The SETPOL Framework:

Settlements and polities

 in World-Systems

Artist’s conception of the Cothon, the military harbor of Carthage

Christopher Chase-Dunn, Hiroko Inoue, Eugene Anderson and David Wilkinson

v. 1-31-17, 15995 words

This is IROWS Working Paper #116 available at


Institute for Research on World-Systems, University of California Riverside


*Thanks to Andrew Jorgenson and Thomas Hall for help in developing the ideas in this article.


This article presents the interdisciplinary framework developed by the SetPol Working Research Group at the University of California-Riverside for studying sociocultural evolution of complexity and hierarchy by comparing world-systems. By focusing on the population sizes of settlements and the territorial sizes of polities[1] we can pinpoint those periods in which the scale of sociocultural systems were significantly changing based on relatively simple and knowable quantitative criteria.  Human social organization and interaction networks have expanded over the long run, but in the medium-run there have been cycles of rise and fall and occasional upward sweeps and collapses.  It is the upward sweeps that account for the long-term upward trends toward larger cities and polities, and so specifying when and where the upward sweeps occurred and examining their causes will help to explain the long-term trend.[2]

This project should include all the local, regional and intercontinental human interaction networks, including both nomadic and sedentary world-systems,[3] though in practice it is necessary to limit ourselves to those regions in which fairly reliable and frequent estimates of the quantitative sizes of largest polities and settlements  are available. We focus on the territorial sizes of polities and the population sizes of settlements because these are relatively easily ascertainable quantitative indicators of system size and complexity and they allow us to differentiate between cycles and upsweeps. We need to have an interval scale metric in order to tell the difference between small and large changes.  When human sociocultural systems are studied over long periods of time we usually find cyclical processes of population growth and decline, the rise and fall of large and strong polities, etc.  Our research needs to be able to tell the difference between a “normal” upswing or downswing in which a feature of sociocultural organization is fluctuating around an equilibrium level and a acale change event of growth or decline that is larger than the “normal” fluctuations. We focus on the largest settlements and polities in each region rather than on individual settlements or polities.  The size of the largest settlement or polity are understood to be characteristics of each regional world-system that vary over time. We identify those instances in which there have been large increases or decreases in these system-wide characteristics.[4]

A very long debate has waxed and waned over how to best bound sociocultural systems in time and space for purposes of explaining the emergence of complexity and hierarchy in human societies (e.g. Chase-Dunn and Hall 1997; Mann 1986; Tilly 1984; Wallerstein 1974). Our theoretical approach is what we call institutional materialism: an interdisciplinary approach that combines focusing on the historical emergence and development of humanly constructed institutions (language, kinship, production technology, states, money, markets, etc.) and the changing ways that humans interact with their biological and physical environment. This theoretical framework deploys what has been called the comparative world-systems approach to spatially and temporally bounding human sociocultural systems.  Rather than comparing societies with one another, we compare systems of interacting human polities (or interpolity systems) and these are empirically bounded in space and time as interaction networks—multilateral regularized exchanges of materials, obligations, threats, ideas and information.

World-systems experience oscillations of expansion and contraction, with occasional large expansions that bring formerly separate regional systems into systemic intercourse with one another. These waves of expanded integration, now called globalization, have, in the last two centuries, created a single linked intercontinental political-economy in which all national societies are strongly connected.  But all earlier regional interaction networks also experienced expansions and contractions of trade. Archaeological studies of obsidian and shell exchange show these oscillations even among very small-scale polities in many regions (e.g. Chase-Dunn and Mann 1998).

As Tilly (1984) has emphasized, societies (defined as communities that share a common language and culture) are messy entities when we consider interaction networks. Many of the networks in which households are deeply involved are local, while many other important interactions strongly link the inhabitants of many different societies to one another. The world-systems perspective has argued that societies are subsystems within a larger system, and that in order to understand historical development we must focus on the larger system as a whole. Chase-Dunn and Hall (1997) have developed a nested network approach for spatially bounding world-systems that enables the comparison of the modern global system with earlier, smaller regional world-systems. They contend that the world-system rather than single polities is the most important unit of analysis for explaining long-term social change because interpolity conflict and cooperation are very important sources of the selection pressures that cause sociocultural development. In this essay we explain this nested network approach to spatially bounding world-systems and we propose a practical research design for studying the emergence of larger and larger interaction networks that uses expanding network as the unit of analysis.

      One problem with regional analysis is the effort to define regions in terms of homogenous sociocultural attributes. Thus, comparative civilizationists have mainly focused on the main cultural characteristics that are embodied in religions or institutionalized world-views and have tended to construct lists of such culturally defined civilizations that then become the “cases” for the study of social change (e.g. Toynbee 1947-57). The problem here is that most interactive sociocultural systems are multicultural, and religious ideologies interact with one another, both diffusing attributes to one another and reactively developing distinctions. So the effort to spatially bound systems based on religious beliefs or other ideological characteristics does not produce regions that are autonomous from one another.

 The “culture area” approach developed by geographer Carl Sauer and used widely by ethnographers and archaeologists tries to define regions as areas with homogenous contiguous characteristics (e.g. Wissler 1927). The culture area project gathered and coded valuable information on all sorts of cultural attributes such as languages, architectural styles, technologies of production, and kinship structures, and used these to designate bounded and adjacent “culture areas.”

A major problem with both the civilizationist and the cultural area approaches is the assumption that homogeneity is a good approach to spatially bounding social systems for purposes of explaining social change. Heterogeneity rather than homogeneity has long been an important aspect of human social systems because different kinds of groups often complement one another and interaction often produces differentiation rather than similarity.  The effort to bound systems as homogeneous regions obscures this important fact. Spatial distributions of homogeneous characteristics do not bound separate social systems. Examples in which social heterogeneity was produced by interaction include core/periphery differentiation, urban/rural, and sedentary/nomadic systems. Owen Lattimore’s (1940) classic, Inner Asian Frontiers of China, shows how Central Asian diversified foragers evolved to become specialized steppe pastoralists because of their interactions with farmers along the ecological boundary between steppe and loess.  The farmer/pastoralist interaction was a powerful source of social change among Bronze and Iron Age societies for millennia (e.g. Barfield 1989). And the interaction between farmers and fishing populations led to the emergence of maritime polities that specialized in naval power and sea-borne trade such as Dilmun (Bahrein) in the Arabian/Persian Gulf (Tosi 1986),  perhaps the first semiperipheral capitalist city-state carrying goods between the Indus Valley civilization and Mesopotamia in the Bronze Age. Bounding regions based on homogenous attributes completely ignores important interactions among different kinds of societies.

Anthropologists and geographers have developed complicated multidimensional approaches that examine distributions of many spatial characteristics statistically (e.g. Burton 1995)  but these approaches still must make rather arbitrary choices in order to specify regional boundaries and they continue to ignore interactions among different kinds of societies. The world-systems approach focuses instead on human interaction networks, and so it is able to define its units of analysis as systemic combinations of very different kinds of societies. This makes it possible to study multicultural systems and core/periphery relations as cases that can help to untangle the complicated dynamics of sociocultural development.[5]

Another important point is worth making regarding the relationship between natural ecological regions (biomes) and human interaction networks. Biomes are regions that are defined on the basis of soil type, climate, characteristic plants and animals, etc. The relationship between human social structures and the natural world is obviously important, as stressed by cultural ecologists. Comparative research has demonstrated that empires are more likely to expand into regions that are ecologically similar to the home region, and so they are more likely to be wide than to be tall (to expand in the East/West plane rather than North/South (Turchin, Adams and Hall 2006).  Cultural ecology stresses the important ways in which local ecological factors conditioned sociocultural institutions and modes of living. This has been an especially compelling perspective for understanding small-scale systems in which people were mainly interacting with adjacent neighbors not very far away. But this kind of local ecological determinism is much less compelling when world-systems get larger because long-distance interaction networks and the development of larger scale technologies enable people to impose socially constructed logics on local ecologies and to convert biomes into “anthroms” – regions in which the ecology has been radically altered by the intervention of humans (Ellis et al 2010). Some social evolutionists have interpreted this to mean that social institutions have become progressively less ecologically constrained (Lenski, Lenski, and Nolan 1995). But what has happened instead is that the spatial scale of ecological constraints has grown to the point where they are operating globally rather than locally (Chase-Dunn and Hall 2006).

