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First published: 1978  Posted: 1999  Last edited: 23 September 2005



The following article is reprinted from the journal PAIDEUMA, 24, 1978 an issue in
honour of Professor Vinigi Grotanelli of the University of Rome. It is
unchanged, save for the correction of several misprints in the original.
Footnotes are hotlinked to bookmarks.
Social and cultural anthropology, and ethnology, have
during their history agreed upon one thing: the
foundation of the work has been the detailed recording of
the facts of social and cultural life. From that point on,
there have been divergences, which, by comparison with
divergences in other disciplines, have been extraordinarily
minor. We have argued over the place to be accorded to
indirectly observed data (by comparison with participant
observation), about the length of field studies required to
give reliability. Above all there has been argument about
"theoretical" perspectives which, in the main, have a great
deal to do with the philosophical position of the
anthropologist and the selection of questions asked, and
almost nothing to do with "theory" as the word is
understood in most other subjects.
Grottanelli is honoured as an ethnographer; one of a
significant group of European scholars, but for many years
almost alone in Italy, who "informed" his ethnography
with insights built upon international trends. Behind this
position, and perhaps especially now, is a deep, passionate
and engaged concern for civilized values, for the future of
the world of which the ethnographic reality is the
foundation, for the interplay of ideas, forces, peoples, and
social movements.
Scholarship may be separated and controlled in writing,
but not in the anxieties and aspirations of the person
engaged in it. However one may agree or disagree with
this position or that, one respects intensity, commitment,
the continuing and troublesome search for the future, and
the sense of values which guides it. The ethnography of
other societies is joined to the ethnography of the scholar's
own, and the interplay creates deeper understandings.
This indeed is the objective of anthropology as a
humanistic discipline.
This paper is, in a way, a request, to Grottanelli, his
disciples, and to others, to extend the manifestation of
their insights by applying them in scholarly writing to
questions which concern them about the future of world
civilisation. A Festschrift is a rite de passage, a
movementfrom the constraints of the past to the openness
of the future. This one is particularly timely because the
diversity -- some would say chaos -- of intellectual trends
in the discipline now poses questions about the future of
anthropology; and because one of those questions is the
manner in which anthropology can or cannot, should or
should not, be involved with the future.
It would be true I think to say that in the last twenty-five
years there has been a major shift in emphasis in the use
of ethnographic data. While "informed" interpretation of
data is still by far the predominant mode, the vast increase
in the data base, the penchant for "hypothesizing"
(particularly in North America), the structure of the most
elegant essays directed toward the answering of a
specifically stated question, the inroads made on the
humanities by scientism, and the growth of statistical and
computer applications, have enriched and confused our
methodologies. What can be distressing about this
situation is not the fact of divergence, even of confusion
for with synthesis and dialectic that is likely to be
productive in the long run. It is that the proponents of
specific methodologies often present them as the only
source of validity and the only true anthropology. That is
messianic nonsense, and has to be.
My position is that even the battery I have listed is
incomplete and insufficient. Here I present an argument
couched in a further alternative which, for reasons of time
and space, is not nearly as tight as the method requires. I
argue that interpretation of empirical data, leading to the
further reflection upon and elaboration of general
positions, can be usefully supplemented by the reverse
process, namely by the elaboration of formal logical
models which can be used for deductive prediction.
Ideally, such models should at least be informed by stated
Scale, Organisation and performance
ethnographic information, though again for reasons of
space and time, this will not be attempted in the present
paper. However, the inherent strengths and weaknesses of
such models can often be examined better, or rather with a
different lens, when they are stated in pure abstraction,
ultimately in symbolic logic. I hold that formalism of this
kind is not to be separated from ethnography, since each
informs the other, since neither has a monopoly on
approaches to validity, and since in fact the formal model
can often be more usefully linked to questions of policy,
social purpose, and the options of the future, which are
upon observation ethnographic in their manifestation.
In this paper I intend to argue about scale and
organisation in the abstract, and in doing so raise
questions about the implications of scale and organisation
for the performance
of sociocultural units, and thus for
human satisfaction. The subject is of concern for several
First, ethnographers, social and cultural anthropologists,
social historians, to say nothing of scholars in other
disciplines, have been interested in phenomena which
they identify as containing variables of scale, have been
interested in comparing situations of differing scale, and
have informed their interpretations by assumptions about
the implications, or indeed effects, of variation in scale. A
catalogue is out of place here; one only has to think of the
concept of social and historical evolution, of the work of
Godfrey and Monica Wilson (1945) on social change which
was one of the earliest attempts at a formal theory and the
volume of work which has emerged from the initial idea
of the folk-urban continuum.
Second, a concern with scale is an important part of what I
call the ethno-social science of at least European and North
American culture. That is, there are assumptions about
scale present in sections of the cormnunity, including
political leaders, which imply propositions which could
be stated in social science terms, and are hence
theoretically subject to scientific or scholarly examination.
