Although it rejects the value-laden notion of progress, cultural materialism is an avowedly evolutionary perspective.  Throughout history both productive and reproductive forces have expanded (especially in the last 200 years).  Great transitions in human societies--transitions that involve a shift in the mode of production from, say, hunting and gathering to production based on horticulture--are an outgrowth of the intensification process.  For the intensification of infrastructures inevitably leads to environmental depletion, resulting in either the sudden collapse of the sociocultural system (Easter Island for example) or a shift to a new mode of production.  If a culture successfully shifts to a new mode of production, the intensification process begins again.

Throughout history, the intensification of production has always been toward greater complexity because the process leads to the exploitation of less available, harder-to-reach sources of energy (we always use the easily exploited resources first).  Similarly, when environmental depletion is reached, the shift to a new mode of production represents a move from a readily available source of energy (say wood) to a less accessible source (coal, oil, or nuclear fission).  Over the course of social evolution mankind has had to engage in more and more complicated processing and production techniques in order to draw energy out of the environment.  In turn, this intensification of production leads to the growth of secondary organizations at the expense of primary groups, a process known as bureaucratization.

Bureaucratization of Structure

Characteristics associated with bureaucracy include a highly specialized division of labor, a hierarchy of authority, written rules of conduct and authority, impersonality both in employment and in dealing with those outside the organization based on expertise, and efficiency.  The process of bureaucratization refers to changes within organizations toward greater rationality, that is, improved operating efficiency in order to attain the goals of the organization.  Bureaucracy pervades nearly all aspects of modern life including governments, corporations, education, sports, and even crime.

As far back as 1885, Herbert Spencer (1967) rooted the growth of administration directly to greater social diversity—particularly the diversity of interests and functions caused by the division of labor.  The division of labor makes society more fragile and subject to disruption.  Regulating centers (administration) are necessary to coordinate the diverse activities and interests in such a society.  Michels’ (1962) [1915] also related the growing division of labor directly to bureaucratic growth.  “The principle of division of labor coming more and more into operation, executive authority undergoes division and subdivision.  There is thus constituted a rigorously defined and hierarchical bureaucracy” (p. 72).  The growth of mass production, the increasing interdependence of economic activity, and the consequent increase in job specialization have led to greater needs for coordination of these diverse activities.  A modern automobile-manufacturing corporation, for example, must coordinate the activities of thousands of employees, suppliers, and dealers around the globe.  More complex technologies and markets require rational social organization for coordination, control, and regulation of these activities.  One of the fundamental reasons behind the emergence and growth of bureaucracies is that they enable large-scale tasks to be performed.

The growth of population has a similar impact on the bureaucratization process.  Again, it was Spencer [1967] who pointed to the growth in population size as one of the primary causes in the growth of bureaucracy—in Spencer’s terms, “supreme regulating centers and subordinate ones”(p. 46).  Greater numbers of people require rational social organization for the coordination and regulation of their diverse activities.  The world has experienced exponential growth in population over the last two centuries.  As population has increased, formal organizations have developed to solve problems of adapting to the environment (government and corporation), handling survival needs (sanitation and food production), and providing social services (welfare and medical care).

A third factor behind the growth of bureaucracies is the decline in the size, influence, and importance of primary-group organization.  Industrial society requires an extremely mobile population.  People must move from one end of the country to the other in order to engage in their occupations.  Bureaucratic-industrial society requires social mobility as well.  This weakens many traditional groups such as the family and the community.  In a more traditional society, these groups provide many services to the individual--child care, social security, financial aid, education, medical care, counseling, and a wealth of other services.  With the decline of primary groups, many secondary organizations have arisen in industrial society to provide the services that used to be performed by these groups.

The rise of bureaucracy, then, is in large part an effort to deal with the breakdown of traditional ways of organizing social life.  What the family, community, ethnic groups, friendship network, and church once did, private corporations and government now attempt to do.  While traditional groups provided aid and services on the basis of ties of affection and tradition, bureaucracies provide aid and services through contractual-legal relationships and self-interest. The traditional ways broke down because of infrastructural intensification.

Finally, the rationalization process has also promoted the growth of bureaucracies.  Bureaucracies are built on the principles of efficiency and calculability. The rationalization process refers to a set of norms and values that increasingly dominates society through the social evolutionary process.  It is a mode of thought involving a persistent questioning of the adequacy of means to ends and a constant search for more adequate means.  The result is a society that is constantly questioning traditional ways, devising more rational ways to achieve desired ends.  The rationalization of superstructure provides positive feedback for further bureaucratization of structure, both of which provide positive feedback for the further intensification process.


The rationalization process is the practical application of knowledge to achieve a desired end.  It leads to efficiency, coordination, and control over both the physical and the social environment and is the guiding principle behind bureaucracy and the increasing division of labor.  It has led to an unprecedented increase in both the production and distribution of goods and services.  It is also associated with secularization, depersonalization, and oppressive routine.  As the industrial mode of production intensifies, the rationalization of social life continues apace.  Increasingly, human behavior is guided by observation, experiment and reason (zweckrational) to master the natural and social environment  to achieve a desired end.

Perhaps the most obvious examples of the rationalization process concerns the reinterpretation of Christian religious beliefs, values, traditions and practices that are in conflict with advanced industrial society.  The examples are legion.  Traditional Christianity, for example, held to the tradition of Sunday as a day of rest. The way I remember it, unless one had an ox that was in need of immediate rescue (falling into a pit comes to mind), one was supposed to take Sunday as a day of rest and reflection.  Apparently, many oxen have fallen in recent years. In 1950s America, most businesses--including grocery stores--were closed on Sunday (this is still the case in many countries of the world—often because of law).  By the 1970s, the picture had changed dramatically.  Not only grocery stores, but also commercial stores of all types are now open for business on Sundays.

