Lenski's Ecological-Evolutionary Social Theory
by Frank W. Elwell
Rogers State University
Gerhard E. Lenski is a theorist in the tradition of the classical theorists
of the 19th century--that is, he has tried to construct a holistic theory
of sociocultural systems. He attempts to explain their origin, stability,
and evolution through time. Like the 19th century theorists, his
method is both deductive and inductive. He is well read in the classics,
being particularly influenced (by his own account) by Malthus, Spencer,
Darwin, Marx, and Weber (1991,
xviii)*. Taking elements of these theories as
his starting point, he then examines empirical findings (ethnographies,
histories, and comparative sociological studies) and modifies his theory
accordingly. In this manner, Lenski built his theory, tested it against
the evidence, and refined it in a continuous process (1966,
p. 21). It is this method which undergirds both his first book
on the causes of inequality in sociocultural systems (Power and Privilege),
and his more general ecological-evolutionary theory developed in a succession
of eight editions of Human Societies (this book is now in its ninth
edition, but Lenski is no longer the lead author).
True to its method of development, the theory itself has evolved over
the years as Lenski examined more evidence and read more widely in the
historical, anthropological and sociological literature. Power
and Privilege primarily presents an ecological theory of inequality.
While the book examines a succession of societal types based on subsistence
technology, there is little theoretical development in explaining changes
in subsistence technologies. Human Societies, on the other
hand, looks at both the relationships of sociocultural systems to their
natural and social environments and evolutionary change both within and
between societal types. In this paper I will summarize Lenski's ecological-evolutionary
theory using both works as my primary source. He begins, as most
theorists do, by making a simple assertion about the nature of man.
1. Man is by nature, a social animal who engages in "antagonistic
cooperation" in order to maximize her need satisfaction.
Social life--cooperation with others--is necessary for both the survival
of the species and for the "maximum satisfaction of human needs and desires"
(1966, pp. 25-26).
Human needs and desires include common basic physical needs across all
human societies such as the need for food, drink, sex, and personal survival.
These basic physical needs are rooted in our genetic heritage.
Also, since we are by nature a social being, the society into which
we are born has a strong affect on shaping many of these basic needs and
desires as well as creating "derivative" or secondary needs and desires
(1991, p. 23).
In this list Lenski includes such drives as the need for love and affection,
respect and prestige from our fellows, and for some type of meaning and
order in life. Since societies differ radically, the "nature and
intensity" of these needs vary across societies. Since individual
experience within a particular society differ radically, the "nature and
intensity" of these needs vary among individuals of the same society as
well (1991, p. 23).
Of all human needs and desires, Lenski notes, survival is given the
highest priority by the vast majority (1966,
p. 37). This fact means that the threat of physical violence
is a powerful deterrent in human affairs. It also means that resources
important for survival (food and water and the resources needed to procure
them) are highly valued. Other widespread goals are health, prestige
or social honor, salvation, physical comfort, and love and affection.
Other goals are sought because they help us attain these goals, things
such as money, office or position within an organization, or education
and training (1966,
In addition to human needs and desires there are a variety of constants
shared by humans across all human societies. Lenski notes that humans
everywhere have similar physiological and mental capabilities; we have
a great capacity for learning; for devising languages, symbol systems and
pp. 23-25). These constants serve as our primary resources in
striving to meet our primary and secondary needs. In addition, Lenski
adds, humans have a highly developed consciousness and a sense of the individual
self; and we are often ruled by powerful emotions and appetites (1991,
p. 25). These constants, Lenski makes clear, lead to the "antagonistic"
character of social life. For these constants give humans strong
motivation for putting their own needs and desires ahead of others (1991,
p. 26). To put it into stronger terms, "...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" (1966,
p. 30, emphasis in the original).
2. The resources needed by man are in short supply. Therefore,
a struggle for these resources is present in every society.
Like Malthus before him, Lenski notes that our reproductive capacity
exceeds our productive capacity. This is a normal feature of nature,
which scatters the seeds of life widely, but is comparatively niggardly
in providing food and sustenance for this life. It is inevitable
then, both men remark, that many will die premature deaths, and others
will live close to the edge of starvation (Lenski,
1966, p. 31; Malthus, 1798/2001, p. 136). Lenski goes on to remark
that, to "some extent" at any rate, humans have freed themselves from these
constraints by learning to increase their food supply through cultivation,
and control their reproduction through social practices and technologies
(1966, p. 31).
