Human relations may be considered as patterned interactions over time. Thus, temporal change and continuity are constant and fundamental features of the human condition. In this perspective, the typical usage of the social change concept—as only applying when a “normal” state of affairs is radically and rapidly altered—involves several flawed assumptions, including the idea that stasis is normal and that only change needs explanation. The alternative is to think of our key topics, including society, culture, and nature, as processual—as unfolding over time. Anthropology has a twofold relationship to social change. On the one hand, the long time period of human biological and cultural evolution provides bountiful evidence of social change; on the other hand, the microscopic time and space perspective of ethnography favors static views of culture and society and thus misleadingly renders change abnormal and exogenous.
Cultural evolution is generally used for major changes in social organization that have taken place over the length of human prehistory and history, involving the emergence of ranking and stratification, states and bureaucracies, specialized occupations, cities, and so on. Empirical generalizations about and theories of cultural evolution abounded in the 18th and 19th century. Among the most important are found in the works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Herbert Spencer, Edward Burnett Tylor, and Lewis Henry Morgan. Typically, these authors approached social change as a series of stages with distinctive lists of characteristics, such as Morgan’s memorable, if patronizing, “savagery, barbarism, and civilization,” further subdivided into lower, middle, and upper units (resulting in odd terms such as “upper savagery,” whose marker was the invention of the bow and arrow). Such stage theories tended to assume progress over time, arrogantly envisioning the most powerful European-based societies of the world as the pinnacle of change (Marx and Engels, however, envisioned a further step forward, to “communism”). Clearly, then, cultural evolution models reflected not just “pure” scholarship but also the worldview of European imperialism and emergent capitalism.
At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, Franz Boas emphatically criticized the flaws of stage theories, such as their rigidity and egregious speculation. Nevertheless, he also addressed change as a kaleidoscopic flow of influences among cultures— so-called historical particularism. His interest in social change waned, however, when confronted by recent changes in non-Western cultures impacted by the West, which he tended to ignore. The late Boasians (such as Alexander Lesser) initiated the study of recent history among Native Americans, but this was overshadowed by the revival of stage theories of cultural evolution under the auspices of Leslie White and Julian Steward. While White reasserted the single line of advance posited by 19th-century theorists, Steward more subtly argued for many regional histories, which were partly unique but across which one sometimes finds comparable and thus generalizable transitions, such as the formation of class- and state-based societies. Without doubt, the revival of evolutionary models was shaped by the post-World War II triumph of United States technological, political, and economic power.
Emerging from White and Steward, there have been two important lines of inquiry. One explores the causes of change between stages—is it technological improvement, especially control over energy? Is it gradually growing populations? Is it sacred consensus? Is it political coercion, and if so, based on what? Territorial circumscription? Management of irrigation? The other questions the stage approach—at least in its most schematic format—emphasizing complex systems dynamics and ambiguous, transitional cases, while at the same time retaining the insight that there are broad tendencies over time toward inequality and centralization of power.
Alongside these developments in the course of the 20th century arose the functionalist view of societies (which can be crudely summarized as “everything works together, all in the present”), which was shaped by the development of sustained fieldwork-based ethnography as a research method. Ethnography has many virtues, but we noted its static bias above, a characteristic example being Bronislaw Malinowski’s omission of migratory wage labor to plantations by young men in his Trobriands ethnography. Since then, British social anthropology struggled with how to insert social change. Godfrey Wilson pioneered by looking at the effects of mine labor and then unemployment during the Great Depression in southern Africa; following him, the researchers of the Rhodes-Livingston Institute and the “Manchester school” of social anthropology made change, conflict, and adjustment their principal agenda. Within structural-functional anthropology, Edmund Leach outlined a dynamic, if cyclical, model in Political Systems of Highland Burma. And most radically (in political as well as intellectual terms), Peter Worsley challenged the functionalist bias toward cycling back to stasis by examining revolutionary millenarian movements among non-Western peoples.
This set the stage for anthropology’s increasing attention to recent history as the context for inherently processual culture. The background was the tumultuous world of the 1960s, filled with rebellions against colonial masters, communist bureaucrats, and inherited intellectual verities. The key scholar was Eric Wolf, whose magisterial synthesis Europe and the People Without History proposed that the diverse modern cases studied by anthropologists form part of one worldwide network, constantly undergoing change through the unfolding of global capitalism. In this history, European imperialists and non-European peoples are mutually causal and equally dynamic. June Nash, Eleanor Leacock, Sidney Mintz, Talal Asad, Worsley, and many other anthropologists contributed to this perspective, as well as Immanuel Wallerstein, Samir Amin, Andre Gunder Frank, and others who developed “world system theory.”
No longer could scholars view non-Western peoples as occupying timeless “tradition” until “modernity” was imposed from outside, whether as “progress” or “destruction.” Instead, certain characteristic cultural qualities of “modernity”—intensive non-face-to-face communication, say, or citizenship in imagined collectivities—emerge from a dynamic interaction of cultural segments throughout the world system, with local inflections as well as global commonalities. Debatably, some scholars posit that these changes are now so intense that we live in a foundationless “postmodern” period, one of total “globalization.” Even if the language of these approaches is overheated, social change is now central rather than intrusive in the study of anthropology.
- Johnson, A. W., & Earle, T. K. (1987). The evolution of human societies: From foraging group to agrarian state. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
- Sanderson, S. K. (1990). Social evolutionism: A critical history. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.
- Wolf, E. R. (1982). Europe and the people without history. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.