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From: Koschnick, Wolfgang J: Standard Dictionary of the Social Sciences
(Munich, London, New York, Paris: Saur, 1992), vol. 2, part 1.
The continuous, accumulative and progressive process by which cultural phenomena, systemically organized, undergo change, one form or stage succeeding another. Cultural evolutionism is the application of the general theory of evolution to cultural phenomena as distinguished from biological or physical phenomena.
The most fundamental idea in early evolutionism was to distinguish different types of societies on the basis of different levels of technology or material culture. Lewis Henry Morgan developed a theory of evolutionary stages. Morgan's theory of cultural evolution (1877) saw the criterion for creating classifications or divisions of mankind would in the basis of subsistence, i.e., the techno-economic base. He attempted to link his stages of evolution to important inventions and discoveries and in the process of doing this he further subdivided each of the three main stages into a number of statuses. The recapitulation of Morgan's scheme is shown below:
--------------------------------------------------------------------------- Periods. Conditions. I. Older Period of Savagery, I. Lower Status of Savagery, II. Middle Period of Savagery II. Middle Status of Savagery, III. Late Period of Savagery, III. Upper Status of Savagery, IV. Older Period of Barbarism, IV. Lower Status of Barbarism, V. Middle Period of Barbarism, V. Middle Status of Barbarism, VI. Later Period of Barbarism, VI. Upper Status of Barbarism, VII. Status of Civilization I. Lower Status of Savagery, From the infancy of the Human Race to the commencement of the next period. II. Middle Status of Savagery, From the acquisition of a fish subsistence and a knowledge of the use of fire, to etc. III. Upper Status of Savagery, From the invention of the Bow and Arrow, to etc. IV. Lower Status of Barbarism, From the invention of the Art of Pottery, to etc. V. Middle Status of Barbarism, From the Domestication of animals on the Eastern hemisphere, and in the Western from the cultivation of maize and plants by Irrigation with the use of adobe; brick and stone, to etc. VI. Upper Status of Barbarism, From the invention of the process of Smelting Iron Ore, with the use of iron tools, to etc. VII. Status of Civilization, From the invention of a Phonetic Alphabet, with the use of writing, to the present time. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------
In addition to Morgan, the early version of evolutionary theory was identified with anthropologists as Henry Maine, Edward B. TyIor, James George Frazer and J. J. Bachofen. Taking their cue from the successes of Charles Darwin's explanation of the causes of variation in the forms of life, they posited unilinear stages of development.Their theorizing was largely armchair speculation, based upon insufficient and inadequate ethnographic facts. Their early formulations of the stages of human cultural evolution were readily discredited by the accumulating knowledge of particular cultures which began emerging in the early 20th century. At this point, cultural evolutionary theory fell into disuse, to be superseded by historicist, diffusionist and structural-functional theories.
The evolutionary mode of thought influenced not only anthropology but also psychology, psychoanalytic theory, criminology, theories of art, and even medicine. One of the most stimulating evolutionist ideas was Ernst Haeckel's biogenetic law, which was based upon work in embryology, where it had been observed that features in the embryonic development of individual organisms sometimes resemble those which appear in adult individuals of earlier zoological form. And, because such features sometimes appear in the individual in the same order in which they arose in the ancestral series, the phenomenon was generalized as the recapitulation hypotheses, which states that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. That is, the ontogenetic development repeats the development of the species, i.e., the phylogenetic development. In the views of certain psychologists of the period - most notably G. Stanley Hall, who was the first child psychologist to give explicit psychological content to such stages as infancy, childhood, and adolescence - this permitted the direct equation of savage thought with the thought of children. As the recapitulation theory came into prominence at the end of the 19th century and prior to the discovery of modern genetics, some theorists developed the ideas of such things as memory traces in the species or archetypes.
Jean Piaget, the most influential student of child development, was influenced by both Sigmund Freud and Carl G. Jung. Thus Piaget did attempt to link mental development to actual studies of children and their physical growth but he also incorporated the notion of sages and levels of development which are unfortunately often spoken of as higher and lower. He also was interested in relating the increase of knowledge in the individual to the increase of knowledge in a society, a position he referred to as genetic epistemology which is closely identified with recapitulation hypothesis and with the evolutionary theory of culture.