Malthus devoted a whole book (which also went through numerous editions)
demonstrating that this "freedom" from nature's constraint was illusionary.
Instead of freedom, Malthus insists, human populations must constantly
adjust itself to the availability of resources through positive checks
(shortening of life span) and preventive checks (social practices and birth
control technology) on population growth. These continuous and necessary
checks have profound impact on the rest of the sociocultural system.
Lenski reaches the same conclusion in his later writings (see 1991,
p. 54 and throughout the book). Population level and growth,
along with subsistence technology, become prime causal agents in Lenski's
general ecological-evolutionary theory.
Another point Lenski makes about the scarcity of goods and resources
in his 1966 book is somewhat more relevant. Lenski asserts that man
appears to have an insatiable appetite for goods and services because many
goods and services have status value (1966,
p. 31). Prestige or social honor, you will recall, is one of
the chief needs or goals that Lenski identifies as universal. As
a secondary or derivative goal, however, what goods and services bring
social honor vary across societies and through time. What social
actions are accorded high prestige and social honor also vary. Granting
social honor (or scorn) is one of several ways society shapes individual.
The struggle for resources within a sociocultural system is not necessarily
violent, though it sometimes is. The struggle is often carried out
within a system of economic and political rules. But even in the
absence of violence, the struggle is serious for the men and women involved.
Men are unequally endowed with physical abilities to compete in this struggle,
though this is not the chief reason for the inequalities in human societies
we see throughout history, it is a factor worthy of note (1966,
3. "Human societies are part of the global ecosystem and cannot
be understood unless this fact is taken fully into account" (1991,
Human societies are rooted in their environment, part of the world of
nature (1991, p. 6).
As such, their environments have a profound influence on their structure
and culture. Lenski goes so far as to assert that all of a society's
characteristics are ultimately due to just three things: the influence
of the environment, the influence of our species genetic heritage, and
the influence of prior sociocultural experience itself (1991,
Sociocultural systems are the primary ways in which human beings adapt
to their biological, physical, and social environments. A society's
social environment consists of communications and contacts with other sociocultural
systems. Adaptations to biophysical and social environments, Lenski asserts,
are critical. The welfare of societal members as well as their very
survival depend on how well their society adapts to these environments
(1991, p. 10).
As we will see, adaptation to changing biological, physical and social
environments is the engine of sociocultural evolution.
4. Society is an imperfect system that strives for stability and
to meet the biological and psychological needs of its population.
Like most sociologists Lenski asserts that society is a system, however,
he continues, it is an imperfect system at best. Analogies between
societies and biological organisms or mechanical systems can be misleading,
for such analogies call to mind perfect coordination and integration of
the various parts of the system. This is not the case with sociocultural
systems, in which the parts have varying degrees of autonomy and independence
from the overall system (1966,
p. 34; 1991, p.
20). The fact that society is an imperfect system means
that not all of the parts function to strengthen the whole system.
Many patterns and behaviors contribute nothing to the general welfare of
the society, but rather serve the interests and needs of individuals or
constituent groups. The fact that society is an imperfect system
also means that conflict is a normal feature of all societies, not an abnormal
condition as posited by many functionalists (1966,
p. 34). However, it is a sociocultural system, and as such there
must be enough cooperation among the members of the society so that the
system can maintain itself (1991,
Lenski asserts that societies have two basic goals. The maintenance
of the political status quo within the society, and the maximization of
pp. 41-42). By maintenance of the political status quo Lenski
means that societies strive to minimize political change through laws and
the machinery of state, police, military, and other agencies of social
control, and in fostering political ideologies that justify and celebrate
the state. The maximization of production is achieved through promoting
technological change or through wars of conquest. Not all societies give
these goals equal priority. A society's preference depends on its
degree of stratification. Highly stratified societies with
powerful elites, Lenski posits, tend to emphasize political stability,
those relatively unstratified favor maximizing production (1966,
5. Inequality is present in every human society.
Economic goods and services are not distributed equally to all members
of society, some always get more than others. Lenski believes that
the distribution of goods and services (as well as prestige) is largely
determined by power. Taking his cue from Weber, Lenski defines power
as the ability of a person or group to achieve their goals even when opposed
by others (1966,
pp.44- 45). Also consistent with Weber, Lenski asserts that stratification
is a "multi-dimensional phenomenon," that is, populations are ranked along
various dimensions such as occupation, education, property, racial-ethnic
status, age, and gender (1966, pp. 74-80). Lenski refers to each
of these dimensions as a "class system." Class systems are “a hierarchy
of classes ranked in terms of a single criterion” (1966,
pp. 79-80). Thus, “African American” is a particular class within
the American racial-ethnic class system, “working class” is a particular
class within the American occupational class system.
