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Big man refers to a phenomenon that happens in especially small communities when a population falls below a certain population (approximately Dunbar's Number). You see it a lot in isolated tribal societies where formal governments don't exist, instead you are typically just ruled by strongest member of your society at any given time. The big man enjoys true autocratic rule because the society is small enough that he does not need any middlemen to help him rule. However, real world societies this small tend to also be technologically Mesolithic; so, I'm not sure how a greater level of technology would impact this phenomenon.

In my setting, autonomous communities in the scale of Dunbar's Number are common, but there is a lot of modern technology kept in working order by key members of society so that they still enjoy things like mechanized farming, indoor lighting, air conditioning, etc. Yes, I know that this level of technology is not sustainable forever, but it is sustainable enough to last for several years after an apocalyptic event, and that is all I need for the setting to work.

But, it occurred to me that after the the central government collapses that some sort of big man, highly localized governments would likely take over; however, physical strength is not necessarily going to be the most valued skill to this society. With most of the adult population being mechanics, machinists, chemists, biologists, doctors, teachers, police officers, etc. who survived the apocalypse, would these small communities still gravitate towards a big man type of government at all, and if so, what trait(s) would embody the "big man" instead of physical size and strength?

The best answer should be able to cite actual cases of isolated communities where technology and small populations co-exist without any larger government oversight with as close as possible to modern tech. If no such example(s) exist, at least include some kind of identified sociological/psychological phenomenon to justify your claim.

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  • $\begingroup$ Are you thinking of chiefdoms or big men? Strongman governments are much larger than dunbar's number and have full structured governments. for tribal societies what you describe would be called a cheifdom or a society with a big man researchgate.net/publication/323839474_Big_Man_Anthropology_of $\endgroup$
    – John
    May 22, 2023 at 20:31
  • $\begingroup$ I think this is what you are talking about umaine.edu/anthropology/wp-content/uploads/sites/518/2013/08/… $\endgroup$
    – John
    May 22, 2023 at 20:37
  • $\begingroup$ @John Ah, that might explain why I was having trouble finding more information on it. I've updated my question accordingly, thanks. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    May 22, 2023 at 20:45
  • $\begingroup$ No worries, I do all the time, some of the naming conventions for anthropology are weird. $\endgroup$
    – John
    May 22, 2023 at 23:43

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I expect that this society would organise itself not around strongmen but around elders, effectively decomposing into clans. For anyone whose extended family lives nearby, this arrangement may not even be very different from their current lifestyle. With many technologies about to be lost, an experience of having lived without these technologies would be very valuable indeed.

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Charisma

. . . what trait(s) would embody the "big man" instead of physical size and strength?

The big man is no longer the physically strongest person. He is now the one with the strongest force of personality. He is the one best able to inspire and coordinate other people, when the trappings of civilization have faded away.

The world has ended. There are thousands of people who were used to going to work in the morning and then going home and watching tv and doing errands. But since the apocalypse happened there are suddenly loads more hours open in the day. So what should I do? Maybe I'll do what this guy says. The others seem to respect him. And he seems to have some sort of plan. . . .

In this respect I think Netflix's The Walking Dead is realistic. There are smallish settlements ruled by charismatic amoral leaders without bulging muscles.

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When a society collapses, existing subcultures can take over. Those who survived the collapse want to survive and some kind of structure and anyone who promises survival or structure will gain a following. Al Haig went on TV after Reagan was shot and said, "I, Al Haig, am in control here at the White House" https://adst.org/2014/03/al-haig-and-the-reagan-assassination-attempt-im-in-charge-here/ Unfortunately, some of those subcultures are gangs and criminal organizations. They have the weapons and discipline to enforce their structure on the survivors. Especially if the survivors are "mechanics, machinists, chemists, biologists, doctors, teachers, police officers, etc." who are all educated and middle class adults.

When things are in high flux, the people who do well are those who know how to hustle and pivot quickly - think entrepreneurs and those who have lived by their wits and have "street smarts". Typically, a society collapse means that some people who were once lower class take over.

