Gerhard Lenski in his own Words:
Notes on Power and Privilege: A Theory of Social Stratification,
1966, New York: McGraw-Hill book Company.
There is one other "peculiarity" of this volume which deserves comment.
In recent decades many American sociologists have come to equate theory
building with the use of purely deductive logic. This is a serious
error since successful theory building requires both inductive and deductive
logic. To limit oneself to pure deductive reasoning in a field such
as sociology is impossible, at least if one desires to be relevant; to
attempt it and to claim it is only to deceive oneself and others and to
inhibit the normal development of theory (1966, p. 21).
Chapter 2/ Man and Society
The chief objective of this chapter is to set forth certain postulates
about the nature of man and society which form the foundation for the emerging
synthesis. Some are drawn from the conservative tradition, some from
the radical, and some from neither (1966, p.25).
The Nature of Man
The starting point in every sociological discussion of the nature of
man is the deceptively simple assertion that man is a social being obliged
by nature to live with others as member of a society. On this proposition
at least, radicals and conservatives agree, and this serves as the first
postulate in our general theory (1966, p.25).
To say that man is a social being is not to deny that a few individuals
withdraw from society and live as hermit. The human race could not
survive on this basis, however, since its chief weapon in the struggle
for existence has always been culture, and culture is uniquely a social
product. Social life is essential not only for the survival of the
species but also for the maximum satisfaction of human needs and desires.
Through cooperative activity men can satisfy many needs and desires which
could never be met otherwise and can satisfy most other needs much more
efficiently, i.e., with greater return for less effort or other investment
To say that man is a social being is also to say that society into which
he is born shapes his character and personality in ways over which he has
no control and of which he is often unaware (1966, p.26).
Thus, when one surveys the human scene, one is forced to conclude that
when men are confronted with important decisions where they are obliged
to choose between their own, or their group's, interests and the interests
of others, they nearly always choose the former--though often seeking to
hide this fact from themselves and others. This is the second postulate
in our theory (1966, p.30).
Before leaving this controversial postulate, it may be well to point
out that the exchange system and the division of labor in all the more
complex societies serve as veils which largely hide this ugly truth.
In complex societies men seldom see the consequences of their own economic
and political actions. Rather, they observe the workings of the impersonal
market system, which favors some and penalizes others. Success or
failure thus appears to result from impersonal forces, or forces so complex
that the influence of a single individual become negligible. This
helps to foster the myth that man is by nature good and kind (1966, p.31).
The third postulate in our theory pertains to the objects of men's strivings.
Some, such as the air we breathe, are readily available to all, but most
are not. Most are in short supply--that is, the demand for them exceeds
the available supply (1966, p.31).
This is the normal feature of the world of nature. Though we often
speak of nature's bounty, the fact remains that al living things have a
reproductive capacity which, in view of the limited supply of food and
other resources, makes it inevitable that large numbers will die well before
the end of their normal life span and most the others live close to the
margin of subsistence (1966, p.31).
To some extent man has been able to free himself from these difficulties.
Thousands of years ago he learned to increase his food supply and, more
recently, he has learned to control his reproduction. Yet while man
enjoys certain advantages when compare with other living things, he also
suffers from certain disadvantages. Unlike the various plants and
animals, man has an insatiable appetite for goods and services. No
matter how much he produces and consumes, he always desires more.
This is true chiefly because the goods and services he consumes have a
status value as well as a utilitarian value (1966, p.31).
If our first three postulates are correct, that is, if man is a social
being, and if most of his important actions are motivated by self-interest
or partisan group interest, and if many or most of the objects of his striving
are in short supply, then if follows logically that a struggle for rewards
will be present in every human society. This struggle need not always
assume violent forms. On the contrary, it can be carried on within
the framework of some system of rules. However, the absence of violence
does not mean that the struggle is any less real or serious for the parties
involved (1966, p.31-32).
Before concluding this portion of our discussion, two further postulates
should be entered into the record. The first of these, and fourth in our
series, is that men are unequally endowed by nature with the attributes
necessary to carry on these struggles. Some are born with serious
physical handicaps which severely limit their chances. Others are
handicapped in less obvious ways, such as by poor physical coordination,
mild brain damage, lack of stamina, or even ugliness (1966, p.32).
These inequalities in natural endowment are not the primary source of
social inequality. But they are important enough to provide some
foundation for the ancient conservative thesis that nature is the source
of social inequality (1966, p.32).
Fifth and finally, for the present, we postulate that man tends to be
a creature of habit and powerfully influence by the social counterpart
of habit, namely, custom. William James once called habit "the enormous
flywheel of society" and this still seems a fair characterization since
habit, like the flywheel, brings the powerful factor of inertia into play
in human affairs. The same is true of custom. From the standpoint
of the distributive process both habit and custom are tremendously important
since they tend to stabilize existing systems of distribution by causing
men to accept and take for granted even those distributive arrangements
which work to their disadvantage and are not essential. Thus such
arrangements prove far more durable and stable than one would expect and
persist far longer than a careful analysis of the pattern itself would
otherwise indicate (1966, p.32).
The Nature of Society
Society is a system. However, "This usage ignores two important
facts. First, systems vary greatly in the degree of the interdependence
and integration of their parts. The constituent parts of human societies
enjoy a measure of independence and autonomy which far exceeds that of
the parts of most biological organisms or mechanical systems. To
ignore this is to invite confusion. Second, there is no such thing
as a perfect human social system in which the actions of the parts are
completely subordinated to the needs of the whole. This is a theoretical
construct which has no counterpart or even remote approximation in the
real world (1966, p.34).
These facts have important implications for social theory. In
the first place, if there is no such thing as a perfect social system,
we should stop spinning theories which postulate their existence and direct
our energies toward the building of theories which explicitly assume that
all human organizations are imperfect systems. Second, social theorists
(and researchers too) should stop trying to find social utility in all
the varied behavior patterns of men; they should recognize that many established
patterns of actions re thoroughly antisocial and contribute nothing to
the general good. Third, we should expect to find both cooperation
and conflict as continuous and normal features of human life and should
stop viewing conflict as a pathological or abnormal condition, as is often
done in contemporary functionalist theory. Fourth, we should devote
more attention to the causes and consequences of variations in the degree
of group integration. Finally, we must learn to think of distributive
systems as reflecting simultaneously system needs and unit needs, with
each often subverting the other (1966, p.34).
As we shall see later, there is good reason to believe that in many
societies throughout history the interests of only a small minority of
the members were significantly identifies with the interests of the total
society (1966, p.35).
Individual Interests: Their Nature
To begin with, it is clear that the great majority of men have always
accorded survival as the highest priority (1966, p.37).
The fact that survival is usually given the highest priority has far
reaching implications for the social life of man. First of all, it
causes might or force to be the most effective deterrent and also the supreme
sanction in human affairs. It is no coincidence that violence is
the last court of appeal in human conflict (1966, p.37).
Because most men value survival so highly, anything which facilitates
survival is also valued highly. Practically, this means that food
and other goods and services which provide sustenance are highly valued,
especially since they are normally in short supply (1966, p.37).
After survival, it is more difficult to say which is man's most important
goal. Probably the two chief contenders are health and status, or
prestige (1966, p.37).
Two other widely shared goals are the desire for salvation in the next
world and affection in this (1966, p.38).
All of the goals mentioned thus far are valued in their own right.