An individual’s position in each of the relevant hierarchies (and these
vary by society) determines their class, and their class will often affect
their access to goods and services as well as the prestige accorded to
them by others. The members of each class share material interests
with one another and these interests are often the basis for class consciousness
(or awareness of common position and interests) and “hostility toward other
classes” (1966, p.
The struggle for power and privilege is not just a struggle among individuals
or even among classes, it is also a struggle between different class systems
(1966, p. 81).
Lenski points out that the Civil Rights movement in the United States can
be properly viewed as a struggle to reduce the importance of the racial-ethnic
class system as a basis of distribution. Class systems differ in
terms of complexity, the degree of mobility possible within, importance
in terms of the distribution of goods and services, as well as the degree
of hostility between the classes (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’
level of technology” (1966,
6. Goods and services within societies are distributed on the
basis of need (subsistence goods) and power (surplus goods).
There are two basic “laws” of distribution, and while they are, on the
surface at least, somewhat contradictory, both are consistent with Lenski’s
postulates on the nature of man and society. As you recall, according
to Lenski human beings are social animals and need to live in cooperation
with others to most efficiently achieve their needs. This leads Lenski
to posit that men’s “enlightened self-interest” will lead them to “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” (1966,
However, Lenski also posits that human beings are primarily motivated
by self-interest. This leads him to posit that any goods over and
above the minimum needed to keep the majority of producers alive and productive
will be distributed on the basis of power. This has enormous consequences
for the degree of inequality within societies.
7. Elites rule through a variety of means, but force undergirds
all power and authority.
Force is a very inefficient and expensive way to maintain order (1966,
p. 51). Thus, those who seize power will soon move to “legitimize”
their rule and transform force into authority (1966,
p. 52). Power is legitimated through three major institutions.
First, of course, is through the rule of law. Lenski notes that laws
are often written so as to benefit positions of power, and since they appear
to embody “abstract principles of justice,” are quite effective in gaining
widespread acceptance and compliance from the vast majority of men.
A second method of legitimation employed by elites is through shaping
public opinion through institutions such as educational institutions, religious
institutions, and the media. Many of those that work in these institutions
are beholden to elite owners or donors; if not directly dependent on elites,
many working in these institutions are open to their threats or blandishments.
Consensus and coercion, Lenski points out, are far more closely related
than many appreciate. Like Mills before him, he points out that "coercive
power can often be used to create a new consensus” (1966,
The process of legitimation is facilitated, Lenski notes, by the press
of daily events on the lives of the vast majority of people. Most
are engaged full-time in making a living; they have neither the time nor
the financial resources to become involved in the political arena for long.
While it is possible to arouse the majority in time of crisis or political
revolution, the necessity of work, family and private life continually
reasserts itself. Consequently, the affairs of state are usually
handled by the elite or their officers (1966,
As force shifts to authority and manipulation there are some important
changes that occur in the distribution of goods and services that ultimately
have far reaching effect on the degree of inequality within societies.
Elite are caught in the rules of their own game so to speak. With
the rule of law at least some of their actions must be consistent with
prevailing conceptions of justice and morality. To act otherwise
would be to jeopardize their legitimation. Secondly, following Vilfredo
Pareto, there is a shift in the personality and character of the elite
from those comfortable with the use of force and power to those more comfortable
with “cunning,” manipulation, and diplomacy.
In addition, Lenski asserts that a shift of power from force to manipulation
and authority also involves the institutionalization of authority.
