Craft Specialization & Social Complexity

Craft specialization, the regular provision of products and/or services for exchange, also known as economic specialization, is correlated with social complexity in extant societies as well as in the archeological record (Costin 2007; Clark and Parry 1990; Clark and Blake 1994; Arnold 1992). Archeologists often make inferences about the social organization, politics and economy of a settlement based on the material remains of specialized craft goods. Specialized craft production is when people make more of something they need for their household and dependents and exchange the their surplus production for something else. There is a relationship between the level of craft specialization and social complexity. They both appear to progress hand-in-hand. Archeologists have found that the more evidence of specialized craft production there is, the greater the size and social complexity of its society. However, there are competing theories on the nature of the relationship. What are the independent factors that drive the formation of socially complex societies? Does social complexity produce economic specialization, exchange networks and the production and consumption of prestige goods (Diamond 1999)? Or, do specialized production of goods and services, financed by elite patrons, serve to produce and maintain social complexity by financing elite control of resources and symbolically validating their elite status with prestige objects? Which comes first, the craft specialization or the social complexity?

In this paper I will review the relationship between craft specialization and social complexity according to recent archeological theory. But first I will define some terms.

“Craft Specialization”

Craft specialized production is the “regular, repeated provision of some commodity or service in exchange for some other” by a household, community, or social class (Costin 1991:3).  Craft specialized goods are used to diagnose the social complexity of a settlement in the archeological record (Costin 2007). Craft specialization is also known as “economic specialization” and is an attribute of ranked and stratified societies such as complex hunter-gather societies, chiefdoms and states (Diamond 1999). According to Clark and Parry’s cross-cultural analysis (1990), the greater the size of the community/polity, the more diversity in types of specialized crafts goods and services produced by the community as a whole.  Their conclusion was based on a review of craft specialization in a random sampling of 168 cultures profiled in the Human Relations Area Files (HRAF).

Social Complexity

There is “no precise operational definition for social inequality” according to Brian Hayden (Hayden 2007). A complex society is one with socioeconomic integration (specialization and economic interdependence) and social inequality. Political inequality of chiefdoms are said to have 2-3 hierarchal levels, a regional (multi-settlement) political paramountcy based at a central locus and an economy based on redistribution. States are said to have 3-4 or more hierarchal levels, at least one large nucleated settlement (city) and the centralized political dominance of a region (Yoffee 2008). Jean Arnold defines complex societies as those which exhibit the following minimum (e.g. “chiefdom”) characteristics:

  • Ascribed status differentiation (hereditary inequality)
  • Regional organization of the economy, an exchange network, with one or more levels above the household (craft specialization)
  • Large populations (2,000 or more)
  • Regional sociopolitical integration
  • Chiefs with the power to control the labor of their supporters
  • Semi-sedentary to sedentary settlement and population nucleation (Arnold 1992: 61)

Arnold distinquishes a socially complex chiefdom society from a simpler “Big Man” transegalitarian society or Complex Hunter-Gatherer society. Her model of social complexity does not include “complex chiefdoms” and state societies (Arnold 1992:62).

According to Morton Fried, features of socially complex societies include a locally abundant food source, an increase in population density, and a redistributive economy/exchange network according to Morton Fried (1967:111).  According to Earle, “The main defining characteristics of chiefdoms are scale of integration [economic specialization and inter-dependency], centrality of decision making, and stratification” (Earle 1987: 288). Social stratification is “measured in terms of  differential access to goods indicative of differential control over the economy” (Earle 1987: 290). The “centrality of decision making”   means a chiefdom type of centralized and hereditary leadership with an exchange network of  “tribute” to the leader and prestige goods and a re-distribution of surplus to followers.

Inferring Social Complexity from specialized craft goods

However, social complexity (also known as “social inequality,” “social stratification,” “ranked society” or “social hierarchy”) can be inferred by a archeologists by artifacts and features. In particular, social complexity can be inferred by the existence of material items that indicate significant differences in the control or ownership of property and wealth (Hayden 2007:233).  Goods produced by craft specialists are associated with hierarchical societies because the objects (or services) were produced for exchange (Costin 2007:274). Craft specialized objects indicate a hierarchal society with a diversity of interdependent social, political and economic relationships.

Specialized Craft Production

Much attention in archeology has been paid to the consumption and distribution (e.g. exchange networks) of craft specialized goods as markers of social complexity. However, some archeologists focus on studying specialized craft production because it easier to study “well”(Costin 1991). Specialized craft production is usually localized (unlike distribution and consumption) and craft production events usually leave more material evidence (unlike distribution) in the archeological record with tools, debris and production features (Costin 1991).  Specialized craft production can be described in either economic or political terms. Political terms: Independent to attached.