There are other goals, however, which are sought largely or entirely for
their instrumental value--that is, because they facilitate the attainment
of the goals already mentioned. The classic example is money (1966,
Other forms of wealth occupy a more ambiguous position since they may
be sought for their own sake or merely for their instrumental value.
It is clear, however, that the intensity of the struggle for wealth is
greatly increased because of its instrumental value, which usually increases
the number of competitors greatly (1966, p.39).
Organizational office and other institutionalized roles with established
rights and prerogatives are also widely sought because of their instrumental
value. Status and income are attributes of most responsible positions,
and in the case of major offices in important organizations great honor
and income are normally assured. In addition, those in positions
of responsibility usually have large numbers of persons prepared to do
their bidding, at least within the bounds defined by the authority of their
office. Hence, offices, like money, are eagerly sought because they
facilitate the attainment of so many goals (1966, p.39).
Education or training, constitutes another goal men usually seek more
for its instrumental than for its intrinsic value. While there have
always been some who valued knowledge for its own sake, most men have sought
it chiefly because they thought it useful. With the increasing bureaucratization
of the world of work, it seems likely that formal education will become
even more eagerly sought in the future (1966, p.40).
Societal Interests: Their Nature
At the risk of oversimplification, one may say that the coordinated
actions of societies are directed largely toward one or the other of two
basic goals. First and foremost, they are directed toward the maintenance
of the political status quo within the group. Since perfect stability
or equilibrium is impossible, this goal might better be described as the
minimization of the rate of internal political change. This manifests itself
in various ways, but particularly in the development of the machinery of
state and other agencies and instruments of social control, in the great
concern for law and order which every society's leaders express, and in
the cultivation of political ideologies which justify the status quo.
It is also seen in the universal concern of societies and their leaders
with defense against foreign aggression (1966, p.41-42).
The second basic goal of societies is the maximization of production
and the resources on which production depends. Sometimes this has
been sought by efforts to promote technological advance; more often it
has been through war and conquest (1966, p.42).
Neither of these two basic goals receives priority in every society.
In some, efforts to minimize political change seem to take preference over
efforts to maximize production, while in other the reverse is true.
In general it appears that the goal of maximizing production has priority
in relatively unstratified societies and the goal of minimizing political
change has priority in societies in which power and privilege are monopolized
by a few. In societies in which neither of these conditions exists,
the two goals seem to be given roughly equal priority (1966, p.42).
This suggests one final conclusion about societies: societies, like
individuals, are basically self-seeking units. In fact, the history
of intersocietal relations suggests that the self-seeking element in societies
is, if anything, more pronounced than in individuals (1966, p.42).
Chapter 3/The Dynamics of Distributive Systems
Two Laws of Distribution
When one seeks to build a theory of distribution on the postulates about
the nature of man and society set forth in the last chapter, one soon discovers
that these lead to a curious, but important, dualism. If those postulates
are sound, one would predict that almost all the products of men's labors
will be distributed on the basis of two seemingly contradictory principles,
need and power (1966, p.44).
In our discussion of the nature of man, it was postulated that where
important decisions are involved, most human action is motivated either
by self-interest or by partisan group interest. This suggests that
power alone governs the distribution of rewards. This cannot be the
case, however, since we also postulated that most of these essentially
selfish interests can be satisfied only by the establishment of cooperative
relations with others. Cooperation is absolutely essential for survival
and for the efficient attainment of most other goals. In other words,
men's selfish interests compel them to remain members of society and to
share in the division of labor (1966, p.44).
If these two postulates are correct, then if follows that men will share
the product of their labors to the extent required to insure the survival
and continued productivity of those others whose actions are necessary
or beneficial to themselves. This might well be called the first
law of distribution, since the survival of mankind as a species depends
on compliance with it (1966, p.44).
This first law, however, does not cover the entire problem. It
says nothing about how any surplus, i.e., goods and services over and above
the minimum required to keep producers alive and productive, which men
may be able to produce will be distributed. This leads to what may
be called the second law of distribution. If we assume that in important
decisions human action is motivated almost entirely by self-interest or
partisan group interests, and if we assume that many of the things men
most desire are in short supply, then, as noted before, this surplus will
inevitably give rise to conflicts and struggles aimed at its control.
If, following Weber, we define power as the probability of persons or groups
carrying out their will even when opposed by others, then it follows that
power will determine the distribution of nearly all of the surplus possessed
by a society. The qualification "nearly all" takes account of the
very limited influence of altruistic action which our earlier analysis
of the nature of man leads us to expect (1966, p.44-45).
This second law points the way to another very important relationship,
that between our two chief variables, power and privilege. If privilege
is defined as possession or control of a portion of the surplus produced
by a society, then it follows that privilege is largely a function of power,
and to a very limited degree, a function of altruism. This means
that to explain most of the distribution of privilege in a society, we
have but to determine the distribution of power (1966, p.45).
It would be nice if one could say that prestige is a simple function
of privilege, but unfortunately this does not seem to be the case.
Without going into complex analysis of the matter at this point, the best
that can be said is that empirical evidence strongly suggests that prestige
is largely, though not solely, a function of power and privilege, at least
in those societies where there is a substantial surplus (1966, p.45).
Until the necessities of life have been made available to enough productive,
mutually interdependent members of the group, there is no surplus to be
fought over and distributed on the basis of power. Thus, as a first
hypothesis we would be led to predict that in the simplest societies, or
those which are technologically most primitive, the goods and services
available will be distributed wholly or largely, on the basis of need (1966,
As the productivity of societies increases, the possibility of producing
a surplus steadily increases, though it should be noted that the existence
of a surplus is not a function of technological advance alone...Hence,
as a second hypothesis we are led to predict that with technological advance,
an increasing proportion of goods and services available to a society will
be distributed on the basis of power (1966, p.46).
If the first two laws of distribution and the two hypotheses based on
them are valid, then the nature of distributive systems will vary greatly,
depending on the degree of technological advance in the societies involved
Past research has made it clear that technology is never an isolated
variable in sociocultural systems. On the contrary, it tends to be
linked fairly closely with a whole series of other variables which evidently
stand in a dependent relationship to it. Thus it is especially true
of many social organizational variables which are linked with distributive
systems and tend to define their limits of possible variations, e.g., nature
and extend of division of labor, maximum community size, etc. Hence,
by classifying societies on the basis of technology, we are, in effect,
simultaneously controlling, wholly or in part, many other relevant variables
(1966, pp. 47-48).
It should also be noted that classifying societies on the basis of the
nature of their technology does not imply that all those in a single category
have identical distributive systems any more than that all oligopolistic
markets function the same way. Obviously there are variations within
each societal type just as within each type of market, and an effort will
be made to identify and account for the more important of them (1966, p.48).
...if the size of a society's surplus affects the nature of the distributive
system, and if the size of the surplus depends to some degree on the nature
of the physical environment, then we should predict that differences in
the physical environment will lead to secondary differences in distributive
systems. More specifically, the richer the environment, the larger
the surplus and the greater the importance of power in the distributive
process (1966, p.48).
Another important source of secondary variation has been identified
by Stanislaw Andrzejewski in his important but neglected book, Military
Organization and Society. As he has shown, both deductive logic and
empirical data indicate that the degree of inequality in societies of a
given level of technological development tends to vary inversely with what
he calls "the military participation ratio," that is the proportion of
the adult male population utilized in military operations (1966, p.49).