By this Lenski means the rise of bureaucracy, where authority become a
socially acceptable form of power that inheres in the office rather than
the individual. Officers who enjoy such authority rule on the basis
of their office rather than their personal characteristics. Rule
becomes impersonal and not easily challenged. In addition, Lenski
writes, such institutionalized power is likely to be far more decentralized
than the centralized rule of founding elites (1966,
p. 56). Competing power centers are allowed to exist and develop
as long as they remain subject to the rule of law.
It is also in this period of transition from force to authority that
retainers and the middle class arise. This middle stratum consists
of public officials, priests, soldiers, craftsmen, merchants and others
who serve as overseers and technicians in the service of elites.
The chief function of this middle stratum is to separate the surplus from
the producers (1966,
pp. 62-63). Over time, Lenski posits, the relations between the
political elite and these middle stratum changes, as these classes begin
to acquire some of the power 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” (1963,
According to Lenski, the cumulative effect of these changes on the governance
of sociocultural systems is marked. The movement from force to authority,
the rise of manipulation and cunning as techniques of power, as well as
the rise of a middle stratum that begins to arrogate some power and privileges
to itself, all strengthen a move toward constitutional government.
As defined by Lenski constitutional government is a system in which the
political elite makes some concessions in the distribution of resources
in return for legitimation and consent of the governed.
8. Societies are remarkably stable systems that tend to resist
Societies can be remarkably stable over time. Hunting and gathering
societies existed with little technological, population, or structural
change for thousands (if not millions) of years. Ancient civilizations
that depended upon river irrigation for their agriculture were also remarkably
stable. These stable societies can be characterized as successful
attempts at striking a balance between the consumption of energy and their
finite biological and physical environments. In other words, one
of the major reasons for the stability of many social and cultural elements
in many societies appears to be their adaptive value to the sociocultural
system (1991, p. 48).
But there are other causes for the remarkable stability found in many
sociocultural systems. As is often remarked, human beings are creatures
of habit, and this means that we are very reluctant to change. In
addition, tradition or custom—the “eternal yesteryear” of Weber—has a very
powerful hold on individuals within a society. Tradition and habit
cause men and women to accept existing institutional arrangements and distribution
systems as “right and natural,” no matter its fairness to themselves or
others (1966, p. 32).
Through the socialization process we have all been taught the values, norms,
morality, attitudes, beliefs, and ideologies of the culture. It is through
this process that they take on an almost “sacred” character, thus becoming
extremely resistant to change (1991,
Another important impediment to sociocultural change is the need for
some standardization (1991,
p. 48). This is due to the fact that most sociocultural change
is built upon or added to existing structures and institutions.
While newer innovations may offer many advantages, past adaptations of
the society may prohibit the widespread adaptation of these innovations.
Lenski mentions driving on the right side of the road as an example.
A better one is given by Stephen J. Gould in his discussion of the typewriter
(and now computer) keyboard. The layout of the standard keyboard,
called “QWERTY” (look at the letters above left “home row”) was originally
devised to slow the typist down because early typewriters were subject
to jamming if the typist went too fast. Subsequent developments lifted
this mechanical limitation, and new keyboards were developed that placed
the most frequently used letters in more convenient places and allowed
even the best typists to substantially increase their typing speed.
However, people had already committed to QWERTY, thousands of typewriters
were already in existence, millions had been trained in the use of the
QWERTY system. Consequently, because of past adaptations, the innovation
never became widespread, an inferior (and less well adapted) typing system
prevailed (Gould, 1992).
Another reason for sociocultural stability over time is the systemic
character of the society itself (1991,
p. 50). Most of the elements of a sociocultural system are linked
to others. Change in one element often causes change in many others
(in a system, as the ecologists are fond of telling us, you can’t change
one thing). An example of innovation causing extensive system change
is the recent movement of married women to the outside labor force, which
then causes extensive adjustment in all major institutions (family, government,
distribution systems) as well as in many of our cultural values and ideologies.
As a result of the systemic character of society, members as well as organized
groups of a society often resist such innovations (as the recent struggle
over women’s liberation attests).
Other causes of sociocultural continuity mentioned by Lenski are related
to the ones already given: adaptation, tradition and habit, standardization,
and the systemic character of society. For example, Lenski mentions costs
(both monetary and psychic) as a major impediment to the adaptation of
innovation. In this connection, he offers as an example the costs
in terms of dollars, time, and energy it would take for Americans to change
to the metric system (1991,
p. 49). But the resistance to metric on the part of Americans
is clearly related to tradition, personal habit, systemic character, and
standardization. Rather than as an impediment to change, cost is
better conceived of as a primary factor in the individual decision making
process of adaptation. When confronted with innovation the individual
performs a cost/benefit analysis to reveal if the costs of adapting the
innovation are worth the anticipated benefits (Harris, 1979: 61).
