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Emergence of Global Society: Introduction
Anthropology Faculty Publications
  • Alvin W. Wolfe
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Conference Proceeding
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This AAA symposium on the emergence of global society is a welcome expression of a revival of interest by anthropologists in issues of world-wide scale. For too long, anthropologists believed such matters to be the proper domain of economists and political scientists onlyThe emergence of global society is nothing less than the evolution of a new system at a higher level of integration. Julian Steward told us in 1951 that, in culture, simple forms, such as those represented by the family or band, do not wholly disappear when a more complex state of development is reached, but they gradually become modified as specialized dependent parts of new kinds of total configurations. Anthropologists have overemphasized the nation-state, treating it as if it were a fundamental component of the universe instead of merely one among many institutional products of cultural evolution. To understand the emergence of global society, we must understand evolution. Within a sociocultural system is a hierarchy of sub-systems each with some identity of its own. Although all sociocultural systems exhibit some degree of integration, the mode of integration of systems at different levels is not necessarily the same. The rules or principles that govern systems at different levels are different. In the physical sciences, the forces that govern the organization of nanoelements -- quarks, corpuscles, atoms – are different from those that govern macrocosms of satellite systems and galaxies. In the biological realm, also, are systems at different levels organized by different principles. -- from the colloidal aggregates to organisms, populations, ecosystems. Analogous to these other systemic hierarchies is the sociocultural hierarchy that diverges in another dimension from the organic hierarchy. We get from such meager beginnings as domestic groups and bands to an anticipated global society not by mere expansion, but by the emergence of new forms generated by the interaction among original elements. Global society and global culture will be a new synthesis using as its components modified forms of the subsystems that now exist.. Instead of assuming that a system is bounded and that every part is within that boundary, we must take the interdependence of components as problematic, so that system parts may be more or less autonomous and dependent with respect to the total configuration. The use of network models to analyze situations where groups are not well defined is another example of deliberate flexibility in our way of thinking. Even the concept "society" needs to be reconsidered, for all societies are much more open systems than earlier theories would have them. Newly developing mathematical approaches describe generative processes where a continuously changing factor has an abrupt novel effect. New methods of analysis help us to model, and hence to understand a variety of morphogenetic phenomena which appear to be qualitative leaps. In evolutionary terms, it holds promise of explaining how a new sociocultural system can emerge at a higher level of integration. The hierarchical arrangement improves the probability of the evolution of a still higher level of system. It remains an empirical question to discover how and to what degree the system or systems of global scale constrain or compel the behavior of constituent subsystems and institutional components such as nation-states, multinational corporations, cities, families, etc. I also argue that the decline of state power commensurate with the currently increasing activity of multinational corporations has increased the autonomy of some cities relative to the states wherein they are located.


“Emergence of Global Society” was presented as the introductory paper in a symposium on the Emergence of Global Society at the 78th Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Cincinnati, Ohio, on November 29, 1979.

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Alvin W. Wolfe. "Emergence of Global Society: Introduction" (1979)
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