Glossary of Terms


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- A -

acephalous click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced society
a society in which political power is diffused to the degree that they lack institutionalized political leadership roles such as chiefs and kings.  Bands and tribes are acephalous.  Most foragers and simple horticulturalists have highly egalitarian, acephalous societies.  The word "acephalous" is Greek for "without a head."
age grades
age-based categories of people recognized by a culture.  In North America, for example, we generally label people as children, teenagers, adults, middle aged, and elderly or senior citizens.  See age sets.
age sets
age grades that are clearly recognized in a culture as distinct identifiable groups of people.  They consist of people of similar age and usually of the same gender who share a common identity and maintain close ties throughout their lives.  They also pass through age-related statuses together as a group.  The transition between these statuses is usually marked by a rite of passage.
anti-miscegenation click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced laws
laws prohibiting sexual intercourse and marriage between people of different "races".
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band  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
the level of political integration in which a society consists only of an association of families living together.  Bands are loosely allied by marriage, descent, friendship, and common interest.  The primary integrating mechanism is kinship ties.  There is no economic class differentiation.  All adults of the same gender are more or less equal as far as community decision making is concerned.  However, some individuals in a band may stand out for their skills and knowledge.  These often are the people who have the best memories, are the best hunters, most successful curers, most gifted speakers, etc.  Such people become informal leaders.  Most often they are given authority by community consensus arrived at through casual discussion without the need for a formal vote.  Leaders generally have temporary political power at best, and they do not have any significant authority relative to other adults within their band.  Subsequently, bands are essentially acephalous societies.  The total number of people within these societies rarely exceeds a few dozen.  Bands are found among foraging societies.
bureaucracy  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
an administrative system that divides governing tasks into specific categories carried out by different individuals and/or departments.  Members of a bureaucracy are referred to as bureaucrats. 
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chiefdom  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
the level of political integration in which a society has a more or less permanent political leader (chief or "big man") but no bureaucracy of professional administrators.  The chief provides direction and authority for the society as a whole.  Sometimes there is an advisory council as well.  In a few of the more complex chiefdoms in Africa, there are paramount chiefs and lesser chiefs who perform some administrative functions.  Chiefs and their families generally have a higher standard of living than ordinary people within their society.  This is especially true in African and Hawaiian chiefdoms.  What makes this possible is that chiefs usually perform a society wide economic redistribution function that is cloaked in the guise of ritual gift giving.  This essentially siphons off surplus agricultural products from farmers and then redistributes them throughout the society.  In the process, a small amount is held back in order to support the chief's somewhat more lavish life style.  The ritualized redistribution of surplus food and other commodities in chiefdoms is, in a sense, the rudimentary beginnings of a taxation system.  It is tolerated by people because of the economic advantages that it can provide in addition to social stability.  The larger territorial size of chiefdoms often encompasses diverse environmental zones with somewhat different products.  The redistribution of agricultural surpluses can serve as a method of providing greater food variety for the populace as a whole.  Chiefdoms commonly have a population of tens of thousands of farmers.  The large population size generally means that the people have less in common than do those in the smaller societies of bands and tribes.  Disputes inevitably arise that cannot be settled by informal means based on kinship and friendship.  A chief usually functions as an arbitrator and judge in these cases.
common law
a law that has evolved over time and is part of the cultural tradition rather than being created by enactment in legislatures or by rulers.  In large-scale societies, many laws derive from old common laws but are now formalized by being written down in penal codes.  Virtually all laws in small-scale societies are unwritten common laws.   
a deviation from the social norm that is of such magnitude as to go beyond what would be considered bad manners or odd behavior.  Societies respond to such exceptionally deviant actions by creating laws to curb and sometimes punish them.  There is no universal agreement between the societies of the world about what constitutes criminal behavior or how it should be dealt with.  Sufficient ethnographic data have been collected over the last century to show that societies with different kinds of economies have radically different sorts of laws and legal concerns.  See tort.
culture  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
the full range of learned behavior patterns acquired by people in the process of growing up in a society.  Culture includes the knowledge, beliefs, customs, language, and practices acquired through learning.  