Lenski places the individual members of the society as the prime actors
in adaptation (1991,
p. 58), cost-benefit is the calculus they use in making their decisions.
9. Societies evolve in response to changes in their natural or
Sociocultural change is of two types, innovation and extinction.
The first involves adding new elements such as technologies, social practices,
institutions, or beliefs to the system. The second type of change,
of course, is the elimination of old elements in the system. While
extinction certainly occurs, the process of sociocultural evolution is
predominantly a cumulative process, that is, change and innovation are
added far more to the system than older elements eliminated. This,
Lenski adds, is one reason why sociocultural systems have grown more complex
over time (1991,
It is also important to again note that sociocultural innovation is
based on the alteration of existing structures and behavior patterns. In
fact, Lenski asserts, there are ultimately only three major factors determining
the characteristics of sociocultural systems: (1) human’s genetic heritage;
(2) the biological, physical, and social environment; and (3) “the influence
of prior social and cultural characteristics of society itself” (1991,
pp. 17-18). The force of historical experience therefore plays a major
role in shaping social institutions and thought.
The rate of innovation and change greatly varies across different societies.
Lenski identifies several factors that influence this rate. The first
is “the amount of information a society already possesses” (1991,
pp. 54). A society with a larger store of cultural information
is often able to combine new innovation with older cultural elements, thus
amplifying and propagating the innovation throughout the sociocultural
system. One need only think of the recent innovation of the Internet,
and the myriad of uses made of it by governments, educational institutions,
research labs, corporations, and a host of other entities and individuals.
A second factor that serves to vary the rate of innovation is population
size (1991, p. 55).
Here Lenski is referring to the simple fact that the more people within
a population, the more potential innovators, the greater the number of
people you have searching for solutions to a particular problem.
However, he is also referring to the fact that large populations tend to
be highly organized, have access to more varied kinds of information, and
also are faced by more complex problems that demand technological or social
A third factor that affects the rate of change and innovation within
a society is the stability of the physical and biological environmental
itself. “The greater the rate of environmental change, the greater
the pressure for change in culture and social organization” (1991,
p. 55). At this point Lenski immediately launches in to the importance
of changes in a society’s social environment as well (really, his next
point). However, it should be pointed out that changes in the physical
and biological environment can be due to natural processes (say climate
change during the interglacial period some 11,000 years ago), or occasioned
by the actions of sociocultural systems themselves (say, climate change
One of the most important factors that affect the rate of change within
a society “is the extent of that society’s contact with other societies”
(1991, p. 55).
Isolated societies, or those with very little contact with others, experience
very slow rates of innovation (1991,
p. 68). While environmental necessity is the key to understanding
“pristine” change—change that occurs in isolation from contact with other
societies—the rapid adoption of most technologies and social practices
are done through borrowing technologies and practices from other societies,
or cultural diffusion (1991,
A fifth factor in determining the rate of innovation is the character
of the physical and biological environment. Some environments, such
as the arctic or desert regions, simply cannot support innovations like
agriculture. But the environment has more subtle effects as well
(fans of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel take note):
"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,
Lenski also notes that there are “fundamental” innovations that
have an affect on the overall rate of innovation within a society as well
(1991, pp. 56-57).
By fundamental, Lenski is referring to innovations like plant cultivation,
writing, the plow, or the invention of the steam engine. Adapting
such fundamental innovations causes rapid and often revolutionary changes
in many areas of the sociocultural system.
The seventh factor affecting the rate of innovation noted by Lenski
is the society’s attitudes and ideologies toward change and innovation.
These ideologies and attitudes vary by a society’s prior experience with
change, as well as the dominant ideology of the society (or the ideology
of the elite). Capitalism, Lenski notes, is far more supportive of
innovation and change than either Confucianism (1991,
p. 57) or Islamic fundamentalism (1991,
Finally, Lenski notes, technological innovation itself has a tendency
to occur at an accelerating rate (1991,
p. 57). This is because technological information, like other
forms of cultural information, can often be recombined to produce novel
invention. In addition, technological innovation is related to several
other factors affecting the rate of innovation discussed above: population
growth, environmental and biological environmental change, increasing cultural
contact, as well as affecting the attitudes and ideologies of societies
regarding change itself.
