Size Matters

150621NewfaneWe got married in my small home town in New England, population about 3,000. In preparing to go get our license at the town office, we had gathered all the necessary documents to prove that we were who we said we were, that we were old enough, that we weren’t already married, and so on. We were all prepared to fill out paperwork and turn the slow gears of bureaucracy. When we walked into the office, though, the town clerk looked at us and said: “Oh, Erik, I saw your mother the other day and she said you’d be coming in for a marriage license. I’ve got it right here for you.” That’s life in a small town for you.

Small societies and large societies work in different ways. Historians and anthropologists have terms for categorizing different sizes of societies: bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and states. Like all such divisions, it’s a simplification, but it’s a useful one for getting a handle on how cultures of different scales work.


Bands are the smallest social grouping, having no more than about 80 people. A band is one big extended family and functions like one, sharing labor and resources. There are no class distinctions and decisions are made by group consensus. Everyone knows everyone else and has a personal relationship with other members of the band, so personal conflicts are settled by direct negotiations.

Bands tend to live at a subsistence level, often as hunter-gatherers. That means that anyone who isn’t a member of the band is a potential threat, because they could be competing for the same resources. An encounter with a stranger is likely to turn violent because outsiders in the band’s territory are a threat to the band’s survival. Since everyone in the band knows everyone else, they have no practice with the skills of negotiating with strangers.


Tribes are very small, but not as small as bands, having a few hundred people. The tribe is usually made up of a number of separate but closely related extended families. Resources and labor are shared and everyone knows everyone else, but not all members of the tribe have close personal relationships. Individual conflicts can usually be mediated by someone else in the tribe who has a connection to both parties.

Decision-making in tribe societies is by group consensus, like in a band, but tribes are large enough that some people tend to develop special skills, and so there are usually people in a tribe who are looked to for guidance in times of crisis. The conventional term for such a person is “big man,” but they aren’t necessarily men or big. They are people with skills and experience that the tribe recognizes, so their voices carry influence when a decisions has to be made. The rest of the time, the “big man” is no different than any other tribe member and has no authority over anyone else. “Big man” is a status that has to be earned by personal skill. It is not an official title that can be bestowed or inherited.

Like bands, tribes typically live at a subsistence level, so outsiders are likely to be perceived as a threat to the tribe’s resource base, but one of the things a “big man” may be expected to do is to try to deal peacefully with outsiders before things turn violent.


Chiefdoms are societies with populations measured in the low thousands. To maintain a population of this size usually (though there are exceptions) requires a sedentary, agricultural life. In a society this large, not everyone knows one another or is connected by personal relationships, which means that, unlike band and tribe societies, people living in a chiefdom can expect to encounter strangers. Consequently, chiefdoms have to develop ways of resolving disputes that don’t depend on personal relationships between the parties involved, which is one of the starting points for things like law and organized government.

Their size allows chiefdom societies to support labor specialization. While most people are food producers, a few specialize in fields like crafting, religious practice, healing, and warfare. The result is social stratification and the accumulation of wealth and power among certain specialists.

All of these developments lead to the emergence of permanent leadership in the person of the “chief.” Whatever local title may be used for the position, the typical characteristics of a “chief” are that they hold a recognized position of power on a permanent basis, not just in times of crisis; that their position gives them a special status over others; and that their power is typically passed down through family lines. The chief’s power, however, is personal. A chief is only as strong as his or her ability to persuade or coerce others into obeying him or her, and a weak chief is not a chief at all.


States are the kind of society we are used to today, having populations in the tens of thousands or more. With that scale of society comes all the complexity we are accustomed to living with: structured government, standardized laws, highly specialized division of labor, social stratification, organized armies, and sophisticated ideological frameworks to define and justify the relationships between people.

Size makes a difference. Small societies and large societies don’t work the same way, but, as my small-town marriage license experience reminds us, even in large state societies there are smaller sub-societies that work on a smaller scale. Anyone who’s lived in a small town, on a college campus, or in a close-knit extended family knows what that’s like. The experience of moving between one scale of society and another can be bewildering and disorienting. Whether you grew up in a big city and move to a small town or the other way around, it takes a lot of adjustment to get used to the way things work at a different scale.

Thoughts for writers

How big are the societies you’re writing about? If they’re significantly smaller than we are accustomed to today, give some thought to how that affects the way people live. Here are some key things to keep in mind:

  • The smaller the society, the more important personal relationships are. In a big city you may have no idea who lives next door, and that’s fine because if something bad happens you can call the police or the fire department or animal control. In a small village, you have to know who you can count on for help because your neighbors are the first line of defense.
  • Small societies are naturally wary of outsiders because they represent both competition for resources and the danger of upsetting the balance of local relationships. That doesn’t mean they’re necessarily hostile to newcomers, but there is a definite line between insiders and outsiders which may take years or even generations to cross.
  • The smaller the society, the less official positions of power matter or even exist. Small societies make decisions collectively and often informally. Disputes are resolved through personal mediation rather than recourse to the law. At the same time, anything which disrupts the harmony of local relationships is likely to have a long-lasting aftereffect. People who live in small rural villages are more likely to have long-running feuds than city-dwellers not because country people are more vindictive but because the network of relationships that sustains village life is much harder to repair after a disruption than the formalized bureaucracies of the city.

Image: Newfane Church, Vermont (not actually my hometown), photograph by Philip Capper via flickr.

This post has been edited for clarity.

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.