Such propositions can coincide with or diverge from
propositions which are present in social science formal
thinking, and we as anthropologists should have data and
theories of our own by which to examine them.
Third, other disciplines have formal theories relating scale
Scale, Organisation and performance
and organisation. The theories are drawn from different
data, and are congruent with a different wider range of
formal statements, than would be the case with
anthropology. We lack such a theory, but worse, we fail to
bring our positions to bear upon the formal models used
in other disciplines. Economics, for example, has for
decades been concerned with the optimal size and
organisation of the firm, and with the dynamics of change
in size and organisation. The statements are now even
being cast in an evolutionary" perspective (see, for
example, S.J. Prais, The Evolution of Giant Firms in Great
Britain. Cambridge, Cambridge, University Press, 1976.)
There will be no impact of anthropology upon economic
thinking until anthropology has its own models which can
be compared with those of the economist, and which it
tests by reference to the kind of data that is at our
1 3
The present discussion, then, bears these issues in mind. It
is an attempt to systematize some interconnected
propositions in abstract form, rooted in the author's
(unexpressed) reading and experience of the ethnographic
data, including the ethnography of complex societies. It is
also oriented toward issues about the evaluation of the
existing social system as it moves into the future, rooted in
ethno-social science and of course in the author's own
prejudices and perspectives.
If successful, the abstract statements ought to be readily
applied to the interpretation of ethnographic material,
yielding the probability of reformulation and
modification; and in a similar way should be comparable
with statements in the formal models of other disciplines,
yielding the fruits of a dialectic argument. Neither of these
extensions will, however, be attempted here.
The idea of scale is itself highly ambiguous, and it tends
to become more so the more we try to pin it down. In
anthropology there is a trend toward the linkage of scale
and complexity of social organisation, not by asserting
that they are synonymous, but by holding that as the one
increases, so does the other. There are equivalent
Scale, Organisation and performance
problems in economics, which might serve to guide and
warn us. The most widely known concepts which can
serve as analogies are those of growth and development.
Although economics and sociology are still confused in
the usage accorded to these two terms, there is a sense in
which growth can be reserved for increases in performance
indicators such as output, and development for increases in
the complexity of organisation. When such a distinction is
made, it is easier to see that growth does not necessarily
mean development, and does not always or necessarily
produce development or correlate with development.
When such relationships do exist they are due to special
circumstances which can be examined, and both may be
traced to a third causative factor. An increase in grain
supply may be traced to a change in fertilizer used, or to
haphazard seasonal variation, and may have nothing to do
with prior organisational development, nor be followed
by a lagging development.
The same remarks hold for decreases in scale or growth,
phenomena which are insufficiently studied. Scale is a
quantitative phenomenon. The question quickly arises as
to the tools available for its measurement, and that in turn
depends upon what is to be measured. Our concern in
anthropology for the qulitative and descriptive has
hindered the ingenuity with which measurement should
be approached. We stop at certain critical affirmations of
distrust about measurement in other disciplines, and a
certain scepticism, usually justified, about the bases of
measurement in our own. First we must come to terms
with the probability that all measurement in the social
sciences does violence to the phenomena measured by
simplifying, that is by leaving something out. This is
particularly true of indices, even or perhaps especially in
economics, and of the use of comparative data divorced
from context, as with the Human Relations Area Files.
What is left out can turn out to be crucial to the
relationships examined, but it can also be trivial, or can
faithfully follow the trends determined by the
measurement. Judgement and criticism provide the
correctives and modifications; the wholesale rejection of
measurement does not.
Measurement when properly carried out does two other
things. It provides a controlled basis for comparison, and,
what is really a variant, it provides for controlled
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Page 6
observation over time. Most studies of scale in
anthropology use the basic perspective of comparison of
social units which represent different scale characteristics,
for example village and town. The conclusions drawn
from such studies may be compared with long term
evolutionary studies of civilisations, or short term studies
of the dynamics of social change. Such studies can hardly
be carried out at all without statements about scale,
whether or not measurement is in fact used. The
measurernent may be incipient rather than openly stated.
To understand this, it is necessary to make the point that
qualitative statements are them selves statements of scale.
"The Kwakiutl demonstrated rich cultural and artistic
Such a statement includes at least two statements of scale.
"Rich" implies complexity and variety greater than that
present in cultures with "poor" cultural and artistic
achievement. "Achievement" in this context implies that in
the eyes of the observer there was greater quality
manifested than was the case in some other cultures.
"Greater" implies the possibility of still greater", "equal"
or "lesser". The person making the rough statement
invented here may deny that such a comparison was
intended, but if so he would have to find different words.
If he were successful, which I would consider an
impossibility, he would have arrived at a mean- ingless
statement. He may, for example, try to escape by saying
the cultural output of the Kwakiutl was "beautiful" in
some absolute sense. But that implies more beauty than in
an hypothetical situation in which the output could be
judged "ugly". The idea of scale is still present, though it
may be reduced to its utmost simplicity, namely the
assertion of presence or absence of a specific criterion, that
is positive or negative on a scale.