Spatially Bounding World-Systems

The world-systems perspective originally emerged as a theoretical approach for explaining the expansion and deepening of the modern Europe-centered system as it engulfed the globe over the past 500 years (Arrighi 1994; Chase-Dunn 1998; Wallerstein 1974). The idea of a core/periphery hierarchy composed of “advanced,” economically developed, and powerful states dominating and exploiting “less developed” peripheral regions has been a central concept in the world-systems perspective. In the last two decades the world-systems approach has been extended to the analysis of earlier interpolity systems. Andre Gunder Frank and Barry Gills (1993) have argued that the contemporary world system is a continuation of a 5000-year old system that emerged with the first states and cities in Mesopotamia. Chase-Dunn and Hall (1997) have modified the basic world-systems concepts to make them useful for a comparative study of very different kinds of systems. They include very small regional interpolity networks composed of sedentary foragers (Chase-Dunn and Mann 1998), as well as larger regional systems containing chiefdoms, early states, agrarian empires, and the contemporary global political economy.

The comparative world-systems perspective is designed to be general enough to allow comparisons between quite different systems. Chase-Dunn and Hall (1997) defined world-systems as important networks of interaction that impinge upon a local society and condition social reproduction and social change. They note that different kinds of interaction often have distinct spatial characteristics and degrees of importance in different kinds of systems. And they hold that the question of the nature and degree of systemic interaction between two locales is prior to the question of core/periphery relations. Indeed, they make the existence of core/periphery relations an empirical question in each case, rather than an assumed characteristic of all world-systems.

Part of Chase-Dunn and Hall’s claim that world-system networks are the most important unit analysis for explaining sociocultural development is based on the hypothesis of semiperipheral development. Chase-Dunn and Hall (1997, Chapter 5) contend that semiperipheral regions within core/periphery hierarchies have been fertile locations for the implementation of new technologies of power,  and that semiperipheral polities have played and continue to play  important roles in the transformation of world-systems. Of course semiperipherality is a relational concept that depends on the nature of the larger system.  Semiperipheral marcher chiefdoms were often the agents of the formation of larger paramount chiefdomships by conquest (Kirch 1984) and semiperipheral marcher states have frequently been the founders of large core-wide empires that accounted for upsweeps in polity size. Semiperipheral capitalist city-states in the interstices between tributary states and empires were agents of commodification that expanded trade networks in the Bronze and Iron Ages, and more recently. The phenomenon of semiperipheral development is the main force behind the movement in space of the cutting edge of complexity and hierarchy in human social change. It has mainly been societies out on the edge of older core regions that rewire the networks and expand the polities.

Spatially bounding world-systems must necessarily proceed from a locale-centric beginning rather than from a whole-system focus. This is because all human societies, even nomadic hunter-gatherers, interact importantly with neighboring societies. Thus, if we consider all indirect interactions to be of systemic importance (even very indirect ones) then there has been a single, global world-system since humankind spread to all the continents. But interaction networks, while they always linked polities that were near to one another, have not always been global in the sense that actions in one region had important and relatively quick effects on very distant regions. When transportation and communication occurred only over short distances world-systems were small. Thus the word “world” refers to the network of interactions that impinge on any focal locale.

It is necessary to use the notion of “fall-off” of effects over space (Renfrew 1977) to bound the networks of interaction that importantly impinge upon any point of origin. The world-system of which any locality is a part includes those peoples whose actions in production, communication, warfare, alliance, and trade have a large and interactive impact on that locality. 

               This method of bounding systems is “place-centric.” It is also important to distinguish between endogenous systemic interaction processes and exogenous impacts that may change a system, but are not part of that system. Sweet potatoes somehow got from South America to the Polynesian Islands of the Pacific, but this in itself did not constitute a systemic interaction between the two regions. Maize slowly diffused from Mesoamerica to Eastern North America, but that does not mean that the two areas were part of the same world-system. A virulent pathogen might contact a population with no immunity and ravage that population. But such an event does not necessarily mean that the region from which the pathogen came and the region it penetrated, are parts of a single interactive system. Interactions must be two-way and regularized to be systemic.  Alexander of Macedon conquered part of the South Asian subcontinent, but after the subsequent Greek states were expelled there was little direct or indirect political/military interaction between the Mediterranean state system and the Indic system of states until Mahmud of Ghazni once again linked the two systems a millennium later.

Chase-Dunn and Hall (1997) note that in most intersocietal systems there are several important networks with different spatial scales that impinge upon any particular locale:

         Information Networks (INs)

         Prestige Goods Networks (PGNs)

         Political/Military Networks (PMNs) and

         Bulk Goods Networks (BGNs).

The largest networks are those in which information and ideas travel. Information is light and it travels a long way, even in systems based on down-the-line interaction.[6] These are termed Information Networks (INs). A usually somewhat smaller interaction network is based on the exchange of prestige goods or luxuries that have a high value/weight ratio. Such goods travel far, even in down-the-line systems. These are called Prestige Goods Networks (PGNs). The next largest interaction net is composed of polities that are allying or making war with one another. These are called Political/Military Networks (PMNs). [7]And the smallest networks are those based on a division of labor in the production of basic everyday necessities such a food and raw materials. These are Bulk Goods Networks (BGNs). Figure 1 illustrates how these interaction networks are spatially related in most world-systems.

            World-systems vary in the degree to which these different kinds of interaction are systemic – have important impacts on local sociocultural reproduction and social change. In all systems the Bulk Goods Network (BGN) and the Political-Military Network (PMN) are systemic. But the Prestige Goods Network varies across systems in both the ways it may be systemic and the extent to which it is important for sociocultural reproduction and social change. And the same may be said of the Information Network (IN).

Immanuel Wallerstein (1974) defined core/periphery relations in the modern world-system  in terms of a hierarchical division of labor in the production of necessities between different polities or regions. This is the BGN. In world-system comparative perspective the BGN may or may not be hierarchical in the sense of unequal exchange in different systems, but it is always systemic because it is important for reproducing local households and communities. Political-military interactions among polities (alliances and warfare) may or may not correspond spatially with the Bulk Goods Network, though the assumption that polities do not trade or intermarry with their traditional enemies is often false.

Anthropologists have long noticed the importance of prestige goods when they are used by elites to reward subalterns and to control marriage (Sahlins 1972 ; Eckholm and Friedman  1982     ; Peregrine 1992 ) And Jane Schneider (1991 ) claimed that, contra Wallerstein, prestige goods flows across the Silk Roads had played an important role in the development of the core regions of Eurasia as well.  Mary Helms (1988) has emphasized the importance of exotic ideas as well as goods in the emergence of theocratic chiefdoms and early states.  A study of a very small world-system in Northern California found that prestige goods were an important source of credit in interpolity trade, reducing the likelihood or raiding in times of scarcity (Chase-Dunn and Mann 1998).  So prestige goods can play different roles in different systems and the question of whether or not and how they are systemic should be empirically determined for every system.