Sociocultural change occurs as a consequence of individual members of
society making adaptive changes to their natural and social environments.
Of course, not all people have equal power in the decision making process,
“who decides” often depends on the nature of the choice and one’s position
in the stratification system. As a consequence many important decisions
are made by a few, and these few may well choose alternatives that enhance
or bolster their interests rather than the interests of the total society.
It is, after all, an imperfect social system (1966,
p.34). Structural elites acting in their own interests therefore
provide positive and negative reinforcement for the adoption or extinction
of technological and social change. This feedback can often be decisive
in determining whether change is propagated throughout the sociocultural
system or whether it is extinguished.
10. Changes in subsistence technology and population have far
ranging consequences for human organization, cultural beliefs, and values.
Two types of change are of tremendous importance: changes in basic subsistence
technologies, and changes in population levels (1991,
p. 54). Technology and population, of course, are closely intertwined.
Increase the production of food and more children can be allowed to live
(1966, p. 64).
Especially in pre-industrial societies where children are economic assets,
increases in subsistence production inevitably lead to increases in population
(1991, pp. 172).
Better methods and technologies of contraception allow individuals to apply
preventive checks on their fertility (1991,
p. 54). Population level and growth, on the other hand, put pressure
on the biological and physical environments as well as providing more direct
stimulus for further technological development. Not only are the
two closely linked, however, both exert strong impact on the rest of the
Technology and population combined set strong limits on widespread social
organizational characteristics as well as ideas and ideologies. These
limits include maximum community size and complexity, the division of labor,
the degree of inequality, the degree of military power that the society
can project, complexity of stratification systems, and the overall wealth
of the society (1966,
p. 60). Advances in subsistence technology are also important
because they are often related to improvements in other technologies such
as transportation and communications, all of which leads to greater societal
growth and complexity. The demographics of population, over and above sheer
size, can also have dramatic impact on the rest of the sociocultural system.
Such demographic properties of a population would include its age and sex
composition, birth and death rates, density, and patterns of migration
all have the potential for far reaching impact on social structure and
cultural beliefs and values (1991,
Lenski considers population and subsistence production critical in understanding
sociocultural systems because these two variables are the principle means
by which society regulates the flow of energy from its environment. Increases
in the food supply made possible by innovations in subsistence technology
is a necessary precondition for high population levels, both of which are
preconditions for significant increases in the complexity of a society
(1991, p. 60).
The resulting complexity, of course, creates many new problems for sociocultural
systems, all of which call for further technological, social and cultural
change (1991, pp.
11. The more intensive the subsistence technology, the greater
the surplus, the greater the surplus, the greater the inequality.
As reported above (#6), Lenski asserts that goods and services are distributed
within a society on the basis of need and power. The enlightened
self-interests of men lead them to equitably distribute goods and services
to productive classes in order to insure their survival and continued productivity.
However, Lenski posits, any surplus is likely to be divided in accordance
with self-interests, that is, on the basis of social power.
The major focus of Power and Privilege was in developing an ecological
theory of stratification. His first hypothesis in this theory predicts
“…that in the simplest societies, or those which are technologically the
most primitive, the goods and services available will be distributed on
the basis of need” (1966,
As technology and productivity increases, Lenski goes on, a portion
of the new goods and services will go toward necessary population growth
and feeding a larger population. However, with technological development
and subsequent increases in productivity, a larger surplus of goods and
services will also be produced. Lenski’s second hypothesis predicts
“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 true, then when examining sociocultural systems we should see that the
greater the technological advance (as measured by productivity), the greater
the inequality in the distribution of goods and services within the society.
Lenski offers several caveats before going on to test his basic theory.
