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Dynamics of Human Societies

Significance

Ancient societies are a cornerstone for archaeological studies. Social factions, classes and family groups are fundamental units of archaeological analysis to dissect social change. Throughout the great range of human societies, decisions by individuals and groups generate social integration, diversity, hierarchy and leadership; such changes affect identities, settlement plans, labor pools, occupations, trade, migrations, peace and conflict, demographic viability, world view and more. In a long view, the dynamics of social organizations are integral to the origins and longevity of farming communities, chiefdoms, states and empires. They contribute to alliances and trade that buffer hard times or achieve new ritual or economic institutions. Instability is prominent, too, with abandonment of settlements, political collapse or fragmentation of empires.

Current and future directions

The last few decades have witnessed substantial disciplinary change in theoretical orientations to accommodate the interplay of “agency” and context or “structure” in social change. It is now unconvincing to explain major reorganizations of societies in terms of single factors such as population growth or environmental change. Instead, balancing a solid understanding of social and environmental contexts with an orientation toward decisions and benefits at different social and temporal scales allows us to see processes of change leading to the origins and transformations of farming, states, cities and empires. Similarly, the elusive issues surrounding sustainability require these more complex social perspectives.

School strengths

Questions involving changing social organization permeate ASU archaeological research on multiple topics. Many issues concerning ritual and social groups and their roles are in the “middle ground” between local communities and early states. Kin, political and economic ties underlie the unexpected forms and functions of La Quemada in northern Mexico, which may have had special mortuary and pilgrimage roles. Among the Hopewell, rituals, concepts and social roles are prominent in generating mortuary practices. Poorly understood social phenomena are in the forefront of School of Human Evolution and Social Change research in several additional respects. Dispersed “garden cities” in the Mesoamerican lowlands contrast with customary urban expectations based on western history. Families in the Southwest nucleated, dispersed and migrated to a striking extent that requires close analysis of how distant social ties and local subsistence operated. People in provinces resisted imperial demands and made an imperial structure work to their benefit, showing that top-down perspectives require complementary local analyses. The ability to ask significant questions and design effective field research to get answers is at the core of our faculty and program strength. More than any other subject, questions about ancient societies permeate all our topical emphases.

Key ASU Fieldwork Regions: All regions

Partnerships

Understanding ancient societies provides an articulation with theoretical and methodological approaches in the social sciences more broadly. As such, ASU archaeologists working on human social patterns interact with a variety of units and faculty on campus, from the School of Sustainability to the School of Art.

Key school archaeology faculty

David Abbott, Associate Professor, School of Human Evolution and Social Change
Senior Sustainability Scientist, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability

Jane Buikstra, Regents' Professor, School of Human Evolution and Social Change
Founding Director, Center for Bioarchaeological Research

Michelle Hegmon, Professor, School of Human Evolution and Social Change
Senior Sustainability Scientist, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability

Keith Kintigh, Professor, School of Human Evolution and Social Change
Co-Director, Center for Archaeology and Society

Kelly Knudson, Associate Professor & Associate Director, School of Human Evolution and Social Change
Director, Archaeological Chemistry Laboratory

Curtis Marean, Foundation Professor, School of Human Evolution and Social Change
Associate Director, Institute of Human Origins

Ben Nelson, Professor, School of Human Evolution and Social Change

Margaret Nelson, President's Professor, School of Human Evolution and Social Change
Associate Dean, Barrett Honors College

Michael E. Smith, Professor, School of Human Evolution and Social Change
Director, Teotihuacan Research Laboratory
Affiliated Faculty, Biosocial Complexity Initiative
Affilated Faculty, Center for Social Dynamics and Complexity
Affiliated Faculty, School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning

Christopher Stojanowski, Associate Professor & Director, Undergraduate Studies, School of Human Evolution and Social Change
Associate Director, Center for Bioarchaeological Research

Other key school faculty

Bob Bolin, Professor, School of Human Evolution and Social Change
Senior Sustainability Scientist, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability

Hjorleifur Jonsson, Associate Professor, School of Human Evolution and Social Change