In my previous post, Historians and Historical Databases, I discussed how the Seshat Databank would be impossible without a close collaboration with historians and other humanities scholars. Today I want to give a specific example of how this collaboration works.
For those who have not followed the Big Gods controversy closely, last Spring the Seshat project published an article in Nature, Complex Societies Precede Moralizing Gods throughout World History. The article generated a ton of positive press (as is usual for a Nature article), but it also elicited critique from some, including supporters of the Big Gods theory. We have responded to these critiques on the preprint server SocArXiv (https://osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/xjryt; https://osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/t8hgu).
The heart of a departed is weighed against the Feather of Ma’at Source
But the Nature paper was only the first of many planned articles investigating the role of religion, morality, and other factors in the evolution of social complexity. We have recently completed a further wave of analyses using more detailed data on moralizing religion, and testing additional theories explaining the evolution of Big Gods. The new analyses confirm our original headline finding (that Big Gods come after Big Societies) and also explore additional dimensions to this complex topic. Before we submit it a journal, however, we want to get feedback from all interested parties, including our critics.
To make the whole process extra transparent, we have posted all related documents online. The main article is on SocArXiv: https://osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/2v59j/, and it is accompanied by supplementary online materials that include the data and the analysis scripts. Our aim is to achieve maximum transparency and critical engagement—everyone who wants, can critique and comment on each phase and reanalyze the data.
But we are also breaking new ground in this project. In addition to posting data and programs, we have invested a huge amount of effort into clarifying where the data come from. And this is where the collaboration with humanities scholars become critical. Most of the work during the past several months was devoted to building “analytic narratives” underlying the Seshat data.
Analytic Narratives are formalized verbal accounts focusing on several (in our case, many) in-depth case studies. The goal of this methodology is to employ the specialized knowledge possessed by historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, and religious studies scholars, who have the understanding of the particular, for the purpose of testing theories that may apply more generally. General theory (which focuses on moralizing religion in our case) imposes structure on verbal accounts by specifying which aspects of past societies we would like to get information on. But within this framework, scholars are free to explore variability between different societies, different continents, and different eras. The aim is to reflect in the document evolving interpretations and persisting controversies. Such qualitative nuance provides a much needed counterbalance to the “hard” quantitative data, which by their nature strip it away.
For those interested in looking “under the hood”, the current draft of this document is posted here:
Keep in mind that it is very much work in progress—some chapters and sections contain much more text and references than others. There are several reasons for this, the main being that there are societies for which we haven’t yet been able to recruit experts. Our approach in such cases is to “prime the pump” by including an initial description, based on the reading of available sources and then invite expert feedback and elaboration on this initial text.
As I stressed in my previous post, the success of Seshat critically depends on close collaboration with professional historians and other humanities scholars. By adding Analytic Narratives to the spectrum of products from the Seshat project we aim to deepen this collaboration and, more generally, to contribute to a dialogue between humanities and sciences. The richness and quality of Seshat results will also be enhanced. I am very keen to see how this will develop in the near future.