HUMAN GROUPS IN HISTORY
Human beings have always functioned in groups. The most basic human group is the family, centered around the pairing of a male and female for the purpose of procreation and the raising of children. This pairing forms the nuclear family, which soon becomes linked to other pairs through a network of relationships between siblings through several generations, thus creating an extended family. This group is held together by a strong bond of cohesion referred to as kinship. While kinship is often thought of in relation to blood ties, what is more important is the common sense of identity by which all the individuals are bonded to the group. This sense of identity causes the individual's self-conception to be inseparable from the group. It is a bonding at an emotional and psychological level which is a powerful motivation usually enduring throughout the individual's life. His or her sense of well-being is intimately related to the integrity and status of the group. Betrayal of the group by an individual member is a most unpardonable sin, involving deep feelings of guilt, and the most severe punishments.
Kinship is, therefore, the most powerful of cohesive forces binding the human group together. It has played an essential role throughout human history in enabling human beings to function and, indeed, to survive. This is as true in the twentieth century as it was in prehistorical times. But it is not the only type of group cohesion. It exists in conjunction with other cohesive forms, and some groups are held together without kinship. It is
important to realize, however, that groups which lack the kinship bond will not cohere as well, nor are they as likely to endure.
Behavioral expectations within the group are defined by the culture; norms and roles are established over time, usually in response to needs, and challenges of the environment. Tradition and practice strengthen these expectations, religion sanctifies them, and law codifies them. Institutions develop to enforce them. These are all necessary functional responses to the need for the group to operate efficiently. Over time, however,
circumstances will change so that the religious, legal, and institutional responses may no longer be functional. It becomes necessary then for the behavioral expectations to be modified, and new emphases be placed in response to the changing situation. This always creates a friction with old expectations and traditional institutions. Much of the conflict in human history revolves about this process of change. In any case, the religion, the law, and the institutions which develop, themselves become cohesive forces holding the
group together, and even make it possible for types of groups to form which lack the kinship bond.
In prehistoric times, the human groups, the clan and the tribe, developed. The clan was clearly bound together by kinship because it was based upon an extended family whose blood relationships were still identifiable. The tribe, however, is too large a group to be able to maintain blood ties. Nevertheless, the sense of identity involved in kinship, and usually reinforced by religion, provides a powerful cohesion in the tribe. Tribes have, therefore, endured for many millenniums; and the tribal form continues to be found in remote areas of the world where the pervasive effects of modern civilization have not fully reached.
It is at the beginning of the historical era, around 4000 B.C., that environmental opportunities and challenges led to the formation of a human groups which were too large for kinship to be involved. The cohesion had to be provided by other means. The locale for the development of these larger groups was in the river valleys of the Middle East, China, and India. Groups of comparable development were organized in Central America and inthe Andes Mountains of South America in the first millennium A.D. A similar development occurred in Southeast Asia around the 13th century A.D.
River valleys and favorable climate provided abundant sources of water which were the basis for agriculture. At the same time, in order to effectively harness the waters; irrigation, terracing, and political control over large areas and involving great numbers of people, were necessary. The effort to meet this challenge, combined with improving agricultural technology and an increase in the surplus of wealth led to the formation of larger groups. These groups were not only too large to be related by kinship, but they were subdivided into socio-economic classes, which further separated people from each other. A heirarchy of authority, based upon class, evolved according to the need for rulers, for religious leaders, for military leaders, and for peasant workers. It was difficult for a sense of kinship to cross class boundaries. Yet, these human societies are referred to as the first civilizations. Some of them produced the first written languages, and hence marked
the beginning of recorded history. And they developed the first cities.
Although these civilizations could not be held together through kinship, other forms of cohesion were effective. Religion, law, and military power were the forms of cohesion which created and held together these new and larger groups, the empires. It was military power which, in many cases, led one community to conquer another and to eventually build an empire. The ruler of the empire maintained his power over the empire by becoming identified with a god or gods and being held in awe and reverence by peasant farmers who never saw and never knew anything about the realities of their ruler. The ruler was often the foremost military leader, or religious leader, or both. The priesthood and the military leadership were privileged groups whose status and wealth depended upon their continued loyalty towards the ruler. The peasants, working and struggling to maintain a minimum subsistance, were almost all illiterate and unaware of anything beyond their own immediate life circumstances. They looked up to the priesthood who provided them with the only explanations about the mysteries of their existence, and encouraged them to accept their status as the only possibility open to them. They could not identify with the god-ruler who was so far above them, but they could and did worship him.