Another example concerns the Christian prohibition against lending of money.  The early church originally banned the practice of lending money--one of the key activities of capitalism.  In the Middle Ages the practice of lending money became the province of Jews.  Over the centuries, however, the tradition became reinterpreted.  First, the prohibition was said to be one of charging interest, then, one of charging interest at a "usurious" (or excessive) rate (a particularly useful interpretation as the "usurious" criterion could float with the prevailing rate of the economy).  Now the prohibition is generally ignored (which should be comforting to banks that issue credit cards).

Still other examples concern the conflict of religion and science.  The Church originally held the Bible to be authoritative in matters of nature.  When Galileo threw in his lot with Copernicus, the Church forced him to recant.  Over the centuries, as the scientific world view has gained strength in evidence and allegiance, the Church has had to reinterpret its views--recently admitting that it was in error in bringing Galileo to trial as well as stating even more recently that natural evolution was not inconsistent with Catholicism.  Many Protestant sects, however, have continued the latter conflict in the US by holding to creationism.  It is interesting that with the development of  "creation science" many creationists have attempted to redefine the conflict from one of religion versus science to one of competing "scientific" theories (an interpretation that did not wash with the Supreme Court). This is an excellent example of rationalization in both the sociological and the popular sense.

It is interesting to interpret the current conflict between Christian traditions and values and modern views and values as one of rationalization.  The Catholic Church, for example, is between the proverbial rock and  hard place on many social issues.  On the one hand, many of its traditions such as women not being allowed in the priesthood, celibacy among priests, and its ban on all forms of birth control are clearly out of step with modernity. On the other, tradition and values are part of the bedrock of the Church itself.  Should it bow to reform, it will lose many of its traditional followers (as it did as a result of the Vatican II Council in the 1960s).  If it continues to resist, it will continue to lose many of its younger (and more "rationalized") followers.  Mainline Protestant churches in America have in large part bowed to the forces of modernity, and have perhaps lost followers (and believers) as a result.  Worse, many of the hierarchy (and followers) in these churches have lost the core faith in the divinity of Christ.  True believers now flock to the more traditional churches of the Pentecostal (emotionally based) and fundamentalist (traditionally based) Protestantism.

Weber's general theory of rationalization (of which bureaucratization is but a particular case) refers to increasing human mastery over the natural and social environment.  In truth, the "intensification of the infrastructure" is nothing more than the application of goal oriented rational behavior to regulate the flow of energy from the environment.  The increasing application of the method and substance of science in the structure parallel this intensification of infrastructure: more complex technologies and greater numbers of people require rational social organization for coordination and control.  The intensification of the infrastructure leads to the growth of secondary organizations at the expense of primary groups.  In turn, these changes in social structure have changed human character through changing values, philosophies, and beliefs in the superstructure of society.  The bureaucratization process has encouraged such superstructural norms and values as individualism, efficiency, self-discipline, materialism, and calculability (all of which are subsumed under Weber’s concept of zweckrational).

Finally, it should be emphasized that the relationships are dynamic.  The rationalization of superstructure provides positive feedback for the further bureaucratization of structure, both of which provide positive feedback for the further intensification process.  This feedback is crucial in understanding the character of system change.

Feedback Loops

While the infrastructure is considered to be of primary importance, the structure and superstructure are not mere reflections of infrastructural processes, but are in interaction with these processes.  Society is a very stable system.  The most likely outcome of any change in the system--whether this change begins in the infrastructure, structure, or superstructure--is resistance in the other sectors of the system.  This "system-maintaining negative feedback" is capable of dampening or extinguishing most system change.  The result is either the extinction of the innovation or slight compensatory changes that preserve the fundamental character of the whole system.

An example of a structural change that received a lot of negative feedback was the commune movement of the 1960s.  At the time, many social scientists were predicting that the commune represented a real alternative lifestyle.  There were predictions that in the future we would all have to struggle with the choice of either starting a traditional family or joining a commune.  But the commune met with harsh resistance (and sanctions) from existing institutions (family, church, local governments), ideologies, and traditions (monogamy, Christianity).  In addition, like the extended family before it, the commune does not allow for easy geographic or social mobility of its members.  As a result, few of our young are now struggling with the choice.

Not every change, however, that meets resistance in the structure and/or superstructure is extinguished.  Women working outside the home, a change caused by the rising cost of living and a declining birthrate (both infrastructural changes), encountered fierce resistance from the traditional family, many secondary organizations (corporations, unions, churches, government), and superstructures (Christianity, ideology, traditions, and beliefs).  Despite this opposition, American society is currently adjusting its institutions and ideologies to accommodate the change.

In general, sociocultural change that releases more energy from the environment is likely to be swiftly adapted.  Also, many changes are more satisfying to some members of society than to others.  The bio-psychological well being of those on top of the sex, age, class, race, caste, or ethnic hierarchies of society will weigh more heavily than the well being of those at the bottom.  Changes that enhance the position of these elites are likely to be amplified and propagated throughout the entire sociocultural system.  Changes that undermine these positions will be fiercely resisted.

The Role of Elites

Sociocultural materialism is in fundamental agreement with Marx [1848] when he states "The ideas of the ruling class in each epoch are the ruling ideas."  This is not to say that economic or political elites always rule in the manner of divine-right kings.  The amount of power and control exercised by elites varies across societies and through time. However, there exists within every society a dominant class (or classes) that possess a disproportionate amount of social power.  A cultural materialist analysis attempts to identify this class, gauge the amount of power it wields, and uncover their biases and assumptions when analyzing social systems. These elites are able to impose direct economic and political sanctions to buttress their position.  In addition, they are able to mobilize superstructural support by indirectly encouraging ideas and ideologies favorable to their interests.