Elman R. Service, a prominent cultural anthropologist of the 20th century, was born May 18, 1915 in Tecumseh, Michigan. His theory of cultural evolution that occurs as organic and superorganic factors influence different types of social organization in small-scale society is prominent among anthropologists, ethnologists, and social anthropologists.
Service completed his undergraduate degree in anthropology at the University of Michigan (1941) after serving in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to fight fascism in Spain, which spurred his interest in anthropology, and he completed his PhD in anthropology at Columbia University (1951). He served on the faculties of Columbia (1949-1953), the University of Michigan (1953-1968), and the University of California at Santa Barbara (1968-1985). He was married to Helen S. Service and remained involved in anthropology at Santa Barbara until his death on November 14, 1996. He was a member of the American Anthropological Association and the American Ethnological Society.
Attracted by the cultural dynamics of Latin American Indian ethnology, Service conducted field research in Paraguay, Mexico, and among the Havasupai culture of the Grand Canyon. Utilizing sophisticated ethnological research methodologies, which he developed throughout his distinguished career, Service conducted field research throughout Latin America focusing on cultural evolution and decision making among Indian peoples, discovering the organic (technological) and superorganic (cultural) circumstances and configurations that produced different types of social organization prior to the state.
Service developed a typology of societies whereby most societies can be classified into four principal types of social order (political organization and other social characteristics): bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and states. Applying trend analysis, he classified levels of political integration, specializations of political officials, modes of subsistence, community size and population density, social differentiation, and forms of distribution.
Based on the level of social order or organization, Service deduced that most societies had evolved to the state type, characterized by multilocal group political integration, high degree of specialization of political officials, an intensive agriculture and herding mode of subsistence, urban with high density of population, a class form of social differentiation, and a market exchange form of distribution.
Service’s theory of cultural evolution is that the state, an institutionalized structure of authority, is virtually nonexistent in hunter-gatherer groups, where leadership positions are rarely permanent, and develops in agrarian society, where organizations and institutions are more likely to become integrated with stable configurations at each technological or cultural level, especially when stability has existed for a long time. Thus, he concluded that if no clearly definable organization tends to exist, there is no organization, suggesting that there may be cultural systems where redistribution could take place without one person being consistently the key to its workings.
- Service, E. R. (1962). Primitive social organization: An evolutionary perspective. New York: Random House.
- Service, E. R. (1966). The hunters. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
- Service, E. R. (1975). Origins of the state and civilization: The process of cultural evolution. New York: W. W. Norton.