Several factors may well lead to “secondary variation” in the degree of
inequality within a society. Technological development is not the
only factor that is related to productivity and the creation of surplus
goods and services within a society. Since the nature of the physical
environment also has some affect on productivity he predicts that environments
would have some affect on inequality as well. Specifically, an environment
with a greater endowment of natural resources will enable the society to
achieve greater surpluses, thus increasing the amount of inequality
within the society (1966,
p. 48). Another factor that may also affect the degree of inequality,
according to Lenski, is “the military participation ratio.” Following
Stanislaw Andrzejewski, Lenski asserts that the higher the proportion of
males serving in the military, the less the inequality (1966,
p. 49). A final source of secondary variation in the degree of
inequality within a given societal type is the political cycle. In
societies in which elites have sought legitimation through constitutional
government (#7 above), some lessening of inequality can be predicted (1966,
pp. 49-50). Lenski summarizes his theory of inequality:
"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 ratio, (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,
Lenski proceeds to test this theory of inequality through examining
ethnographies and histories of societies based on different subsistence
techniques. His classification scheme, strongly influenced by Goldschmidt,
consists of five basic societal types in ascending order of technological
efficiency: Hunting and Gathering, Simple Horticultural, Advanced Horticultural,
Agrarian, and Industrial societies. In Power and Privilege,
Lenski finds increasing degrees of inequality up to and including early
industrial society. At this stage, he finds the degree of inequality
peaks and then begin to lessen as industrial societies mature. He attributes
this lessening of inequality to the rise of constitutional government,
labor unions, and ideologies (particularly socialism) that advocate more
Several cautions regarding this finding: First, industrial societies
were most "equal" (or less unequal) in income. As Lenski notes,
inequalities in wealth are far more significant in industrial societies.
Second, a good part of the income equality of industrial societies
that Lenski reported on occurred in the former Soviet Union. Some
of that country's income data was misleading. Finally, Lenski's study
was done in the 1960s, before excessive executive pay (see table below),
the systematic weakening of U.S. labor unions, and other economic
trends significantly exacerbated income inequality in the United States
Long-term trends in Worker and CEO Pay
As reported by the AFL-CIO,
they add: "According to Business Week, the average CEO made 42 times
the average hourly worker's pay in 1980, 85 times in 1990 and a staggering
411 times in 2001."
12. There is a process of selection in the world system that favors
larger, more powerful societies at the expense of smaller, less powerful
As previously stated, sociocultural change is largely a cumulative process,
which is the major factor in the growth of the complexity and size of societies
over the course of human history (1991,
p. 48). But to fully appreciate the process of sociocultural
evolution, you must recognize that it includes both continuity and change
(1991, pp. 65-66).
The vast majority of societies have experienced very little change over
the course of their history (1991,
pp. 46-47). There has been a dramatic reduction in the number of societies
in the world system in the last 10,000 years due to a process that Lenski
identifies as “inter-societal selection.” Societies that have grown
in size and technology have also grown in complexity and military power;
and this has allowed them to prevail in conflict over territory and other
resources with societies that have maintained more traditional sociocultural
patterns (1991, p.
Successful adaptations are spread through social contact, and military
and economic conquest. Societies that adopted innovations that led
to increases in productive capacity, population growth, structural complexity,
and military power are those that have survived to transmit their culture
and institutional patterns (1991,
p. 63). Sociocultural evolution therefore operates on two distinct
levels, within individual societies and within the world system of societies.
“While these two 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,
*Linked references are to direct quotes from Lenski's
works. For Copyright reasons, these are only available to serious students.
E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for passwords.
Gould, Stephen Jay. 1991. “The Panda’s Thumb of Technology,”
in Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History.
New York: W.W. Norton & Company, pp. 59-75.
Harris, Marvin. 1979. Cultural Materialism: A Struggle
for a Science of Culture. New York: Random House.
Lenski, Gerhard Emmanuel. 1966. Power and Privilege:
A Theory of Social Stratification. New York: McGraw-Hill Book
Lenski, Gerhard and Jean Lenski. 1986. Human Societies:
An Introduction to Macrosociology. New York: McGraw-Hill Book
Lenski, Gerhard and Jean Lenski and Patrick Nolan. 1991. Human
Societies: An Introduction to Macrosociology. New York: McGraw-Hill
Referencing this Site
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Elwell, Frank, 2003, Lenski's Ecological-Evolutionary
Social Theory, Retrieved June 1, 2003 (use actual date), http://www.faculty.rsu.edu/~felwell/Theorists/Ecoevo/Index.html
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