Multilinear evolution was the name Julian Steward gave his approach to evolutionary thinking which focused specific ecological adaptations and the development of different levels of sociopolitical complexity in specific societies. He emphasized the notion that technology and certain features of culture and social organizations which were directly related to the type of environmental exploitation practiced by the group. The multilinear aspect of his thinking focused on demonstrating that different types of adaptation or exploitation might be found in the same environmental setting, even within a single, complex society. Multilinear evolutionary thought therefore stresses the varieties of cultural adaptations which may be uniquely distinctive and persistent. The essence of this view of cultural adaptation lies in the recognition of multiple solutions to environmental exploitation, [p. 712] with different ethnic groups adapting to and occupying different niches in the same geographical setting. Contemporary unilinear evolution has become identified with Leslie White who identified himself directly with the basic assumptions and positions of Tylor and other early evolutionists.
An approach to social change which draws upon concepts and ideas from evolutionary theory in biology. Although evolutionary thought was particularly influential in sociology in the 19th century, evolutionary ideas have continued to exert s me influence in contemporary sociology. Most such theories hold that human societies move progressively from simple to more complex forms of association. Most classical social theorists believed that societies followed a series of sequential stages, each with its own form of social organization. Facts culled from ethnographic and historical studies were seen as indicative of the stage of development obtained by a particular society. Many classical theorists believed that all societies were fundamentally similar in that they all go through the same stages.
In essence, classical social evolutionism viewed social change as a more or less universally applicable set of stages and explained social order with reference to these stages. The historical roots of theories of social evolution go back to the philosophies of ancient Greece. In the ancient Greek world, change was not thought of as linear but was conceptualized in terms of a repetitive, cyclical pattern of developmental advance, maturity, decline and advance again. Greek philosophers believed that all natural phenomena moved through such cycles of advance and decline. In that society was thought to be a natural entity, it, too, was seen in stages of advance and decline. Hence, societies started out as small bands or villages, rose through a series of cumulative stages to become powerful city-states and then declined to small bands or villages to start the cycle anew.
The Greek cyclical view of time and the Christian lineal view of change found synthesis in Saint Augustine's work, The City of God.
Augustine's Christian evolutionism dominated social thought throughout the Middle Ages. Social change was identified with social progress, which implied the cleansing of the soul and a movement toward salvation. In the 17th and 18th centuries the logic of Christian evolutionism provided the foundation for the writing of universal histories by Bishop Bossuet (1637-1704), Baron Targot (1727-1781), Marie Condorcet (1741-1794) and others. These works provided a backdrop for classical sociological thought.
As classical social evolutionism developed it posited that social change is inevitable, directional and teleological, analogous to organic stages o growth, and progressive in nature. Classical evolutionism sought to explain the development of types of individuals as well as of societies, civilizations, and even humanity taken as a whole.
Social change was seen as being integral to society. Karl Marx acknowledged that the features he assigned to feudal society were not fixed in time but underwent a dynamic development that would lead to the decline of feudalism and the rise of capitalism.
Classical evolutionism also viewed change as directional. Social evolutionists typically posited both a first and a final stage in evolution. For Emile Comte society went from a theological to a positive stage; for Marx society developed from primitive to advanced communism; and, for Thorstein B. Veblen, societies evolved from savagery to civilization. Classical evolutionists believed that, once a final stage was achieved, change would involve a continued elaboration and development of this final form. The idea that society has a natural direction along which it must develop implied the notion of teleology, a belief that there was an innate drive (telos) toward an end state. The teleological component of classical social evolutionism separated it [p. 1499] from the evolutionary logic of Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection. Darwin explicitly rejected teleological reasoning and viewed biological entities as determined in form by environment factors of selection and not by their innate nature and subject to further change in form, and therefore, not having any final form. Classical social evolutionism antedated Darwinian evolution. Classical social evolutionism tended to view the teleological movement from the earliest state of social existence to its final form as analogous to the growth of a living individual organism from infancy to maturity. The social evolutionists rejected the idea that some stages can be skipped. Generally they argued that society must go through all the stages and substages in proper order. Classical evolutionary theories generally tended to be combined with theories of social progress. Social evolution refers to change in the size, complexity of organization, and institutional features of a society; social progress implies that change is for the better.
