Sociocultural Evolution - Stadial Theory - Sociocultural Evolutionism and The Idea of Progress

Sociocultural Evolutionism and The Idea of Progress

While sociocultural evolutionists agree that an evolution-like process leads to social progress, classical social evolutionists have developed many different theories, known as theories of unilineal evolution. Sociocultural evolutionism was the prevailing theory of early sociocultural anthropology and social commentary, and is associated with scholars like Auguste Comte, Edward Burnett Tylor, Lewis Henry Morgan, Benjamin Kidd, L.T. Hobhouse and Herbert Spencer. Sociocultural evolutionism attempted to formalise social thinking along scientific lines, with the added influence from the biological theory of evolution. If organisms could develop over time according to discernible, deterministic laws, then it seemed reasonable that societies could as well. Human society was compared to a biological organism, and social science equivalents of concepts like variation, natural selection, and inheritance were introduced as factors resulting in the progress of societies. Idea of progress led to that of a fixed "stages" through which human societies progress, usually numbering three—savagery, barbarism, and civilization—but sometimes many more. As early as the late 18th century Marquis de Condorcet listed 10 stages, or "epochs", each advancing the rights of man and perfecting the human race. At that time, anthropology was rising as a new scientific discipline, separating from the traditional views of "primitive" cultures that was usually based on religious views.

Classical social evolutionism is most closely associated with the 19th-century writings of Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer (coiner of the phrase "survival of the fittest"). In many ways Spencer's theory of "cosmic evolution" has much more in common with the works of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Auguste Comte than with contemporary works of Charles Darwin. Spencer also developed and published his theories several years earlier than Darwin. In regard to social institutions, however, there is a good case that Spencer's writings might be classified as 'Social Evolutionism'. Although he wrote that societies over time progressed, and that progress was accomplished through competition, he stressed that the individual (rather than the collectivity) is the unit of analysis that evolves, that evolution takes place through natural selection and that it affects social as well as biological phenomenon. Nonetheless, the publication of Darwin's works proved a boon to the proponents of sociocultural evolution. The ideas of biological evolution was seen as an attractive explanation for many questions about the development of society.

Both Spencer and Comte view the society as a kind of organism subject to the process of growth—from simplicity to complexity, from chaos to order, from generalisation to specialisation, from flexibility to organisation. They agreed that the process of societies growth can be divided into certain stages, have their beginning and eventual end, and that this growth is in fact social progress—each newer, more evolved society is better. Thus progressivism became one of the basic ideas underlying the theory of sociocultural evolutionism.

Auguste Comte, known as father of sociology, formulated the law of three stages: human development progresses from the theological stage, in which nature was mythically conceived and man sought the explanation of natural phenomena from supernatural beings, through metaphysical stage in which nature was conceived of as a result of obscure forces and man sought the explanation of natural phenomena from them until the final positive stage in which all abstract and obscure forces are discarded, and natural phenomena are explained by their constant relationship. This progress is forced through the development of human mind, and increasing application of thought, reasoning and logic to the understanding of the world. For Comte, it was the science-valuing society that was the highest, most developed type of human organization.

Herbert Spencer, who argued against government intervention, believing that society evolution should be toward increasing individual freedom, differentiated between two phases of development, focusing on the type of internal regulation within societies. Thus he differentiated between military and industrial societies. The earlier, more primitive military society has a goal of conquest and defense, is centralised, economically self-sufficient, collectivistic, puts the good of a group over the good of an individual, uses compulsion, force and repression, rewards loyalty, obedience and discipline. The industrial society has a goal of production and trade, is decentralised, interconnected with other societies via economic relations, achieves its goals through voluntary cooperation and individual self-restraint, treats the good of individual as the highest value, regulates the social life via voluntary relations, values initiative, independence and innovation. The transition process from the military to industrial society is the outcome of steady evolutionary processes within the society.

Regardless of how scholars of Spencer interpret his relation to Darwin, Spencer proved to be an incredibly popular figure in the 1870s, particularly in the United States. Authors such as Edward L. Youmans, William Graham Sumner, John Fiske, John W. Burgess, Lester Frank Ward, Lewis H. Morgan and other thinkers of the gilded age all developed theories of social evolutionism as a result of their exposure to Spencer as well as Darwin.

Lewis H. Morgan, an anthropologist whose ideas have had much impact on sociology, in his 1877 classic Ancient Societies differentiated between three eras: savagery, barbarism and civilization, which are divided by technological inventions, like fire, bow, pottery in the savage era, domestication of animals, agriculture, metalworking in the barbarian era and alphabet and writing in the civilization era. Thus Morgan introduced a link between social progress and technological progress. Morgan viewed technological progress as a force behind social progress, and any social change—in social institutions, organizations or ideologies—has its beginnings in technological change. Morgan's theories were popularized by Friedrich Engels, who based his famous work The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State on it. For Engels and other Marxists, this theory was important as it supported their conviction that materialistic factors—economic and technological—are decisive in shaping the fate of humanity.

Edward Burnett Tylor, pioneer of anthropology, focused on the evolution of culture worldwide, noting that culture is an important part of every society and that it is also subject to the process of evolution. He believed that societies were at different stages of cultural development and that the purpose of anthropology was to reconstruct the evolution of culture, from primitive beginnings to the modern state.