A third source of secondary variations which can be anticipated is the
technological variation which exists even among societies classified in
the same category (1966, p.49).
Finally, as will become evident later in this chapter, one can expect
secondary variations associated with the stage a society occupies in what
I shall call "the political cycle." In effect, this is a measure
of the degree to which the prevailing distributive system is accepted as
legitimate (1966, p.49-50).
Force and Its Transformation
As a starting point, it may be well to return briefly to one of the
postulates introduced in the last chapter. There it was assumed that
survival is the chief goal of the great majority of men. If this
s so, then it follows that the ability take life is the most effective
form of power. In other words, more men will respond more readily
to the threat of the use of force than to any other (1966, p.50).
Nevertheless, as Edmund Burke, the famed English conservative, recognized,
"The use of force alone is but temporary. It may subdue for a moment;
but it does not remove the necessity of subduing again: and a nation is
not governed, which is perpetually to be conquered" (1966, p.51).
Though force is the most effective instrument for seizing power in a
society, and though it always remains the foundation of any system of inequality,
it is not the most effective instrument for retaining and exploiting a
position of power and deriving the maximum benefits from it. Therefore,
regardless of the objectives of a new regime, once organized opposition
has been destroyed it is to its advantage to make increasing use of other
techniques and instruments of control, and to allow force to recede into
the background to be used only when other techniques fail (1966, p.51).
If the new elite has materialistic goals ad is concerned solely with
self-aggrandizement, it soon discovers that the rule of might is both inefficient
and costly. So long as it relies on force, much of the profit is
consumed by the costs of coercion. If the population obeys only out
of fear of physical violence, a large portion of the time, energy, and
wealth of the elite are invariably consumed in the effort to keep it under
control and separate the producers from the product of their labors.
Even worse, honor, which normally runs high in the scale of human values,
is denied to those who rule by force alone (1966, p.51-52).
Thus those who seize power by force find it advantageous to legitimize
their rule once effective organized opposition is eliminated...with a limited
exercise of intelligence, force can be transformed into authority, and
might into right (1966, p.52).
...by virtue of its coercive power, a new elite is in a good position
to rewrite the law of the land as it sees fit. This affords them
a unique opportunity, since by its very nature law is identified with justice
and the rule of right. Since legal statutes are stated in general
and impersonal terms, they appear to support abstract principles of justice
rather than the special interests of particular men or classes of men.
The fact that laws exist prior to the events to which they are applied
suggests an objective impartiality which also contributes to their acceptance
Yet laws can always be written in such a way that they favor some particular
segment of society. Anatole France saw this clearly when he wrote,
"the law in its majestic equality forbids the rich as well as the poor
to sleep under bridges, to beg in the street, and to steal bread" (1966,
Often a new elite finds that it does not even need to change the laws
to accomplish its ends. Typically the old laws were written to serve
the interests of the holders of certain key offices, and once these offices
have been seized, the new elite can use them as a resource to build their
fortunes of attain their goals (1966, p.53).
Institutions which shape public opinion serve as a second instrument
for legitimizing the position of elites. Through the use of a combination
of inducements and threats, educational and religious institutions, together
with the mass media and other molders of public opinion, can usually be
transformed into instruments of propaganda for the new regime (1966, p.53).
Consensus and coercion are more closely related than those who preach
the Janus-headed character of society would have us believe. Coercive
power can often be used to create a new consensus (1966, p.53).
Finally, the transformation of the rule of might into the rule of right
is greatly facilitated by the pressures of daily life, which severely limit
the political activities of the vast majority of mankind. Though
the majority may become politically active in a significant way for a brief
time in a revolutionary era, the necessity of securing a livelihood quickly
drives most from the political arena. For better or worse, few men
have the financial resources which enable them to set aside their usual
economic activities for long. As a result, the affairs of state in
any civilized society and in many that are not, are directed by a small
minority. The majority are largely apolitical (1966, p.54).
The Rule of Right
...as the basis of power is shifted from might to right, certain subtle
but important changes occur which have far-reaching consequences (1966,
To begin with, if the powers of the regime are to be accepted as rightful
and legitimate they must be exercised in some degree, at least, in accord
with the conceptions of justice and morality held by the majority--conceptions
which spring from their self-interests and partisan group interests.
Thus, even though the laws promulgated by a new elite may be heavily slanted
to favor themselves, there are limits beyond which this cannot be carried
if they wish to gain the benefits of the rule of right (1966, p.55).
Second, after the shift to the rule of law, the interests of any single
member of the elite can no longer safely be equated with the interests
of the elite as a whole. For example, if a member of the new elite
enters into a contractual arrangement with some member of the nonelite,
and this turns out badly for him, it is to his interests to ignore the
law and break the contract. However, this is not to the interest
of the other members of the elite since most contractual arrangements work
to their benefit. Therefore, it is to their interest to enforce the
law in support of the claims of the nonelite to preserve respect for the
law with all the benefits this provides them (1966, p.55).
Vilfredo Pareto, the great Italian scholar who has contributed so much
to our understanding of these problems, has pointed out a third change
associated with the shift from the rule of might to the rule of right.
As he observed, those who have won power by force will, under the rule
of right, gradually be replaced by a new kind of person and in time these
persons will form a new kind of elite. To describe the nature of
this change, Pareto wrote of the passing of governmental power from "the
lions" to "the foxes." The lions are skilled in the use of force,
the foxes in the use of cunning (1966, p.55).
Fourth, and finally, the transition from the rule of might to the rule
of right usually means greater decentralization of power. Under the
rule of might, all power tends to be concentrated in the hands of an inner
circle of the dominant elite and their agents. Independent centers
of power are viewed as a threat and hence are destroyed or taken over.
Under the rule of right, however, this is not the case. So long as
they remain subject to the law, diverse centers of power can develop and
compete side by side (1966, p.56).
The Varieties of Institutionalized Power
Institutionalized power differs from force in a number of ways which
deserve note. To begin with, it is a socially acceptable form of
power, which means that those who exercise it are less likely to be challenged
and more likely to obtain popular support than those who use force (1966,
Second, institutionalized power tends to be much more impersonal.
Individuals claim the benefits of institutionalized power not because of
their personal qualities or accomplishments, which might easily be challenged,
but simply because they occupy a certain role or office or own a certain
piece of property. To be sure, it is often assumed that those who
enjoy the benefits of institutionalized power are entitled to them by virtue
of superior accomplishments or personal qualities, but this is not the
crucial issue and the beneficiary does not have to demonstrate these things.
It is enough just to be the occupant of the role or office or the owner
of the property (1966, p.57).
Taking all of the foregoing together, it may be predicted that constitutional
government will be most highly developed where (1) the political cycle
if os long duration, (2) the present regime was established during a war
of national independence, (3) constitutional government flourished before
the present cycle began, (4) there have been few, if any, serious threats
to the existing regime, (5) a high level of productivity prevails, and
(6) there is a period of rapid economic development. In short, the
full flowering of constitutional government depends upon a peculiar combination
of circumstances which have not occurred often in human history (1966,
While the differences between political cycles should never be minimized,
neither should the underlying similarities. In every society there
is a natural tendency for those who seize power by force to strive to rule
by constitutional means, so far as circumstances permit. Yet in the
end every regime is destroyed by force or the threat of it. This
is the basic theme on which there are a thousand variations (1966, p.61).