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- D -

descent  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
socially recognized links between ancestors and descendents, such as the bond between children and their parents.
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 eminent domain  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
the right of a government to take legal possession of private property for public use.  In most Western countries, the property owner is financially compensated for the loss based on what is considered to be fair market value.  An example of eminent domain is a government taking someone's house and land in order to build a road through the property.
ethnography  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
anthropological research in which one learns about the culture of another society through fieldwork and first hand observation in that society.  Ethnography is also the term used to refer to books or monographs describing what was learned about the culture of that society.
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feuding  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
prolonged hostility and occasional fighting between individuals and their supporters.  It is a universal form of aggression that mostly occurs between members of the same society, though it can occur between people from separate societies as well.  It is caused by a desire for revenge for a perceived prior wrong.  Usually, both sides in feuds believe that they have been wronged and seek to settle the score.  Inherent in feuds is a failure in communication between the feuding parties and the belief that there needs to be "an eye for an eye."  Without adequate retribution, there is minimally a loss of face for the families involved.
fictive kinship  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
a socially recognized link between individuals created as an expedient for dealing with special circumstances, such as the bond between a godmother and her godchild.  Fictive kinship bonds are based on friendship and other personal relationships rather than marriage and descent.
foragers  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
people who live in more or less isolated, small societies and obtain their food by foraging wild plants and hunting wild animals.  Foragers generally have a passive dependence on what the environment contains.  They do not plant crops and the only domesticated animals that they usually have are dogs.  Most foraging societies do not establish permanent settlements.  Rather, they have relatively temporary encampments with tents or other easily constructed dwellings.  The length of time that they stay in any one location is largely determined by the availability of resources.  Foragers are also referred to as hunters and gatherers.
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herbivorous  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
eating only vegetable foods.  Animals that have this sort of diet are herbivores or vegetarians.
horticulturalists  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
people who obtain most of their food by low intensity farming.   This subsistence pattern involves at least part time planting and tending of domesticated food plants.  Pigs, chickens, or other relatively small domesticated animals are often raised for food and prestige.  Many horticultural societies supplement their farming subsistence base with occasional hunting and gathering of wild plants and animals. They usually practice slash and burn field clearing methods and do not add additional fertilizer or irrigate.  Multi-cropping is common.  They often have a partial reliance on foraging for wild foods.  Their societies are usually larger and more sedentary than those of foragers but still are at a low technological level and relatively small-scale.
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informal negative sanction
an "unofficial", non-governmental punishment for violations of social norms.  Informal negative sanctions usually are in the form of gossip, public ridicule, social ostracism, insults, or even threats of physical harm by other members of the community.   See negative sanction and positive sanction.
inner directed personality
a personality that is guilt oriented.  The behavior of individuals with this sort of personality is strongly controlled by their conscience.  As a result, there is little need for police to make sure that they obey the law.  These individuals monitor themselves.  The inner-directed personality is one of the modal personality types identified by David Riesman in the early 1950's.
intensive agriculture  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
a subsistence pattern characterized by full-time farming in which large beasts of burden or highly mechanized farm equipment (e.g., rototillers and tractors) are used to prepare the land for planting and later to harvest crops.  Intensive agriculture usually involves the use of irrigation or other forms of water management.  Often there is mono-cropping with heavy applications of fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides.  This form of agriculture is highly productive but generally capital intensive.
internalization of the moral code
the situation in which people accept society’s moral code and do not need police or other external means of social control to get them to follow it.  They feel guilty if they do something “wrong” and punish themselves or turn themselves in for punishment.
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kinship  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
culturally defined relationships between individuals who are commonly thought of as having family ties.  Kinship is based on marriage, descent, and, occasionally, fictive relationships as well.