A society as large in area and population as an empire could not ensure order and cooperative behavior among its subjects through social pressure and cultural mores as was possible among clans and tribes. Nor could military power be reliably effective because soldiers cannot be everywhere all the time. Religion might establish certain behavioral objectives and encourage their observance, but this, too, was not adequate.
Furthermore, to the extent that expectations put upon the people were unjust or very demanding, there would likely be popular resistance. In fact, circumstances beyond the control of the ruling classes, might eventually arise which would cause popular resentment and rebellion. Among a peasant population which was uneducated and disorganized, uprisings usually took the form of riots in response to intolerable circumstances, and usually these were put down through brutal military retaliation. This sort of activity might recur periodically for centuries without noticeable result, but it is a symptom of the inadequacy of the empire to provide justice, stability, and order. To the extent that a code of laws could be devised and efficiently enforced throughout the empire, the more likely would the empire endure and prosper.
Therefore, in conclusion, the cohesive elements which have held empires together have been a combination of religion, the military, and law. The history of the empires of the Middle East has been a story of conquest, consolidation and expansion followed by disintegration. Migration of people from outside the empire, occasionally punctuated by invasion by organized tribes inexorably expanded the boundaries of civilization as empires rose and fell and rose again.
When invaders penetrated and plundered the civilized area, they were ususally absorbed into the more advanced culture and new, usually larger empires were created out of the ruins of the old. Hence, Sumerian and Egyptian Empires were replaced by Assyrian, Persian, and Greco-Macedonian Empires, each larger than their predecessors and contributing to an ever-larger area of civilization. Alexander's empire was created by twelve years of conquest, but fell apart into four kngdoms upon his death. Far more important than the conquest, was the diffusion of culture between the people of various ethnicities and cultures extending from the eastern Mediterranean to the gates of India.
The process of expansion continued with the development of the Roman Empire, though the eastern fringes of the civilized area were never under Roman domination. Similar expansion occurred in China and India. As they expanded, there was increasing contact and trade between them. The civilized world was extending across Eurasia.
Political stability and imperial control rose and fell in cycles, but the boundaries of the civilized world continued to grow as the process of human migration and invasion continued. After the fall of the Roman empire, a new configuration arose in the west, involving Islam, the Byzantine Empire, and the beginnings of western European civilization. Although the political unity of Rome was gone, the civilized culture encompassed a larger area than Rome had ever controlled.
The periods of political stability, during which trade and other contacts grew, were interrupted by interludes of disorienting invasions and migrations. The incessant migration of people from central Asia westward into the Middle East and Europe put pressure on the established political and cultural status quo, and compelled change.
In Russia, you have an interesting example of a region and a people who were in a border land between European and Asian influences. In the 11th century, Scandinavians introduced Greek Orthodox religion to the Russian people, exposing them to Christianity and to western influence. In the 14th century, the Mongolian invasion and the reduction of Russia to a tributary state of the Mongolian Empire, introduced the Asian influence. Two centuries after the retreat of the Mongolians, Russian Tsars, Peter and Catherine the Great, reintroduced Russia into Europe. Russia is a part of European civilization, yet it remains separate from Europe in significant ways.
Turkish people, first the Seljuks and then the Ottomans, arrived in the Middle East and in the eastern Mediterranean, disrupted the overland trade routes between Europe and Asia, conquered the Byzantine Empire, threatened eastern Europe, and motivated a re-direction of European energies. The severing of overland links to Asia came at a time when western Europeans had developed sufficent political coherence and technological competence to be able to challenge the great oceanic barriers to further expansion.
Thus began the final stage, by which humanity reached out across the world and brought the human cultures of every continent into contact with each other.