The Middle Classes and the Institutionalization of Power
As historians and students of politics have long recognized, revolutions
are the work of small minorities. Hence, when the revolution is over,
the new elite is obliged to employ the services of others to achieve their
objectives. Only in this way can they hope to bring the surplus of
the society effectively under their control and effect its transformation
into the kinds of goods and services they desire (1966, p.62).
This process leads to the creation, extension, or perpetuation of a
middle stratum of technicians and specialists working in the service of
the elite. These include public officials, craftsmen, artists, servants,
merchants, soldiers, priests, and scholars. The chief task of the
officials is to locate the economic surplus and separate it from its producers
In short, a complex apparatus is brought into being, the primary function
of which is to insure the elite's continued control over the economic surplus
and its transformation into the varied kinds of goods and services the
elite desires (1966, p.63).
It is the needs of the elite, not the needs of the total society, which
determine the demand curve for such services. The distribution of
rewards in a society is a function of the distribution of power, not of
system needs. This is inevitable in such imperfect systems as human
societies (1966, p.63).
When a political cycle survives for an appreciable period of time, the
nature of the middle classes and their relation to the political elite
gradually changes. In eras of constitutional rule there is a tendency
for these classes to arrogate to themselves certain of the powers and privileges
of the elite. This is not difficult since it is their normal function
to act on behalf of the elite. Powers delegated often become powers
lost; once lost they are not easily recovered (1966, p.63).
Thus it appears that the greater the degree of constitutionalism in
a society, the less the middle classes function merely as agents of the
elite and the greater their personal independence, autonomy, and security
Up to this point we have viewed the struggles for power and privilege
chiefly from the standpoint of the elite, noting how, by various means,
they bring the surplus of the society under their control. This is
only half the story, however, since in sociology, as in physics, actions
produce reactions (1966, p.63).
Of all the many reactions to the exercise of power and privilege in
societies, the one most valued by the elites themselves is that of competition
among the nonelites for positions in their employ. In order to attract
the best qualified men to these positions, elites make them more desirable
than other nonelite positions (1966, p.64).
Every system of power and privilege also sets in motion a deadly struggle
for survival among the offspring of the common people, except in those
societies which are able to control reproduction or in which there is a
temporary shortage of population such as may be created by major plagues,
famines, or other disasters. Unhappily, mankind has always been able
to produce more offspring than society can maintain, especially when the
economic surplus is skimmed off by a privileged elite (1966, p.64).
It would be a mistake to suppose that conditions would have been very
different if there had been no elite to appropriate the economic surplus.
Without the elite, there would have been no economic surplus, since population
growth would have kept pace with gains in productivity--at least prior
to the development of modern methods of birth control. Strange as
it may seem, until modern times there was an economic surplus in societies
chiefly because the ambitions of the elite kept the growth of population
in check (1966, p.64).
Taking the long-run view of this problem, it is clear that the exploitive
character of elites and their expropriation of the economic surplus were
necessary prerequisites to social progress. Had there been no exploitive
elites, there would have been no economic surplus to support the technicians,
inventors, artists, philosophers, prophets, and other cultural innovators
who brought modern civilization into being. If one values modern
civilization, or any important aspect of it, he has the age-old phenomenon
of exploitation to thank for it. This is no justification for all
aspects of these systems of exploitation, since much of the economic surplus
was used in culturally unproductive ways, but it does serve as yet another
reminder of the complexity of the human condition (1966, p.64-65).
A third reaction to the exercise of power and privilege is on which
usually annoys elites but represents no serious threat to their security
or status. This is the response of petty thievery by those in subordinate
positions (1966, p.65).
A fourth type of reaction to the exercise of power and privilege manifests
itself in the efforts of members of the middle classes to gain control
over powers, privileges, and resources traditionally reserved to the elite
A fifth type of reaction to power and privilege manifests itself in
crimes of violence directed against members of the elite and their agents.
More often it is against the latter since, as the working arm of the elite,
they come into more frequent contact with the lower classes who are the
chief offenders. These crimes are always taken very seriously (1966,
Ever since the French Revolution drastically changed the techniques
of warfare by introducing conscription and the mass army, elites have been
much more dependent on the common people. This may well have been
one of the major reasons for the extension of the franchise in the last
century and for the growing acceptance by elites of labor unions, workingmen's
political parties, and all the other organizations designed to promote
and protect the interests of the common people (1966, p.66-67).
The net effect of these many and varied reactions to the exercise of
power and privilege by political elites is the strengthening of the tendency
toward constitutional government. Constitutional government is, in
essence, government which is based more on consent than on force.
To obtain this consent, some concessions are required (1966, p.67).
The Downfall of Regimes
Despite the best efforts of political elites, no regime survives forever.
From the standpoint of the study of distributive systems, the forces which
bring about the downfall of regimes are no less important than those which
stabilize and strengthen them (1966, p.68).
Though many factors contribute to the downfall of political regimes,
there are only two means by which they are actually overthrown, war and
revolution (1966, p.68).
From the standpoint of any theory of distribution, war is simply a special
form of the ubiquitous and continuous struggle for control of the economic
surplus. What makes it distinctive is that it involves a struggle
between two established elites rather than between elites and nonelite
elements of the same society (1966, p.68).
Many, if not most, of the revolutions led by military men have been
simply palace revolutions (1966, p.70).
Where they are a recurrent phenomenon, they seriously hinder the development
of constitutionalism. For those who value the freedom of the individual
from tyranny and despotism, this is no minor matter (1966, p.70).
While military men are usually the leaders of palace revolutions, intellectuals
are likely to be the leaders of social revolutions. They alone can
supply the one crucial ingredient without which social revolutions are
impossible--a new ideology to challenge and destroy the existing one.
Ideologies are the stock and trade of intellectuals (1966, p.70).
Intellectuals are easily alienated by systems of power and privilege.
They are like ministers without portfolio, experts without the power to
translate their ideas into public policy. Hence there is a natural
basis for alienation. Enlightened elites, therefore, usually find
it wise to flatter them with attentions and honors, thus securing their
gratitude and support (1966, p.70-71).
Another segment of the population of most societies which is attracted
with great frequency to social revolutions is that made up of ethnic, racial,
and religious minorities. These groups usually hold special grievances
against the dominant majority and thus are more receptive to counter ideologies.
Unlike the lower class members of the dominant group, there is no common
cultural tie to provide a basis for identification with the elite (1966,
No social revolution can succeed, however, so long as the army stands
firmly behind the existing regime. Lenin saw this clearly when he wrote,
"No great revolution has happened or can happen without the disorganization
of the army" (1966, p.71).
Thus, we are again driven back to a recognition of the crucial role
played by specialists in force, both in the preservation and destruction
of political regimes. Although a few revolutions have succeeded without
support from the armed forces, these have usually occurred at the time
the army was badly demoralized and disintegrating, e.g., the Russian Revolution
of 1917. Having postulated that force is the final court of appeals
in human conflicts, these facts should not surprise us (1966, p.72).
Chapter 4/ The Structure of Distributive Systems
As our analysis of the last chapter indicated, stratification is a multidimensional
phenomenon. Human populations are stratified in various ways, and
each of these alternative modes of stratification provides a basis for
a different conception of class (1966, p.74).
