Social Transformations: A General Theory of Historical Development


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It is not the case, Sanderson reminds us, that all elements of sociocultural systems are in constant state of change. Social stability refers to the long-term preservation or maintenance of social institutions, behavioral patterns, and belief systems.


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Many sociocultural systems are remarkable for their unchanging nature , The ancient Mesopotamians, Egyptians, and Indus peoples, for example, created extremely stable civilizations that lasted for thousands of years. But one does not have to look to pre-history alone for examples of social stability. In general, pre-modern societies also have elements that remained unchanging for centuries.

Horticulture, for example, was the primary means of subsistence for thousands of years with little innovation over the generations McNeill, The same may be said for various agrarian civilizations throughout the world.

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Extinction is the elimination or collapse of a social system. This can occur in a number of ways. War, disease, natural disaster, or ecological change can sometimes lead to the death of all the members of a social system or to such disruption that the social system collapses. It is also possible, Sanderson maintains, that the growing complexity of society may well lead to collapse.

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These costs eventually reach a point of diminishing returns, whereby further increases in complexity bring marginal benefit to either elites or to the population as a whole. Maintaining complexity becomes such a financial drain that the society is in a weakened state, so any major shock to the sociocultural system such as war, disease, natural disaster will then make it vulnerable to collapse , ; Sanderson notes that many evolutionary theorists in the functionalist tradition maintain that growing differentiation or complexity is the main adaptive mechanism of sociocultural change.

Sanderson, on the other hand, maintains that increasing complexity is not the only adaptive mechanism. Some evolutionary events are regressive going back to more simpler forms or are completely neutral neither more complex nor regressive , Differentiation, specialization, and growing complexity may be beneficial in the short run particularly for elites , but it may well be maladaptive strategy for the long-term.

Like his mentors Harris and Lenski and thus consistent with Malthus , Sanderson insists that adaptations are made by individuals, not by the sociocultural systems themselves , ; , Individuals are strongly motivated to satisfy their own needs and wants because humans are strongly egoistic.

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We seek to maximize the benefits of our actions and minimize the costs. Changes in the natural or social world or both cause some individuals to make adaptation in their social patterns to more effectively meet their biological and psychological needs and desires. Specific adaptations on the part of individuals can be the result of discovery or invention innovation on the part of individuals involved, or borrowing from other individuals or societies who have already made the innovation diffusion.

While these adaptations may allow the individual to better meet her needs or desires, large numbers of people making the adaptation may well have negative consequences for other individuals , In a complex society, particularly in those with high degrees of inequality between groups, adaptations are likely to positively or negatively affect more people in some groups than in others—say by race, class, religious group, or sex.

Therefore, adaptations on the part of individuals lead to changes in the social environment itself, making further adaptations on the part of others probable , 10; , There is, therefore, no direction to social evolution, there is no grand historical plan, and history is not unfolding in any predetermined direction.

Rather, social evolution is driven by individuals entering into and changing social arrangements and institutions to further their own interests. But, because there are many individuals with different interests and unequal power involved, the social structures that are continually being recreated are not the result of conscious human design but rather are unintended phenomenon which often have unforeseen consequences , Social evolution is therefore the cumulative change of social systems and structures as the result of individuals acting to the best of their abilities and foresight in their own self-interests.

Social Transformations: A General Theory of Historical Development / Edition 1

These three factors are focused on the infrastructural-environmental interactions of population, production technology, and the environment as it concerns the availability of vital resources to sustain population levels with the current form of production , pp. However, Sanderson differs from Harris and Lenski in that he also incorporates economic factors within these material conditions.

In addition to incorporating economic factors into the infrastructure, Sanderson also differs from Harris and Lenski in that he posits that different material conditions environment, demography, technology, economy have different causal priority and strength at different stages in the evolutionary process and in different historical periods , 9. Specifically, Sanderson asserts that ecology and demography are dominant infrastructural characteristics in explaining hunter and gatherer, horticultural, and pastoral societies in prehistory.

He posits that ecology and demography as well as technology and economy are all important for agrarian societies in the historical era before Sanderson thus combines Marx with his Malthusian-Evolutionary base: he performs a slightly modified cultural materialist analysis through and then with the transition to capitalism, he shifts gears to a Marxian-economic analysis. Sanderson, like Harris and Lenski before him, also claims that the pace of social evolution varies through history, but goes on to posit that it appears to be speeding up in modern times.

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He also agrees that the preferred method of the evolutionary analyst is the historical comparative method , That is, examining specific sociocultural systems through the use of anthropological, historical, and sociological data as well as comparing and contrasting systems within evolutionary stages and historical epochs. Of particular interest for evolutionists are transitions from one sociocultural form to another. And it is in performing comparative historical analysis that Sanderson truly shines: he marshals an incredible amount and variety of social science data to test the power of evolutionary materialism in explaining sociocultural stability and change.


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Also see Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change to learn how his insights contribute to a more complete understanding of modern societies. Sanderson is professor of sociology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

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Social Transformations: A General Theory of Historical Development Social Transformations: A General Theory of Historical Development
Social Transformations: A General Theory of Historical Development Social Transformations: A General Theory of Historical Development
Social Transformations: A General Theory of Historical Development Social Transformations: A General Theory of Historical Development
Social Transformations: A General Theory of Historical Development Social Transformations: A General Theory of Historical Development
Social Transformations: A General Theory of Historical Development Social Transformations: A General Theory of Historical Development
Social Transformations: A General Theory of Historical Development Social Transformations: A General Theory of Historical Development

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