Gooding on Boswell and Knabb, 'Life at the Margins of the State: Comparative Landscapes from the Old and New Worlds'

Alicia M. Boswell, Kyle A. Knabb, eds.
Philip Gooding

Alicia M. Boswell, Kyle A. Knabb, eds. Life at the Margins of the State: Comparative Landscapes from the Old and New Worlds. Denver: University Press of Colorado, 2022. Illustrations. ix + 250 pp. $67.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-64642-294-4

Reviewed by Philip Gooding (McGill University) Published on H-Environment (January, 2023) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

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Life at the Margins of the State is an edited collection that centers regions considered “marginal” to statehood in the deep past, such as borderlands and frontiers. This marginality, the editors and several contributors argue, has obscured the dynamism of these regions’ pasts behind the better-known narratives of centralized states. From an environmental perspective, “marginal” is also sometimes taken to mean challenging for human habitation and for the establishment of statehood, such as in deserts or in mountains. Thus, the collection seeks to examine how landscapes, both natural and built, have affected borderland communities and their relationships to nearby states. The editors argue that this “landscape” approach enables an appreciation of people’s experiences of living “on the margins” of states, across both the Old and New Worlds and through several centuries of the past.

Although Life at the Margins of the State is broadly interdisciplinary, all the chapters are rooted in archaeology. This reflects both the experience of the two editors, who were trained in the discipline, and the fact that the volume stems from a session held at the Society for American Archaeology annual meeting in Austin, Texas, in 2014. It also reflects the time periods covered: many chapters focus on periods before or just after the turn of the common era. Additionally, there are a few alternative disciplinary approaches available to scholars working on the regions covered for more recent centuries, such as in the Lake Chad basin from circa 1500 (chapter 9). Archaeology is crucial for knowledge about the pasts at the temporal scales approached in this book. The methodologies used and case studies approached allow for thematic comparisons over large areas and time periods.

The archaeological focus of the volume is also reflected in the nature of the core research questions. The idea and definition of “social complexity” frequently comes up. For the most part, the volume positions the “marginal” societies under review as “socially complex,” challenging older and largely discredited analyses that associated the term only with nearby states. In the words of one contributor (also highlighted in the introduction), the volume “takes many of the established assumptions about the study of social complexity and turns them on their head” (pp. 4, 140). They rightly argue that social complexity can take many forms, particularly as equating the concept with statehood is now widely understood as Eurocentric.

There is, however, a tension in this analysis. Some contributors, such as Tara D. Carter (chapter 4) and Erin M. Smith and Mikael Fauvelle (chapter 7) work with “social complexity,” modifying how it is deployed to fit their case studies. Carter defines the idea of “emergent complexity” in the context of secondary state formation in medieval Iceland, and Smith and Fauvelle examine the concept of “anarchic societies” in precolonial southern California (pp. 75, 145-46). Their point is that such societies were socially complex but in ways that are different to how “social complexity” has been traditionally defined. This may seem convoluted probably because it is. Instead, it might have been more fruitful to work outside of the idea, such as through the “frontier” as deployed by John H. Walker (chapter 5). Here, Walker analyzes alternative ways to think about societies that are fundamentally different in their organization but that are also somewhat comparable. Thus, while the critiques of “social complexity” as an analytical term are somewhat universal to the book, how to go about integrating the term (or not) in future studies is never fully resolved. A stronger editorial line may have helped here.

This possible need for more editorial intervention also extends to analysis of another key term in the book: “marginality.” It is somewhat jarring for a book with “margins” in its title that several contributors challenge this very framing. Elena A. A. Garcea argues that “archaeology proves delineating ‘centers’ and ‘peripheries’ and ‘core’ and ‘marginal’ areas is ... useless” (p. 216, emphasis added); Scott MacEachern argues that “‘marginality’ ... seems ... wholly inadequate” (p. 205); and Walker argues that “to theorize the region [the southwest Amazon] at the margins of the state is ... only partly correct” (p. 102). All these contributors make the supported point that the idea of “marginality” is inherently state-centric: the regions that they study were not “margins” to those who lived in them, only those that viewed them from the outside.

Thus, one wonders how other chapters, whose authors went closer to the grain of the book’s framing, might have looked if they had taken a similarly critical approach. For example, Kyle A. Knabb (chapter 2) directly refers to “marginal communities” and Claire Novotny (chapter 8) refers to marginal as “a place situated at a distance from locales of centralized power” (pp. 41, 163). These kinds of framings are also in line with the opening statements of the book’s introductory chapter. However, such statements may fall into the trap of state-centricism that other contributors are trying to avoid. If this book is meant to center these overlooked communities, regularly located near societies traditionally conceived as “complex,” then does characterizing them as “marginal” not “marginalize” them once again? There are, therefore, conceptual contradictions here that the editors should have sought to iron out.

Given this uneven editorial line, it might not be surprising that the quality of the chapters is somewhat variable. I am not qualified to comment on each chapter’s contribution to its regional and temporal case study or on some of their specific methodologies. However, some chapters would still have benefited from further revisions. Several are referred to as “papers” rather than chapters, suggesting that they were not subject to rigorous updates between their initial presentation in 2014 and their publication in 2022 (chapters 1, 4, 6, 9). The result is that the structure of some chapters is unclear and that aims, goals, and arguments are regularly repeated rather than sustained. There is also reference to “ongoing” analysis of research materials gathered in fall 2014 (pp. 107-8). Surely this analysis has been done by now, meaning that the chapter should have been updated. Similarly, another chapter refers to 2019 as though it is the present, again leaving questions about potential updates from the last three years. This is not to state that the research underpinning each chapter is necessarily weak; it is just that more editorial care was needed to make them all current and impactful.

Finally, for a volume that focuses on “landscapes,” there is surprisingly little about the environment in some chapters. Chapters 2 and 3, respectively by Knabb and Alicia M. Boswell, are the most successful at integrating environmental factors, examining how they shape our understandings of the regions under review and of their wider spatial and political contexts. But most other contributors do not take up their editors’ mantle (Novotny’s fascinating analysis of indigenous understandings of their environments is one notable exception). Instead, environmental issues are sidelined by the other themes that are central to the book, especially “social complexity” and “marginality.” Again, a tighter editorial line, or perhaps even dropping one or more of these highly complex themes, would have led to a more coherent volume.

Citation: Philip Gooding. Review of Boswell, Alicia M.; Knabb, Kyle A., eds., Life at the Margins of the State: Comparative Landscapes from the Old and New Worlds. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. January, 2023. URL:

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