The distribution of privilege and prestige seem largely determined by
the distribution of power, at least in those societies in which a significant
surplus is produced (1966, p.75).
Unless otherwise indicated, "class" will hereafter refer to groupings
defined in terms of power (1966, p.75).
Second, given this definition, a single individual may well be a member
of half a dozen power classes. This is inevitable whenever the various
forms of power are less than perfectly correlated with one another...it
may be appropriate to note that this tendency seems to become progressively
more pronounced as one moves from technologically primitive to technologically
advanced societies. In other words, the necessity of multidimensional
analyses seems greatest in modern industrial societies (1966, p.75-76).
...the members of every power class share certain interests with one
another and these shared interests constitute a potential basis for hostility
toward other classes (1966, p.76).
...a class is a caste to the degree that upward mobility into or out
of it is forbidden by the mores (1966, p.77).
An estate ...refers to a legally designed segment of the population
of a society which has distinctive rights and duties established by law
Again, there is no necessary contradiction between the definitions of
estate and class. Thus we may say that a class is an estate to the
degree that its existence, rights, and privileges are established by law
Once we recognize that power rests on various foundations and that these
are not always reducible to some single common denominator, we are forced
to think in terms of a series of class hierarchies or class systems.
These constituted a level of organization intermediate between a single
class and the total distributive system (1966, p.79).
For purposes of formal definition, a class system may be said to be
a hierarchy of classes ranked in terms of some single criterion.
As indicated previously, each class system in a society contains within
it all the members of that society. Thus every member of American
society holds simultaneous membership in some class within the occupational,
property, racial-ethnic, educational, age, and sexual class systems (1966,
One of the great advantages of a conscious recognition of class systems
as a distinct level of organization is that we are led to see that the
struggle for power and privilege involves not only struggles between individuals
and classes, it also involves struggles between class systems, and thus
between different principles of distribution. For example, in recent
decades, we have witnessed in the United States and elsewhere vigorous
efforts to increase the importance of the educational class system, often
in conjunction with efforts to reduce the importance of the racial-ethnic
and sexual class systems (1966, p.81).
Class systems differ from one another in a number of ways which deserve
recognition...they differ in both importance and complexity. Some
have far more influence than others on the chances of men's obtaining the
goals they seek. Similarly, some involve more complex structures
than others (1966, p.81).
Two other variable features of class systems are their span and shape.
Span refers to the range of variation found within a class system.
The shape of a system refers to the patterning of the distribution of cases.
When charted graphically this may result in a pyramidal structure with
the great majority of individuals concentrated on the lower levels, or
it may result in some more or less skewed variant of a normal curve with
the majority of individuals in the middle levels, or still other patterns
Fifth, class systems vary with respect to the degree of mobility which
is possible within them. In some, as in the case of sexual and racial
class systems, the positions of individuals are virtually fixed.
In others, movement is possible in widely varying degrees (1966, p.82).
Sixth, class systems differ in terms of the degree of hostility which
prevails between classes. In a few instances, class warfare of the
type envisioned by Marx has prevailed, at least for a time. At the
other extreme, there has often been a virtual absence of hostility.
There is good reason for supposing that class hostility is inversely related
to opportunities for mobility, though available evidence suggests that
the relationship is far from perfect (1966, p.82).
Finally, class systems differ in the degree of institutionalization.
In some systems the rights and duties of several classes are firmly embedded
in custom and undergirded by a universally accepted ideology which serves
to legitimize inequalities. In extreme cases, custom has become translated
into law. At the other extreme, certain class systems have been based
almost entirely on the ability of the favored class to control others by
naked force (1966, p.82).
Viewed in their totality, distributive systems resemble a system of
wheels within wheels. The complexity of these systems varies considerably
and seems to be largely a function of the societies' technology (1966,
On the basis of the postulates set forth in the last two chapters, one
would predict that the degree of inequality in distributive systems will
vary directly with the size of a society's surplus. Some modifications
of this general pattern could develop, however, when conditions permit
persons who individually lack power to combine and organize, and thus to
develop a collective counterbalance to those with greater individual power.
Such developments seem most probable in democratic nations with an egalitarian
ideology (1966, p.85).
Unfortunately, our theory provides us with no basis for predicting systematic
variations in the rates of vertical mobility. On an ad hoc basis,
however, one might predict that they will tend to vary directly with the
rate of technological and social change. Such change should lead
to changes in the bases of power and, in a period of flux, traditional
means of transmitting and retaining power should prove somewhat less effective
than in periods of relative stability (1966, p.85-86).
If, as suggested earlier, the lack of opportunities for upward mobility
is one of the sources of class hostility, one would predict that the degree
of class hostility will tend to vary inversely with the rate of upward
mobility (1966, p.86).
Though this theory predicts that variations in technology are the most
important single determinant of variations in distribution, it does not
hypothesize that they are the only determinant. Three others are
specifically singled out: (1) environmental differences, (2) variations
in the military participation ration, (3) variations in the degree of constitutionalism.
In addition, since this is not a closed theory, it is assumed that other
factors also exercise an influence (1966, p.90).
Justification for classifying societies based on technological variations,
Notes from Human Societies: An Introduction to Macrosociology.
Sixth Edition, 1991.
It is not possible to acknowledge adequately all our intellectual debts
in the brief space available here. But many who read this volume
will recognize our debt to Thomas Malthus, Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer,
Karl Marx, Max Weber, Thorstein Veblen, Albert Keller, William Ogburn,
V. Gordon Childe, George Peter Murdock, R.H. Tawney, Sir Julian Huxley,
George Garlord Simpson, Leslie White, Julian Steward, Amos Hawley, Marvin
Harris, and William H. McNeil, among others. The citations that appear
at the end of this volume should be regarded as further acknowledgments
of indebtedness and appreciation (1991, p. xviii).
Chapter 1: The Human Situation
Macrosociology, in contrast, focuses on human societies themselves.
It, too, is concerned with individuals, families, classes, social problems,
nd all the other parts and features of societies, but it analyzes them
in relation to the larger social systems--the societies--of which they
are part (1991, p. 5).
Two other characteristics of this book should be noted. First,
its approach to the study of human societies is historical. We must
examine societies over an extended period of time if we hope to understand
the critical processes of societal change and development. Experience
has shown, moreover, that the broader the span of time we consider, the
better we can understand the most basic processes of change in human life
(1991, p. 5).
Second, our approach to the study of human societies is comparative.
Comparison is the basis of science. An understanding of anything
depends on comparing it with other things...Ony by repeated comparisons
is it possible to build a reliable store of knowledge about the world of
nature and all that it contains (1991, p. 5).
Scientific theories are explanations of various aspects of the world
of nature; they are explanations of why things are as they are. Theories
also provide a coherent set of principles that form the basic frame of
reference for a field of inquiry (1991, p. 5).
One of the most important characteristics of scientific theories is
that they are falsifiable. This means that they are stated in such
a way that they can be tested and shown to be wrong, if indeed they are
wrong (1991, p. 5).
For scientists, the collection of facts is the means to a much more
important end, namely, the development and testing of theories designed
to explain some aspect of the world of nature (1991, pp. 5-6).
Our study of human societies in this volume will be guided by such a
theory--ecological-evolutionary theory. As its name suggests, this
theory is concerned with two things. First, it is concerned with
the relation of societies to their environments and with the relations
of the parts of a society to one another. Second, the theory is concerned
with the evolution of societies--how and why they change and how these
changes create differences among societies (1991, p. 6).
