SCRAP Reading Group, Week 29: How Do People Get Big Things Done?

Thanks to Matt Longstaffe for choosing last week’s reading, and to all who joined us to discuss “How Do People Get Big Things Done?” A great question focused on the idea of “institutions” as “organizations of people who carry out objectives using regularized practices and norms, labor, and resources.” See below for a summary of the article and our discussion questions.

Kowalewski, Stephen A., and Jennifer Birch. 2020. How Do People Get Big Things Done? In The Evolution of Social Institutions, edited by Dmitri M. Bondarenko, Stephen A. Kowalewski, and David B. Small, pp. 29-50. World-Systems Evolution and Global Futures. Springer, Cham, Switzerland.

Kowalewski and Birch introduce a methodological framework wherein the attributes of institutions, defined as “organizations of people who carry out objectives using regularized practices and norms, labor, and resources”, can be identified and compared. These institutional attributes, many of which can be identified using material correlates, may include, but are not limited to: scale, durability, membership, objectives and outcomes, internal organization, resources, labor, and stocks of knowledge. They advocate for this approach because it moves away from a reliance on artificially imposed categories towards a more relational understanding of past social phenomenon. Importantly, it highlights variation, allowing comparative analysis of institutions both between spatially and temporally separate societies (e.g., Aztec vs. Holy Roman Empire), as well as (and most importantly, in my opinion) within coeval culture groups (e.g., East-Central Belize Maya vs. Central Peten Maya). Underpinning this approach is the idea that institutions link individuals to other persons with similar goals and objectives, and that it is the various constellations of institutions that structure and rationalize the workings of human societies and give each of these their unique characters.

General Topics/Questions for Discussion:

  • The authors note institutions have long been a topic of study in the broader social sciences, but that archaeologists have had limited interest in the subject. Do we agree with this statement? Do the approaches archaeologists take to studying institutions significantly differentiate us from other disciplines in the social sciences? If so, is this to the peril of archaeology as a discipline?
  • In the Maya area, what institutions are best suited to the type of analysis advocated for in the article – identifying attributes and building an understanding of institutions from the bottom up? Do institutions have to be “durable” (i.e., long-lasting enough to leave material signatures reflective of repeated behaviours) or have “resources” in the form of a formal built space to be identified? Given our relative lack of texts and other historical data, are there more ephemeral institutions that have an outsized impact on the overall social organization of societies that can be identified through proxies or other sources of information?
  • Societies across the lowlands share many similarities that allow us to “lump” them together as “Maya”. Yet, we know that the particular histories of settlements, their social, political, economic, and ideological dynamics, and environmental/ecological contexts render each of them unique. Does documenting variability in institutions – underpinned by a theoretical framework that “the interplay of evolving institutions explains the non-linear, alternative-pathways character of social evolution” – sufficiently address the problem of documenting cultural variability within the ancient Maya world?
  • What explains the differences in relative importance of specific institutions in cities across the Maya lowlands? Can we answer this question using archaeological data alone? 
  • One benefit of the institutional approach is that it can be conducted using existing data. However, the data must be restructured, re-coded, and reanalyzed to fit this methodological approach. How plausible is this? How do we go about this seemingly insurmountable task?
  • The authors stress relationality – institutions are people, coming together with shared purpose, objectives, and intentionality to solve specific problems. Can we use current (and emerging) relational approaches (e.g., social network analysis, communities of practice) to conduct an institutional analysis?
  • The authors bring up “coalescent societies” – people coming together and organizing into larger, more internally cohesive, and potentially more powerful social groups, usually in response to a major crisis. How does the list of institutional attributes of coalescent societies (bottom of page 41 and top of page 42) line up with the character of hybrid settlements such as Alabama?