Clearly, too, the observer has his standards of judgement,
which in a scholarly work would be revealed. Those
standards of judgement constitute the method by which
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he arrives at his index. He may not use a formal statistical
index as invented by the quantitative methodologists. But
index he must have. The problems of indexation are with
us, whether or not we use figures. In the statement made
above, "rich" masks an index, and so does "achievement".
It may also be argued that "cultural" and "artistic" mask
indices of culture and art. A great deal of the debate in
anthropology surrounds definitions of more or less
operational concepts. A definition implies an index,
because an index is the operationalisation of a definition.
While many classical indices are single resultant figures of
a number of complex variables, it is also 'possible to have
profile indices in which the various parts are not summed,
but are expressed separately so that they may be seen at
work, and because the act of summation is either
impossible, or because there are no adequate principles to
allow for weighting. The profile welfare level of living
index developed by the United Nations Research Institute
for Social Development is an example; my own concept of
the behavioral profile of culture is another.
The literature in anthropology which specifically refers to
scale is usually concerned with fairly gross comparisons in
which the subtleties I have mentioned are not of great
Nevertheless, they should be kept in mind, because they
may influence our perception of the nature of the data
which can be brought into the discussion. Furthermore,
any discussion which focuses upon the implication of
differences of scale is bound to be insufficient if the scale
reference is unclear. For example, we may be concerned
with the scale of productive units. We presumably mean
size, and intend to compare big ones with small ones.
Ethnographically, there is an immediate problem of the
boundary assigned to the unit being examined. Here we
have to use criteria which we impose on the data; we are
arbitrary, though not purposeless. For example, it is our
tradition to identify the productive unit in Melanesian
society, x, as a household containing a two or three
generation family, segmented possibly at the time of
marriage. In Canada, it is our tradition to identify the
productive unit as the factory or its equivalent in related
sectors. We compare the two, making judgements about
scale. But it is important to note that the choice of the units
has a strong arbitrary element. It would be just as
Scale, Organisation and performance
justifiable to compare households in both societies at one
level, and factory with village at another. If we did this we
would find many non-literate or peasant societies in
which the scale of productive units, coordinated in some
form, is the equivalent in scale of many types of
productive enterprise in modern capitalist society. The
problem does not entirely disappear when we use the
polity as the unit of comparison, the polity being the
largest coordi-
1 5
nated organisation of power relevant to the society in
question'. For such comparison involves the discussion of
the constituent units which make it up.
One might have thought that this question had been
resolved in economics, in view of the long history of
theoretical formality. However, this is not so, and the
concept of the size of a firm changes according to the topic
being examined in ways which may be instructive to
anthropology. Size can refer to scale according to the
following criteria, among numerous others: numbers of
persons employed, monetary value of capital, monetary
value of market turnover, monetary value of production,
proportion of G.N.P. represented by the monetary value of
turnover or by production. Furthermore, the typical unit of
examination can be either the plant, that is the physical
unit which is organized for production, or the firm, that is
the largest cornmercially-oriented unit which responds to
a single authority.
In anthropology we have all these choices and many more.
The simplest thing to note is the number of persons
contained in a given social unit, the boundaries defined by
some principle of organisation, from household, to
lineage, to geographically-defied community, to church or
firm, to linguistic group, to polity. We can also start with
any given ego, and ask at least two questions. How many
persons does ego interact with on a day-to-day basis? How
many persons are contained in ego's widest network of
contact? The two anwers may vary independently and in
contradictory directions.
Scale, Organisation and performance
There is also a scaling dimension which involves intensity
of interaction. There is movement from one extreme, in
which the boundary encloses a role-complete group, to
another, in which a person lives through a multitude of
roles, each of which relates to a different corporate
institution, and often to a complex range of bounded
groups (ethnic, political, religious, and so forth).
The scale dimension linked to the number of persons will
not take this variable directly into account. Similarly, one
might argue that yet another scaling dimension often
(though not always) decreases with increases in other
aspects of scale. If there is a household of thirteen in a
village of sixty-five, the village constituting an
inward-turning role-complete group, it may be that there
is an extremely intense level of day-today personal
interaction. On the other hand, two households of five and
sixty-five, but lacking a network of wider kin or friends,
with a work setting based on on-line production and a
hierarchical social division of labour, could have a very
low level of personal interaction. Thus a dimension of
scale based on numbers would be equal, but one based on
the number of personal interactions taking place in a
given period would be high in the first instance and low
in the second.
