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Social Organization - The Elements of Living in Groups

How Human Societies Organize Themselves


Wedding Cakes

Wedding Cakes

Jon Schulte / Photographer's Choice / Getty Images
President Roosevelt, with Alice Roosevelt-Longworth and Hon. Nicholas Longworth in bridal array

President Roosevelt, with Alice Roosevelt-Longworth and Hon. Nicholas Longworth in bridal array

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

The study of social organization in anthropology was an outgrowth of the social evolutionism movement of the nineteenth century. While its power as a tool for understanding groups is somewhat in debate--for one thing, social organizations can be reconfigured by a community when circumstances require it, and for another its difficult for one culture to let go of our own preconceptions about such things--anthropologists and archaeologists still attempt to define the elements in evidence for each site and cultural group they investigate.

Some Social Organizational Basics

So what are the elements of social organization? A constructed social organization map of a group documents how people interact, including but not limited to the kinship structure they use, the patterns of residency after they marry, how they divide up the various tasks that need to be completed, who has access to specific goods and knowledge, and what ranking strategy is being used.

  • Kinship systems are how a group defines how people are related. Mother, father, parent and child are fairly universal roles, but such things as lines of descent (who inherits leadership of the family/clan), and consanguinity (how you define "blood relationships", including who in your family is too close to marry and who isn't) vary considerably across ancient and modern social groups.
  • Marriage Residency Patterns (or post-marital residence patterns) refers to where a couple lives after they are married: is it with the husband's family (called patrilocal) or with the wife's family (matrilocal) or neither (neolocal).
  • Division of Labor is a reference to how work roles are divided between the sexes and classes of a society: are there jobs that are defined specifically for women or men in the society, or for specific families? Is cooking only for men, or religious specialists or other leadership roles only come from certain families?
  • Ranking Strategies refers to the way a society defines its class structure. Are there elites, do certain groups of people have more power or more access to luxury goods than others? Who makes the decisions in the group: is that an inherited leader or must leadership be earned?

Change and Social Organization

Social organizations are not static: they can't be. Change in the fabric of a community can result from disruption or transformation brought about by a number of things, including depopulation through epidemics or wars, or political movements like proletarianization or capitalism, or resource depletion caused by overuse or climate change. Changes can be imposed from exterior sources (like colonization) or evolved from within (like revolution).

Social responses to things like climate change or natural disasters or epidemic diseases could involve redefining who is in your family, or where you live, or who has the skills necessary to lead in the disrupted state, as groups try to cope with the fallout.


Anthropologists study social organization at a point in time, when they visit a community. Archaeologists, on the other hand, study a society after it has ended, and so archaeologists must study the palimpsest of social organization: the ruins of a community contains the entire set of changes over time. And since we've already seen how societies change over time, it's tricky.

Archaeologists look for clues to the changing or static social organization of the people who occupied a particular site by looking for at historical documentation, concentrations of artifacts in a site, settlement patterns, grave goods, stable isotope and DNA analysis and lots of other considerations.

  • Historical documentation, whether in the form of census data, grave markers, stele, inscriptions, family histories, genealogical charts or royal records are among the most useful tools.
  • Artifact concentrations refers to where certain groups of artifacts appear: are there workshops clustered in one part of town; are luxury items restricted to just a few houses; are certain kinds of tools buried with a particular gender?
  • Settlement patterns refers to the layouts of communities and their locations within the environment. Is there evidence that related clan members lived together in enclaves? Are storage pits in locations where the community could share them, or are they at the household level?
  • Grave goods are particularly useful, because they are thought to represent the characteristics of the buried individual, at least those perceived by her community. Are there differences between the grave rituals according to sex, or age? Are there clusters of tools buried with certain people and not with others?
  • Stable isotope analysis of human skeletons can provide dietary information: are there differences in access to luxury dietary foods?
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