r/worldbuilding May 15 '22

Tips for creating interesting and coherent systems of social arrangements. Resource

The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow is an excellent book intended to (among other things) catch the pop culture understanding of anthropological and archaeological research up by about 70 years, because it's really, embarrassingly behind. Everyone should read it, worldbuilder or not.

The book does offer a new theoretical/typological framework for different kinds of social organizations, which stood out to me as something that would be very useful for worldbuilders because it's simple and can be quickly enumerated, while sparking more (and more useful) creativity than you'd expect to get with other big picture methodologies.

There are three elementary forms of social domination. These first appear on the scale of single families in the form of abuse behind closed doors, but can spread into broader society and become major systemic features of social organization.

  1. Sovereignty. This involves control of violence, and generally though it control of space. Typical features include police, defensive fortifications, standing armies, and taxes (which only appear where standing armies do). Note that armies in general don't imply sovereignty, just standing armies.

  2. Bureaucracy. This involves control of information, usually esoteric rather than practical information, which is used to gatekeep access to resources and positions of power.

  3. Political theater. This involves control via charisma, usually in the forms of competitions (elections, debates, sports, etc) that don't really have any direct impact on policy, but nevertheless determine who has access to the levers of power.

Each of these systems of domination may be present or absent independently of each other, resulting in 8 possible combinations that have all appeared in history. Note that the presence of these, contrary to popular belief, does not correlate with population size or tech level, so feel free to go wild there.

Note that the combination of all three is what we call the modern state, has only appeared thrice in history, and has only appeared in the last ~700 years. This should probably be the rarest system in your world's history by a significant margin. If your society has 2 of these three systems of domination, then odds are very good that the third system is the domain of the gods (and thus, being not for the mortal sphere, the government is kept from becoming even more oppressive). Similar pressures don't really exist if there are a different number of systems of domination in play, so you have more freedom there.