On the other hand, rather than counting the mere number
of social interactions, one may be interested in assessing
the way in which the interactions relate to complexity. If
this is the case, the larger the number of roles and the
more clearly differentiated they are, the greater, other
things being equal, the complexity of the system. Of
course, everything depends on how you count the roles. A
case could be made for saying that a Melanesian adult
married male fulfills one role, which combines the social
expectation that he will be a shifting cultivator, father,
husband, brother, son, fisherman, canoe-builder,
magician, defender of the community, and a number of
other things wrapped up into one package. But you don't
have to count all those things together, particularly when
closer inspection reveals that not all Melanesians do all
these things, with the same skill and intensity, and that
they often borrow skills from others. So then it may be
that a Melanesian is involved with more roles than many
Westerners, for example the post
1 6
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Page 10
man who is father, husband and son, but nothing else. On
the other hand, in typical Western societies one does add
a range of roles to that limited list, and furthermore even
when the numbers of roles in the two styles of society are
similar, some of the Western roles are, intuitively, more
separated from each other than are the Melanesian ones,
and they may even be in conflict. To be realistic, any
counting of roles needs to be weighted by attention to
such variables.
The mention of conflict leads to the next important set of
variables which anthropologists have to take into account.
Scales are applied not only with reference to social
relations as abstractions but to goals and preferences, in
short to values. As I have argued elsewhere ad nauseam,
the treatment of values in anthropology is thoroughly
confused because some of the most prestigious and
influential accounts completely overlook the point that, at
least in the English language, the concept of value cannot
be divorced from the concept of scale. A value is not a
piece of philosophical mystery floating around in a
culture, as most anthropology would have us believe. A
value is a measure attached to something; by extension
values in a culture are (for example, but not exclusively)
goals, objectives, or preferences which are emphasized to
varying degrees, and according to scaling criteria; by
further extension, one does not value something, one
values it a great deal, moderately, a little, or not at all; one
can even negatively value it.
Here of course we are talking of individual goals or
preferences, presumably assessed by individuals, or by
individuals expressing them on behalf of institutions.
This is the topic par excellence of welfare economics, a
subject which we anthropologists do not read, partly
because it is too difficult, and partly because it would raise
enormous questions for ethnography and ethnological
interpretation which I suspect we know we cannot handle.
Yet welfare economics, concerned as it is with the ways in
which individual preferences interact as a result of their
valuation, and produce a cultural resultant, is also
anthropology, particularly as more of us come to use the
Barth-Blau approach to choice and the impact of action
upon structure.
Scale, Organisation and performance
In most of anthropology, particularly when we are
concerned with culture and social organisation, even when
the approach is particularistic, our focus tends to be on
some form of group. We study perhaps the village, as
representative of a wider unit, and have been criticized for
this. Some of us, more sociologically oriented, are
interested in varieties of corporate group, such as lineage,
credit association or age grade. Some of us put the units
together under the heading of culture, for which the
boundary is usually, though not always, defined by
language. In the Soviet Union, the ethnographic object can
be the "ethnos", elsewhere the ethnic group. We speak, it
turns out very loosely, of society or social system, which,
so long as the participants are interacting, can be bounded
according to a thousand criteria, it seems, or even none at
all. The most common usage of "society" is a euphemism
for a polity. Inspection shows that quite often, particularly
in complex conditions, social relations are not at all
limited by the boundaries of the defined society, and that
the analyst, for good reason or unthinkingly, is imposing
the boundary that by definition fits the polity, that is the
largest identifiable unit, short of global society, in which
power can be seen to be organised and an administration
In the early post-war years, and before that following the
influence of Malinowski and Boas, it became fashionable
to down-play the significance of those anthropologists
who were concerned with trait analysis, particularly
because they were addressing themselves to the
diffusion-evolution controversy in a doubtful way.
However, the Human Relations Area Files, the work of
G.P. Murdock, S. Udy, and many others, and most recently
the contribution of Lomax and Arensberg, indicated that
the identification of traits for large statistical and
model-related comparison was in fact still a lively and
debatable issue. It is going to become even more so as new
theoretical questions are asked, and indeed the time has
come for a reappraisal of the lessons,
the achievements, methods, and failures of earlier
Scale, Organisation and performance
scholarship - or we will have to learn them all over again.
I raise this question because it is fundamental to any
concept of scale which involves culture. It is even
fundamental to the critique of participant-observation
fieldwork. "Which units of culture do you observe and
record and put together in systemic analysis?" is a
question which applies to any method of anthropological
enquiry. In modern field-work we tend to follow the
tradition of earlier ethnographies, with modifications
suggested by refinements of philosophy or slight changes
in question. (How tired one is becoming of the continuous
on-stream production of ethnographic treatises on New
Guinea cultures, which do not have the modesty to admit
that they are putting on record material for the
ethnographic map, but rather insist that the treatment
justifies a philosophical position.) We have seldom
developed the resources which enable us to gather new
types of data, except where team-work becomes
practicable. We are thus vulnerable to the charge that the
phenomena we record could be a-typical, that the single
instance we give of ritual cannot be assessed for its
representative qualities, that we are not in a position to
judge the intensity of valuation. Of course, we have at
least partial answers to such charges, but we deceive
ourselves if we feel that we are superior in this respect to
those naively frank about the manner in which they
assembled traits. The loss of the word does not mean the
loss of the problem.
