I’m going to have to listen to Episode 73 again, because I was distracted. Nevertheless I have a few preliminary thought to offer on the topic of confecting human cultures for fantasy and SF.
One of my tricks is to start with a household structure that is dramatically different from the nuclear families and at a stretch patrilocal extended families that we barbarians consider to be laws of Nature. When I was designing the culture that I published in Pyramid as the Nemorae the first decision was to make their households matrilineal patriarchal extended families¹. Then I thought about how that would work and extrapolated features. I’ve used essentially the same structure in other fantasy contexts (the Auroronesians in my long-running fantasy setting Gehennum) and in planetary romance. I have also designed societies by starting with the posit that there are no households (everyone has their own bed/sit suite), by positing that there are women’s households (matrilineal extended families) and separate men’s households (adoptive guilds), by positing households based on triples instead of couples….
Another trick is to posit a basis of subsistence that is different from the assumed family farm or occupational career. The Nemorae were pastoralists practising transhumance in a dissected plateau with high summer pastures and meadows in the valleys. In the culture with separate men’s and women’s households women were landowners and men were workers (different men’s lodges professing different trades and occupations). I often play around with assigning different economic roles (worker, capitalist; landowner, tradesman; warrior, magistrate, priest) on some basis other than hereditary classes (gender roles, life stages).
A third trick is to appropriate behavioural traits and social structures from non-human animals. The Nemorae were partly informed by lion prides. The Ramastaarni (a fantasy culture with the separate territorial families for women and occupational guilds for men) and the people of Margulis (a planetary-romance instance of the design) had courting behaviour inspired by bower-birds (and other birds with male display and female selection). On the colony New Fujian here has been a transhumanist attempt to have humans go through a sequence of metamorphoses between socially-constructed life stages with different occupational, social, and occupational roles.
My fourth trick is something that I have been told is deconstruction, though I’m doubtful that it is. I take an assumption that people treat as inevitable — such as “priests are chosen servants of the gods”, “boys grow up to be men, girls grow up to be women”, “gender roles are basically associated with sex” — an posit a radical alternative — such as “priests are diplomatic representatives of the human community”, “boys grow up to be men, but they’re rare anyway; girls may grow up to be either men or women, sometimes intersexed, willy-nilly”, “gender roles are a matter of choice, and have to do mostly with violence”.
If you start from a sufficiently bizarre starting-place you can get unfamiliar fantasy and SF cultures without relying on cultural appropriation. And if you do splash a few cosmetic appropriations around nobody seems to mind so much.
¹ The original design was in 1985; I was inspired by having read J.G. Frazer’s imaginative reconstruction of the society of of pre-republican Rome in The Golden Bough.