Figure 1: Nested Interaction Networks

The first question for any locale concerns the nature and spatial characteristics of its links with the above four interaction nets. This is prior to any consideration of core/periphery relation because one region must be linked to another by systemic interaction in order for a consideration of whether or not interpolity relations involve exploitation or domination is relevant. The spatial characteristics of these networks clearly depend on the costs of transportation and communications, and whether or not interaction is only with neighbors or there are regularized long-distance trade journeys being made. But these factors affect all kinds of interaction and so the relative size of networks is expected to approximate what is shown in Figure 1. Fall-off in the PMN generally occurs after two or three indirect links. Suppose polity X is fighting and allying with its immediate neighbors and sometimes with the immediate neighbors of its neighbors. So its direct links extend to the neighbors of the neighbors. But how many indirect links will involve actions that will importantly affect this original polity? The number of indirect links that bound a PMN is usually either two or three. As polities get larger and interactions occur over greater distances, each indirect link extends much farther across space. But the point of important fall-off will usually be after either two or three indirect links.


Figure 2: Chronograph of the Emergence of the Central PMN (following Wilkinson 1987)

Using this conceptual apparatus, we can construct spatio-temporal chronographs for how the social structures and interaction networks of human populations changed their spatial scales to eventuate in the single global political economy of today. Figure 2 uses PMNs as the unit of analysis to show how what David Wilkinson (1987) calls “Central Civilization,” a PMN that was formed when the Mesopotamian and Egyptian PMNs merged in about 1500 BCE and which eventually incorporated all the other PMNs into itself to become the contemporary global interstate system. The timing of mergers and expansions depicted in Figure 2 are based on Wilkinson’s careful reading of world history to determine when the regions specified began to make war and alliances with one another. This kind of chronograph could be constructed for other regions using the same kinds of historical evidence, and this would be a huge contribution to our knowledge of the expansion of socio-cultural systems.

World-System Cycles: Rise-and-Fall and Oscillations

Comparative research reveals that all world-systems exhibit cyclical processes of change. There are two major cyclical phenomena: the rise and fall of large polities, and oscillations in the spatial extent and intensity of trade networks. “Rise and fall” corresponds to changes in the centralization of political/military power in a set of polities. It is a question of the relative size and distribution of power across a set of interacting polities.

All world-systems in which there are hierarchical polities experience a cycle in which relatively larger polities grow in power and size and then decline. This applies to interchiefdom systems as well as interstate systems, to systems composed of empires, and to the modern rise and fall of hegemonic core powers (e.g., Britain and the United States). Though very egalitarian and small scale systems such as the diversified sedentary foragers of Northern California (Chase-Dunn and Mann 1998) did not display a cycle of rise and fall, they did experience oscillations of trade networks.

Chase-Dunn and Hall (1997) contend that the causal processes of rise and fall differ to some extent depending on the predominant mode of accumulation. One big difference between the rise and fall of empires and the rise and fall of modern hegemons is in the degree of centralization achieved within the core. Tributary systems alternate back and forth between a structure of multiple and competing core states on the one hand, and core-wide (or nearly core-wide) empires on the other.[8] The modern interstate system experiences the rise and fall of hegemons, but these never take over the other core states to form a core-wide empire. This is because the modern hegemons have pursued a capitalist, rather than a tributary, form of accumulation.

Analogously, rise and fall works somewhat differently in interchiefdom systems because the institutions that facilitate the extraction of resources from distant groups are not as developed in chiefdom systems. David G. Anderson’s (1994) study of the rise and fall of Mississippian chiefdoms in the Savannah River valley provides an excellent and comprehensive review of the anthropological literature about what Anderson calls “cycling,” the processes by which a chiefly polity extended control over adjacent chiefdoms and erected a two-tiered hierarchy of administration over the tops of local communities. At a later point, these regionally centralized chiefly polities disintegrated back toward a system of smaller and less hierarchical polities.

Chiefs relied more on hierarchical kinship relations, control of ritual hierarchies, and control of prestige goods imports than did the rulers of true states. These chiefly techniques of power are all highly dependent on normative integration and ideological consensus. States developed specialized organizations for extracting resources that chiefdoms lacked—standing armies and bureaucracies. And states and empires in the tributary world-systems were more dependent on the projection of armed force over great distances than modern hegemonic core states have been. The development of commodity production and mechanisms of financial control, as well as further development of bureaucratic techniques of power, have allowed modern hegemons to extract resources from far-away places with much less overhead cost.

The development of techniques of power has made core/periphery relations ever more important for competition among core powers and has altered the way in which the rise-and-fall process works in other respects. Chase-Dunn and Hall (1997, Chapter. 6) argue that population growth, degradation of natural resources, and changes in productive technology and social structure, have generated sociocultural development that is marked by cycles and occasional upsweeps. This is because any world-system varies around an equilibrium as a result of both internal instabilities and environmental fluctuations. Occasionally, on one of the upswings, a system solves its problems in a new way that allows for substantial expansion. The point is to explain expansions, qualitative transformations of systemic logics, and collapses by studying whole world-systems over time and by comparing these to one another.

The multiscalar regional method of bounding world-systems as nested interaction networks outlined above is complimentary with a multiscalar temporal analysis of the kind suggested by Fernand Braudel’s work. Temporal depth, the longue durée, needs to be combined with analyses of short-run and middle-run processes to fully understand social change.

A strong case for the very longue durée is made by Jared Diamond’s (1997) study of the long-term consequences of original differences in zoological and botanical wealth or “natural capital.” The geographical distribution of those species that could be easily and usefully domesticated (combined with the relative ease of latitudinal vs. longitudinal diffusion) explains a huge portion of the variation in which world-systems expanded and incorporated other world-systems.

The diagram in Figure 3 depicts the coming together of the East Asian and the West Asian/Mediterranean systems. Both the PGNs and the PMNs are shown, as are the oscillations and rise and fall sequences. The larger PGNs linked intermittently and then joined. The PMNs were joined briefly by the Mongol conquerors, and then more permanently when the Europeans and Americans established Asian treaty ports. The pink area of Figure 3 depicts the same Central PMN that is shown in Figure 2.  The point here is that the chronograph is different depending on where it starts. Figure 2 and the left half of Figure 3 start in Mesopotamian and Egypt where the first cities and states on Earth emerged. The right half of Figure 3 starts in with the emergence of Shang Civilization in the Yellow River valley of China. The chronographs for South Asia and the Americas would be different.

It should be noted that the depiction in Figure 3 of the spatial boundaries of the PMNs and the PGNs is only an approximation. Another rough depiction of expanding, contracting and eventually merging is contained in Chase-Dunn and Hall’s (1998) study of world-systems in North America. Wilkinson (1987-2007) has also specified the boundaries of many other regional PMNs, and he has coded what he calls the “power polarity”  or “power concentration” trajectories for several world regional PMNs. This latter corresponds to what we have called “rise-and-fall” cycles above.[9]


Figure 3: The Eastern and Western PMNs and PGNs

The following section describes the proposed structure and format for a geo-chronological dataset that focuses on the religious, trade, conquest, demographic, political, climate change and epidemiological aspects of settlements and polities in four world regional PMNs and the Central PMN over the past six millennia.  The main purpose of this dataset is to enable the determination of the main causes of systemic integration and disintegration.

The Polities and Settlements in World Interaction Networks (PSWIN) dataset will be established and maintained by the Settlements and Polities Research Working Group at the Institute for Research on World-Systems (IROWS) at the University of California-Riverside in collaboration with colleagues at other universities. This data set will be made available for public usage.  The dataset will link with the World Historical Dataverse at the University of Pittsburgh

The proposed data set will use CSV data files that will be stored on the IROWS web site at the University of California-Riverside and mirrored at other locations. Though a relational database that links settlements, polities and regional PMNs with time periods is very useful, this project presents the data in a simple spreadsheet format (Excel) that is more broadly useable by researchers, and can be easily transferred into relational databases if so desired.