The issue becomes more germane when we consider the
type of question for which scale in culture becomes of
theoretical significance. What is scale in culture? It has to
do with such things as the volume and diversity of
messages passed through the symbol system, or the
volume and range of ideas and concepts which are present.
It may have to do with the number of persons who are
using the symbol system, who share the ideas and
concepts within the otherwise-determined boundary. If
this is the case, is the index of scale simply the number of
persons within the boundary?
That could be the case, and I think it is in many possible
treatments of cultural scale. If so, it is not very interesting,
and does not answer very interesting questions. But I
think there are interesting questions which suggest that
this approach is only a simple beginning.
Scale, Organisation and performance
The idea of scale in culture (in differing forms of words)
has been implicit in some approaches identifying qualities
of civilisation. Most attempts in this direction have been
treated with scepticism in anthropology, largely because
we see dubious value premises in such attempts, or
because we would wish to be more rigorous in criteria.
Nevertheless, our scepticism cannot dispose of the validity
of certain kinds of questions. One such field of concern is
the quality of inintellectual achievement in a culture.
While we are going through a period in which the very
notion of quality is being barbarically attacked, we should
re-examine the foundations of the issue.
There is one sense in which civilisation and intellectual
quality can be linked to the range of ideas, concepts and
propositions which are used and to the complexity of the
concern which the mind is accustomed to tackling. Both
dimensions require careful definition and modification
(for example, with reference to dynamics and intellectual
utility) which cannot be expressed here.
The relevance of the point, however, is to show that both
dimensions, that is range and complexity, are dimensions
of scale. The preoccupation with quality inevitably
involves a preoccupation with quantity. Let me take up an
example of a different kind of question, namely the
examination of a proposition in the field of culture.
Propositions state relationships, and any such statement
involves the presence or absence of the variables, their
growth or diminishment, in other words statements of
quantity. They can come in many different kinds. One
such, which I consider to be
crucial to anthropological theory, would assert that the rate
of innovation is, to simplify, a function of the size of the
pool of ideas modified by the rate of circulation of those
. All the terms in this equation are aspects of the
scale of culture, and it is asserted that one of them is
composed of relations between the other two. It is difficult
to see how this proposition can in practice be tested or
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Page 14
falsified without the development of an indexing and
measuring technique.
Part of that technique will have to be the identification of
the units of culture in the form of ideas, and another part
will have to be the identification of message conduits
appropriate to the culture and the observation of the
messages passed along them. Other disciplines,
particularly economics, sociology. and political science are
already using macrostatistical and survey devices which
purport to resolve into indices which bear upon aspects of
the question. Yet the question, dealing with culture as it
does, is surely at the heart of anthropology, and we win be
most dissatisfied with the validity of the work attributed
to our sister subjects.
The statements above have been concerned primarily with
definition and clarification. I now wish to propose some
theoretical relationships which should be tested more
deeply with ethnographic material, even though in some
instances I cannot be confident about the precision or even
the direction in which the forces are working. However, to
begin, it seems to me that, both in ethno-social science and
in anthropology there has been a tendency to think of
scale as a single and sufficient variable in the process of
explaining other variables, such as the impersonality of
relationships or secularisation or anomie. The central
feature of scale in such arguments is the size of the
population being considered. It will be my contention that
the size of the population is not the governing variable in
itself, and that the resultants in question must be seen as
the outcome of an interplay between several scale
variables, and particularly between elements of scale and
modes of organisation to which the scales relate.
For example, following Redfield, authors too numerous to
mention have pointed to the city as an agent of
securalisation and impersonalisation, contrasting it with
the folk village. I do not recall that Redfield made the
distinction on the basis of population size alone, or even
seriously; he was much more concerned with what we
would now label life styles, and he saw the city being
influenced by external, even global forces whereas the
folk village was protected from these and inward turning.
The universality of Redfield's model was limited to the
existence of specific, though not theoretically elaborated
conditions. It could not apply to the mediaeval city, the
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Page 15
historical oriental city, the city of pre-Columbian
Mesoamerica. It is very doubtful indeed whether it applies
in many large contemporary cities, and insofar as it does,
the larger city is not necessarily more secular and
impersonal than the smaller, even within the same culture.
What is at issue is the way in which the life and culture of
the city is organized. A large city may be divided into
neighbourhoods, ethnic components, guilds, workshops,
and other groups which mobilize interest and loyalties so
that it can retain intensities of personal relations and of
focussed cultural communication, and even cause these to
grow in ways that are beyond the capability of the small
town or village. Without controlling the ethnographic
facts, I cite the probability that this is the case in Florence
and Siena today, that it is important to the understanding
of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, and to the way of life of
the much maligned shantytowns, bidonvilles, favellas of
Africa and Latin America, and the new Toronto which is
becoming ethnically dominated. On the other side of the
coin, the social organisation of the village or rural
populace is equally important. A small populace can be
intensely interactive and inward looking, divisively
organized with little internal interaction, geographically
scattered, and so forth.
