are solely ancient and primitive. There are numerous modern-day expressions of the tribal form that still exhibit the basic patterns that Posner and other analysts point out.

  • comment-avatar
    Ksenia Galina 1 May 2009 (21:36)

    Thank you for the interesting post! You might be interested in checking out a project initiated by the University of Chicago – Defining Wisdom. This project consists of 24 smaller funded academic projects aimed at exploring the meaning of “wisdom” from the perspective of different disciplines. Specifically, you might be interested in the academic discussions of the meaning of wisdom:, and in one of the projects by Sendhil Mullainathan “Wise Choices: The Interaction of Individual and Institutional Wisdom”, – Ksenia

  • comment-avatar
    Ksenia Galina 3 May 2009 (00:50)

    Thank you for the interesting post! You might be interested in checking out a project initiated by the University of Chicago – Defining Wisdom. This project consists of 24 smaller funded academic projects aimed at exploring the meaning of “wisdom” from the perspective of different disciplines. Specifically, you might be interested in the academic discussions of the meaning of wisdom:, and in one of the projects by Sendhil Mullainathan “Wise Choices: The Interaction of Individual and Institutional Wisdom”,