Fundamental social issues are timeless

One of the columnists I most enjoy reading is Thomas Edsall of the New York Times. Each week he produces a column on contemporary issues in politics, society and the environment that includes statements from social scientists from many different fields, and references to key recent studies. It’s a great way to learn more about current discussions in the social sciences as they relate to the headlines elsewhere in the newspaper, on the television and radio, and on the internet.

This week’s column is especially interesting in that it brings up several areas that seem ripe for investigation by archaeologists. The first is demographic transitions. It turns out that the developed world is currently experiencing a “third” demographic transition, where total female fertility (the number of children born per woman) has fallen below the replacement rate. Importantly, this transition is occurring across societies that vary substantially with regard to gender norms, access to contraception and abortion, public spending on the social safety net, and public policies related to families with children. What are the actual drivers of demographic transitions? Does each transition have its own unique causes, or is there a set of enduring factors and relationships that drive them? Archaeologists have gone so far as to identify a Neolithic Demographic Transition, where improvements in weaning foods and increased sedentism seem to have driven increased fertility and decreased mortality, leading to rapid population growth and cultural diversification. But is there a more general framing that might unify the NDT and the “Third” transition going on right now? Someone ought to look into this!

The second area that Edsall brings up this week is the connection between fertility and immigration. In light of the current demographic transition, the only way for developed nations to maintain their populations is through increased immigration from other parts of the world, where total female fertility remains far above the replacement rate. Because economies ultimately depend on people working, this means that, increasingly, societies of the developed world must accept increasing cultural and biological diversity in their societies if they wish to maintain the living standards to which they are accustomed. So what is the relationship between cultural and biological diversity, mechanisms of integration, and long-term economic performance? Are outcomes different among societies that follow more of a “melting pot” approach vs. a “tapestry” or “mosaic” approach? Archaeologists know a lot about migration and social integration for specific cases. Seems like it would be worthwhile to put this knowledge together and see what sorts of strategies work best overall.

Finally, a third area that caught my attention is the idea of “virtuous violence;” the idea that societies tend to define contexts where violence is deemed appropriate, or even obligatory. In Edsall’s column, this idea is raised with respect to a concept known as the “behavioral immune system”, which refers to a disgust bias toward more socially distant people as a means of warding off the spread of infectious disease. For example, during the current pandemic, people seem to have felt less comfortable wearing masks at holiday gatherings than they did while riding public transport or traveling abroad. But I wish to make a more general point, which is that people need to draw connections between social situations and emotional (moral) predispositions for the latter to have an effect on concrete patterns of behavior. The notion of virtuous violence is just one example, but I suspect there are many others, and some of these can be stable over long periods. Archaeologists have learned a lot about the social contexts of interaction through studies of art, architecture, and built environments, but there is still a lot to learn about how humans connect social contexts to our emotional and moral predispositions, and it seems to me that deeper understanding of this would be an important resource for leaders and citizens.

I suspect many archaeologists’ minds wander in similar directions to mine when they read columns like Edsall’s. But very few of us actually orient our research around the questions that come up when we read them. Our received habits of thought encourage us to think about “issues in the past” instead of just thinking about what the data we control have to say about “issues,” full stop. One of the goals of CfAS is to encourage us to think differently, and to engage with fundamental social issues that are timeless. I don’t think this is all that hard to do. You just have to approach things from this perspective, focusing on what human societies share instead of what makes each one unique. If you agree that this is a good idea, please join us!

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