Nevertheless, the first premise of ecological- evolutionary theory is
that human societies are a part of the global ecosystem and cannot be adequately
understood unless this fact is taken fully into account (1991, p. 6).
Thus, our definition needs to specify that human societies are autonomous
groups--groups that are not subject to the authority of political control
of any larger, more inclusive group. In short, a human society is
a politically autonomous group of people which engages in a broad range
of cooperative activities (1991, p. 8).
Ecological-evolutionary theory, the theory that will guide our study
of human societies, avoids this by starting with three basic assumptions.
First, because human societies are part of the world of nature, they are
influenced by their environments in a variety of ways. Second, because
human societies are part of the world of nature, their members, like the
members of every other species, are endowed with a genetic heritage that
profoundly influences their actions. Third, this human heritage enables
the members of human societies--and them alone--to create cultural heritages,
and it is this that gives human life it unique qualities. If we neglect
or ignore any of these factors, our understanding of human societies will
necessarily be flawed (1991, p. 10).
In other words, every human society must adapt not only to a biophysical
environment but to a human social environment as well. Its welfare
and even its survival depend on its success in adapting to both (1991,
In the efforts of societies to cope with the challenges of their environments,
their most basic resource has always been the vast store of information
contained in the genes of their members (1991, p. 11).
If we humans are capable of cooperation and live in societies, it is
not because we choose to be social creatures, but because of our genetic
heritage. Similarly, if we rely on learning as a basic mode of adaptation
tot he world we live in, it is not because we decided it was the best thing
to do, nor did we invent learning. Rather, it is an expression of
our mammalian and primate heritage (1991, p. 12).
Learning is the process by which an organism acquires, through experience,
information with behavior-modifying potential. this means that when
it comes to solving problems, an animal that can learn is not completely
dependent on instincts (i.e., the behavioral repertoire provided by its
genetic heritage). Instead, its own experiences become a factor shaping
its behavior (1991, p. 12).
In the case of humans and some of the higher primates, the evolution
of the forebrain has reached the point where they are able to store such
a wide range of memories that they can learn by insight; in other words,
they can analyze a situation in their minds and thereby avoid the time-consuming,
costly, and often painful process of trial and error (1991, p. 12).
The adaptive value of the ability to learn is greatly enhanced when
animals live together in groups. This gives the individual more opportunity
to observe , and to communicate with others of its kind. In effect,
social animals benefit from the experience of their fellows as well as
from their own personal experience. Social life thus multiplies the
amount of information available to a population (1991, p. 12).
The adaptive value of the ability to learn is also greatly enhanced
among primates by the prolonged physical immaturity of their young...In
the case of the anthropoids, this period of dependence is especially prolonged,
a fact that is linked both with their enhanced capacity for learning and
with their dependence on the societal mode of life (1991, pp. 12-13).
The most critical changes altered the structure of the brain and shifted
the center of vocalization to the neocortex, or newer part of the brain,
where learning takes place and learned information is stored. Thus
thanks to relatively minor genetic changes, our remote ancestors acquired
the capacity to create a radically new mode of adaptation--culture (1991,
Unlike the genetic heritages of other species, ours enables us to create
culture. This makes it possible for us to adapt to our environments
and satisfy our needs in totally new and remarkably varied ways (1991,
Unlike the information that every species passes from one generation
to the next through its genes, culture is learned information, and it is
passed from person to person and from generation to generation by means
of symbols (1991, p. 13).
The ability to create and use symbols does depend on genetics, but the
form of a symbol and the meaning attached to it do not. Thus a symbol
is an information conveyer whose form and meaning are determined by those
who use it (1991, p. 13).
Because they are not genetically determined, symbols can be combined
and recombined in countless ways to form symbol systems of fantastic complexity,
subtlety, and flexibility (1991, p. 15).
In the final analysis, the importance of symbol systems lies not in
what they are, but in what they have made it possible for our species to
become. Although we are all born into the human family, we become
fully human only through the use of symbols. Without them, we are
unable to develop the unique qualities we associate with humanness.
For symbols are more than a means of communication: they are tools with
which we thing and plan, dream and remember, create and build, calculate,
speculate, and moralize (1991, pp. 15-16).
As Figure 1.4 indicates, this theory asserts that all of a society's
characteristics are ultimately due to just three things: (10 the influence
of its biophysical and social environments, (2) the influence of our species
genetic heritage, and (3) the influence of prior social and cultural characteristics
of the society itself. The model also indicates that human societies
have and effect both on their environments and our species genetic heritage
(1991, pp. 17-18).
Chapter 2: Human Societies as Sociocultural Systems
The explanation of the tremendous variations among human societies is
that their common genetic heritage enables them to develop very different
cultural heritages. Without their cultures, human societies, too,
would all be essentially alike. But with culture comes an extraordinary
potential for diversity (1991, p. 19).
Because our societies, unlike those of other species, are both social
and cultural units, sociologists and other social scientists often refer
to them as sociocultural systems. This contraction of the two words
is partly a convenience. But it is more than that: it is a reminder
that the social and cultural aspects of human life are inextricably intertwined
(1991, p. 19).
Systems vary greatly in the degree to which the functions of the parts
are coordinated with one another and with the functioning of the system
as a whole (1991, p. 20).
The situation is quite different in human societies [from the social
insects]. For one thing, the coordination among their component parts
is often poor. for another, their components do not always function
in ways that are conducive to the well-being of the system itself (i.e.,
the society). For example, their members are individualistic and
often self-assertive, resist efforts to coordinate and control their behavior,
and do not readily subordinate their needs to the needs of the group.
In short, a genetic blue-print that is very different from the honeybee's,
but just as compelling, prevents human societies from achieving the strict
ordering of relations that characterizes some systems (1991, p. 20).
There must, however, be enough cooperation among the members of a human
society, and the various parts of the system must function smoothly enough,
for the basic needs of the system itself to be met. The alternative
is the dissolution of that "bundle of relations" that is the society (1991,
This creates problems, because the needs of the system and those of
its members are not necessarily the same (1991, p. 21).
To understand how these social and cultural answers develop, we need
to consider the five basic components that are present in every human society:
(1) populations, (2) culture, (3) material products, (4) social organization,
and (5) social institutions. Although we will examine each one separately,
these components cannot actually be isolated from one another, Because
they exist only in interaction with one another in a society, it is impossible
to discuss any one of them without reference to the rest (1991, p. 22).
First, it is clear that our species' common genetic heritage confronts
the members of every society with the same basic physical needs.
These include needs--for food, water, sleep, warmth, and oxygen--that must
be satisfied if we are merely to survive. In additions, there are
a variety of other needs that vary in intensity from individual to individual,
and from stage to sage within an individual's life. Among these are
sexual needs, and the need for play, the need for new experience, and the
need for social experience, all of which have been shown to have a genetic
basis (1991, p. 23).
Second, humans everywhere develop a variety of derivative needs and
desires that reflect their social and cultural experiences as well as their
genetic heritage. Because these experiences vary from society to
society and among individuals within the same society, the nature and intensity
of the needs also vary (1991, p. 23).
Third, the members of every society have the same basic physiological
resources to use in satisfying their needs (1991, p. 23).