The PSWIN data set will include historical quantitative estimates of several demographic, political, climate and epidemiological characteristics of settlements and polities. The characteristics will be grouped into several world regional PMNs.  Additional world regions can be added if quantitative estimates of the main variables are located.  An effort will be made to use the same or similar metrics across world regions, but in some cases this may not be possible.

World Regional PMNs and the Central Political-Military Network

Four world regional PMNs and the expanding Central PMN will be initially studied: Mesopotamia, Egypt, South Asia and East Asia. If there are comparable quantitative estimates of the largest settlements and polity sizes, other regions such as the Americas can be added, but so far these have not been located. Each region’s data will be contained in sets of Excel worksheets, with a row for each year of an observation.  The spatial boundaries of each of the world regional PMNs will be ascertained based on the rule of two indirect interactions from the center of the region’s heartland of settlements.  After these regions become incorporated into the Centrall PMN it may be desirable to continue the data coding for the largest settlements and polities in the region. The Central PMN) will be bounded as conceptually and spatially defined by David Wilkinson (1987) and as depicted in Figure 2 above. The Central System eventually includes Europe, Central Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, Oceania, the Americas and the four world regions delineated above. The characteristics of individual settlements and polities within each of these world regions will be coded. We will focus on the largest settlements and polities in each region and on important smaller settlements and polities, such as city-states.

Each of the  world regional PMNs mentioned is understood in world-systemic terms as including populations that were importantly interacting. So, for example, Mesopotamia includes the Susiana Plain in Iran and the nomadic peoples in surrounding mountains and deserts who were interacting with the Mesopotamian cities and states. East Asia includes what became China, Japan, Korea and the populations that interacted with these urbanized areas. Central Asian empires that conquered the East Asian heartland of cities are included in the East Asian system. 

The SetPol Project

The SetPol project is constructing a multidisciplinary theoretical research program to test hypotheses about the causes of changes in city and empire sizes from the second millennium BCE to the present in order to shed light on the contemporary and near future global situation.  The project is inventorying explanations of scale changes from anthropology, sociology and political science and is developing and populating templates for a graph database that will allow the use of  geographical and network analyses for studying interactions among cities and empires. This database structure makes it possible to test causal propositions and models derived from the comparative evolutionary world-systems perspective, geopolitics and human ecology -- theoretical perspectives that have been developed by sociologists, anthropologists and political scientists—and constructs a multidisciplinary sociohistorical theoretical research program. The quantitative graph database includes the territorial sizes of states and empires (polities), the population sizes of cities and polities, interaction links and climate change in ten world regions over the past 3500 years. The project also spatially bounds whole interaction networks by estimating changes in the boundaries and intensities of human interactions of several kinds: everyday necessities, the trade of high value goods, the interactions of fighting and allying polities and the diffusion of ideas and genetic materials. SetPol codes the power configurations (unipolar, bipolar, multipolar, etc.) of interstate systems and the world-system positions of settlements and polities (core, semiperiphery and periphery) within regional interaction networks. Causal propositions will be tested using five different units of analysis: individual cities and polities, networks of interacting cities and polities and spatially constant regions and the whole Earth as a single context for studying the causes of changes in urban and polity scales. A research team from archaeology, anthropology, geography, history, political science, sociology, ecology and climatology will carry out this first two-year phase. The multidisciplinary theoretical research program that will be developed will come primarily from anthropology, sociology, political science and geography, but participation by climatologists, historians, computer scientists and ecologists will contribute to the production of an improved database that allows for the use of geographical and network research methods. 

         The long-standing upward trends in the sizes of cities and polities is well known, but still in dispute are the long-term, proximate and contextual causes of these trends. The SetPol project improves upon and extends existing quantitative compilations of estimates of the sizes of cities and polities to identify those instances in ten world regions in which upsweeps in polity and city sizes have occurred, and will empirically examine the human and natural factors that have been hypothesized to be the causes of these instances of scale change. The project also identifies instances of collapse in the sizes of polities and cities and studies their causes. The project also develops accurate approximations of the growth and intensity of interaction networks that have constituted economic and political globalization since the late Bronze Age. The project employs both standard comparative methods and recently developed geographical and network approaches to data analysis that use both GIS spatial analysis and formal network methods. This contributes to the scientific understanding of the causes of the emergence of complexity and hierarchy in human societies and deepens our understanding of sociocultural evolutionary processes.

The SetPol project uses both quantitative estimates of population sizes of the largest cities in world regions and estimates of the territorial sizes of largest states and empires to study the causes of changes in the scale of human institutions. Upsweeps are instances in which the largest settlement or polity in a region significantly increases in size for the first time. The project also uses spatially constant world regions as well as spatially changing whole interaction networks (world-systems) as units of analysis. This multidisciplinary research is organized around the territorial sizes of polities and the population sizes of cities because these are relatively easily ascertainable quantitative indicators of system size and complexity. Interval scale metrics are needed in order to tell the difference between small and large changes in scale.  When human sociocultural systems are studied over long periods of time cyclical processes of population growth and decline, the rise and fall of large and strong polities, are empirically evident. This project will employ a systematic method[10] of differentiating between a “normal” upswing or downswing in which the scale of sociocultural organization is fluctuating around an equilibrium level and an event of growth or decline that is significantly greater than the normal fluctuations (see Figure 1).  Focusing on the largest cities and polities in each region rather than on individual cities or polities makes these cycles of upswings, downswings, upsweeps and collapses visible.  Are the forces and conditions that cause upsweeps simply larger than those that cause upswings, or are different factors involved? Or do they combine in different ways? And are the causes of upsweeps the same as the causes of collapses but in reverse? The project uses upswings, upsweeps, downswings, downsweeps and collapses of city and polity sizes as dependent variables to be explained. This project studies city and polity sizes in ten world regions from 1500 BCE until 2010 CE.

Figure 1. Types of Medium-term Scale Change in the Largest Cities and Polities


SetPol builds on and improves earlier data compendia and uses the upgraded data to more accurately identify upsweep and collapse events (Inoue et al 2012 and Inoue et al 2015).  An example of results obtained using the territorial sizes of the largest polities in Europe and East Asia is shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Sizes of largest polities in Europe and East Asia (square megameters): 1500 BCE- 2010CE

            Figure 2 shows the sizes of the largest states and empires in Europe and East Asia since 1500 BCE. Both regions show the overall long-term trend toward greater polity sizes and also the sequences of shorter-term fluctuations. When we look at Europe’s trajectory vis a vis East Asia in Figure 2 we can see that the rise of the Han Empire in China began earlier than the rise of the large Macedonian and Roman empires in Europe and the decline began earlier in East Asia than it did in Europe. China did it first, followed not long after by Europe. The European peak then last rather longer than did the Chinese peak. This was what many have observed as the unusually long tenure of the Roman Empire. Then Europe went into a long slump while Tang China recovered. So these waves of empire formation were partly, but not entirely, synchronous, and Walter Scheidel’s (2009) idea of the first great divergence[11] is supported. But the apparent divergence was partly due to the earlier start of East Asia. The later rise of Europe began in the 15th century, contrary to Andre Gunder Frank’s (1998,2014) contention that the great divergence that was the rise of Europe was a late and conjunctural event. Qing China also got very large but ended up only half as large, in terms of territorial size, as the British Empire.

            The main multidisciplinary theoretical thrust of SetPol is based on a scope of comparison that comes from anthropology, archaeology and world history. This scope is combined with competing explanations of scale changes that come from ecology, sociology, history and political science, especially international relations theory.[12]  Sociology gave birth to the world-system perspective (Wallerstein 1974), which posits the existence of a hierarchical Europe-centered interstate system that emerged in the long sixteenth century CE[13] in which some polities (those in the core) exploit and dominate others (the semiperiphery and the periphery).  SETPOL will utilize an anthropological and world historical framework to compare small, regional and global world-systems over the past 3500 years (Chase-Dunn and Hall 1997; Chase-Dunn and Lerro 2014). .