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large-scale society
generally a society with cities, industry, intensive agriculture, and a complex international economy.  Such societies have socio-economic classes and a government with hierarchies of officials.  The importance of kinship is diminished in comparison to the common pattern of small-scale societies.
a society's rules of conduct that are usually based on social norms and generally recognized by its members as binding or enforceable.  See common law.
levels of political integration
a term referring to general types of political systems used to organize and manage societies.  As a society's population size and territory grow, it must develop new political solutions to keep from splitting apart.  In the 1950's, the American Anthropologist, Elman Service described four levels of political integration that have have been used around the world to solve this problem--the band, the tribe, the chiefdom, and the state.  While there are some unique cultural variations of each of these levels, they are remarkably similar from one society to another.  Subsequently, classifying a society in terms of its level of political integration has proven to be a useful tool in comprehending the wide range of human cultures and societies from small foraging communities to modern nation states. 
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- M -

modal personality  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
the most common personality type within a society.  In reality, there is usually a range of normal personality types within a society.  See inner-directed personality, other-directed personality, and tradition-oriented personality.
mono-cropping  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
planting a crop of only one species in a farm field.  This is a common practice with intensive agriculture.  While this can be a highly efficient farming strategy, it results in crops that are more susceptible to being wiped out by insects and other parasites.  Mono-cropping is also known as "mono-culture".  See multi-cropping.
multi-cropping  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
planting a farm field with more than one species.  This is a common practice among horticulturalists.  Multi-cropping reduces the chances of total crop failure due to insects and other parasites.  However, it is far more labor intensive to plant, tend, and harvest.  See mono-cropping.
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- N - 

negative sanction  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
a punishment for violations of social norms.  In large-scale societies, formal negative sanctions usually take the form of fines or prison sentences.  In small-scale societies, informal negative sanction are more commonly used against those whose behavior is unacceptable.   See positive sanction.
norms  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
the conceptions of appropriate and expected behavior that are held by most members of the society.  Norms are also referred to as "social norms."
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other directed personality
a personality that is shame oriented.  People with this type of personality have ambiguous feelings about right and wrong.  When they deviate from a societal norm, they usually don't feel guilty.  However, if they are caught in the act or exposed publicly, they are likely to feel shame.  The other directed personality is one of the modal personality types identified by David Riesman in the early 1950's.  See inner directed personality and tradition  oriented personality.
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pantribal association
groups that cross-cut a tribal society by bringing together a limited number of people, typically at least one from each family.  Pantribal associations often are in the form of councils, groups of elder men or women who are members of the same age set, secret societies, warrior societies, or religious cults.  While these groups have specific purposes, they also serve to create a sense of unity for a tribe.
pastoralists  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
people who make their living by tending herds of large animals.  The species of animals vary with the region of the world, but they are all domesticated herbivores that normally live in herds and eat grasses or other abundant plant foods (e.g., cattle, horses, sheep, reindeer).  Traditional pastoralists are essentially subsistence herders who form small-scale societies.  There are essentially two forms of pastoralism--nomadism and transhumance.
pastoral nomadism  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
traditional pastoralists who follow a seasonal migratory pattern that can vary from year to year.  The timing and destinations of migrations are determined primarily by the needs of the herd animals for water and fodder.  These nomadic societies do not create permanent settlements, but rather they live in tents or other relatively easily constructed dwellings the year round.  Pastoralist nomads are usually self-sufficient in terms of food and most other necessities.  See transhumance.
pedestrian click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced foragers
people whose subsistence pattern involves diversified hunting and gathering on foot rather than horseback.  The pedestrian hunting and gathering way of life was mobile.  Most of these societies moved their camps several times a year and had temporary dwellings.  The number of people living in a camp also often varied throughout the year depending on the local food supply.  Material possessions were generally few and light in weight so that they could be transported easily.  Subsistence tools included such things as simple digging sticks, baskets, spears, and bows and arrows that could be easily replaced when needed.  This settlement flexibility is an efficient way of responding to changing environmental opportunities.  See foragers.
positive sanction  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
a reward for appropriate or admirable behavior that conforms with the social norms.  Common positive sanctions include praise and granting honors or awards.   See negative sanction.