Fourth, humans are all dependent on the societal mode of life, especially
during the formative years (1991, p. 24).
Fifth, as we have already seen, we humans have an immense capacity for
learning and for modifying our behavior in response to what we learn (1991,
Sixth, humans everywhere have the capacity to create and use symbols
systems and cultures (1991, p. 25).
Seventh, humans have a highly developed awareness of self and an acute
consciousness of their situation with respect to the rest of the world
(1991, p. 25).
Eighth, our species' heritage includes powerful emotions and appetites
inherited form remote prehuman ancestors (1991, p. 25).
Ninth, and finally, humans are powerfully motivated to put their own
needs and desires ahead of those of others, especially when the stakes
are high (1991, p. 25).
From an evolutionary standpoint, individuality, self-awareness, and
self-serving behavior all appear to be by-products of our species' tremendous
dependence on learning. Learning, by its very nature, is a differentiating
and individuating experience. No two individuals can possibly share
exactly the same set of experiences over the course of their lives, and
since experience shapes both our values and our perceptions of ourselves,
a highly developed awareness of self and self-serving behavior become unavoidable.
This does not prevent us from cooperation with one another since most of
us discover in infancy and early childhood that the benefits of cooperation
usually exceed the costs. Thus, enlightened self-interest ensures
a substantial amount of cooperation in every human society (1991, p. 26).
The demographic properties of a population include such things as its
size, its density, how it is dispersed or concentrated (e.g., to what extent
its members are concentrated in a few areas or spread out more evenly over
its entire territory), the patterns of migration into and out of the society,
its composition in terms of age and sex, and its birth and death rates.
These characteristics, like certain clusters of genes, vary from one society
to another. But these variations, unlike most genetic variations,
have direct, demonstrable, and far-reaching consequences for human societies
(1991, p. 29).
Chapter 3: The Evolution of Human Societies
THE GREAT PARADOX
Despite the tremendous changes that have occurred in human life during
the last 10,000 years, the majority of societies changed very little during
their entire existence (1991, p. 46).
The great majority of individual societies changed very little during
the course of their existence, but almost none of those societies survived
into the present century. Almost all of the societies that have survived
have been that small minority that have changed and changed greatly (1991,
...a process of selection has been at work in the world system of societies,
favoring innovative societies at the expense of those that resisted change.
..this process has favored those societies that have been most successful
in accumulating useful information relevant to subsistence activities (1991,
When societies have come into conflict with one another over territory
and other vital resources, those that have been technologically more advanced
have usually prevailed (1991, p. 47).
It is obvious, therefore, that we have to consider both change and continuity
(i.e. the absence of change) if we are to understand human societies.
Both have been profoundly important in the evolution not only of the world
system of societies but of individual societies as well (1991, p. 47).
SOCIAL AND CULTURAL CONTINUITY
Human societies are essentially adaptive mechanisms by means of which
human populations strive to satisfy their varied needs and desires (1991,
Change in a society is largely a cumulative process. In other
words, it is a process in which new elements are added to the sociocultural
system far more often than older elements are eliminated. This is
why sociocultural systems have grown so much more complex over the course
of history (1991, p. 48).
There are a number of reasons for the persistence of social and cultural
elements in a society, but one of the most important is the conscious recognition
of their adaptive value (1991, p. 48).
Sometimes elements of culture are preserved not because they are superior
solutions to problems but simply because the ensure standardized behavioral
responses in situations where these are essential (1991, p. 48).
Another cause of continuity is the cost involved in changing.
Change can be expensive ; it would cost billions of dollars, for example,
for Americans to change to the metric system. Change can also be
costly in terms of time and energy, since it takes both to learn new rules
and techniques and new ways of relating to others and performing one's
job (1991, p. 49).
Change also exacts a psychic toll...New information can be even more
threatening...New information can threaten one's view of life, making it
necessary to restructure one's thinking on many other subjects in order
to accommodate it (49).
The biological process of aging is thus a very real force for continuity
in every society, and its effects are magnified by the fact that older
people often have greater power and influence than younger people (1991,
The socialization process is probably the greatest force of all for
continuity within societies...this is the process by which individuals
learn the culture of their group and acquire the skills that enable them
to become functional members of their society...Since this cycle necessarily
repeats itself as each generation matures, the result is a tremendous force
for continuity (1991, p. 50).
These efforts to pass culture on to the next generation are reinforced
by ideologies. One of the chief functions of ideologies is to preserve
valued insights of the past. Since these insights usually include
the belief that the existing social order is a moral order that ought to
be preserved, a society's values, norms, and leadership acquire an aura
of the sacred and thus become less vulnerable to efforts to alter them
(1991, p. 50).
Finally, the systemic nature of human societies is a major force for
continuity. This is because most of the elements in a sociocultural
system are linked to other elements in such a way that change is one are
often makes change in other areas necessary. As a result, the members
of a society do not adopt change casually, especially when they are aware
of how extensive--and expensive--that change may ultimately be (1991, p.
SOCIAL AND CULTURAL CHANGE
Social and cultural change is of two basic types. Sometimes it
involves the addition of new elements to the existing system; sometimes
it involves the elimination of older elements. In the first instance,
we refer to social and cultural innovation, in the second, we speak of
social and cultural extinction (1991, p. 51).
Social and cultural innovation takes various forms. Often it takes
the form of borrowing from other societies, a process known as diffusion.
This occurs more often than most of us realize. In fact, there is
good reason to believe that most elements in most sociocultural systems
have been borrowed from other societies (1991, p. 51).
Discoveries provide the members of a society with new information that
has adaptive value, while inventions are new combinations of already existing
information (1991, p. 51).
It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of the existing store of
relevant information where technological and scientific innovations are
concerned (1991, p. 53).
Because of culture, human needs and desires seem limitless. Each
problem that is solved and each need that is satisfied seems to generate
new needs and new desires as people come increasingly to take the satisfaction
of their former needs and desires for granted. This is the basis
of the so-called "revolution of rising expectations" that is such a striking
feature of the twentieth century (1991, p. 53).
One of the reasons for this is the systemic nature of sociocultural
systems. Because the various components of these systems are interdependent,
a change in one them generates pressure for change in others (1991, p.
But one kind of innovation that never fails to have far-reaching consequences
is change in a society's basic subsistence technology...changes in subsistence
technology have ramifications that are felt in almost every other area
of life (1991, p. 54).
Many changes in human societies arise in response to changes in either
their biophysical or social environments (1991, p. 54).
Finally, one of the most neglected causes of change has been human fecundity...Human
societies, however, are able to respond to population pressures with cultural
innovations. Ideological changes to customs or in laws, for example,
may cause people to delay the age at which they marry, or legitimate such
practices as abortion. Alternatively, technological changes may provide
the population with better methods of contraception, or enable them to
produce more food to keep a growing number of children alive and well (1991,
When we compare different societies we find that they produce innovations
at greatly different rates...There are a number of reasons for such variations,
but one of the most important is the amount of information a society already
possesses (1991, p. 54).
A second cause of variations in the rate of innovation is population
size (1991, p. 55).
A third factor affecting the rate of innovation is the stability of
the environment to which a society must adapt. The greater the rate
of environmental change, the greater the pressure for change in cultural
and social organization (1991, p. 55)
A fourth factor influencing the rate of innovation in a society is the
extent of its contact with other societies (1991, p. 55).