The alteration in basic structures of a social group or society, Social change is an ever-present phenomenon in social life, but has become especially intense in the modern era. The origins of modem sociology can be traced to attempts to understand the dramatic changes shattering the traditional world and promoting new forms of social order.
Wilbert E. Moore has defined social change as "the significant alteration of social structures (that is, of patterns of social action and interaction), including consequences and manifestations of such structures embodied in norms (rules of conduct), values, and cultural products and symbols". This definition includes both the changes in social structure and changes that are more strictly cultural, such as those in folkways and mores. It includes changes in the size and composition of social systems; changes in the relative power, prestige, and income of various groups and categories; changes in technology; long-term trends in the functions of social institutions; changes in customs and manners; changes in government, whether gradual or violent; and many other kinds of alterations in the social order. Several general approaches have probably been more influential than any others in the attempt to understand the general mechanisms of change through human history:
(1) Evolutionary theories see the course of social change as a movement toward ever higher forms, a progression from savagery to civilization. Hunting and gathering societies, found at the earliest stages of human development seem to be relatively simple in structure as compared to the agricultural societies which emerged at a later period in history. Traditional states were even larger and more complicated. Finally, industrialized societies are more complex than any preceding types: they involve many separate institutions and organizations. The development of increasing complexity has often been analyzed using the concept of social differentiation. One such theory is social Darwinism, based on Charles Darwin's theory of biological evolution and the notion that social arrangements and cultural forms are tested in a process of natural selection; if they prove adaptable and useful, they survive. Social evolutionists see the course of human history as a movement to increasing complexity. Unilinear theories conceive of this course as a steady, straight path that leads ever onward and upward; multilinear theorists think progress occurs in a general upward direction, but in spurts followed by pauses; still others see it occurring in stages, either as regular stairsteps or with some regressions, Dialectical theorists conceive of the course of history as an upward spiral; each stage contains its own weaknesses and Contradictions, which are resolved in a conflict that precedes the next stage. A reverse kind of evolutionary theory, called primitivism, sees man sliding into evil from a state of goodness, retrogressing rather than progressing. Leslie A. White, for instance, sees culture as a force in itself that evolves toward ever greater use of physical Power sources and ever greater control of the environment.
(2) Cyclical theories of social change insist that there is no long-run improvement in the lot of mankind, but rather that there is a series of pendulum swings. Pitirmin Sorokin, e.g., held that societies are oriented toward either sensate or ideational values [p. 1503] and that a certain amount of development in either direction is bound to be followed by its opposite. As the pendulum swings, there are periods when an "idealistic" mixture of both sensate and ideational values prevails. Another kind of cyclical theory compares societies to living organisms in that they pass through an organic life cycle: they are born, grow, decay, and die; they rise and fall. Change, then, is toward extinction rather than perfection.
(3) Voluntaristic theories of social change give man a great deal of credit for social change - Voluntaristic theorists find the sources of change in the desires, plans, and actions of individuals and groups. Thus Thomas Carlyle contended that events were the outcome of individual desires. Others have believed that ruling elites or ambitious conspirators determine the course of history. Richard LaPiere declared that "social change is the work of socially deviant individuals acting in asocial ways".
(4) In contrast, mechanistic theories see blind forces of social change inexorably moving ahead, in the face of which laws and reforms are futile. William G. Sumner believed that the only effective change is socio-cultural drift, the slow but sure accumulation of small changes, the inscrutable and immutable shifts in folkways and mores.
(5) Theories of classical diffusionism give only one people credit for creativity. The cultures of all other peoples, according to these theories, stem from one ancient culture. In contrast, the theory of independent invention gives man great credit for creativity.
(6) Factor theories find the source of change in a sole determining factor or in a combination of factors. Single-factor theories have attributed social change to the influence of changes in such factors as climate, population, military power, access to the sea, religious beliefs, technology, or economic relationships. Multiple-factor theorists take into account many or all of the factors anyone has suggested, with or without assigning relative importance to them.
