What is cultural complexity?

In Anthropology, Vegvari on February 11, 2013 at 11:55 AM

Carolin Vegvari

Cultural anthropologists have long noted and described differences in the level of cultural complexity of different human groups. The first discussions about cultural systems and complexity were centred on a notion of linear progress from simple to more complex cultural systems considering modern Western cultures as the furthest advanced (see e.g. Tylor 1920). Although modern anthropologists have realised nowadays that this simplistic notion of cultural complexity discredits the adaptational value of some of the most long-lived cultural systems of human history, it is still the prevailing one in much of  the research on human cultural evolution today. To gain a less ideologically motivated and more analytically useful view of these concepts, we first have to define what we mean by “culture” and by “complexity”.

In the Encyclopedia of Evolution, Mitchell and Newman define a complex system as “a group or organization which is made up of many interacting parts”. If we then accept the definition of culture as socially transmitted information (Boyd & Richerson 2005), this means that the complexity of a cultural system lies somehow in the number of items of information that it contains and the number of interactions among these items. Depending on our interests, we may stress different typologies of information and different sets of interactions: cultural complexity becomes a “multidimensional variable”.

Without taking the analogy too far, a cultural system can be compared with the code base of a computer game. The code base of a game holds its rule set or informational content. A more complex game has a bigger code base, because more information needs to be stored for each possible decision-making point, game assets and interactions among subsystems and objects within the game. The more different agents or players there are in a game, the more different variables each agent owns, and the higher the number of possible interactions between them is, the more complex the code base will become. Equally, a more complex game-environment will increase the code base, because there are more possible interactions between the players and their environment. Similarly, human agents in cultural systems hold information about tool-use, knowledge about their biotic and abiotic environment and also about social interaction rules. All these items of information together constitute a cultural system and its complexity.

Obviously, the game code itself will be hidden from the human player (= observer), and only its effects will become apparent during the game. The same relationship applies to individual cultural traits, which we can define as individual pieces of cultural information, and the properties of cultural systems that we can observe. We may consider observable cultural properties and artefacts as the product of modular recipes of cultural traits (Mesoudi & O’Brien 2008). Therefore, when asking questions about cultural complexity, it is important to operationalise the concept, even if this means that we will lose some aspects of cultural complexity for the purpose of our analysis.

For example, we can look at the technological complexity of different cultural groups. Technology, as a prominent part of material culture, is relatively easy to observe. Measures of technological complexity vary, but mostly they take into account the number of different tool types and/or the number of distinct subunits of each type (the latter are also referred to as technounits, after Oswalt 1976). Thus, we can assess the number of different parts at different scales of a technological system and the number of functional interactions among these parts (in the case of technounits). Culture, however, is not restricted to technology or even material culture. The number of levels of social stratification and the degree of social heterogeneity both represent different aspects of cultural complexity (McGuire 1983). It may also be reflected in the number of different cultural roles which an individual can adopt within a community.

Once we have clarified what we mean by cultural complexity and what aspects of cultural complexity we are investigating, we can start asking more interesting questions, such as the following:

Why are some human cultures more complex than others? In what aspects are some human cultures more complex than others? How is complexity at the individual level (e.g. the number of cultural traits, rules and relationships held by individuals) related to the complexity at a higher collective level (e.g. the total set of cultural traits or rules in a population, the levels of social hierarchy, or the number or different relationships between individuals)? In how far is cultural complexity affected by chance effects, such as fluctuations in population size? And in how far is the amount of complexity found in a specific cultural community an adaptive response to social and environmental circumstances?





Boyd, R. & Richerson, P. 2005. The origin and evolution of cultures. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

McGuire, R. 1983. Breaking down cultural complexity: inequality and heterogeneity. Advances in Archaeological Method and Theory 6: 91-142.

Mesoudi, A. & O’Brien, M. J. 2008. The learning and transmission of hierarchical cultural recipies. Biological Theory 3: 63–72.

Mitchel, M. & Newman, M. 2002. Complex systems theory and evolution. In ed. Pagel, M. Encyclopedia of Evolution. Oxford University Press, New York.

Oswalt, W. H. 1976 An anthropological analysis of food-getting technology. Wiley, New York.

Tylor, E.B. 1920. Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Language, Art, and Custom. Murray, London.



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