Institutional Dynamics and Organizational Complexity

How Social Rules Have Shaped the Evolution of Human Societies Throughout Human History

Edited by

All the human societies we know from first-hand descriptions are structured by culturally transmitted rules–institutions. On the historical time scale, institutions are very dynamic and diverse. Even in relatively small scale societies, institutions such as marriage and kinship vary substantially from society to society. Over the last ten millennia agriculture-based subsistence technology has allowed human populations to increase. Institutional complexity has increased in parallel, for example to organize increasingly intricate divisions of labor and systems of economic exchange, making possible the rise of larger and denser human populations. We are interested in both micro and macro change processes. At the time scale of politics and everyday social life, institutions are subject to various forces that lead to change, e.g. economic innovations that precipitate institutional change, or the reverse. Political actors may cause formal rules to change for their own self-interest, and changes in personal preferences in the population may change informal rules from below. We want to understand how the decisions of individuals aggregated and coordinated to produce institutional change. At the scale of millennia, we observe long term trends such as increases in social complexity, and fundamental shifts in the way societies are organized. What drives these changes and what regulates the pace of such trends? What role does historical contingency versus functional constraints play in long term institutional evolution?

Suggested citation:

Richerson, Peter J., Jenna Bednar, Thomas E. Currie, Sergey Gavrilets, and John Joseph Wallis, eds, Institutional Dynamics and Organizational Complexity: How Social Rules Have Shaped the Evolution of Human Societies Throughout Human History. Open Access Book, Cultural Evolution Society, 2023.

Table of Contents


Part 1: Locating Institutions in Time and Space

Part 2. Major Institutional Transformations

Part 3: Institutional Diversity

Part 4: Institutional dynamics at different scales

Part 5. Conclusions


Author affiliations, contacts and web sites