Paula Sabloff

External Faculty Fellow

Connect to my status-and-role database on tDAR.

Paula Sabloff, External Professor Emeritus, holds a B.A. from Vassar College and an M.A. and Ph.D. from Brandeis University, with a year at the University of Pennsylvania in-between. A political anthropologist, she uses complex-systems tools to analyze three different databases: Mongolians’ changing ideas on democracy and capitalism, the emergence of early states all over the world, and 19-20th century Cozumel.

Sabloff continues her work on Mongolians’ changing ideas of democracy and capitalism as they abandon socialism and adapt to democracy and capitalism. She has conducted fieldwork and interviews in the summer from 1996 to 2003. She curated an exhibition, “Modern Mongolia: Reclaiming Genghis Khan,” which spent five months at the National Museum of Natural History (Smithsonian) in 2002, among other venues. An edited volume by that name is still selling on Amazon. She organized a four-day symposium on Mongolia in order to challenge the area-studies concept in academia and the US State Department. That volume, Mapping Mongolia: From Geologic Time to the Present, was published by the University of Pennsylvania Press (2011). She contributed a think piece to a new Chinese news agency, Caixin. Her article, "Risk and Democracy in Post-socialist Mongolia," was published in 2012 in Mongolians' Interactions with Each Other and with Natural Resources, edited by Julian Dierkes. Her monograph, Does Everyone Want Democracy? Insights from Mongolia, was published in 2013. She is currently conducting network analysis on the 1,263 open-ended interviews that form the core of her Mongolian research. Her goal is to learn how they differentiate between democracy and capitalism. The first article, Demographics and Democracy: A Network Analysis of Mongolians’ Political Cognition (Journal of Anthropological Research), written with HyeJin Youn, Stefan Thurner, and Rudolf Hanel, is a network analysis of Mongolians’ views on democracy. In addition to her scholarly pursuits, she has served as an expert witness in several court cases when Mongolians sought asylum in the USA.

As part of SFI’s Emergence of Complex Societies project, initiated in 2011 with funding from the John Templeton Foundation, Sabloff has been constructing two databases to pose new questions and new answers to some old questions in comparative archaeology. Working with citizen scientists, interns and researchers at the Institute, she has built timelines for over 280 societal attributes, starting in the Upper Paleolithic and end with the period of state formation (the Bronze Age in the Old World). These attributes span the gamut of archaeological data, from lithic and ceramic technology to settlement and burial patterns, writing and art systems. Work has been completed on 17 traditions. They include societies that emerged as early states, e.g., Upper Kingdom Egypt, Early Dynasty Lower Mesopotamia, Shang China, and the Classic Maya, among others. This database will be used to find universal patterns in state formation, particularly whether or not there is some temporal regularity in the trajectory from stone-tool usage to the early state. Is there some time ratio between first settlement of a geographic area and the development of society into an early state? Is there a set order in which certain technologies are invented or settlement patterns change in order for a state to arise? And is there a cluster of necessary attributes (e.g., pottery, agriculture, a pantheon of gods) in order for a state to emerge from a chiefdom?

The second archaeological database focuses on the period when states were still young but mature enough to have a writing system. Drawing on the archaeological and historical literature, Sabloff applied Ralph Linton’s (1936) conceptualization of societies as agglomerations of statuses and roles to analyze and compare pre-modern states (e.g., Egypt, the Maya, Hawai’i and China). Statuses are positions in society, from the ruler and gods to captives and slaves. Our research found 52 possible statuses in the early states. Roles are the behaviors and rights expected of people in particular statuses. For example, the roles of a ruler include expanding or maintaining the boundaries of his territory, monopolizing contact with the chief god, practicing polygamy, and acting as patron to his followers. We found 66 possible roles associated with the different statuses in the early states. Most of these were not found in the non-states.

Comparative and network analysis reveal certain patterns. A first description of these findings may be found on SFI’s Working Papers site under the heading, “Status and Role in Early States: A Comparative Analysis,” a paper written with Skyler Cragg that will appear in the SFI volume, Complexity and Society: An Introduction to Complex Adaptive Systems and Human Society. Like the first archaeological database (the longue durée database), the status-and-role database is linked with the Seshat Project and maintained on the web at for scholarly use.

The second paper written from this database describes common behaviors of pre-modern state rulers: “How Pre-modern State Rulers used Marriage to Reduce the Risk of Losing at War: A Comparison of Eight States” (Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory). A third paper on the political agency of royal women has been published as “The Political Agency of Royal Women: A Comparative Analysis of Eight Premodern States According to Societal Rules and Roles” (Journal of Archaeological Research).

The fourth database brings Sabloff full circle, back to her doctoral dissertation work on Cozumel, Mexico. Based on original fieldwork, it will be used for the dynamic network analysis of Cozumel Island’s baptismal records dating from the 1890s to the early 1940s. She will link the analysis with political and economic patterns to learn how godparenthood (compadrazgo) ties reflect or even boost individuals’ politico-economic standing on the island. This will form the core of a larger project on how Cozumel islanders recreated society when they relocated to the island during the Caste War of Yucatan in 1847.