One widely held single-factor theory is technological determinism which holds that changes in technology are the source of all other cultural and social changes. William F. Ogburn, e.g., maintained that the invention of the auto self-starter emancipated women by making it easy for them to drive cars. This enabled them to enter the business world, and changed their role and the nature of family relationships. Technological changes call for adaptive changes in nonmaterial culture; but because these are often slow in coming, the result is a maladjustment Ogburn called cultural lag. Marxism or historical materialism is another variety of determinism, i. e., a single-factor theory with elements of evolution, conflict, voluntarism, and mechanism.
According to Karl Marx, every society rests on an economic base or infrastructure, changes in which tend to govern alterations in the superstructure, i. e., political, legal and cultural institutions. Social change can be understood through the ways in which, in developing more sophisticated systems of production, human beings progressively come to control the material world and subordinate it to their purposes. He refers to this process as one of the expansion of the forces of production, in other words the level of economic advancement a society has reached. According to Marx, social change does not occur only as a process of slow development, but in the shape of revolutionary transformations. Periods of gradual alteration in the forces Of production and other institutions alternate with phases of more dramatic revolutionary change. Changes that occur in the forces of production set up tensions in other institutions in the superstructure; the more acute these tensions become, the more there is a pressure towards an overall transformation of society.
(7) Functional theories still see the main mechanism of change as increasing adaptation to the environment, They regard each succeeding type of society as more effective in adapting to its environment than more simple types.
Max Weber theorized that the independent variable that accounted for the rise of capitalism was the Protestant ethic.
Weber criticized both evolutionary theories and historical materialism. Attempts to interpret historical change as a whole in terms of adaptation to the material world, or economic factors, he argued, are doomed to failure. Although such influences are undoubtedly important, there is no sense in which they ultimately control overall processes of development. Talcott Parsons has suggested that social evolution is an extension of biological evolution, although the actual mechanisms of development are different. Both types of evolution can be understood in terms of what Parsons called evolutionary universals, which are any types of development which crop up on more than one occasion in different conditions, and have great survival value.
Communication is fundamental in all human culture, and language is the basis of communication. Language is thus the first and most significant evolutionary universal; there is no known human society that does not possess a language Three other evolutionary universals found even in the earliest forms of society are religion, kinship, and technology. These four universals concern such essential aspects of any human society that no process of social evolution could get under way without them. Parsons claimed that social evolution can be analyzed as a process of progressive differentiation of social institutions, as societies move from the simple to the more complex. The earliest forms of society show only a very low level of differentiation, and are characterized by what Parsons called constitutive symbolism. This meant the existence of a set of symbols (- Symbol), largely religious in character, which permeate virtually all aspects of social life.
The next level of evolution is that of advanced primitive society. In this type, a stratification system replaces the more egalitarian character of the simpler cultures. Advanced primitive societies often involve ethnic as well as class divisions. They develop a definite productive system, involving agricultural or pastoral production, and settled places of residence. Religion becomes more separated from other aspects of social life, and is organized and developed by a distinct priesthood.
Further up the scale are what Parsons called "intermediate societies". Intermediate societies are civilizations or traditional states. They are associated with the emergence of writing and literacy. Religion undergoes a further elaboration, with the development of systematic theologies, and emerges as a clearly distinct sphere from political, economic and familial relationships. Political leadership develops in the shape of government administrations headed by aristocratic rulers. Several new evolutionary universals come into being at this stage, including specialized forms of political legitimacy, bureaucratic organization, monetary exchange and a specialized system of law. Each of these greatly increases the ability of a society to integrate large numbers of people within an overall community.
Industrialized societies stand at the highest point in Parsons's evolutionary scheme. They are far more internally differentiated than societies of the intermediate type. In industrialized societies, the economic and political systems become clearly separated from one another, and both are distinct from the legal system, as well as from religion. The development of mass democracy provides a means of involving the whole population within the political order. Industrialized societies have a much higher territorial unity than earlier types, being distinguished by well-defined borders. The superior survival value generated by the institutions of industrialized societies is well demonstrated by the spread of industrialism worldwide, leading to the more or less complete disappearance of the earlier types of society. Among the many factors that may be viewed as contributing to social change are the succession of personnel in society, the challenges of the environment, the interdependence of elements in the social order, the strain between the ideal and actual patterns of a social order, historical accidents and episodes of change, culture contact or the culture base itself.