The challenge is not in taking over but in staying in charge. Other gangs will challenge their authority. (See the conflicts in Somalia and elsewhere nearby.) People who are used to some kind of power sharing government will challenge a single person authority. Cultures that had distributed authority will quickly reestablish that process and ignore the "strong man." Cultures that had women in authority will reject the "strong man" and will reestablish the right of the women's council to say who is the "war leader" of the band.

What happens in the second generation who grow up not remembering the past greatness and want power themselves?

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Capable Leaders

In a post-apocalyptic situation the survivors are going to be traumatised and frightened. Apart from the fact that most, or at least many of the people they knew have just died, all the certainties they grew up with and took for granted have just been overturned. Even access to basics like food and water isn't certain anymore. So above all they will be looking for answers on how to keep surviving in this situation.

We can probably assume that in the small groups of survivors that will form the people will be mostly strangers, or at least not know each other very well. These groups will be too small to come up with any formal method of choosing a leader, and they will be too busy with more immediate concerns anyway. In this case, probably when someone starts acting like they're in charge, most people will go along with it. So people who want to lead and have a foceful personality and an experience of leadership on some level will become leaders.

Physical strength won't matter much - people in modern society are not used to resolving disputes with violence and anyway existence of firearms makes it not as useful (although this might be taking place in a country where firearms used to be very rare, so most places in the world other than US). So it would be quite possible for a woman to end up the 'big man' of such groups.

Those are the leaders that will rise initially, but whether they can keep being leaders will depend on how well they can solve problems arising in this situation. This will depend on the nature of the apocalypse. In a zombie apocalypse for example, you will still have zombies running around wanting to feast on your brain matter, so combat experience will be very useful. In case of a deadly pandemic, medical knowledge will be more useful. In a nuclear apocalypse, other skills will be important. Anyhow, the more the leader will be able to keep the group alive, thriving and making use of the leftover technology, the less likely it will be that anyone will challenge their position as a leader.

It's hard to find evidence for something like this. In presence of modern technology you will always have a big central government, or at least a local warlord. Relatively isolated communities like the Amish are still too large and structured and have an existing historical power structure. The closest thing I can think of would be hippy communities, but those would be formed by people with specific personalities and with certain ideals and goals in mind whereas post-apocalyptic communities would be just 'regular' people trying to survive.

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Family patriarchs.

The people most likely to succeed in the role of a Big Man, either with or without modernish technology, are family leaders. Families are the most cohesive social unit, and include all the essentials of life, which no other social construct does. A well-rounded and exemplary man who provides the necessities of life and protection will be the most sought-after type of leader in a post-apocalyptic setting. Small numbers of families are also the most likely self-sustaining social unit to qualify for the Dunbar threshold.

Who has pulled this off in history? We have examples in Adam and Noah, both of whom actually grew their own miniature societies well below Dunbar's number in size but eventually outgrowing it. Noah undoubtedly preserved not only technology, but also writings of his ancestors. In his case, he overcame an apocalyptic event which required nontrivial technology to survive. Cases of survivors that maintain insularity in more dispersed settings or with more modern technology might be less well-documented and possibly rare--In modern times especially or in any setting with advanced technology, the lure (or force!) of integration and connectedness usually far outweighs the draw of insularity; as such the depiction of such scenarios has typically been relegated to fiction or warfare, and the latter has usually been very temporary and also tends to be poorly documented owing to the harsh conditions. The Village depicts a fictional small group in a non-post-apocalyptic setting that simply craves insularity to avoid the evils of the modern world. In that attempt, it eschews technology.

As we have already seen on smaller scales, the most likely scenario in a post-apocalyptic environment isn't tribalism: It is total conquest and subjugation by a coalition of nuclear superpowers. Apocalypse is not as rosy as many depict. The greater technology levels make annihilation and captivity through invasion far more probable than sustainable scattered survival, and conquest far more plausible than a general society-shattering event that leaves scores of small groups intact and operable in an undisturbed aftermath long enough to form meaningful associations or rebuild.

In short, even more drastic than the perishability level of technology, the social parameters you describe are like an unstable isotope with a very short half-life; almost all examples will either perish on an accelerated timetable (and also not leave documentation), or expand through reproduction as in the above cases or unite with larger parties for protection. The sharpness of the technological sword so to speak likely makes such cases almost vanishingly few.

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