Wolfe articles relevant to Evolution of the Supranational System, with links to copies on the web.

(web version of this document: http://wolfe.myweb.usf.edu/evolution-supranational.html)


Upon taking up anthropology as an archeology student in the 1940s, I recognized a fairly clear general pattern of increasing scale of social systems in prehistory.  In North America, there were first the archaic hunting sites, then the “woodland” horticultural settlements, then the farming villages, then the larger complex “mound-builders” such as Cahokia.  But I was a student of students of Franz Boas, whose school “had largely repudiated cultural evolutionism” as Robert Carneiro put it (2003:78).


Under John Champe at Nebraska, we studied differences among cultures without emphasizing their relative status in evolutionary terms. In any event, it was obvious that change was not unidimensional -- there were periods when large scale systems broke down for reasons that were always the subject of speculation. We did much more describing than explaining.    


As I advanced in my studies, becoming in the 1950s, a cultural anthropological student of the ardent Boasian Melville J. Herskovits, I had even less reason to put the systems I studied in evolutionary perspective. My field studies of the Ngombe people in the swampy equatorial forest of the Congo gave me a strong appreciation of the theoretical approach of the British structuralists, for the Ngombe exhibited a fully functioning segmentary lineage system, so effective that in my view the Ngombe would have been a better type case of such a system than the Nuer, Tallensi, or the Tiv (Wolfe 1961).  Certainly, again, no reason for me to consider evolutionary stages. After all, those contemporary acephalous societies existed, fully functioning, at the same time as the African kindoms of the Congo, the Luba, and Ruanda.


After all those varied perspectives and experiences, my contemporary studies of the problems of new African states in central and southern Africa in the early 1960s led me to appreciate the importance of multinational enterprises in the mining and metals industries -- not so much in their individual actions as in their systematic organization at a supranational level. 


My 1962 paper, “The Team Rules Mining in Southern Africa,” was the first presentation of the network of corporations that is the "team" of the title. Then I began to see clearly that new human social systems grow out of one another.  And sometimes a truly new level of organization can be developed out of the interactions of the systems at lower levels.  That, indeed, is evolution -- a new system generating itself out of previously existing elements at lower levels.And  lower  does not mean less valuable.


My 1963 paper on this subject was entitled “The African Mineral Industry: Evolution of a Supranational Level of Integration”(1963).  This is the first publication in which the development of a supranational system is recognized as a major evolutionary saltation.  I saw this as a significant extrapolation from Julian Steward’s evolutionary theory: 


“I found the mineral extraction industry of southern Africa to be organized in an intricate social system based more on overlapping membership of a variety of groups than on a bureaucratic centralization of administrative power. The network binds groups that are different both structurally and functionally, some business corporations, some states, some families, in a modern supranational structure that is more than just international. ...The several hundred mining companies operating in southern Africa are integrated through a series of relationships that focus on some of the larger among them. ... Then, in a variety of ways, these corporations are linked with governments”(Wolfe 1963:153-54).


 My interpretations upset American financial interests and the United States government, both of  which were at that time obsessed with the “Cold War” and  thought I was maligning the West. My 1966 testimony before the Subcommittee on Africa of the U.S. Senate (1966a) detailed some of these financial networks and urged the U.S. Government to boycott South Africa. 


About that same time, I published a chapter, Capital and the Congo (1966b), that described the ways in which what was often called the “Congo Economy” was completely embedded within the supranational system. I showed, for example, how the firm, Societe General de Belgique, “came to control a much larger segment of Congo industry than their risk, in terms of actual capital investment, warranted”(p.368). In consequence, “this Belgian company is in a stronger position than its investment warrants in the supranational system of mining enterprises that involves such giants as Tanganyika Concessions, Rhodesian Selection Trust, De Beers Consolidated Mines, Anglo-American Corporation of South Africa, and the British South Africa Company”(p. 368).


Unfortunately, this was a time when few anthropologists were interested in evolution and few were interested in studying business corporations.  It wasn’t until some years later that Laura Nader excited some interest by calling for “studying up”(1969).


In those early 1960s, anthropologists were not interested in studying business corporations.  There was some talk of “corporate communities” (Wolf 1955, 1957) and some talk of corporate lineages (discussed in Dow, 1973), but the anthropological community and anthropologists as scholars were satisfied to leave the study of business corporations to economists and organizational analysts.  .Anthropological journals were certainly not publishing on these international – no, rather “supranational” -- components of wider scale.