A fifth factor in a society's rate of innovation is the character of
its biophysical environment. As we have seen, the potential for development
and change in some societies has been severely limited by environmental
factors over which they have no control (1991, p. 56).
The absence of vital resources, such as adequate water supply or accessible
metallic ores, can also hinder innovation, as can endemic diseases and
parasites that deplete people's energy. Topography has played an important
role in shaping patterns of intersocietal communications. Oceans,
deserts, and mountain ranges have all prevented or seriously impeded the
flow of information between societies, while navigable rivers and open
plains have facilitated it. Considering the importance of diffusion,
enormous differences in the rate of innovation can be explained by this
factor alone (1991, p. 56).
Sixth, the rate of innovation is greatly influenced by "fundamental"
innovations. Not all discoveries and inventions are of equal importance:
a few pave the way for thousands more, while the majority have little effect
(1991, p. 56).
A seventh factor influencing the rate of innovation is the society's
attitude toward innovation. In many societies there has been such
a powerful ideological commitment to tradition that innovation of any kind
has been discouraged. In contrast, most modern societies have a strongly
positive attitude toward innovation and change (1991, p. 57).
Attitudes toward innovation also vary according to the nature of the
dominant ideology in a society. Some ideologies generate a very conservative
outlook and oppose change; Confucianism is an example of such a faith.
Capitalism, in contrast, has been much more supportive of innovation and
change (1991, p. 57).
...it is important to note a tendency that is evident where technological
innovation is concerned: it tends to occur at an accelerating pace (1991,
The explanation of the acceleration is that each new bit of useful technological
information acquired by a society increases the probability it will acquire
still more...In short, technological innovation and advance tend to make
further innovation and advance increasingly likely (1991, p. 57).
Because of social and cultural innovations, societies are often faced
with choices between competing alternatives, and this leads to a process
of selection (1991, p. 58).
Although it is, of course, the members who make the choices which shape
and alter their society, everyone does not have an equal voice. "Who
decides" depends on the kind of decision involved and the nature of the
power structure involved (1991, p. 58).
This raises the question of whether or not a society's culture and social
organization can be considered truly adaptive. While much of it is
adaptive for the society as a whole (i.e., it helps satisfy the basic needs
of the system or its members), many of the elements have been selected
by and for the benefit of special segments of the society and are "adaptive"
only for them. This the process of selection may result in the retention
of elements that are nonadaptive or even maladaptive for the society as
a whole (1991, p. 58).
Technology, as we have seen, is that part of a society's store of cultural
information that is used to transform the resources of the biophysical
environment into the material products its members need or desire (1991,
Subsistence technology is the most critical part of this store of information,
since it is information used to produce the food and other sources of energy
on which all of the activities of a society ultimately depend. Without
energy, not even thinking or planning is possible. Thus, it is not
surprising that an advance in subsistence technology is a necessary precondition
for a significant increase in the size and complexity of a society (1991,
These differences in the limits set on the size of a society by its
subsistence technology are matched by differences in the limits set on
other aspects of societal development, such as the extent of the division
of labor, the degree of social inequality, the size and complexity of communities,
the wealth of a society and its standard of living, and the power of the
society over its biophysical environment and over other societies.
In short, technology defines the limits of what is possible for a society
(1991, p. 60).
Advances in a society's subsistence technology are also important because
they stimulate advances in other kinds of technology. For example,
advances in subsistence technology tend to be accompanied or followed by
advances in other productive technologies and the technologies of transportation,
communications, and defense, all of which contribute to societal growth
and development (1991, p. 60).
One important feature of the process of societal development that should
not be overlooked is indicated by the feedback loops...advances in subsistence
technology stimulate advances in other technologies and lead to growth
in the size and complexity of a society. But these developments,
once they have occurred, usually increase the probability of further advances
in subsistence technology. Population growth, for example, increases
the number of potential innovators in a society...(1991, p. 61)
Societal growth and development, while advantageous to societies in
many ways, are not unmixed blessings. They create new problems and
these often lead to changes that many members of society would prefer not
to make--changes in beliefs and values, changes in patterns of social organization,
changes in institutional arrangements. Among preliterate societies,
for example, technological advance often leads to population growth, and
population growth necessitates changes in social organization. Such
societies must choose either to split up into smaller independent groups
in order to preserve their traditional kin-based system of governance,
or to remain united but adopt a more authoritarian political system that
is dominated by a small elite minority (1991, p. 61-62).
Whenever its technology presents it with a range of options, a society's
beliefs and values--the core elements of ideology--come into play...Sometimes,
however, ideologies do have a substantial effect, as when they dispose
people to accept and even welcome change or, conversely, to view it negatively.
Western capitalism, for example, is far more supportive of new ideas and
innovations of all kinds than is Islamic fundamentalism (1991, p. 62).
The key to the major changes that have occurred in the world system
of societies in the last 10,000 years is the process of intersocietal selection
that has drastically reduced the number of societies. Were it not
for this process, in which the units that survive (or become extinct) are
entire societies, human life would not have change nearly as rapidly as
it has (1991, p. 63).
Not all the differences that have developed among societies have been
equally important from the process of intersocietal selection. Differences
that influenced societal growth and development have been especially important,
because societies that have grown in size and developed in complexity and
military power have been much more likely to survive and transmit their
cultures and institutional patterns than societies that have preserved
traditional social and cultural patterns and minimized innovations (1991,
By now it is clear that sociocultural evolution is a process of change
and development in human societies that results from cumulative growth
in their stores of cultural information. Although sociocultural evolution
is an extraordinarily complex phenomenon, it is easier to understand once
we recognize that it includes both continuity and change (1991, p. 65-66).
It is also important to recognize that sociocultural evolution operates
on two distinct levels simultaneously. First, it occurs within individual
societies. Second, it occurs within the world system of societies.
While these to processes are separate and distinct, they are also related,
because the changes that occur in individual societies produce the variations
on which the process of intersocietal selection operates. This is
the process that determines which societies and which cultures survive
and which become extinct, and the role that each of the survivors plays
within the world system (1991, p. 66).
But cultural information, relative to genetic, can be rapidly acquired,
exchanged, recombined, and accumulated, with the result that substantial
alterations in a society's culture may occur within a single generation.
Moreover, sociocultural evolution does not require that every society go
through step-by-step sequential stages of development, which are the essence
of biological evolution. Rather, a society may compress or even skip
stages (1991, p. 67).
One other important difference involves the conditions under which major
evolutionary change occurs. In the biotic world, most major change
happens when a population become reproductively isolated and cannot exchange
genetic information with other populations of its species. In contrast,
human societies that are isolated almost invariably experience a low rate
of cultural change. In short, isolation tends to have opposite effects
in the two modes of evolution (1991, p. 68).
Birthrates in both simple and advanced agrarian societies have averaged
40 or more births per 1,000 population per year, triple that of most modern
industrial societies. In general, there seems to have been little
interest in limiting the size of families, since large families, particularly
ones with many sons, were valued for both economic and religious reasons.
From the economic standpoint, children were viewed by peasants as an important
asset, a valuable source of cheap labor. Children were also important
as the only form of "old-age insurance" available to peasants/ Religion
added yet another incentive for large families, either by encouraging ancestor
worship, for which perpetuation of the family line was essential, or simply
by declaring large families to be a sign of God's favor (1991, p. 172).
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