Political scientists focus on political institutions and on international relations, especially regarding power dynamics among competing states, institutions of diplomacy and arms races. International relations theory focuses on geopolitics as a struggle for power in which military capabilities and warfare are central components. Geopolitics is most often understood as a multiplayer game in which territorial strategies are an important element, in means and ends, of power struggles. Most international relations theorists focus on the interstate system that emerged in Europe after being institutionally defined by the treaty of Westphalia in 1648 CE. SETPOL uses an anthropological and world historical framework to examine the nature of interstate systems since the emergence of early states in Mesopotamia and Egypt.

Chase-Dunn and Hall (1997) contended that world-systems, defined as interaction networks with consequential effects for local social structures, are the most important unit of analysis for explaining large-scale social change.  The evolutionary[14] world-systems perspective allows comparisons between whole interaction networks that are different in size, period and location.  They point out that different kinds of interaction have distinct spatial characteristics and degrees of importance in different kinds of world-systems. Chase-Dunn and Hall (1997) employ a place-centric approach that bounds spatial networks by asking what reproduces or changes the social structures of a designated locality. Always important are low value per unit of weight food and other everyday raw materials (bulk goods) that form a network that is usually spatially smaller than the network of political/military interaction. And there are even larger networks formed by exchanges of information and prestige goods that may be consequential for local social structures. Chase-Dunn and Hall (1997) also turn the issue of core/periphery hierarchies into an empirical question rather than a definitional assumption. The evolutionary comparative world-systems approach allows for the possibility that world-systems might exist that do not have core/periphery hierarchies, and indeed the small-scale system in indigenous Northern California studied by Chase-Dunn and Mann (1998) had very limited interpolity domination and exploitation. Core/periphery hierarchies emerge and evolve, along with other types of inequality, as the capabilities of some polities to extract resources from distant peoples develop.

Most state-based world-systems are organized as hierarchical interstate systems in which core polities and cities exploit and dominate non-core peoples. Power is organized in different ways in different systems and so what semiperipherality is in any system depends on what coreness and peripherality are. These are relational concepts. But it is possible to identify these world-system positions in very different kinds of systems based on common characteristics that are associated with them such as population density, geographical location, and differences in modes of accumulation (foraging, pastoralism, horticulture, agriculture, scale of irrigation, industrialization). Chase-Dunn and Hall (1997) describe a phenomenon they call “semiperipheral development.”  This involves the observation that peoples and polities that are semiperipheral vis a vis the larger world-system of which they are a part are more likely to implement technological and organizational forms that facilitate upward mobility and/or that change the developmental logic of world-systems.  One variety of this phenomenon involves semiperipheral marcher states that conquer older core regions to produce an upsweep in polity size. Another variety involves semiperipheral capitalist city-states that are agents of commodification—the expansion and deepening of trade networks. Increasing trade and production for exchange facilitates provides a fertile context for the emergence of larger cities and larger polities.

There are several possible processes that might account for the phenomenon of semiperipheral development. Randall Collins (1999) has argued that the phenomenon of marcher states conquering other states to make larger empires is due to the “marcher state advantage.” Being out on the edge of a core region of competing states allows more maneuverability because it is not necessary to defend the rear. This geopolitical advantage allows military resources to be concentrated on vulnerable neighbors. Peter Turchin (2003) has argued that the relevant process is one in which group solidarity is enhanced by being on a “metaethnic frontier” in which the clash of contending cultures produces strong cohesion and cooperation within a frontier polity, allowing it to perform great feats. Carroll Quigley (1961) distilled a somewhat similar theory from the works of Arnold Toynbee. Another factor affecting within-group solidarity is the different degrees of internal stratification usually found in premodern systems between the core and the semiperiphery. Core societies develop old, crusty and bloated elites who rely on mercenaries and “foreigners” as subalterns, while semiperipheral leaders are often charismatic individuals who identify with their soldiers and citizens (and vice versa). Less inequality within a polity often means greater group solidarity and this may be an important part of the semiperipheral advantage. Ibn Khaldun’s (1958) model of nomadic barbarians conquering decrepit old civilizations has been an inspiration to some of this thinking. And the tie with internal inequality may also be linked with waves of population growth and unrest within polities – the so-called “secular cycle” (Goldstone 1991; Turchin and Nefadov 2009). 

Hub theories of innovation have been popular among world historians (e.g. McNeill and McNeill 2003; Christian 2004) and human ecologists (Hawley 1950). These hold that new ideas and institutions emerge in central settlements where information crossroads are located. Mixing and recombination of ideas and information leads to the emergence of new formulations. Recent studies have shown evidence that information exchange, innovations, and political, economic and social activities increase exponentially with city size (Ortman et al. 2014; Ortman et al. 2015). 

            Esther Boserup (1965) developed a demographic theory that focuses on population growth and population pressure as the master variables behind social change. Technological change was explained as an adaptation to population density nearing or exceeding the carrying capacity of the environment under a given technological regime. Cultural ecology and population pressure have important implications for sociocultural development when they are combined with the idea of social and ecological circumscription proposed by Robert Carneiro (1978). Carneiro explained the social organizational ruptures that produced the first states in terms of population pressure in a geographic situation in which outmigration was impossible or very costly. Under these conditions people stay and fight rather than migrating. High levels of warfare killed off population and reduced population pressures. Some systems got caught in a vicious cycle in which warfare operated as a demographic regulator (e.g. Kirch 1991). But in other systems people became tired of warfare and allowed the emergence of elites who organized larger polities that regulated conflict and resource allocation (property). The elements of population pressure, intensification of production, ecological degradation, technological change, conflict, and circumscription are combined in different ways by different theorists, but these are the main ingredients that comprise most of the explanations of long run cultural evolution by archaeologists and many anthropologists (e.g., Johnson and Earle 1987; see also Chase-Dunn and Hall 1997: Chapter 6).

      SetPol’s main dependent variables are changes in the scale of polities and cities. Individual polities and cities will be studied, and the sizes of the largest of these within regions and interaction networks will be studied as characteristics of the region or the network.[15] As mentioned above this project will divide the indicators of scale change into upswings, upsweeps, downswings, downsweeps, surges and collapses (Inoue et al 2012). Though these are all based on the sizes of largest cities and polities, timing and the way in which the unit of analysis is employed (regions vs different kinds of networks) will affect the identification of these scale changes. The main independent variables that will be studied are: the world-system positions of polities and cities (core-semiperiphery-periphery), the power configurations of interstate systems (unipolar, bipolar, multipolar, etc.) (Wilkinson 2003), changes in the intensity of warfare, network node centrality, the centralization of whole networks (graph centrality); climate change, and environmental degradation. The project will also examine the extent to which changes in the sizes of cities are associated with changes in the sizes polities. In addition to focusing on the largest cities or polities in each region or network, the project will also compute and study the size distributions of largest cities and polities. Urban geographers have long theorized about the causes and consequences of city size distributions.[16] Our comparison of largest polities in East Asia, Europe and the Central Political/Military Network[17] enable us to ascertain how the size distributions have changed over time and how these may be related with scale changes and possible inter-regional synchronies.