For some reason, still unknown to me, even those anthropologists who were interested in studying the processes of evolution using some sequence of stages like Band, Tribe, Chiefdom and State -- the sequence that “survived,” to use Robert Carneiro’s characterization (2003:139) – focused their attention on the transitions within that limited range.  It was, and still seems to be, as if the “State” was the ultimate achievement, never to be surpassed, except perhaps by some sort of rising of the proletariat.  What sort of system would be generated by that rising seems not to have been a question for anthropology. The “State” was as high as anthropologists’ thinking went. 


I struggled on in the 1960s, trying to understand the processes by which these business corporations were establishing genuinely new institutions that were weakening state-level systems and strengthening the bonds among international – or, as I prefer to call them, supranational – business interests. Not even economists were yet calling such entities “multinational.” That didn’t come into the literature until the 1970s. 


In Economies in Bondage: An Essay on the Mining Industry in Africa (1967), I explained how the companies are organized, at least loosely, “in a network of overlapping groups so that even though a company may compete directly with another at one level, their higher-level supranational organization emphasizes their common interests”(p. 19). African states were constrained to use Western advisors whose counsel was “likely to be limited to the purely technical (in either law, or economics, or engineering -- and conceived in the context of status quo,” whereas the crucial problems are surely political, so that “the context of African decision-making should be oriented toward a future world system quite different from today's”(p.19).


In 1970, I described, in a chapter entitled “Tanzania-Zambia Railway: Escape Route from Neocolonial Control?” the joint attempt of Tanzania and Zambia to escape from the supranational network that controlled southern Africa, by expanding links across the Indian Ocean by building a railroad that would give Central Africa a way to export minerals outside the control of the southern African system.  Unfortunately for them, as I warned, “the extraction and processing of ores is, in all circumstances, an interdependent part of a larger scale world industrial system” (p. 102).


Those four pieces just mentioned were essentially case histories, not so much advancing the theory of evolution of the supranational system as detailing the political and economic consequences of it, especially for African development.


Distracted temporarily from the supranational system, and from the evolutionary process by which it was generated, I focused on other studies – the adaptation of urban families to poverty in St. Louis (1968), the social structural bases of art (1969), the development of network models that could be useful applied to all aspects of the social sciences (1970), and, then, developing internships as a modality of training applied anthropologists (1981).


My attention returned to evolutionary theory when, in 1974, I was asked to present a paper at the 141st annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, New York, January 1975, as part of the symposium "The Mode of Production: Method and Theory." My paper was the capstone of the symposium which traced human “modes of production” from primate tool use through a number of stages “upward” to the supranational system, seen as the latest "mode of production."


I developed that AAAS paper into “The Supranational Organization of Production,” published in Current Anthropology in 1977.  This article presents the theoretical aspects pretty well, but it was widely misunderstood – capitalists still thought I was bringing down the West,  and Marxists thought I was being too kind to the corporations. Ordinary “evolutionary anthropologists” were apparently oblivious to it. 


In 1980, my paper entitled “Multinational enterprise and urbanism” argues that as the supranational system develops, states are weakened while cities (and private corporations) grow relatively stronger. A 1986 paper, The Multinational Corporation as a Form of Sociocultural Integration above the Level of the State," presents considerably more detail on the system, but it is poorly titled, the title implying that a multinational corporation is, per se, a “form of integration” above the level of the state whereas the “form” referred to is the system generated by the interaction of multinational corporations, families, states, cities, etc. 


An unpublished 1987 paper, "Supranational Networks: States and Firms," deals with a question that has always fascinated me:  Why have so few scholars recognized the supranational system as something that is truly above the level of the state? I argue that my anthropological colleagues are, like others, bound by our own culture,  traditions and narratives to such an extent that they are unable to study these phenomena with the same "objectivity" and “relativism” with which they study the institutions of cultural systems with which they are less familiar. See especially the section on "Difficulties of Thinking Anew"(pp 3-5).


 Connecting the Dots Without Forgetting the Circles,” published in 2005 in Connections , puts the evolution of supranational systems within the context of the entire hierarchy of systems -- material, biological and sociocultural systems. It expresses my concern that network analysts often concentrate so intently on the connections that they fail to see the importance of the “whole” systems at various levels, represented in the article as circles, clusters, equivalencies, etc. In evolution, new structures are generated by interactions among the nodes at lower levels. Understanding new structures is best achieved by using network models in the comparative and emic/etic perspectives characteristic of anthropology. 


Supranational Networks: States and Firms,” an update of the 1987 paper, was published in Peace and Conflict Studies in 2006, in a continuing effort to encourage anthropologists and other social scientists to appreciate the full implications of the evolution of supranational systems.


Wolfe References on evolution and on supranational systems cited in the text above.