There is also an important element of time-dynamics to be
considered. From the thirties to the sixties numerous
studies provided evidence that urbanisation brought
breakdowns of family life, kinship organisation, and
ritual. Perhaps. But urbanisation also meant population
shift, and many of the phenomena were at an early
historical stage, even then. A migrant family, isolated from
kin by the move, naturally has to live with important
modifications (although even here it has been noted from
Africa and Oceania that where conditions are auspicious
the urban kinsman often retains strong ties with his rural
relatives). This is particularly the case when the sea, or
expensive transport, intervenes. But as time permits the
growth of population, the cut off family unit gains the
potentiality to reinvent, as it were, kinship. Furthermore,
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Page 16
many of the studies were undertaken at a time of
relatively low per capita income; the priorities for its
expenditure were survival, and also tapping in to the
fascinating consumer world which is an important
positive value of city life (however much intellectuals may
endeavour to impose their negative judgement upon it).
But with almost global increases of real income, the
possibility has also increased of diverting substantial
percentages to ceremony, ritual, and the religious life.
Hence large groups of modern city dwellers, oriented
towards redefinitions of religion, ceremony, and the folk
life, are growing up in parallel with the detached
impersonal apartment dweller or suburban family of the
stereotype. Indeed it may be the case that in the United
States there is more mobility of residence than in other
countries, particularly among university intellectuals, but
by no means limited to them. Mobility of residence in a
large country involves frequent changes of personal ties. I
believe there has been a tendency for North American
analysts to superimpose a model derived from their own
society upon the phenomena of others, though this is not
the whole explanation.
Similar remarks apply to the examination of politics.
Differences between Switzerland, the Western Provinces
of Canada, France, and the United States, have very little
to do with the size of the population as such, although I
must admit that there is a relationship between population
and geographical size which makes certain types of
organisation very difficult to put into practice (and hence I
would argue that in an ideal world it would be of great
benefit if the U.S.S.R., the U.S.A., and China each
consisted of half a dozen or more truly separated
The differences in the ways in which the polities in
question contribute to the satisfaction of the citizens, that
is, in my jargon, contribute to social performance, is very
largely an outcome of the nature of political and ethnic
boundaries within the countries concerned, on the one
hand, and the internal structure of communications on the
other. Both of these things can be expressed in scale terms,
but it is not population scale per se. For example, the
question of Quebec in Canada, and the industrial and
commercial structure of British Columbia, would have
very different manifestations if (a) Canada had been
Scale, Organisation and performance

Page 17
organised on a cantonal basis with ethnic and linguistic
overtones, and (b) the communications system of British
Columbia had been organised and developed in a
self-contained Swiss style, rather than being dominated by
federal geographical considerations.
The issues of scale also apply to corporate groups. At what
size are they the most effective, in terms of costs of output,
or the personal involvement of participants? Once again,
the answer is that it all depends on the organisation, and,
in the larger units, the ways in which the constituent parts
of the organisation articulate with each other. It has been
observed, for example, that the International Telephone
and Telegraph Company is highly centralized, nati onally
controlled despite its global operations, and yet the
component parts operate as if the others do not exist. On
the other hand, International Business Machines, Royal
Dutch Shell, and Nestlé though all large multinationals,
have varying degrees of international participation,
interaction between components, and plant control and
size. In the decades of take-off into modern indu-
strialisation, very large scale Japanese enterprises operated
by incorporating into their processes the output of small
family workshops. The permutations and combinations
are endless, and are open to anthropological comparison.
It is now fashionable to support the slogan "Small is
Beautiful" as a critique of contemporary society,
particularly in production and technological matters. In
July, 1977, for example, I attended the Inter-Congress of
the Pacific Science Association in Bali, Indonesia, which
was treating the theme of "Appropriate Technology".
Margaret Mead was a participant, and I admired the
restraint with which she refrained from pointing out that
in 1955 she was responsible for the then influential
volume Cultural Patterns and Technological Change,
which at that date treated most of the issues which are
now still current. The economists, engineers and bankers
who were present in Bali, were making their points on the
basis of self-discovery, as if there was no history in the
literature. And they were making their points in extreme
Scale, Organisation and performance

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terms; either small was good and beautiful and effective or
it could never meet the optimum effectiveness represented
by large. Very little attention was given to the possibilities
of combining small and large, or having both in parallel,
or of deciding between the two on the basis of a
combination of social objectives and the cultural content
of activity.
