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American Journal of Sociology , 3 , — Human institutions: A theory of societal evolution. Vaisey, S.

A Theory of Societal Evolution

Social Forces , 83 1 , — Jonathan H. Human Institutions: A Societal Evolution. My Background. I am currently a professor at the University of California, the department of Sociology. I am known as a general theorist and I wish to make sociology into a hard science. In order to have societies, humans are needed.


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Humans strive from the institutions they create. The emphasis on selection pressures shifts the entire analysis away from categorizing institutions on the basis of which functional need they meet to one where the level of a force, as it generates selection pressures, push agents to act in certain ways; and this line of reasoning makes no assumptions that these agent do so successfully" Turner, p.

A Theory of Macrodynamic Forces.

The emergence and transformation of institutional systems. There are five important forces which include; population, production, reproduction, regulation, and distribution.

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These forces create selection pressures on the population for those who strive to problem solve. Production defined:. Five basic elements of production:. Entrepreneurship : All elements put together coordinated in the gathering and conversion of resources. The Institutional Core. Kinship has been the structural base for human populations, the system was selected and implicated because it increased fitness. There have been two trends of kinship in the past 15, years. Kinship defined two ways:. Another example may further illustrate. The Catholic Church, as it attempted to make use of the power vacuum left in the wake of the fall of the Roman Empire and impose itself on the Germanic tribes, had to contend with the tribes' unwillingness to part with local gods Berman While these two cases ultimately proved successful, we can demonstrate how this condition can lead to extinction as well.

Akhenaten c. His strategy not only lacked popular appeal, but he kept hidden from the people the ritual elements and beliefs, as well as the tangible benefits that could be derived from monotheistic worship. Moreover, he did not work to create an entrepreneurial unit capable of developing and disseminating his innovations; thus, the religious system, and the group consisting of himself and a few others, were wiped away upon his death.

Political Economy. Evolutionary success or failure is also predicated on the existing sociopolitical and socioeconomic context. Either one of these resources can be withheld or used as a weapon against religious actors in ways that prevent innovation, entrepreneurship, or competitive heterodoxy. Lenski noted that religions in early or simple agrarian societies had priests who lacked structural independence because of their tremendous dependence upon the political class for land, wealth, and protection cf.

Oppenheim One could argue these religious actors were more often politically-oriented than religiously in that their ultimate role was to ideologically maintain the stratification system and legitimate the king's claims Postgate And while they facilitated communication with the supranatural, not only was the king often the highest priest — and in some cases, a deity — but their rituals and communications were highly secretive and of little benefit to the people aside from assuring a good harvest Kramer That political entrepreneurs found in states monopolize the legitimate claim to violence means it can be used to suppress religious innovators mobility.

There are cases, though, where religious entrepreneurship led to reconfigurations of power-dependent relationships. The Deuteronomists were likely writing and redacting much of what we take for granted as the Pentateuch today long before they found political legitimacy. The same type of situation happened under Ashoka's reign — BCE in ancient India where he promoted Buddhism as the state religion. Economic actors, as Weber reminds us, also have important impact on religious evolution — albeit somewhat later in the historical tale.


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Weber points out that the economic actors have specific needs depending upon a their actual activities and b their social position relative to other types of actors. The Protestant Reformation was fueled, in part, by the rise of the merchant middle class in European cities. Cosmological Competitors.

Other cultural entrepreneurs such as scientists, professors, and artists can and often do compete with religious entrepreneurs for the time, energy, and human resources necessary to be structurally and symbolically independent from other social units such that entrepreneurial activities can be undertaken and completed. Cultural entrepreneurs, as opposed to political or economic entrepreneurs, are more likely to innovate symbolically and organizationally around notions of truth, beauty, morality, and knowledge.

Therefore, competing in the same resource niche as religious entrepreneurs implies competition for scarce resources. Scientific entrepreneurs, for example, are not inherently opposed to religion, but some like evolutionary psychologist Richard Dawkins overtly struggle for scientific supremacy; where economic or political entrepreneurs — or a significant proportion of the masses — find scientific innovations more beneficial to their projects, religious entrepreneurs notably suffer.

In sum, the environment in which religious entrepreneurs act and provide potential variation has ramifications for religious evolution. The desire or willingness of the masses, the sociopolitical and socioeconomic contexts, and the presence, strategies, and successes of rival cosmological entrepreneurs all provide independent but strongly related conditions that activate or make dormant the selection process. What does not change is the fact that variation is relatively normal, even if innovation itself is rare.