The SetPol theoretical research program is developing and testing an integrated synthetic model of the long-term causes of human sociocultural evolution – specifically the growth of cities and polities, but also increasing structural complexity and hierarchy in human polities and world-systems. The integrated model combines the iteration model produced by Chase-Dunn and Hall (1997: Chapter 6; Chase-Dunn and Lerro 2014: Figure 2.5 on page 27) with the structural demographic model developed by Jack Goldstone (1991) and elaborated and formalized by Peter Turchin and Sergey Nefadov (2009). This multilevel model includes processes that operate within settlements and polities, especially demographic growth, population pressure, growing inequalities, social movements and state failure, with processes that operate between polities (warfare, interpolity trade, semiperipheral development, etc.) and climate change and epidemic diseases.

The Comparative Framework

SetPol studies expanding and contracting interaction networks among human polities and settlements as both units of analysis and as causal contexts of scale changes in the sizes of cities and empires. Human interaction networks have expanded and intensified over the long run (globalization), but in the medium-run there have been cycles of network expansion and contraction.

The best way to spatially bound human social systems is an old question that continues to generate heated disputes among social scientists. Michael Mann (1986) notes that different important kinds of interaction have different spatial scales, and so the notion that societies have single spatial boundaries is usually incorrect and causes much misunderstanding. Many regionalists define regions in terms of homogenous attributes, either natural or social.  Comparative civilizationists have tended to focus on the core cultural characteristics that are embodied in religions or world-views and have constructed lists of such culturally defined civilizations that then become the “cases” for the study of social change (e.g. Melko and Leighton 1987). Another approach that defines regions as areas with homogenous characteristics is the “culture area” approach developed by Alfred L. Kroeber and his colleagues (e.g. Wissler 1927; Kroeber 1944). This project gathered valuable information on all sorts of cultural attributes such as languages, architectural styles, technologies of production, and kinship structures, and used these to designate bounded and adjacent “culture areas” that have been widely used to organize studies of indigenous peoples (e.g. Sturtevant 1978-2007, the Smithsonian Handbook of North American Indians).

A major problem with both the civilizationist and the cultural area traditions is the assumption that homogeneity is a good approach to bounding whole social systems. Heterogeneity rather than homogeneity has long been an important aspect of human social systems because different kinds of groups often complement one another and interaction often produces co-evolution and differentiation.[18] The effort to bound systems as homogeneous regions obscures this important fact. Spatial distributions of homogeneous characteristics do not bound separate social systems. Indeed, social heterogeneity is often produced by interaction, as in the cases of core/periphery differentiation, urban/rural, and sedentary/nomadic systems. Even sophisticated approaches that examine distributions of spatial characteristics statistically must make quite arbitrary choices in order to specify regional boundaries (Burton, Moore, Whiting and Romney 1996).

David Wilkinson (2003) has made a strong case for studying civilizations as networks of allying and fighting polities and he has produced a chronograph of the expansion of the interstate system that emerged when the Mesopotamian and Egyptian systems became linked around 1500 BCE (Wilkinson 1987). Many world-systems scholars have contended that trade networks are the best unit of analysis for spatially bounding whole systems (Abu-Lughod 1989; Beaujard 2005, 2010). Immanuel Wallerstein (1995; 2011 [1974]) contends that a hierarchical core/periphery division of labor, especially the one that emerged with Europe as its core in the long 16th century CE, is the best way to spatially bound a world-system. And several eminent scholars have claimed that there has been a single global (Earth-wide) system for millennia (Lenski 2005; Frank and Gills 1994; Modelski 2003; Modelski, Devezas and Thompson 2008, and Chew 2001, 2007). The SetPol project operationalizes all these units of analysis and pits them against one another regarding their relevance for explaining scale changes of polities and cities. We also have convened a workshop to more completely and accurately specify the changes in trade and PMN network boundaries since 1500 BCE (Chase-Dunn et al 2015a). And we also use constant regions to make comparisons so that it is possible to compare the results with what we find when we use spatially-bounded networks.



Figure 3: Ten world regions for studying the emergence of large cities and polities


These boundaries have been chosen in order to facilitate the comparative study of the emergence of largest cities and polities over the past 3500 years. The regional boundaries shown are mainly matters of convenience. All cities and polities are geocoded so that different regional configurations can easily be used by other researchers. These regions have been chosen in order to construct a data compendium that will include information on all the areas of the Earth where humans have lived in large numbers. The regions specified in Figure 3 are mainly based on our knowledge of where large cities and empires emerged in the period we are studying. But we have also considered the social science literature that has hypothesized comparisons and connections among regions in our designation of regions. We are well aware of the issue of Eurocentrism in social science and the obvious point that “Europe” is not a continent, but is rather a promontory of Eurasia (Lewis and Wigen 1997). Social science itself has been constructed around comparisons between East and West and so an important way to scientifically address the issues of comparison and connections is to use some of the categories that have been constructed in the past to see whether alleged differences (or similarities) are supported or contradicted  by quantitative data.

Admittedly some of the bounding decisions we have made are somewhat arbitrary. We included the Caribbean with South America rather than with North and Central America because migrants from South America mainly peopled it. We made a great effort to have only ten world regions rather than some larger number of regions in order to keep our data gathering structure from becoming too complicated. But it should be recalled that all of the settlements and polities we study are geocoded, so if other researchers want to reconfigure regions in a different way they easily can.

Using world regions designated in this way allows us to address the important issues raised by world historians and civilizationists who compare regions (e.g. Pomeranz 2000; Scheidel 2009, Wong 1997; Morris 2010, Frank 1998). The SetPol project is also be able to compare the use of these spatially constant regions with what we find when we use expanding networks (e.g. Chase-Dunn et al 2015b). The proposed operationalization of network boundaries is based on a propositional inventory of statements by social scientists about when smaller networks expanded, merged and when larger networks engulfed smaller ones (e.g. Beaujard 2005; 2010; Wilkinson 1992a; 1992b, 1993). The project uses data on trade networks, historical accounts of warfare and diplomacy and studies of the diffusion of plants, animals, and technologies and ideas to evaluate the claims made by scholars about interaction networks and the timing of their expansions.

Chronological Issues

For purposes of comparing the timing of changes in city and polity sizes across different world regions it is important to have accurate absolute chronologies for the regions being compared in order to examine issues of priority and synchrony. Unfortunately there is still considerable disagreement about the absolute dating for Mesopotamia before 1500 BCE. Mario Liverani (2014: 9-16) explains why estimates of absolute dates are so uncertain. Relative dates of events needed for estimating polity and city sizes are based on “king lists.” Thus an event, such as a conquest, is said to have occurred in the third year of the reign of King X. Considerable effort has been made to figure out the correspondences between different kings’ lists in Mesopotamia and their correspondence with Egyptian king lists, which are more continuous. These are then converted in to calendar years by ascertaining their relationships with astronomical events such as eclipses. Unfortunately there is a period after the fall of the Babylonian empire in which king lists are missing for Mesopotamia, and there is disagreement about the timing of astronomical events. Thus the length in years of the occluded period is in dispute, and this results in so-called, short, medium and long chronologies for the period before the Late Bronze Age, with an error of as much as 100 years. Absolute dating is needed in order to compare the timing of scale changes across world regions.  It matters whether or not the city of Ur was sacked in 2004 BCE, and thus is eliminated from the list of large cities and large polities in 2000 BCE, or in some other year 50 years earlier or later. Liverani (2014: 15) is satisfied to use the middle chronology for Mesopotamia and the surrounding regions, but he is not trying to compare the timing of changes in the Ancient Near East with other world regions. The SetPol project uses the middle chronology, while being careful to determine which chronology has been used in the sources from which estimates are coded. It is important to be chary regarding temporal comparisons among regions before 1500 BCE.

