11 Mar 2005 - 13 Mar 2005All dayThe McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research


Weekend Conference held at the McDonald Institute, University of Cambridge

Defining Social Complexity aimed to examine the theme of complexity and complex society and the way that these concepts are used in archaeology. We feel that the conference went extremely well and was a very rewarding experience. We would like to thank all of those who took part and contributed to the success of the debate.

Some of the conference papers are now available on this site, although access to them is password-restricted and limited to delegates. If you have a password, please follow the link to the left. If you do not have a password and wish to access the papers, please contact either Sheila or Stephanie to discuss the possibility of getting a password.

The organisation of this conference would not have been possible without the support of the McDonald Institute, and particularly Professor Graeme Barker, Dr Chris Scarre and Professor Colin Renfrew. We are extremely grateful for all of their help. In the Department of Archaeology, we would also like to thank Dr Simon Stoddart and the administrative team of Jane, Casey and Natasha. We are also indebted to CRASSH, who have funded some of our participants and, of course, our wine reception.

Our thanks also go to our speakers, and particularly to Professors Carole Crumley, Robert Chapman, Mats Widgren and Kristian Kristiansen, who have been wonderfully supportive even in the face of funding disappointments. We would also like to express our thanks to Professor Susan McIntosh who, despite being unable to attend, has been a source of great enthusiasm and inspiration. Finally, but by no means least, thanks are due to Carol, who fed us and provided caffeine to fuel the weekend and to Morag Kersel and Fraser Sturt for their organisational support.

Thank you.

Conference Aims

Complexity is a recurring theme in archaeology. Successive approaches have characterised complex societies as the apex of societal development – from Childe’s Urban Revolution (1936) to the social evolutionary stages of Fried (1967) and Service (1962). It is therefore not surprising that complex societies continue to be conceptualised in reified classificatory terms, particularly those of ‘state’ and ‘chiefdom’ (e.g. Earle 1991; Rowlands and Kristiansen 1998). Archaeology’s dependence on material culture forces the creation of generalised trait lists to be associated with each of these socio-political forms.

Complexity implies that a society integrates numerous differentiated parts into a cohesive whole. The forms that this can take – the types and uses of power, the expressions of solidarity or difference – are both varied and variously manifest in material culture.

Concepts such as heterarchy (Crumley 1987, 1995) or the segmentary state (Southall 1956) have provided new approaches and alternatives to the simplistic paradigm of hierarchy as the chief mechanism driving social integration. Furthermore, developments in the study of material culture, focusing on agency and the active constitution of meaning, have questioned ‘top down’ approaches and encouraged analysis at multiple nested levels (see examples in Dobres and Robb 2000). The debate broadens as archaeology is continually confronted by a material record poorly explained in evolutionary terms.

Defining Social Complexity will provide a forum for the reconceptualisation of the term complexity. Building upon recent critiques (Chapman 2003; McIntosh 1999) we examine alternative models of complexity and complex society. Specific significance is given to socio-political structures; the use and manipulation of power, past and present; and social structures as manifest through material culture.

We do not seek consensus, but recognise the innumerable choices made individually, communally and politically in the creation of the historically contingent phenomenon of complex society.

Defining Social Complexity is thus an attempt to examine:

• The re-invention of complexity: the lessons of history and the benefits of cross-disciplinary collaboration

• Complexity and power: issues of hierarchy and heterarchy in the creation of social inequalities and political organisation

• Complexity through material culture: the value of material culture in creating and signifying aspects of complexity

• An ever-expanding network – where does complexity fit in? Socio-economic relations and the development of complexity

• An 'emerging' archaeology of complexity: can we, do we, must we talk about the same things?

A registration fee will be applicable to cover the cost of refreshments. Space is also likely to be limited.

If you would like to be put on the mailing list for further announcements, or have an idea for a paper or theme, please contact Stephanie Wynne-Jones (saw33@cam.ac.uk) or Sheila Kohring (sek34@cam.ac.uk) by following this link.


Chapman, R. 2003. archaeologies of complexity. London: Routledge.

Childe, V.G. 1936. Man Makes Himself. London: Watts.

Crumley, C.L. 1987. A Dialectical Critique of Hierarchy, in T.C. Patterson and C.W. Gailey (eds.), Power relations and State Formation. Washington D.C.: American Anthropological Association, pp. 155-169.

Crumley, C.L. 1995. Heterarchy and the Analysis of Complex Societies, in R.M. Ehrenreich, C.L. Crumley and J.E. Levy (eds.), Heterarchy and the Analysis of Complex Societies. Arlington, VA: American Anthropological Association.

Dobres, M.-A. and J. Robb (eds.). 2000. Agency in Archaeology. London: Routledge.

Earle, T. 1991. Chiefdoms: Power, Economy and Ideology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fried, M.H. 1967. The Evolution of Political Society: an essay in political anthropology. New York: Random House.

McIntosh, S.K. 1999. Beyond Chiefdoms: pathways to complexity in Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rowlands, M. and K. Kristiansen (eds.). 1998. Social Transformations in Archaeology: Global and local perspectives. London: Routledge.

Service, E.R. 1962. Primitive Social Organization: an evolutionary perspective. New York: Random House.

Southall, A. 1956. Alur Society: A Study in Processes and Types of Domination. Cambridge: W. Heffer and Sons.


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