The Nomothetic Theory Of Leslie White And Julian Steward

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Since its inception, the academic discipline of anthropology has gone through constant paradigm shifts. In the nineteenth century, anthropology began as a nomothetic study based upon the development of cultures and societies through the process of evolution. Later on, several anthropologists particularly Franz Boas shifted the nomothetic approach of American anthropology into an idiographic approach, which focuses on assessing the development of cultures individually as their own separate entity. (Moore 2012:161) In the twentieth century, however, anthropology ushered in another paradigm shift. Several American anthropologists during this time, valued empirical data rather than applying the idiographic or the “Boasian” approach into their…show more content…
The following essay examines the evolutionary approaches of anthropologists and neo-evolutionists Leslie White and Julian Steward. Although, Leslie White and Julian Steward debated against each other over their respected evolutionary approaches, both approaches do share several similarities amongst each other, even though both anthropologists disregarded any relationship between the two. In order to examine the evolutionary approaches of Leslie White and Julian Steward, we must therefore discuss about what the theory of neo-evolutionism is. Neo-evolutionism is a nomothetic theory which is based on using the general principles of evolution to explain how cultures change through time. This theory is a “reformation” of the late nineteenth century evolutionary theory of cultural evolution. (Erickson 1998:116) Cultural evolution explains that all cultures, progress through different evolutionary stages, which starts from a “simple”…show more content…
(Erickson 1998:119) The main issue between the two neo-evolutionists is the debate of unilineal evolution against mutilinear evolution. Steward accuses Leslie White for being a generalist because White cannot explain anything particular in his unilineal interpretation of cultural evolution. (Erickson 1998:119) White accuses Julian Steward for being so particular in his multilinear interpretation of cultural evolution that he could scarcely be called an evolutionist. (Erickson 1998:119) In the 1960’s, Marshall Sahlins and Elman Service who were both students and colleagues of Leslie White and Julian Steward, wanted to find a resolution over this debate between unilineal evolution and multilinear evolution. Sahlins and Service concluded that cultural evolution can be seen as two different dimensions known as specific evolution and general evolution. (Erickson 1998:119) Specific evolution refers to the particular sequence of change and adaptation of a particular society in a given environment. (Ember 2011:23) This evolutionary model is best represented by the ideas and concepts of Julian Steward. General evolution refers to the general progress of human society, in which “complex” cultures evolve from “simple” cultures due to their technological advancements. (Ember 2011:23) This evolutionary model is best represented by the ideas and
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