Book review: Against the Grain, by James C. Scott
January 1st, 2020
The book that etched the deepest grooves in my mind last year was Against the Grain by James C. Scott. It explores how the unique characteristics of grain-based agriculture shaped the early history of states.
While I did learn many interesting historical facts and trends from the book, what stood out to me most was Scott's emphasis on epistemics. When he pointed to the archaeological record, he wouldn't simply cherrypick a basket of facts that supported his arguments. Instead he explained how archaeological evidence is gathered, and where that leaves systematic holes in our knowledge.
For example, he pointed out that what we envision when we think of archaeology is really just the archaeology of states, cities, and monuments, rather than of nomadic or indigenous peoples, because those are the sites that are lowest-hanging fruit for archaeologists to find:
"That states would have come to dominate the archaeological and historical record is no mystery... A great deal of archaeology and history throughout the world is state-sponsored and often amounts to a narcissistic exercise in self-portraiture. Compounding this institutional bias is the archaeological tradition [...] of excavation and analysis of major historical ruins. Thus if you built, monumentally, in stone and left your debris conveniently in a single place, you were likely to be "discovered" and dominate the pages of history. If, on the other hands, you built with wood, bamboo, or reeds, you were much less likely to appear in the archaeological record. And if your were hunter-gatherers or nomads, however numerous, spreading your biodegrade able trash thinly across the landscape, you were likely to vanish entirely from the archaeological record."
The entire framing of archaeology as an exercise in epistemics was new to me and immensely thought-provoking. He then pointed out that "the state has dominated only the last 0.2% of our species' political life", despite the standard archaeological lens focusing on states. This stark numerical contrast blew my mind, comparing the dominance in my own mind of monumental archaeology—the Parthenons, the Pyramids, the Machu Picchus of the world—to the shrinkingly small sliver of human history they represent.
Overall the book did a fantastic job of helping me, a complete newcomer to archaeology, build mental models about the discipline. Most books I've read about early history are just a monotone timeline of facts of events, without much theory tying them together, let alone the meta work of explaining how they got to their conclusions so that the reader can judge the historian's intellectual path for themselves. For example, Scott writes, "History records no cassava states, no sago, yam, taro, plantain, bread fruit, or sweet potato states...only grains are best suited to concentrated production, tax assessment, appropriation, cadastral surveys, storage, and rationing." I adore how he dives into the actual dynamics of the system whose history he's writing about, and explaining the "gears" of change. That's sadly rare in all writing, not just history.
I'm a bit embarrassed to admit this, but I've historically found it difficult to care about or appreciate history that goes sufficiently far back. The greater the distance grows between modern day and the time I'm reading about, the harder tends to be for me to continue paying attention. I'm excited to say that Against the Grain shattered this correlation. And not only is it a massive outlier, but I can't stop thinking about the topics explored in the book, and it's made me eager to read more books about the deep past—so long as they help me build mental models, rather than simply offering a monotone timeline of facts and events.
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For more object-level detail, you can find my reading notes from the book here.
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