potlatch  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
a complex redistributive system that existed among some of the Indian cultures of the Northwest Coast of North America.  This was a complex system of competitive feasting, speechmaking, and gift giving intended in part to enhance the status of the giver.  For the Kwakiutl click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced society, potlatches were important social gatherings held to celebrate major life events such as a son's marriage, the birth of a child, a daughter's first menses, and the initiation of a sister's son into a secret society.  They also were used to assert or transfer ownership of economic and ceremonial privileges.  It sometimes took years to accumulate the things needed for a big potlatch.  Loans (with interest) had to be called in from relatives for this purpose.  When all was ready, high ranking, influential people from the local and other communities were invited for several days of feasting and entertaining.  Guests were seated according to their relative status.  The host made speeches and dramatically gave gifts of food, Hudson Bay Company blankets, canoes, slaves, rare copper artifacts, and other valuable items to the guests.  Those of higher status received more.  The host was likely to also destroy money, waste fish oil by throwing it on a fire, and do other things to show that he was willing to economically bankrupt himself in order to increase his social status.  The acceptance of the gifts was an affirmation of the host's generosity and subsequently of his increased status.  The feast and the gifts essentially placed the guests in debt to their host until they could at some future time invite him to their own potlatch and give him more than he gave them--in essence a return on an investment.  The potlatch served as a tool for one-upmanship for important Kwakiutl men.
proprietary deed  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
the concept of ownership in which an owner of property has the right to keep it whether or not it is being used or actively possessed.  For instance, an individual may own several houses or land and never use them.  In addition, the owner has the right to pass the property on to descendents or to others chosen by the owner.  In fact, ownership is not always absolute in large-scale societies today.  In the United States, for instance, ownership may be forfeited to the government under certain circumstances (e.g., eminent domain, failure to pay taxes, or use in the commission of a felony).  See usufruct.
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surprise predatory attacks directed against other communities or societies.  The primary objective of raiding usually is to plunder and then to escape unharmed with the stolen goods.  In some societies, the goal is also to kill men in the target community as well as kidnap women and children.  Raiders are virtually always men.  Raiding is a more organized form of aggression than feuding.  Violent encounters are often the result of opportunistic meetings in the case of feuding.  In contrast, raids are planned in advance.  Another difference is that raids occur in a finite time period.  They are rarely sustained activities like feuds.
reasonable man standard of law
the idea that legal judgments should be made based on what would be acceptable to a reasonable man in the society.  Jury systems in the Western World are based on this assumption.
reciprocity  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced    (or reciprocal exchange)
a relationship between people that involves a mutual exchange of gifts of goods, services, or favors.  Inherent in reciprocal gift giving is the obligation to return a gift in a culturally appropriate manner.  Failure to do so is likely to end the reciprocal relationship.   Reciprocity requires adequacy of response but not necessarily mathematical equality. Reciprocity is a common way of creating and continuing bonds between people.
redistribution  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced    (or redistributive exchange)
an economic exchange intended to distribute a society's wealth in a different way than exists at present.  In the Western World, charity and progressive income tax systems are examples of redistributive exchanges.  Progressive income taxes are intended to make people with greater wealth give at higher rates than those at the bottom of the economic ladder.  Some of the tax money is then allocated to help the poorer members of society.  The intended net effect is to reduce or prevent extremes of wealth and poverty.  Some of the most elaborate redistributive systems have been in small-scale societies with non-market economies (e.g., potlatch).
role  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
the part a society expects an individual to play in a given status (e.g., child, wife, mother, aunt, grandmother).  Social group membership gives us a set of role tags to allow people to know what to expect from each other.
