Abram de Swaan

Human Societies

The story of human interdependence, its evolution, consequences and dilemmas

A concise and original introduction to sociology, celebrated for its clarity

From the moment we’re born, we are dependent on other humans for our survival, whether we choose to acknowledge so or not. Over the course of history, and our progression from hunter-gatherer tribes to modern states, these networks of dependence have only extended across the globe. In his seminal text Human Societies, Abram de Swaan combines anthropology, sociology and political science to trace the evolution, dilemmas and consequences of human social life to the globalised world of today.

Since its original release in 1996, Human Societies has never once been out of print as the social processes it first described have continued their course. Drawing on insights from such thinkers as Norbert Elias, Richard Dawkins, Bruno Latour, Max Weber, Pierre Bourdieu and Adam Smith, this modern classic deals with such fundamental questions as: What do people need from one another? How are they connected? How do they control themselves and one another, and how do they coordinate their efforts?

Divided across twelve chapters, the book’s structure mirrors that of human history as one of increasing complexity and interdependence. Starting with our basic qualities and requirements as individuals, De Swaan progresses through our dependence and (unintended) influence on one another to the evolution from tribes and kingdoms to states and global markets. Although societies have constantly changed as the scale of our species’ coordination has grown, certain challenges like the ‘dilemma of collective action’ still hamper our approaches to such global issues as the climate crisis. Often a chapter begins with seemingly simple observation – that we clap or bow for certain people when they enter a room, while ignoring others, say – before unfolding into an expansive, perceptive argument on, for example, property relations, social stratification, differences in age and gender, or the exclusion of newcomers.

Recognised throughout Europe for his academic work, De Swaan was awarded the P.C. Hooft Prize, the highest literary award for an entire oeuvre in the Netherlands, in 2008. In this new, fully updated edition of Human Societies, we see at work an analytical mind and a nimble literary pen. Driven by a playful curiosity, the clear-sighted societal analyses offered here serve not only as a highly readable guide for our history and times, but also as an original and compelling rebuttal to the popular narrative of our increasing individualisation.

Martians could benefit greatly from this book.

NRC Handelsblad, 1996

This should be required reading at every secondary school.

NRC Handelsblad

De Swaan writes about both complex and simple matters in a nimble, crystal-clear language that sparkles with visible enjoyment.

P.C. Hooft Prize jury report


Abram de Swaan

Abram de Swaan (b. 1942) was awarded the prestigious position of University Professor of Social Science at the University of Amsterdam in 2001, where he is now emeritus professor. His many teaching appointments included the Collège de France in Paris and Columbia University in New York. De…

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De mensenmaatschappij (1996). Non-fiction, 184 pages.

newly updated edition 2022



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