1962    "The Team Rules Mining in Southern Africa," Toward Freedom, Vol. II, No. 1, January.  http://luna.cas.usf.edu/~wolfe/Wolfe1962TF.pdf


1963    "The African Mineral Industry: Evolution of a Supranational Level of Integration," Social Problems, Vol.11, No.2 (Fall), pp. 153-164.  http://luna.cas.usf.edu/~wolfe/Wolfe1963.pdf


1966a    Testimony on United States-South African Relations, before the Subcommittee on Africa, of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. May 17, 1966.  U.S. Government Printing Office.


1966b  "Capital and the Congo," in Southern Africa in Transition, edited by John A. Davis and James K. Baker. New York: Praeger.  http://luna.cas.usf.edu/~wolfe/Wolfe1966-Capital.pdf


1967    "Economies in Bondage: An Essay on the Mining Industry in Africa," Africa Today, Volume 14, No. 3, pp. 16-20.


1967    "An Essay on the Mining Industry in relation to the African Revolution,” Paper presented at a Conference on Africa (Session on Neocolonialism) at Washington University, St. Louis Missouri, April 1967.  http://luna.cas.usf.edu/~wolfe/Wolfe1967-Mining


1970    "Tanzania-Zambia Railway: Escape Route from Neocolonial Control?" In Nonaligned Third World Annual, 1970. St. Louis: Books International of D.H.-T.E. International (pp. 92-103).  http://luna.cas.usf.edu/~wolfe/Wolfe1970.pdf


1977    "The Supranational Organization of Production," Current Anthropology, Vol. 18, No. 4, pp. 615-636.   http://luna.cas.usf.edu/~wolfe/Wolfe1977.pdf


1980    "Multinational enterprise and urbanism." In Thomas W. Collins, ed., Cities in a Larger Context. Proceedings of the 14th Annual Meeting of the Southern Anthropological Society. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press. Pp. 76-96. http://luna.cas.usf.edu/~wolfe/Wolfe1980.pdf


1982    Sociocultural integration above the level of the state. Cultural Futures Research 7(1): 9-16, 22.


1986    "The Multinational Corporation as a Form of Sociocultural Integration above the Level of the State." In Hendrick Serrie, Ed., Anthropology and International Business. Studies in Third World Societies, Publication Number Twenty-Eight. Williamsburg, Va.: College of William and Mary.   http://luna.cas.usf.edu/~wolfe/Wolfe1986.pdf


1987    Supranational Networks: States and Firms.” [This document, unpublished at the time, is an expanded version of papers presented at the Sun Belt Social Network Conference, Clearwater Beach, Florida, February, 1987, and at the 86th Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, in Chicago, November 20, 1987. http://luna.cas.usf.edu/~wolfe/Wolfe1987.pdf


2005    Connecting the Dots Without Forgetting the Circles.”  Connections 26(2).  http://www.insna.org/Connections-Web/Volume26-2/10.Wolfe.pdf


2006    Supranational Networks: States and Firms.” Peace and Conflict Studies 13(1):68-80. http://luna.cas.usf.edu/~wolfe/Wolfe2006SNSF-2006.pdf



Other references cited:


Carneiro, Robert L.  2003.  Evolutionism in Cultural Anthropology: A Critical History.  Boulder, CO: Westview Press.


Dow, James.  1973  On the Muddled Concept of Corporation in Anthropology.  American Anthropologist 75:904-908.


Nader, L. 1969. Up the anthropologist -- perspectives gained from studying up. In Reinventing anthropology (ed) D. Hymes. New York: Pantheon Books.


Wolf, Eric R.  1955  Types of Latin American Peasantry: A Preliminary Discussion.  American Anthrpologist 57(3, Part I):452-471.


Wolf, Eric R  1957  Closed Corporate Communities in Mesoamerica and Java. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 13(1):1-18.


Wolfe, Alvin W. 1961  In the Ngombe Tradition: Continuity and Change in the Congo.  Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.


Wolfe, Alvin W. 1968  The Soulard Area:  Adaptations by Urban White Families to Poverty. St. Louis: The Social Science Institute, Washington University. (Mimeo, 188 pp. and Appendices). (Co-authored with Barbara W. Lex, William L. Yancey, et al.).


Wolfe, Alvin W. 1969  "Social Structural Bases of Art," Current Anthropology, Vol 10, No. 1, p. 3-44.


Wolfe, Alvin W. 1970  "On Structural Comparisons of Networks," Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology, Vol 7, No. 4, pp. 226-244.


Wolfe, Alvin W. 1981  Internship Training in Applied Anthropology:  A Five Year Review. Tampa: Human Resources Institute, USF. (co-authored with Erve Chambers and J. Jerome Smith).