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shifting agriculture  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
the horticultural practice of shifting from one field to another when crop production drops due to the inevitable depletion of soil nutrients.  Shifting agriculture is also referred to as "swidden cultivation" click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced.
small-scale society
generally a society of a few dozen to several thousand people who live by foraging wild foods, herding domesticated animals, or non-intensive horticulture on the village level.  Such societies lack cities as well as complex economies and governments.  Kinship relationships are usually highly important in comparison to the common pattern of large-scale societies.
socialization  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
the general process of acquiring culture as you grow up in a society.  During socialization, children learn the language of the culture as well as the roles they are to play in life.  In addition, they learn about the occupational roles that their society allows them.  They also learn and usually adopt their culture's norms through the socialization process.
social norms
see norms.
state  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
the level of political integration in which a society has a permanent, highly centralized political organization with an elite social class of rulers at the top.  The bulk of the people are at the bottom of the pyramid of power.  Between them and the rulers is a bureaucracy of officials who run the state on a daily basis.  States with hereditary rulers first appeared 4000-5000 years ago in intensive agricultural societies of 10's to 100's of thousands of people.  These were the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia (Iraq), India, China, Mesoamerica, and the Andean mountain region of Western South America.  Modern nations also have state levels of political organization, but rulers are generally elected now.
status  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
the relative social position of an individual.  For instance, student, teacher, child, and parent are easily identifiable statuses in most cultures.  Each of us has a number of different statuses.  We usually acquire new ones and lose old ones as we go through life.  See role.
subsistence base  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
the main sources of food used by a society.  The term "subsistence base" is often used interchangeably with subsistence pattern.
subsistence pattern  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
the methods a society uses to obtain its food and other necessities (e.g., foraging, pastoralism, horticulture, and intensive agriculture).  The term "subsistence pattern" is often used interchangeably with subsistence base.
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tort  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
a crime against individuals or their property rather than against the society as a whole.  In modern Western societies, torts are settled in civil cases rather than criminal ones.  Torts include any damage or injury done willfully or negligently that harms another individual.  See crime.
tradition-oriented personality
a personality that has a strong emphasis on doing things the same way that they have always been done.  Individuals with this sort of personality are less likely to try new things and to seek new experiences.  The tradition-oriented personality is one of the modal personality types identified by David Riesman in the early 1950's.
transhumance  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
a cyclical pattern of migrations made by some pastoralists that usually take them to cool highland valleys in the summer and warmer lowland valleys in the winter.  This is seasonal migration between the same two locations in which they have regular encampments or stable villages often with permanent houses.  See pastoral nomadism.
tribe  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
the level of political integration in which a society uses pantribal associations in order to provide common interest.  Tribes are more complex acephalous societies than bands due largely to the fact that they have more people and this new integrating mechanism that helps to prevent the disintegration of society.  Tribes have been common among horticultural, pastoral, equestrian foraging, and rich aquatic societies.
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usufruct  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
the concept of ownership in which an owner normally can "own" land and other substantial property only as long as it is being used or actively possessed.  The society as a whole is the real owner.  The individual "owner" is responsible for looking after the property for the society--he or she essentially only has stewardship over it.  If the "owner" no longer needs the property or dies, it is reallocated by the society to others.  Usufruct is most commonly found in small-scale societies.  See proprietary deed.
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organized, large-scale combat usually between clearly recognizable armies.  A significant portion of a population takes part in combat or support activities, often for years.  Soldiers are trained and equipped for combat.  Warfare is a larger scale, more organized and sustained form of fighting than feuding and raiding.
weregeld  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced   (also weregild and wergeld; literally "blood money")
the material payment that a murderer must pay to the relatives of his or her victim as compensation for the crime.  Once the weregeld has been paid, the crime is essentially expunged and there is no other punishment.  The term comes from Old English words meaning "man" + "gold".   In small-scale societies, all crimes are usually considered to be torts and weregeld is viewed as the appropriate resolution for them.  Weregeld is still an important legal principle for murder cases in some conservative Moslem nations today.  Survivals of this legal concept also can be seen in financial settlements for civil suits in the United States and other Western nations.
witchcraft  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
actions involving magic or supernatural powers usually undertaken for the purpose of doing harm.  This is a limited anthropological definition that does not describe the activities of modern Western European and North American so-called witches or Wicca.  The latter are members of an organized religion.
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This page was last updated on Thursday, September 10, 2009.
Copyright © 2004-2009 by Dennis O'Neil. All rights reserved.
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