Glossary of Terms


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acephalous click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced society
a society in which political power is diffused to the degree that there are no 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.
aquatic click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced foraging
a specialized subsistence pattern that concentrates on fish and/or marine mammal hunting.  Aquatic foraging is usually a far more reliable and productive strategy for obtaining food than the diversified hunting and gathering of most foragers who live away from the coasts and major rivers.  The most well known aquatic foragers lived on the Northwest Coast of North America from the Klamath River of California to the Aleutian Islands of Alaska.  These societies specialized in salmon fishing along the rivers and hunting seals and whales off the coast.
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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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cereals  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
the edible seeds of grasses.  The economically most important cereals include wheat, rice, and corn (maize), oats, rye, millet, and sorghum.  These grains provide the bulk of the calories consumed by people in the world today.
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 (i.e., a chief) 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 and Hawaii, there have been 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.  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 lifestyle.  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.
a group of people in a society who share the same social and economic status.  In state level societies of the past, the most important class distinction was between the ruling elite and the commoners.  Bands, tribes, and early chiefdoms did not have classes, though individuals were often ranked relative to each other.
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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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equestrian click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced foraging
a specialized subsistence pattern in which horses are used extensively in hunting large game animals.  Equestrian foragers evolved in only two areas of the world--the Great Plains of North America and the sparse grasslands of Southern Argentina.  In both cases, pedestrian foragers acquired horses from Spanish settlers in the early 17th century.  Over several generations, horse breeding and riding skills were honed.  This resulted in a revolutionary change in these Native American societies.  The horse became the principle mode of transportation and dramatically increased hunting success in the pursuit of large animals.  These societies became larger, more mobile, and were now able to travel over larger areas throughout the year.  Horses allowed them to effectively follow the seasonal migrations of large herbivores over hundreds of miles.  In North American the prey of choice was the bison and in South America it was the guanaco.
ethnic group  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
a category or group of people considered to be significantly different from others in terms of cultural (dialect, religion, traditions, etc.) and sometimes physical characteristics (skin color, body shape, etc.).  Commonly recognized American ethnic groups include American Indians, Jews, Latinos, Chinese, African Americans ("blacks"), European Americans ("whites"), etc.
ethnocentrism  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
the deep felt belief that your culture is superior to all others.  Being fond of your own way of life and condescending or even hostile toward other cultures is normal for all people.  Alien culture traits are often viewed as being not just different but less sensible and even "unnatural."  Ethnocentrism is normal for all people in the world.
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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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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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.
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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.
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--band, tribe, chiefdom, and 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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Melanesia  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
New Guinea and other nearby islands in the Southwest Pacific Ocean.  Indigenous people from this region are referred to as Melanesians.
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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- O -

Old World
The Old World is Europe, Asia, and Africa.  The Americas are conventionally referred to as the New World.  This distinction is largely an ethnocentric reflection of the European origin of our modern sciences and geography. 
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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, warrior societies, religious cults, or secret societies, .  While these groups have specific purposes, they also serve to create order and a sense of unity for a tribe.  Pantribal associations are also referred to as sodalities.
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 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.
political symbol
an idea or physical thing that is used by politicians as a tool for focusing the attention and emotions of people.  It can be something as simple as the phrase "a chicken in every pot and a car in very garage" which was used by Herbert Hoover in his 1928 U.S. presidential election.  It can be a call for change such as the replacement of a king with a legislature or conversion of "non-believers" to the "true-religion."  National flags are often powerful political symbols.  
competition for power over people and things.
  map of Polynesia
Polynesia  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
a major division of islands in the South Pacific Ocean, east of the International Date Line, extending from Hawaii in the north to New Zealand in the south.  In addition to these islands, Polynesia includes Samoa, Tonga, the Society, and Marquesas Islands.
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.
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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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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.
social velocity  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
the common social phenomenon in which disruptive interpersonal conflicts increasingly occur as the number of people in a society grows.  Richard Lee coined this term as result of observing the phenomenon among the ju/'hoansi click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced of southwest Africa.  Band fissioning occurred before a community reached the full carrying capacity of the environment.  Families decided to leave and form their own bands because the conflict settling mechanisms were not adequate to resolve differences.  It was not food scarcity but, rather, social discord that was the cause of the break-up.
sodality  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
see pantribal association.
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 (ancient 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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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 unity and 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 often have a headman who must lead through his powers of persuasion rather than clear authority to enforce his decisions.  Tribes have been common among horticultural, pastoral, equestrian foraging, and rich aquatic foraging societies.
tribute  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
payments made by a defeated people to their conqueror.
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Western World
those nations dominated by European derived culture.  The Western World today includes Europe, the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, and a few other countries.
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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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