I can give but one illustrative example. Electronic
communication can be put together in technological
packages of very high capital cost, and complexity and
very low personal involvement. A nationally centralized
television system based on satellite technology would be
an example, and one debate centres upon whether this is
the most suitable kind of system to be thought of for large
population countries with large geographical areas, even
though they may be poor on a per capita basis. Again, on a
global scale poor commodity-producing countries which
cannot connect with the satellite transmissions used to
handle commodity market information and transactions
are at a disadvantage. Yet the idea of such systems is often
criticized on account of the scale and cost implications.
But it might also be argued that, even given the huge
networks involved, it is technically, administratively, and
socially possible to link them effectively with small scale
units of interaction to increase decentralisation and to
enable ethnically disparate communities to communicate
effectively and regain a self-respect, a vitality and a
viability which would otherwise be in jeopardy. A
national satellite television network does not have to be
organized centrally; that is a political and administrative
decision not necessarily dictated by the technology. It can
be used as a conduit from the parts to the other parts.
Similarly, given certain questions of economy and
technology that cannot be gone into here, it is possible for
sophisticated information to be made available to the
smallest possible social unit by electronic means, whether
that unit be household or village or office in town or
countryside. It is no longer necessary to go to the expense
of establishing large-scale university libraries in
numerous centres, or insist that users of infor mation
travel to national data centres. In this kind of instance,
large-scale Organisation is essential to small-scale use.
The debate about scale, in ethno-social science terms, has
been particularly vigorous with reference to university
Scale, Organisation and performance

Page 19
organisation, and the structure of the research
establishment. It is perhaps appropriate to use this as the
final area of discourse in view of the intensity of the
debate in Italian, as well as other, circles at this time. It
might indeed be argued that Italian university troubles are
largely attributable to the immense growth and huge size
which some of them have attained. Parallels could be
drawn with the University of California and Parisian
universities in the sixties. Obviously, complaints are not
focussed specifically on the issue of size, but the question
remains, and has been put, is size itself the factor which
leads to administrative atrophy, policy negation, teaching
poverty, research confusion, political confrontation?
Many scholars, of course, refuse to consider universities as
goal-oriented institutions, largely because strong elements
in the public think of the goals in unacceptable vocational
manpower producing terms, and this kind of objective
becomes highly inflammatory in times of crisis when
students are resolving in their own persons the conflict of
intellectual open-ended enquiry and restrictive
professional demands which can be related to the
"meal-ticket" complex. While such confusion and
negativism prevails in the scholarly community, that
community has no means whereby it can judge the
performance of a university; indeed many of its members
deny that such a concept has any significance, and so we
are led to a justification of anarchy.
It is, however, possible to affirm certain goals which,
while not acceptable to all, provide a set of performance
criteria which then enables us to consider questions of
size. I have argued at length about this elsewhere, and
arrived at the following summary:
"The special characteristics of university quality are:
a) the objective of generating enquiry and creativity,
b) the objective of expanding cultural resources, including
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Page 20
scientific knowledge and artistic works,
c) the objective of developing powers of scientific,
and moral judgement, which is also essential as a means to
the first two characteristics,
d) the assumption that students are adults,
e) the derived activity of education for the application of
cultural resources, including knowledge, attitudes toward
enquiry, and
(Belshaw The
Anatomy of a
and Stewart
Once performance objectives have been stated, whether
one fully agrees with them or not, they can be used as a
reference point for the evaluation of the effects of the
social organisation, cultural values, communication of
ideas, and scale, of specific organisations on the analogy
of any other social organisation with which
anthropologists deal. Here, of course, I am concerned with
the general rather than the specific, and I must focus on
scale, rather than all the other factors with which one
could deal.
Small universities (let us say, under a thousand students)
have often been lauded for the quality of intellectual
education, especially in the humanities, which they can
provide. They are, however, somewhat like culturally
bound villages, in the sense that the student is limited in
the types of ideas with which he deals. If the university
has a clearly expressed philosophy of education, which the
student maturely and consciously chooses as his road to
creative thinking, the clarity of method and the intensity
of personal support can be formative in a disciplined and
Scale, Organisation and performance

Page 21
productive way. But this is not necessarily the case. If the
student is philosophically misplaced, he will spend his
time psychologically fighting the system, without escape,
and if the university has no philosophy of education, (a)
the likelihood of student misplacement will be high, and
(b) the student may be subjected to a mish-mash of
wishy-washy ideas, so that his ability to survive, in a
creative sense, becomes a matter of accident and
personality. Small universities have virtues, then, only in
special circumstances and for specific kinds of students.
The middle range university, say up to 10,000 students, is
again in a variable position. Some such universities have
established a very high tradition of creative scholarship, in
both student and faculty member. They have tended to be
somewhat purposive philosophically, e.g. by orienting
themselves to the creation of cultured leaders and
gentlemen , and by reinforcing the tradition of the scholar
who is individual as a scholar but in his social life is a
member of an intellectual community. Sometimes the
philosophy has had a strong religious support, and
such universities may have been somewhat short on
scientific hardware, they were strong on people and
books. Most have used the concept of the college as an
organising principle providing smallness of scale within
the wider framework.