Anthropologists Sir E.B. Tylor in England and Lewis Henry Morgan in the United States worked with data from indigenous people, who they claimed represented earlier stages of cultural evolution that gave insight into the process and progression of evolution of culture. Morgan would later have a significant influence on Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who developed a theory of sociocultural evolution in which the internal contradictions in society created a series of escalating stages that ended in a socialist society (see Marxism). Tylor and Morgan elaborated the theory of unilinear evolution, specifying criteria for categorising cultures according to their standing within a fixed system of growth of humanity as a whole and examining the modes and mechanisms of this growth. Theirs was often a concern with culture in general, not with individual cultures.

Their analysis of cross-cultural data was based on three assumptions:

  1. contemporary societies may be classified and ranked as more "primitive" or more "civilized";
  2. There are a determinate number of stages between "primitive" and "civilized" (e.g. band, tribe, chiefdom, and state),
  3. All societies progress through these stages in the same sequence, but at different rates.

Theorists usually measured progression (that is, the difference between one stage and the next) in terms of increasing social complexity (including class differentiation and a complex division of labour), or an increase in intellectual, theological, and aesthetic sophistication. These 19th-century ethnologists used these principles primarily to explain differences in religious beliefs and kinship terminologies among various societies.

Lester Frank Ward, sometimes referred to as the "father" of American sociology, rejected many of Spencer's theories regarding the evolution of societies. Ward, who was also a botanist and a paleontologist, believed that the law of evolution functioned much differently in human societies than it did in the plant and animal kingdoms, and theorized that the "law of nature" had been superseded by the "law of the mind". He stressed that humans, driven by emotions, create goals for themselves and strive to realize them (most effectively with the modern scientific method) whereas there is no such intelligence and awareness guiding the non-human world. Plants and animals adapt to nature; man shapes nature. While Spencer believed that competition and 'survival of the fittest" benefited human society and socio-cultural evolution, Ward considered competition to be a destructive force, pointing out that all human institutions, traditions and laws were tools invented by the mind of man and, like all tools, were designed to "meet and checkmate" the unrestrained competition of natural forces. Ward agreed with Spencer that authoritarian governments repress the talents of the individual, but he believed that modern democratic societies, in which role of religion was minimized and that of science was maximized, could effectively support the individual in his or her attempt to fully utilize their talents and achieve happiness. He believed that there were four stages to the evolutionary processes. First, there is cosmogenesis, creation and evolution of the world. Then, when life arises, there is biogenesis. Development of humanity leads to anthropogenesis, which is influenced by the human mind. Finally, there is sociogenesis, which is the science of shaping the evolutionary process itself to optimize progress, human happiness and individual self-actualization. While Ward believed that modern societies were superior to "primitive" societies (one need only look to the impact of medical science on health and lifespan) he rejected theories of white supremacy; he supported the Out-of-Africa theory of human evolution and believed that all races and social classes were equal in talent. However, Ward did not think that evolutionary progress was inevitable and he feared the degeneration of societies and cultures, which was very evident in the historical record. Ward also did not favor the radical reshaping of society as proposed by the supporters of the eugenics movement and by the followers of Karl Marx; like Comte, Ward believed that sociology was the most complex of the sciences and that true sociogenesis was impossible without considerable research and experimentation.

Émile Durkheim, another of the "fathers" of sociology, developed a dichotomal view of social progress. His key concept was social solidarity, as he defined social evolution in terms of progressing from mechanical solidarity to organic solidarity. In mechanical solidarity, people are self-sufficient, there is little integration and thus there is the need for use of force and repression to keep society together. In organic solidarity, people are much more integrated and interdependent and specialisation and cooperation are extensive. Progress from mechanical to organic solidarity is based first on population growth and increasing population density, second on increasing "morality density" (development of more complex social interactions) and thirdly, on the increasing specialisation in the workplace. To Durkheim, the most important factor in social progress is the division of labour. This was later used in the mid-1900s by the economist Ester Boserup to attempt to discount some aspects of Malthusian theory.

Ferdinand Tönnies describes evolution as the development from informal society, where people have many liberties and there are few laws and obligations, to modern, formal rational society, dominated by traditions and laws, where people are restricted from acting as they wish. He also notes that there is a tendency of standardisation and unification, when all smaller societies are absorbed into a single, large, modern society. Thus Tönnies can be said to describe part of the process known today as globalization. Tönnies was also one of the first sociologists to claim that the evolution of society is not necessarily going in the right direction, that social progress is not perfect, and it can even be called a regression as the newer, more evolved societies are obtained only after paying a high cost, resulting in decreasing satisfaction of individuals making up that society. Tönnies' work became the foundation of neoevolutionism.

Although not usually counted as a sociocultural evolutionist, Max Weber's theory of tripartite classification of authority can be viewed as an evolutionary theory as well. Weber distinguishes three ideal types of political leadership, domination and authority: charismatic domination (familial and religious), traditional domination (patriarchs, patrimonalism, feudalism) and legal (rational) domination (modern law and state, bureaucracy). He also notes that legal domination is the most advanced, and that societies evolve from having mostly traditional and charismatic authorities to mostly rational and legal ones.

Read more about this topic:  Sociocultural Evolution, Stadial Theory

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