From the beginning of this process, humanity was divided into separate and distinct groups, each familiar and comfortable within their respective cultures, but each wary and distrustful of other, different groups. Wherever, a sense of kinship among the individual members of a group existed, there was usually cooperation, respect, and peace. Kinship depended upon sharing a common heritage and experience, and it depended upon good communication among the individual members of the group.
If we relate this human condition to the three economic eras discussed in the Modernization essay, it becomes clear that the nature of the group changed dramatically within each era.
In the hunting and gathering era, human groups were necessarily small, usually having face-to-face contact with each individual. The community, therefore, was a family, a clan, or a tribe. Cohesion between individuals was through kinship.
In the agricultural era, the economy could support much larger communities which lacked face-to-face contacts. The population that could be sustained was much greater and the geographic spread of the community was such that kinship could not provide the necessary cohesion. The agricultural economy produced a surplus, which allowed specialization and trade to develop. Some specialists, such as craftsmen and merchants, contributed to a more efficient production and added to the surplus. Other specialists, such as rulers, priests and soldiers, were needed to organize and protect the larger community. The human group that evolved from these circumstances was the empire. The empire always had a class structure based on wealth and power. At the top of the class hierarchy was a ruler surrounded by a ruling elite. The ruling elite shared status and privilege, and within their subgroup, felt a sense identity based on kinship. Hence, a particular tribe or polis was at the core of an empire.
In the industrial era, the production of a surplus, and the degree of specialization and trade grew at an accelerating rate. The specialties, which required literacy and which introduced written languages during the agricultural era, became widespread as well as increasing in variation as industry developed. The degree of literacy and the value and spread of education expanded accordingly. In addition, the acquisition of scientific knowledge led to new technology. The expansion of literacy and education, and the development of vastly improved means of transportation and communication had an enormous impact on the nature of human groups.
The empire had always depended upon a lack of awareness of illiterate and uneducated farmers living in rural villages, widely separated from one another and distant from the rulers who resided in the agricultural cities. As population multiplied in the industrial era and migration to cities, where employment in innumerable specialized activities and access to educational opportunites abounded, the level of political awareness increased. The middle class, which had been created in the agricultural era because of the need for merchants and crafstmen began, in the industrial era, a steady and inexorable expansion.
In a situation in which the principle of inheritance had been the accepted cultural requirement which legitimized the ruling class, the middle class were denied access to political power. Such a circumstance could not endure in the face of the growing size and economic importance of the middle class. Driven by the irresistible forces of economic change, the old regime, based on inheritance and family dynasties, had to give way. The change did not occur without resistance from the ruling groups. The struggle between the status quo and the forces of change took the form of liberal political revolutions, which challenged the principle of inheritance and asserted the principle of elections. Elections permitted the ascendancy of the middle class to power; a process that gradually extended itself as the industrial revolution continued. In theory, all of the people had access to power. The people were, as it was said, sovereign. In reality, the only people who were sovereign were a new industrial elite, who had the right to vote based on wealth and property. However, the claim that the people were sovereign, and the increasing education and level of awareness of people, created expectations and set in motion a process that would fundamentally change the dynamics of political power.
It would also alter the nature and organization and power relationships of human groups. In the agriculture era, family dynasties ruled and inheritance legitimized the rule. In the industrial era that practice and principle was challenged and gradually overthrown. The role of the family, though remaining nuclear in its essential form and continuing the essential function of nurturing the next generation, would lose its importance as the conveyor of political power. In its place would arise a new group made possible by industrialization.
That new group was the nation, an outgrowth of the growing awareness of literate people about their political status, and born in the midst of the liberal revolutions that mark the political history of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. Expanded literacy and education and improved communication and transportation among increasingly urban populations made it possible for millions of people to share a common vision as a large community bound together by a sense of kinship. Nations grew to become the essential organ of the industrial world while empires, based as they are upon family dynasties and dependent upon the rule of the few over the many, were mortally endangered. These factors have largely determined the course of history. The cultural boundaries of civilization are now the entire globe, while the size of the human group has achieved national proportions. This is a record of human development yet unfinished.