            The SetPol goal is to achieve a minimum temporal resolution of every twenty-five years because the project is studying middle-run growth/decline phases of polities and cities. Archaeological evidence of the areal sizes of settlements and hearth counts can be used to estimate settlement sizes, but the limitation here is often temporal resolution. Studies that rely on radiocarbon dating and archaeological phase periodization often do not achieve a level of temporal resolution that would make settlement growth/decline phases visible (e.g. Ortman, Cabaniss, Sturm and Bettancourt 2014). When temporal resolution is poorer than every 100 years it is likely that some of the cycles of growth and decline will be missed.  In the first phase of our project we will focus on regions for which both documentary and archaeological evidence are available, and since this phase begins with 1500 BCE we do not need to worry about the issue of absolute dates when comparing world regions.


Data Upgrading[19]  

Improving of estimates of the population sizes of settlements and the territorial sizes of polities is an endless task, but much has been accomplished. The long term intent of the SETPOL project is to include all the towns and cities with 10,0000 or more people and all the polities with .01 or larger square megameters of territory in the ten world regions from 4000 BCE to 2010 CE. But in the exploratory phase of the project (the first two years) the project will prioritize by focusing on upgrading existing data sets that include the ten largest cities and polities in each of the world regions at 25-year intervals since 1500 BCE. 


Improving estimates of the territorial sizes of polities

Determining scale shifts requires real metric (interval-level) estimates, not just periodizations of growth and decline. The territorial sizes of polities are difficult to estimate from archaeological evidence alone (see Smith and Montiel 2001). What the SETPOL project wants to know is the size of the area over which a central power exercises a degree of control that allows for the appropriation of important resources (taxes and tribute). The ability to extract resources falls off with distance from the center in all polities, and controlling larger and larger territories requires the invention of new transportation, communications and organizational technologies [what Michael Mann (1986) has called “techniques of power”]. Military technologies and bureaucracies are important institutional inventions that make possible the extraction of resources over great distances, but so are new ideologies and new technologies of communication (Innis 1950).[20]

            Estimating the territorial sizes of states and empires has been based on the use of published historical atlases and historical accounts. Premodern states and empires often had fuzzy boundaries. Bounding polities is based primarily on knowledge about who conquered which city, and whether or not, and for how long, tribute was paid to the conquering polity. Sometimes it is difficult to tell whether or not tribute is asymmetrical or symmetrical exchange. Only asymmetrical (unequal) exchange signifies a tributary imperial relationship. Otherwise it is just trade and does not signify an extractive relationship.

The pioneer coder of the territorial sizes of polities is Rein Taagepera (1978a, 1978b, 1979, and 1997). The SETPOL project builds upon Taagepera’s monumental work and uses his methods. Taagepera used Atlases and historical descriptions of events to estimate the territorial sizes of states and empires. This project will improve upon his estimates by using Atlases that had not been published when Taagepera did his work (e.g. Schwartzberg (1992). The project will also use online sources such as the University of Sydney Timemap Project. The values produced from these tertiary sources will be checked with regional experts (see Data Management section).The SETPOL polity data template utilizes Taagepera’s method of coding the year in which polity sizes change, usually as a result of conquests, and will designate area in square megameters as Taagepera did.[21] It will also include a standardized identification code for each separate polity, fields for alternative names of the polity, geocodes for the location of the capital city and estimates of the population size of the polity.[22]


Improving estimates of the population sizes of cities and territorial sizes of states and empires

            SETPOL is developing a template for coding characteristics of individual cities that include estimates of the size of the built up area as well as estimates of the population size. The city template also includes unique identifiers for each city, fields for alternative names of the city and the geocode of the city center.  For the location identification, the geo URI scheme is applied.[23]  The data are structured in the three dimensions—each city has sets of variables, and each of these variables has varying value ranges and time intervals. The variables and their definitions are being developed in collaboration with the SESHAT project team in order to avoid redundancies in collecting data. A template for polities for coding similar variables is also being constructed. 

Making accurate estimations of the population sizes of both contemporary and early urbanized areas involves several complicated problems. Daniel Pasciuti (Pasciuti 2003; Pasciuti and Chase-Dunn 2003) has proposed a measurement error model for estimating the sizes of settlements based on the literature in archaeology, demography and urban geography.[24] The SETPOL project defines a settlement as a spatially contiguous built-up area.[25] This is the best operationalization for comparing the sizes of settlements across different polities and cultures because it ignores the complicated issues of governance boundaries (e.g. municipal districts, etc). But it still has some problems. Most cultures have nucleated settlements in which residential areas surround a monumental, governmental or commercial center. In such cases it is fairly easy to spatially bound a contiguous built up area based on the declining spatial density of human constructions. But other cultures space residences out rather than concentrating them near a central place (e.g. many of the settlements in the prehistoric American Southwest such as Chaco Canyon).  In such cases it is necessary to choose a standard radius from the center in order to make comparisons of population sizes over time or across cultures.

Existing compilations of city sizes rely primarily on:

1.      Tertius Chandler 1987 Four Thousand Years of Urban Growth: The Edwin Mellen Press

2.      George Modelski 2003 World Cities: –3000 to 2000. Washington, DC:  Faros 2000

3.       Ian Morris 2013 The Measure of Civilization. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Tertius Chandler’s (1987) compendium is still the most comprehensive study of large cities, but substantial improvements were made in George Modelski’s (2003) compendium. Ian Morris also provides estimates of the largest cities in his book on measuring the development of Eastern and Western civilizations (Morris 2013). The SETPOL project will improve upon existing city size compilations by collaborating with other projects and incorporating data sets produced by others.[26] The proposed city template includes both the calendar year in which the size of a city is known to have rapidly changed (e.g. the example of the sack of Ur mentioned above) as well as interpolated estimates for the standardized years used by Chandler and Modelski.[27]

This project will contribute to the scientific understanding of the emergence of complexity and hierarchy in human societies. The long-term upsweep of the scale of cities and polities is widely known, but heated debates still rage regarding the proximate and contextual causes of these trends. While certain human and natural factors have been famously hypothesized to be the causes of instances of these scale changes, empirical testing of hypothetical causes has been daunted by the limited comprehensiveness, accuracy, and verifiability of extant data sets on the scale changes. So SETPOL will improve the testability of causal hypotheses by generating a data set that is better in these regards. SETPOL will also contribute to the accurate delineation of the spatial boundaries of trade and political/military interaction networks as they merged and engulfed one another to constitute the contemporary global system of today.[28]  The project will use not only well-established methods for organizing and analyzing data, but also a graph data structure that will allow the combination of GIS with formal network analysis. The project will increase the legibility of the complex spatial processes that led to the emergence of the increasingly global society of today.


Multidisciplinary Character of the Project

The SETPOL database will use standardized geographical network protocols in order to make the data freely available for use by scholars from different disciplines. The framework of comparison is anthropological and world historical. The hypotheses to be tested come from causal models proposed by political scientists, anthropologists and sociologists, especially those who are informed by multidisciplinary perspectives such as geopolitics, human ecology, and the comparative evolutionary world-systems approach. The SETPOL project emphasizes cooperative multidisciplinary exploration of the pathways by which scale changes have occurred in cities and polities. The project will coordinate and collaborate with other multidisciplinary consortia that are currently compiling relevant data. The project will further develop a multidisciplinary theoretical research program by engaging scholars from different disciplines at the levels of empirical measurement and the development and testing of causal models. The SETPOL project produces articles, monographs and infograms that are intended for a broad multidisciplinary audience.


