Friday, July 29, 2011

The Social Ladder and the Ecological Ground – Julian Steward and multilinear evolution in the middle 20th C

The urban experience is a relatively new one for us.   The oldest cities emerged from 5000-3500 BC, slowly evolving out of antecedent Neolithic villages and settlements throughout the world, some of which date back as far as 10,000 BC.  George Cowgill gives us a solid review.[1]  And agriculture - the productive excess of which urban living depends - is, of course, also a new business for humans, emerging around 10,000 BC after hundreds of thousands years in which we gained sustenance by hunting and gathering.  That these events – from primitive times to the greater complexity of urban life – have been lined up as a progressive scheme is not surprising.  Progress, as I discussed before, has two principle meanings: one is a developmental one in which advancement through a process is meant; the other suggests improvements, indicating that each step is better than the last.  Attempts in early anthropological theory to classify the elements of culture, and then theorize them as a developmental sequence of different stages of culture (“ethnical periods”) emerged as a successful paradigm for anthropological work in late Victorian times.  The idea that prevailed in those early days was that culture evolved through time, that it was directional, that it was represented by a succession of traits that moved towards a particular end, that the changes represented improvements, and that cultural retrogression was the exception rather than the rule.[2]  That is, there was belief that social evolution was progressive in both senses.

There are interesting parallels between this successional theory in cultural theory and the successional theory systematically developed by Frederic Clements, discussed in earlier posts.  Something for another post!

Efforts such as these in anthropology to interpret social evolution as progressive became troubling to anthropologists because of their “implicit embracing of a culture-bound concept of progress – that history is a sequence of changes leading inevitably in the general direction of the lifestyle and values of… Europe and Euroamerica.”[3]  Franz Boas (1858 – 1942) led the attack on tainted attempts to link race and the development of culture and under his influence anthropologists shied away from grand speculations about the sociocultural development.  Boasians in their concern for studying the particulars of culture in their own context rejected conjectures about the progressive nature of sociocultural evolution in both senses (it was not inevitable, nor could it be arrayed as a sequence of improvements).

By the middle of the 20th century, however, there was interest in resurrecting questions about the patterns and causes of social evolution – from the cultures of greatest antiquity to the present time.  The revival of evolutionism was driven largely by Leslie White (1900 – 1975) and Julian Steward (1902 – 1972).  Leslie White I’ll return to in a later post – his speculation about energy and the evolution of culture make his work especially interesting to some ecologists; he was well known but in many ways marginal to mainstream anthropology.[4]  Indeed, White was suspected of communism during the 1950s.[5]  Julian Steward I mention in a little more detail now, since his work was very much in the mainstream of anthropological work of the time.  Steward and White disagreed about the possibility of finding universally valid laws of cultural development, though both developed a materialist, ecological approach to cultural patterns. 

Julian Steward was trained in the lineage that comes from Boas; his dissertation advisers were Alfred Lewis Kroeber and Robert Lowie at Berkeley.  His work charts a middle course between the Morgan/Tyler progress-oriented models of cultural evolution (models that were in some ways revisited by White), and the particularism of the Boasian school which, as I mentioned, in general eschewed extravagant generalization. 

In a 1949 paper Steward acknowledged the half century of skepticism concerning the formulation of cultural regularities.[6]  He then argued that because of the well-developed state of the literature there was finally (at that time) enough data to achieve a “world scheme” of cultural development.  Echoing the major theoretical approaches of early 20th C thinking he proposed that the regularities of culture could be understood as sequential (happening over time in a single place) or functional (emerging to satisfy culturally defined needs and manifested in different places at the same time).  For Steward the important point was that either approach allowed for the formulation of causal explanations.  Two types of cause and effect relations prevail in explaining cultural regularities – single origins followed by “diffusion” to other geographical regions, or where the barriers to diffusion seem insurmountable; one must look for causes related to emergence based on their functional characteristics.  Thus social and religious institutions may evolve in along similar lines based upon a particular mode of subsistence (intensive farming, say).  Having established some of these ground rules he tried out his scheme by attempting to understand the development of early civilization across the New and Old Worlds.  To make the comparison one needed to establish a “developmental typology” after which one can speculate about cause and effect relations. 