Archeologists investigate the relationship between specialized craft production and sociopolitical organization in three ways:

  1. Social Organization: Craft specialization’s role in creating and maintaining hierarchal societies (through finance from the sale of goods and services as well as the ideological legitimization of elite authority through conspicuous consumption)
  2. Political Economy: Craft specialization being the outcome of certain economic and political relationships (due to social structures and social processes)
  3. Ideology & Meaning: Craft specialized goods’ materialization of ideology and social/political relationships which “construct social relationships, communicate status, affiliation, power,” and which “mark differences between individuals” (Costin 2007:274)

Some features of craft specialized production:

  • The division of labor by other than age and gender (as in egalitarian societies)
  • The existence of households which are not solely self-sufficient (e.g. households which do not produce all the goods they consume)
  • Either independent or attached (elite-sponsored/patronized) craft specialization
  • There can be no attached craft specialization in egalitarian societies (Costin 1991)

It used to be believed that food surpluses made social complexity and craft specialization possible with the increased time for leisure and occupational specialization. This was until it was pointed out that many egalitarian societies with plentiful resources had plenty of leisure time but no craft specialization. More recently it has been shown that food surpluses did not produce social complexity and specialization per se but rather made those  things possible.  Social complexity, such as found in rank and chiefdom societies, are created and maintained by elites by using hypertrophic (high labor cost) prestige goods made by attached craft specialist as material markers to create and maintain social distinctions (Clark and Parry 1990).

Craft production has two primary characteristics: 

1. Degrees (High to Low): Ratio of consumers to producers

  • High Degree of Specialization: High number of consumers with a low number of producers; high social complexity, larger settlements
  • Low Degree of Specialization: Low number of consumers with an equal amount of producers; low social complexity, smaller settlements (Costin 1991)

2. Types (Independent and Attached): Elite control of production

  • Independent Craft Specialization:
    – Utilitarian goods for general distribution
    – Producer controls the distribution
    – No restrictions on consumption
  • Attached Craft Specialization:
    – Production sponsored by patron clients
    – Full-time production
    – Elites control distribution and consumption (Costin 1991:11)

Four factors of Production Organization

  1. Context of production: Elite control of production and distribution
  2. Concentration of production: Centralized and de-centralized
  3. Scale of production: Low: Household production; Medium: Individual workshops; High: Factory
  4. Intensity of production: Full-time or part-time (Costin 1991:11)

Earliest evidence of social complexity

There is no archeological evidence of social complexity during the first two million years of human history. For most of our history, humans have lived in small and mobile egalitarian bands. Evidence of social inequality doesn’t appear until the Middle Paleolithic (120 kya to 35 kya) in Mousterian deposits found in Europe (Hungary, France, Spain, etc), Near East (Qafzeh, Israel) and Northern Africa  (Hayden 2007:235).  These artifacts include elaborate Neanderthal burials decorated with flowers, prestige items (such as pyrites transported from long distances and elephant tusks), body ornaments of decorative and pierced seashells, pierced animal teeth and ocher (Hayden 2007:236).  The shift towards social inequality became significant around 30,000 years ago and widespread by 15,000 during the Upper Paleolithic period with the emergence of elaborate burials, higher population densities, special ritual areas in cavesand evidence of food surpluses, food storage and finely made prestige goods (such as 9000 ivory beads found in a burial in Sungir, Russia) which required technical skill, standardization of form, and hundreds of hours of labor (Hayden 2007:231-236). From the elaborate burials and prestige goods, one can infer private ownership of property and a social hierarchy.

Process of the emergence of social complexity

The shift towards social complexity is not tied to food production but to private ownership of resources (Hayden 2007:232). It is believed by some that process of social complexity occured as an unintended result of political dominance by ambitious individuals called “aggrandizers” who gathered surpluses to create dependency over their followers during a period of food scarcity. Aggrandizers gained control of surplus resources by limiting distribution and through reciprocal exchanges which indebted their followers. As a result, leaders offered what Elman Service called a “managerial benefit” to their followers by centrally controlling and distributing surplus resources more efficiently than there followers could get on their own.


Cited Sources

Arnold, Jean E. 1992 Complex Hunter-Gatherer-Fishers of Prehistoric California: Chiefs, Specialists, and Maritime Adaptations of the Channel Islands. American Antiquity 57(1):60-84.

Clark, John E. and William J. Parry 1990 Craft Specialization and Cultural Complexity. Research in Economic Anthropology 12: 289-346.

Clark, J. E. and Michael Blake 1994 The Power of Prestige: competitive generosity and the emergence of rank societies in lowland Mesoamerica. In Factional Competition and political development in the New World, edited by E. M. Brumfiel and J. W. Fox, pp. 17-30. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Costin, Cathy L. 1991 Craft Specialization: Issues in Defining, Documenting, and Explaining the Organization of Production Pp. 1-56 in Archaeological Method and Theory. Vol. 3. Ed. M.B. Schiffer. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Costin, Cathy L.1996 Craft Production and Mobilization Strategies in the Inka Empire Pp. 17-224 in Craft Specialization and Social Evolution: In Memory of V. Gordon Childe. Ed. Bernard Wailes. Philadelphia: The University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology University of Pennsylvania.

Costin, Cathy L. 2007  Craft Production Systems Pp. 273-327 in Archaeology  at the Millennium. Eds. Gary M. Feinman and T. Douglas Price. New York: Springer Science+Business Media, LLC.

Diamond, Jared 1999 Guns, Germs & Steel. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Fried, Morton H. 1967 The Evolution of Political Society: An Essay in Political Economy, New York: Random House, Inc.

Hayden, Brian 2007 Richman, Poorman, Beggarman, Chief: The Dynamics of Social Inequality. In Archaeology at the Millennium. Edited by Gary M. Feinman and T.Douglas Price, pp. 231-272. New York: Springer Science+Business Media, LLC.

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