Broader Impacts

The project's intellectual impact lies in the development of a more holistic multidisciplinary approach to understanding the connections between climate change, demographic expansion and contraction and the size and complexity of human social organization. By confirming or disconfirming the accuracy of contending scientific models of the development of complexity and hierarchy in human societies, the project will help scholars, educators and policy-makers to grasp the main patterns of historical sociocultural evolution.  Such understanding matters for societal responses to major challenges of the 21st century: climate change, ecological degradation, population density, the emergence of global city regions, the rise and fall of hegemonic core powers, and transitions from a unipolar to a multipolar geopolitical structure. The project will also allow provide fresh evidence on the comparisons of similarities and differences across world regions with important implications for explanations of uneven East/West development – issues that have been totemic and fundamental in the development of social sciences since the eighteenth century. The project will have important implications regarding the understanding of past systemic resilience and collapse, and these will have significant implications for the future. The SETPOL project will develop undergraduate and graduate-level courses and research projects to train students to do multidisciplinary research and particularly to develop infographic presentations for teaching scholars and the general public. 



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[1] We use the term “polity” to generally denote a spatially-bounded realm of sovereign authority such as a band, tribe, chiefdom, state or empire. The term “settlement” includes camps, hamlets, villages, towns and cities. Settlements are spatially bounded for comparative purposes as the contiguous built-up area.


[2] This project is being implemented by the Settlements and Polities (SetPol) Research Working Group at the Institute of Research on World-Systems at the University of California-Riverside. The project web site is at


[3] World-systems are defined as being composed of those human settlements and polities within a region that are importantly interacting with one another (Chase-Dunn and Hall 1997).


[4] Our empirical inventories of  quantitatively identified upsweep and collapse “events”  in four world regions and the expanding Central Political/Military Interaction network are specified in Inoue et al 2012 and Inoue et al 2015.


[5] Some social scientists erroneously assume that GIS data structures are restricted to the mapping of attributes that are stationary in space and that GIS is useless for studying things that move. Geographers have developed GIS techniques based on vectors for mapping prevailing winds, but also for studying migration (Tobler 1995; n.d.).


[6] Down-the-line exchange is when goods or ideas are passed from group to group and there are few long-distance trade expeditions.


[7] PMNs are interpolity systems of warfare and alliance. This is the same idea as “:international systems” as it is used by Political Scientists who study international relations.

[8] In the comparative civilizations literature what we call core-wide empires are termed “universal empires.”

[9] Wilkinson (1997) says of his “power polarity” scheme  at the most centralized end, where one state encompasses the whole system, is the universal state (Toynbee) or empire (Quigley); next to it is hegemony (or "unipolarity with hegemony"), where a single great power or superpower, with influence to match its capability, oversees a number of subject states which retain internal autonomy; next to that is the condition of unipolarity (more precisely, unipolarity without hegemony), where a single great power, lacking the influence to match its capability, rests among a collection of non-subject non-tributary states;  nearer the decentralized end come configurations with two, three, or more great powers: bipolarity, tripolarity, multipolarity;  and most decentralized, with many ministates and no great powers, is nonpolarity.


[10] We distinguish between an “upswing,” which is any upturn in a growth/decline sequence, and an “upsweep”, which goes to a level that is more than 1/3 higher than the average of three prior peaks (Inoue et al 2012).

[11]  Walter Scheidel (2009) contends that there were two great divergences between China and the West. The one that occurred in the 18th and 19th centuries has received a lot of attention from  Kenneth Pomeranz (2000), who named it “the great divergence”.  Scheidel (2009) notes that there was an earlier great divergence between China and the West.  Both the Roman and the Han empires managed to bring huge territories under a single authority, but after they declined different things happened in the West and the East.  In the East the decline of the Han was followed, after a rather short interval, by the rise of the Tang dynasty, which was nearly as large as the Han dynasty had been. In the West, after the fall of Rome another empire of a similar huge size, uniting the entire Mediterranean littoral, never rose again.  This was Scheidel’s first great divergence.

[12] A larger overview of theoretical approaches to explaining the causes of urban and polity cycles and scale changes (Chase-Dunn and Inoue 2011) includes very general functionalist learning theories of sociocultural evolution from biologists and ecologists, including complexity theories, multilevel selection and panarchy.

[13] This project uses Common Era (CE) and Before Common Era (BCE) to indicate calendar years.

[14] Use of the word “evolution” still requires explanation. We mean long-term patterned change in social structures, especially the development of complex divisions of labor and hierarchy. We do not mean biological evolution, which is a very different topic, and neither do we mean “progress,” a normative notion that is unnecessary for the scientific study of social change.


[15] Studying changes in the population sizes of largest cities is a useful window on polities, but it does not capture overall changes in the population sizes of polities (studied most recently by Turchin and Nefadov (2009) and neither does it reflect important changes in the distribution of city sizes studied by many urban geographers (e.g. Rozman 1973).

[16] Gilbert Rozman’s (1973) illuminating comparison of the development of Japanese and Chinese urban systems shows that the emergence of an integrated city system with middle-sized cities performing regional functions occurred much faster but later, in Japan than it did in China, because the Japanese were able to benefit from knowing about the Chinese experience.

[17] The idea of the Central Political/Military Network (PMN) is derived from David Wilkinson’s (1987) definition of “Central Civilization.” It spatially bounds a system in terms of a set of allying and fighting polities.  The Central PMN is the interstate system that was created when the Mesopotamian and Egyptian interstate networks became directly connected with one another in about 1500 BCE.  The Central PMN expanded in waves until it came to encompass the whole Earth in the 19th century CE.  Because it was an expanding system, its spatial boundaries changed over time. This project will examine Wilkinson’s decisions about when and where the Central PMN expanded.     

[18] For example polities specializing in pastoralism emerged from the interaction of nomadic hunter-gatherers with farmers (Lattimore 1940)

[19] We are indebted to those prodigious coders who made quantitative comparative studies of settlements and polities possible: Tertius Chandler, Rein Taagepera and George Modelski.

[20] Of course territorial size is only a rough indicator of the power of a polity because areas are not equally significant with regard to their ability to supply resources. A desert empire may be large but weak. But this rough indicator is quantitatively measureable in different world regions over long periods of time, so it is valuable for comparative historical research.

[21] Estimating the area within a polity has gotten much easier. We use “daftlogic” to calculate the areas within a polygon (Daftlogic n.d.).

[22] Coding the total populations of polities will make it possible to examine the relationship between urban population growth/decline and the population growth/decline of the larger polity of which the cities are a part. Our project will collaborate with Seshat on this and other variables.

[23] The Geo URI scheme is a Web-based map annotation system using URI (a Uniform Resource Identifier) that allows the representation independently of any Web resources (or specific URL).  The Geo URI scheme identifies geographic location in a two- or three-dimensional coordinate reference system.  


[24] The study by Ortman et al (2014) contends that population density usually increases with the areal sizes of settlements.

[25] This corresponds to what the United Nations methodology calls “urban area” (UN 2011).

[26] Roland Fletcher (n.d. personal communication) has also gathered estimates of the sizes of important cities by reading widely about individual cities and coding all the estimates he could find. Fletcher’s data are different from the others in that he includes all the estimates he could find without editing and without collapsing estimates temporally. The others try to guess the sizes of cities at long intervals, whereas Fletcher presents the exact years to which the estimates that he has found apply. We will incorporate Fletcher’s estimates into the project city data set. The SETPOL project will also collaborate with ARVE in Lausanne, Switzerland and with the Open History Project. 

[27] Michael E. Smith (2005) provides city size estimates for Late Postclassic Mesoamerica (1200-1520 CE) but it is not possible to count cycles and sweeps because changes in city sizes over this time period are not known. Charlotte Ann Smith (2002) has estimates over time for largest Mesoamerican cities, but the temporal resolution is not fine enough to see cycles and sweeps. The Ortman et al 2014 study of settlement sizes in the valley of Mexico also has temporal resolution based on archaeological phases that are too widely spaced for the study of cycles and sweeps.

[28] This issue was  investigated in a workshop on the spatial bounding of world-systems (see Chase-Dunn, Wilkinson, Anderson, Inoue and Denemark 2016).