With this two-phase process in hand Steward identifies regularities in cultural development across Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, Mexico, the Maya area, and Northern Peru.  He then proposed a causal scheme for the arid and semi-arid regions of the world.  The significance of restricting attention to climatological defined areas is that Steward’s is ultimately an ecological speculation.  Because of a common set of ecological constrains, a culture would evolve in a manner that best adapts it to those particular constraints.  Irrigated agriculture increases population to the point that the limits of water are reached.  Political control over irrigation and communal projects emerge in response.  The belief in these cultures in supernatural powers resulted in the emergence of a theocratic ruling class.  Productive excess released labor which could be devoted to non-subsistence activity, including the production of goods for the theocratic class.  New technologies emerged.  When the limits of agricultural productivity were reached interstate conflict over land and produce begins – the origins of war thus explained.  This in turn, regularly leads to the rise and fall of empires (militaries tend to repress innovation which leads to a crash).

The conjectures about development – cause and effect hypotheses – are straightforward enough.  The difficulty as Steward saw it was that since the various developmental stages occurred in different areas at quite different times, the relative chronology therefore “fits a diffusionist explanation perfectly.”  He dealt with this by suggesting that diffusionist proposals are better at explaining the “secondary features” of culture, rather than the basic types of social, economic, and religious patterns.[7] 

The larger points to emerge from Steward’s model of “multilinear evolution” (a term first used by Robert Lowie though associated with Steward) can be summarized as follows:

1. There was sufficient ethnographic and archeological data from around the world to allow the study of the cultural regularities to emerge again as a theme in anthropology
2. These laws could be proposed as causal ones
3. Not all regularities need be explained away as stemming from cultural diffusion from a single point of origin.
4. Proposals about causes related to social evolution are to be understood in terms of a “cultural ecology” – that is, institutions can emerge from subsistence problems in areas with environments in common (e.g. arid and semi-arid regions).
5. Speculations about causes are hypotheses that can be tested against new data.  Statements about causes did not need to wait “until all archeologists have laid down their shovels and all ethnologists have put away their notebooks.”

The achievement of Steward in reawakening interest in social evolution is that he grounded it in a cultural ecological approach that laid the foundation for the contemporary models of change.  Such models are useful for understanding and evaluating the impact of human subsistence on the environment.  It is significant as well that his model, though it is materialistic is not deterministic; it remains true to a paradigm that recognizes the uniqueness of different cultures while reinstating causal explanation of observable patterns.

[1] Cowgill, George L. (2004) Origins and Development of Urbanism: Archaeological Perspectives
: Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 33, pp. 525-549
[2] See Introduction to Part II in Applebaum, H (Ed) (1987) Perspectives in Cultural Anthropology.  SUNY Press
[3] Johnson and Earle (2000).
[4] See Murphy, Robert E (1987) in Applebaum, H Perspectives in Cultural Anthropology.  SUNY Press. 
[5] Hylland Eriksen, Thomas, Sivert Nielsen, Finn (2001) A History of Anthropology (Anthropology, Culture and Society) Pluto Press
[6] Steward, J. H. (1949), Cultural causality and law: a trial formulation of the development of early civilization. American Anthropologist, 51: 1–27.
[7] Steward distinguishes primary from secondary basic from secondary features of culture as follows: “If the more important institutions of culture can be isolated from their unique setting so as to be typed, classified, and related to recurring antecedents or functional correlates, it follows that it is possible to consider the institutions in question as the basic or constant ones, whereas the features that lend uniqueness are the secondary or variable ones.” Steward, 6.

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