From a faculty perspective, such universities, once
established with a long continuing tradition, have retained
much of their creative appeal, but their appeal and effect
on students is by no means as strong as it used to be. With
their emphasis on books and people, such universities
could often maintain and support highly esoteric branches
of knowledge, with very few students, who selected
themselves with advanced scholarship in mind. But, even
allowing for such out-of-the-way disciplines, the
expansion of such universities could not keep pace with
the explosion of knowledge and the diversification of its
organisation, except in a few special fields.
Furthermore, the close relation of faculty member to
student, and particularly to the student advancing in a
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Page 22
scholarly career, tended to be highly dependent, of
client-patron form. The emergence of "schools" of thought,
that is very restrictive approaches to disciplines with a
high degree of orthodoxy, turned the notion of discipline
into its biblical rather than its intellectual meaning. This
was helpful to some forms of faculty creativity, and was
good for the students who understood it and accepted it.
In Europe, and in mediaeval times, the confinements of
scale which we can see operating here were
counterbalanced by a process which now seems to be
declining in Europe, and to have little place elsewhere.
The student searched beyond the confines of his own
institution. This is particularly possible where universities
are in close geographical connection, and where the
student is not confined by the kind of high school class
which is typical of North American undergraduate
education. Students would know of lectures given
elsewhere, would be able in cafes and in other ways to
gain access to specialists and scholars of influence (though
often the path to contact was strewn with difficulties) and
would seek stimulus accordingly.
The giant university can contain elements of the small and
medium, and the student can be caught in the same way.
He finds himself in an urban setting rather than a village,
and he can be isolated, alienated and destroyed by the
impersonality and confusion of the system. He can also
learn to find his way through the maze, and if and when
he knows what he wants, he can usually find it because it
is likely to be there. It is now calculated that in most
conventionally defined disciplines it requires forty to fifty
faculty members to cover the field with depth; only the
massive university can hope to achieve this in a large
number of fields, and to add the further depth of research
institutes and programmes, and interdisciplinary
combinations. Undergraduate student preparation today
consists in permitting students to explore within this
range, and to start to make intellectual connections which
could not otherwise have been imagined.
Advanced student work may involve a choice of a narrow
sub-topic which could not be present in a smaller
university except by chance, or a wide-ranging breadth of
interest for which the small university is too restrictive, or
even a combination.
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Of course whether the large university does this or fails
depends on the way it handles its size. Theoretically, and
ideally, it could be constituted of small parts, each
intellectually and philosophically defined, among which
the student was encouraged to roam. Unfortunately, in
most university traditions the definition of such parts is as
departments or discipline faculties, which places
unnecessary and sometimes damaging restraints on the
organisation and presentation of knowledge. Also
unfortunately, some university systems attempt to impose
a structure defined in teaching terms upon the research
process. While the two are interlinked, they require very
different concepts of manpower, its distribution and
concentration and even of hierarchy. Thus the large
university fails to capitalize on the advantages of its size
by, in most cases, failing to invent an internal organisation
designed to optimize intellectual conditions.
It also is evident that, historically, many giant universities
are simply cancerous growths upon the old smaller body,
using patterns of organisation and material resources
which were designed for them when they were small, and
when the nature of knowledge was relatively simple.
They have, in other words, failed to adapt with growth, for
reasons which are usually traced to governmental
influence, but which are also rooted in the combination of
academic inertia and radical unreality.
To sum up, scale in its various manifestations has complex
interactions with organisation and performance, with
numerous permutations and combinations of possible
variables. The study of those manifestations, particularly
through the use of anthropological and ethnological
observation in contexts which may be unorthodox for
those disciplines, is still in its infancy, and there is much
to do before a theory can be productive. I hope that these
remarks may encourage others to pursue some of the
questions, and that some of the answers will come from
Scale, Organisation and performance
the vigorous Italian ethnology which Vigini Grottanelli
and his colleagues have done so much to form.
The performance of a social system or unit is defined in such a way that an
increase in performance may be said to occur when (a) the behavioral
profile of culture expands, this value being modified by the capability of
the system to move further in the future. (b) the costs of achieving the
behavioral profile decline, and (c) the gap between the behavioral profile of
culture and the potential (i.e. desired) profile of culture decreases,
neglecting consequential redefinition of the potential profile. For
elaboration, see Belshaw, 1970.
.A recent example of interplay between ethnographic data and
generalized statement on this topic is contained in G. Berreman,
"Scale and Social Realitions", to be published in Current
Anthropology, June 1978.
3. Very frequently when we use the term "society" we are really
talking about a "polity". Cf. Belshaw 1970.
4. 1 have expressed this symbolically and added a number of
qualifications in Belshaw (1970) d. pp. 44-6 and 49-S 1 .
(c) Cyril Belshaw
Scale, Organisation and performance
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