Author Archives: Ashley Martin

The Importance of Urbanization

Of all the primary characteristics that are attributed to the creation of a state I believe urbanization to be of chief importance. The rationale behind this decision is the agency urbanization plays in the transition between nomadic hunter-gather societies to those that are sedentary. Once a society has decided to become sedentary all other characteristics of a state may then proceed. It is through settlement that agriculture may ensue, which gives way to social stratification, which then leads to a complex economy, which then produces specialized occupations and activities. Although I do not believe that this relationship is definitively linear as I just previously stated, I do believe that there a progression in any order first occuring with urbanization. The basic premise of a civilization of that it is an adaptive response to a need, and therefore, progresses out of a decisive measure to transition from one way of life to another. In addition I assert that Marvin Harris’s model of cultural materialism supports to primacy of urbanization in progression from a band to a state. Bands begin as nomadic groups that are loosely associated with a territory. The next phase of complexity is a tribe. This society is composed of a group on bands. Here, one can see that a population is growing and is becoming increasingly inclined to a sedentary lifestyle. One of the chief caveats of urbanization is its population. As exemplified here the population is growing and its adaption is to reformulate its subsistence strategy, enter the beginning mark of agriculture. In the next phase of complexity is chiefdom. Population density is still continuing to expand which commands the need for an institution to coordinate the economic and social practices of the given community. As a result hierarchy enters into the society as an individual or elite group is required to administer such coordination. The last phase of Harris’s model concludes with a state. As this point the society has reached technological sophistication that allows for greater economic production, leading to greater economic gains, and thus also giving its citizens greater freedom of choice as activity levels increase and more occupations become available.


Although in this essay I have noted urbanization as the greatest influencer in the development of a state it is important to also note that each of the characteristics of a state of not mutually exclusive and therefore may not exist in their own right. Each of these characteristics are interrelated thus making distinctions difficult at times. It is also important to clarify that the progression of a state does not occur on any given trajectory where a clear-cut path may be determined. There are many factors that contribute to the building of state and as a result each state may take a different pathway to achieve their progress. Thinking unilaterally often gets those who employ this school of thought into trouble as to assert that there is are natural stages for societal progression. Moreover this is gives way to prejudice thinking where someone may discount the legitimacy of one society because they do not exhibit the complexities of another society.

Elite Control

A common theme woven into the religious fabric is this idea of an elite intermediary between the living and the divine. It is a practice that can be seen cross-culturally as well as spanning the continuum of time. Most presently in contemporary times we see this display in the Roman Catholic Church. It is the idea that a holy and pious priest intercedes on behalf on his parish to atone for the transgressions of many. However this is a practice that also dates back to early civilizations and may be chiefly exemplified in the ancient state of Mesoamerica, namely in San Jose Mogote at approximately 1300BC. At the time increasingly elaborate rituals were unifying a diversified population in the early highlands of Mesoamerica.  During this time the local rural population was servicing a powerful elite and in return the elite would provide retribution of iniquity to the gods.


This raises an interesting question regarding power dynamics and how it is promoted and reinforced through religious and ritualistic practices. I am especially curious in the rationale employed in needing an elite intermediary. Although I believe that this was an ingenious mechanism in place to maintain power and control I wonder how those in power justified this need to the masses.


One hypothesis I believe that supported this power structure was the perceived need for material to offer as sacrifice. In most cases in early ancient states it was essential to offer up material goods to the gods. This was done through many different avenues. It could be precious jewels or metals, opulent fabrics, livestock, the first yield of crops, or in some cases, human life. The wealthy are obviously the most viable and feasible population to provide these material goods. Therefore since they provided the sacrifice, they got to experience the divine contact. Another hypothesis is that the elite had more relational contact with the priests and religious officials. Hence, since they presided over this group the elites had more direct power in shaping the customs and practices of their given community. My last hypothesis is that religious practices were a highly guarded and protected cultural capital and was therefore maintained within the powerful circles. Accordingly, these groups were able to protect the construction of their religious practices.


Overall, religion is a very significant institution and in many cases considered very personal. Therefore it is logical that the community, particularly the elite, takes measures to preserve the integrity of this holy institution. Conversely, because it does exhibit a highly personalized nature it also makes sense that even those considered as part of the general population would have access to who or what they consider divine. Religion and ritual is something that is typically practiced on a daily basis and therefore needs continual performance and reinforcement. Due to the ongoing need to religion to be promoted throughout an individual’s lifetime rather than isolated incidents I would advocate against the position of needing an elite intermediary. Perhaps this is my Marxist thinking tendencies but I believe that in a small group of powerful individuals controlling the interactions with the divine they are also controlling the beliefs and practices at large of that community.