That many religious actors and groups have left little indelible of a mark on history attests to this, as do the numerous failed cults or sects which made left watermarks and little else. Moreover, archaeology, anthropology, and history have become storehouses of extinct religions, preserving some variation for potential future use in ways that the bones and DNA of extinct animals do for genetic engineers. Ultimately, religious entrepreneurs must find ways to become independent in relation to other elite social units.

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Once independent and embedded within accepted religious systems, they must further contend with tradition and the political structure of the religious hierocracy if they are to make internal adjustments and changes that have lasting impact. Changes are not always accepted by the masses and sometimes they take a long time to spread throughout the laity. Religious evolution is defined as a qualitative transformation of the macro-institutional level in ways that 1 reconfigure physical, temporal, social, and symbolic space and, subsequently, 2 the cultural and structural mechanism of integration of corporate actors as well as conglomerations of corporate actors e.

Evolution can be towards greater religious autonomy — or more discrete space, mechanisms of integration, and cultural tool kits — lesser autonomy, uneven development, and even the subordination of religious domains to other domains. Religious evolution may be rapid as witnessed in the process of schisms or periods of sectarianism, or it may be gradual as is often the case in enduring religious institutions that adapt and adjust slowly to environmental changes. Finally, religious evolution may lead to myriad resource niches, which are adaptive in the sense of allowing multiple religious groups to survive but also encouraging internal diversity to such a degree that competition creates more division than solidarity, opens up the real possibility of violent conflict, and may seep into struggles of political power Brint and Abrutyn Essentially, religious evolution is a process by which various sources of religious variation are selected upon in ways that either enhance, or weaken, or maintain a religious group's social position and thus its ability to survive.

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Variation is a constant, though selection pressures are not; put another way, one could travel throughout Los Angeles and find myriad sources of new religious traits, but without the pressures for selection coming from macro-level forces, the groups are just groups struggling for resources and with little chance of becoming entrepreneurs, or the forces of institutional reconfiguration.

Entrepreneurship becomes a real possibility only in the event of real or perceived exigencies. These processes of enhancement are directly related to the processes of transmission.

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In the process of altering the macro-institutional space, or in the negative case where other elites encroach and alter the religious domain's macro-configuration, qualitative transformations change the meso- and micro-levels of social reality. On the meso-level, intra-institutional structural or cultural changes effect the niches and the organizations within those niches, as new goals, organizational forms, and resource flows create new environments and problems for organizational adaptation; on the micro-level, the cultural toolkits Swidler available to a significant proportion of actors is altered: for example, the goals and means towards achieving these goals — as well as their distribution across categories of individuals, the ideologies and their distribution, the norms that shape behavior, the values that shape evaluation of behavior, and various other cultural elements are meaningfully different.

Although this theory was induced from historical cases, in the future, a systematic examination of various cases would be prudent and useful to outline the contours of the theory, as well as adding and subtracting components. World-systems theorists conceptualize the economy as an inter-societal institution, and one could plausibly ask whether members of western Christendom were once linked by an inter-societal religious institution. However, while all societies in either case share certain elements capitalist and Catholic elements respectively , the configuration of any single institution in any given society will not look the same as another in another society.

Some aspects will reflect inter-societal isomorphic forces and be similar across groups, but many aspects of an institution reflect the local historical and sociocultural conditions under which it was constructed and reconstructed. Thus, in the face of power convergent forces, institutional domains will still exhibit variation reflective of the unique circumstances under which their entrepreneurs adapted and continue to adapt. Thus, in the USA, policy, economy, and law are all relatively autonomous institutional domains, yet in a small town they may be experienced as highly overlapping.

In part, the physical location of town hall, main street, and the oldest and most dominant church makes the boundaries blur for those townspeople. This fact does not alter the point that economy is a discrete sphere of social action, but rather people cognitively differentiate the local and national much as Luhmann conceptualized the widening gap between co-present interaction and society-wide systems. The qualitative transformation of the institutional domain is the underlying factor across cases.

In some cases, such as a preliterate tribe being wiped out, extinction fits. Towards a General Theory of Institutional Autonomy. Sociological Theory 27 4 : — New York: Routledge. Sociological Perspectives 53 3 : — Sociological Perspectives 54 3 : — London: SCM Press. What Shapes Cognition? Traditional Sciences and Modern International Science.