Saturday, January 14, 2023

Nailing my theses to the internet, part 2 of 2


This is the second of two posts on my fundamental “theses”: the basic principles of my approach to premodern cities and urbanism.  See the first post here:


(4) Cities and urban life are structured by the interplay between two sets of processes: centralized, or top-down, processes originate with kings, elites, and central institutions, whereas generative, or bottom-up, processes arise from the grass-roots actions of individuals not under the control or direction of institutions or authorities.


Urban life and organization is made up of a constant interplay of these two kinds of processes of change. My usage is based on common approaches in the social sciences outside archaeology.[1] I distinguish two types of generative process: Grassroots activity refers to the intentional efforts of people to organize and coordinate their activities in pursuit of a goal (Chapter 7). Spontaneous organization describes actions of daily life, including social interactions, that create some kind of order or outcome that was neither planned nor created by authorities (Chapters 3, 7). My prime example of this is energized crowding.

Figure 7.1, from Besim Hakim

While both top-down and bottom-up factors are typically in play, some realms are closer to the institutional or upper domain of society, while others lie closer to the generative realm. For example, most premodern urbanites paid taxes, and taxation is primarily an activity of the state, a top-down institution. While the generative actions of individuals and groups may affect tax collection, these are typically of less importance than the top-down demands at play. Political protest, on the other hand, is primarily a generative process; nevertheless, top-down forces may affect the nature and outcomes of protests. My discussion of urban life proper is divided along these lines: Chapter 6 focuses on institutions or top-down processes, and Chapter 7 is about generative processes. This division flows from my basic definition of cities as settlement where population and activities are concentrated.


(5) Social interactions within cities and other settlements create “energized crowding,” which is one of the fundamental causal mechanisms in urban life.


As in the case of Thesis #4, this principle also flows from my basic definition of cities. The importance of face-to-face social interaction, in the form of energized crowding, in generating social outcomes is a fundamental component of many theoretical approaches in the social sciences (Brower 2011; Glaeser 2011; Ostrom 1990; Storper and Venables 2004). This perspective has been developed into a set of formal theories with quantitative predictions, known as settlement scaling theory (Bettencourt et al. 2007; Pumain et al. 2006; West 2017). I have participated in one branch of this approach, which views cities as “social reactors” (Bettencourt 2013). We have extended research from contemporary cities into the deep past, revealing broad continuities in the role of settlement size between ancient and modern settlement systems. In this book I explore the nature and implications of social interactions for premodern cities.[2]


           An additional consideration that colors how some archaeologists write about ancient cities is what I call the “urban prestige effect.” As a legacy of rigid and universalist schemes of cultural evolution popular form the 1950s through the 1970s

(Service 1975; White 1959), many archaeologists assign a high value, with a high level of prestige, to the categories of cities and urbanism. This signals an unfortunate emotional association with the objects of their study (settlements). Urban sites are seen as “better” than non-urban settlements, resulting in attempts to categorize non-urban settlements as cities. Non-urban villages are not infrequently declared urban by one scholar or another, whether ancient sites like Çatalhöyük (see Case study 2, below) or modern Amazonian villages (Heckenberger et al. 2008). It is almost guaranteed that complex early settlements—such as the Tripalyan “mega-sites”—will be viewed as urban (Chapman and Gaydarska 2016; Diachenko and Menotti 2017), regardless of the nature of the evidence; see Chapter 2. This urban prestige effect only muddies the waters of premodern settlement analysis, contributing little to our understanding of the settlements in question, or to comparative urban studies.




Bettencourt, Luís M. A.

2013    The Origins of Scaling in Cities. Science 340: 1438-1441.

Bettencourt, Luís M. A., José Lobo, Dirk Helbing, Christian Kühnert, and Geoffrey B. West

2007    Growth, Innovation, Scaling, and the Pace of Life in Cities. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104: 7301-7306.

Brower, Sidney N.

2011    Neighbors and Neighborhoods: Elements of Successful Community Design. APA Planners Press, Chicago.

Chapman, John and Bisserka Gaydarska

2016    From Domestic Households to Mega-Structures: Proto-Urbanism? In Trypillia Mega-Sites and European Prehistory,  4100-3400 BCE, edited by Johannes Müller, Knut Rassmann, and Mykhailo Videiko, pp. 289-299. Routledge, New York.

Diachenko, Aleksandr and Francesco Menotti

2017    Proto-Cities or Non-Proto-Cities? On the Nature of Cucuteni–Trypillia Mega-Sites. Journal of World Prehistory 30 (3): 207-219.

Glaeser, Edward L.

2011    The Triumph of the City: How our Greatest Invention Makes us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier. Penguin, New York.

Heckenberger, Michael J., J. Christian Russell, Carlos Fausto, Joshua R. Toney, Morgan J. Schmidt, Edithe Pereira, Bruna Franchetto, and Afukaka Kuikuro

2008    Pre-Columbian Urbanism, Anthropogenic Landscapes, and the Future of the Amazon. Science 321: 1214-1217.

Ostrom, Elinor

1990    Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Pumain, Denise, Fabien Paulus, Céline Vacchiana-Marcuzzo, and José Lobo

2006    An Evolutionary Theory for Inerpreting Urban Scaling Laws. Cybergeo: European Journal of Geography  (article 343).

Service, Elman Rogers

1975    Origins of the State and Civilization: The Process of Cultural Evolution. Norton, New York.

Storper, Michael and Anthony J. Venables

2004    Buzz: Face-to-Face Contact and the Urban Economy. Journal of Economic Geography 4 (4): 351-370.

West, Geoffrey B.

2017    Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Lifein Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies. Penguin, New York.

White, Leslie A.

1959    The Evolution of Culture: The Development of Civilization to the Fall of Rome. McGraw-Hill, New York.

[1] I wish to distinguish my usage of top-down and bottom-up from a particular archaeological usage in which “top-down” refers to studies of kings and elites, while “bottom-up” denotes studies of households. My usage, in contrast, is based on drivers of change and causal mechanisms (Chapters 3, 6, 7).

[2] The research and publications of the Social reactors project are presented at:

No comments:

Post a Comment