Sacred versus Profane

Through the course of human history it has been the role of culture to make the differentiation between the sacred and the profane. This notion has first popularized by sociologist Emile Durkheim in his work, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. He asserts that in order for something to be regarded as sacred it must be, “ superior in dignity and power…it is absolute” (41). Durkheim found it imperative to add the last distinguishing feature to aid against the tyranny of oversimplified qualifications limited by hierarchal order. In this way a stone, which in its own right may not be superior to man, may still be sacred because of the inherent value ascribed to it by a particular culture. Conversely, everything else is profane. As a result these two categories are fundamentally opposed, never to be reconciled as they are two worlds with nothing in common.


Although what is set apart as sacred and the “everything else” that constitutes the composite of the profane varies cross-culturally is should be the work of the anthropologist to explore what meanings, values, and processes give way to the transference from profane to sacred.  In a recent assigned reading surveying the economies of the Mesopotamian lowlands this distinction is exemplified in the excavated properties of Susa. Although this region is primarily characterized by egalitarianism this social structure still had marks of inequality. One of the primary indicators was a series of buildings that were recovered in the heart of the site. They was built upon a 10-meter platform and adorned with mosaic decorations that left it undoubtedly distinguished from the surrounding mundane architecture. Another important feature of these buildings were that they were uncharacteristically massive in size. Coupled with the platform from which it was built upon anthropologists have inferred that this structure was meant to be seen far and wide by its creators.


From the physical remains of Susa anthropologists have been able to piece together the alleged cultural fabric that composed to the everyday lives of the inhabitants. Due to the symbolic significance of the central location to these buildings suggests that religious life was of central importance to the people. Moreover the ostentatious adornment of these buildings shows the elevated status ascribed to these structures in comparison to the rest of the site. Thus it evinces the notion first introduced in this blog that there is an enduring distinction between the sacred and the profane.

Historical Materialism

As a student in sociology and anthropology I have been introduced to a wide array of prominent thinkers associated with each respective discipline. Throughout my various anthropology courses I have become acquainted with Franz Boas, Edward Burnett Tylor, Bronislaw Malinowski, Margaret Mead, and Clifford Geertz just to name a few. Within sociology my exposure has lent itself to Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Karl Marx, and W.E.B de Bois among many others. And although I have made some loose connections between my training in sociological thought and that of anthropology I have sadly attempted to keep the two disciplines as distinct entities. In one instance I put on my anthropological thinking cap while in other instances it seems more appropriate to engage my sociological imagination. However, as my studies continue I am gaining an increasing awareness of the great overlap that exists in anthropology and sociology. Of course, some of the methodologies and ideologies differ but one can find this same variation even within the disciplines itself.


A recent example I encountered was in my readings of the origins of archaeology. My investigation of this subfield of study is fairly recent, as I have always identified as a study of cultural anthropology and usually try to avoid stepping out of that arena. Nonetheless, it has become evident that in order to fully appreciate the holistic nature of anthropology one must also employ of holistic strategy of inquiry. Upon reading the patterns of prehistory, history, and archaeology I came across an excerpt on historical materialism, a theoretical framework of Karl Marx, and how it has contributed to the importance of archaeology and historical analysis. Initially, I was quite surprised to see that one of the founding fathers of sociology having a profound impact and something that was as seemingly unrelated as archaeology. I asked myself, where is the connection? Marx was mainly concerned the present social structures and their impact on future social structures. From my naïve and narrow view, due largely in part to the nascence of my study, archaeology was preoccupied of societies past. How could the study of material culture ever inform the highly politicized, and sometimes philosophical, theories of Marxian thought?


I quickly disabused that notion after continued reading to realize that there was an overwhelming vastness to which the material culture from archaeological sites could inform Marx’s theory of historical materialism. For the most part it coincides with the means of production. One of the main arguments provided by Marx is that “human history could be understood on the basis of an analysis of how society produces and distributes its wealth” (Wenke & Olszewski, 2007). Everything is able to be examined through technology, economy, and the environment of a given society and this is precisely was archaeologists are recovering at their excavation sites: houses, tools, pottery, jewelry, and weapons, all of which tell us something about the means of distribution as well as the means of production. Furthermore is also gives insight to the means of consumption and trade, which help to further inform the status of the local economy. From the gathering of material culture the intangibles of culture may thus be inferred and thus allowing for the connection between sociological thought and anthropological analysis.