Evolutionary and Functionalist Historical Sociology

John Holmwood & Maureen O’Malley. Handbook of Historical Sociology. Editor: Gerard Delanty & Engin F Isin. Sage Publication. 2003.

Of all the so-called ‘foundational’ approaches to historical sociology presented in this volume, the two least likely to find adherents are evolutionary and functional accounts. There are three standard reasons for why such approaches are held to be inadequate. The first is that evolutionism is tied to a positivistic and an over-generalizing view of history; the second is that functionalism is inherently teleological and conservative; and the third is that evolutionary functionalism invariably produces a developmental scheme of human history. These deficiencies are frequently traced to a common problem, a neglect of human action. Our intention in this discussion is to show why and how these criticisms are themselves deficient, and to demonstrate that they exacerbate the problems of evolutionary functionalism while proving inadequate in the alternatives they suggest for explaining social change.

Historical Sociology and the Science of Society

Sociology’s very first formulations proposed evolutionary theory as the foundation of a scientific approach to social change. These early aspirations to a science of history have often been diagnosed as a conceit of nineteenth-century historiography, in which, as Garland Allen puts it, ‘social evolutionists… sought to discover the laws of historical development that would provide the basis for understanding the past and even possibly for predicting the future’ (1992: 217). Historians of the last fifty years, as well as more recent postmodern sociologists, have been largely intolerant of such ‘grand’ evolutionary approaches. On the one hand, historians have tended to emphasize the importance of the particular and subjective meaning; on the other, postmodernists have cast doubts on continuity and large historical narratives of any kind. Many critics now would simply argue that history is not a science at all, and that evolutionary sociology’s claims otherwise mean it misunderstands the nature of historiography and is founded, therefore, on a false basis.

However, attempts to discount the appropriateness of scientific criteria to historical inquiry have been undermined by recent developments in post-positivist philosophies of science. These approaches to science emphasize the explanatory successes and progressive character of science, but do so by transforming the once-dominant positivist framework. Kuhn (1962), Lakatos (1970) and Laudan (1996), for example, focus in different ways on the problem-solving nature of scientific activity in which ‘truths’ are reconstructed rather than accumulated in a linear fashion. In this way, science appears discontinuous in terms both of its categories and of its objects, and as organized into paradigms or research programmes. Significantly, for our argument, post-positivist theorists of science have either utilized evolutionary metaphors in order to capture the progressive character of scientific change in terms of lines of descent,3or have explicitly espoused an evolutionary theory of science in order to capture its history (Hull, 1988; Toulmin, 1972). We believe that these applications of evolutionary frameworks are contemporary exemplars for evolutionary historical sociology. They demonstrate the viability of general evolutionary accounts of change in domains other than that of biology.

Post-positivist theories of science have also called into question another common criticism of the ambition for a science of history. The standard view of explanation within positivism is that of the ‘covering-law model,’ which posits the symmetry between explanation and prediction. According to Hempel (1942, 1965), historical explanations did not have the form of the covering-law model and could only be characterized as mere ‘explanatory sketches.’ The problem with this position, however, is that if it were true for human history, it would also have to be true for natural history. Evolutionary biology, therefore, would also have to be excluded from lawful science. This was indeed the attitude of many philosophers of science, including (at least, initially) Popper (1974: 136). Post-positivism shifts the terms of the debate by looking more carefully at the history of scientific change. This indicates that older understandings of the natural sciences were modelled too closely on a single discipline, that of physics. From a reconstructive point of view, it becomes obvious that defining biology as a science requires a different understanding of successful explanation (Scriven, 1959). Indeed, looking at the history of successful biological explanations leads commentators such as Robert Richards (1992) to argue that all explanations are explanatory sketches and that the covering-law model exemplified in physics is no less dependent upon wider narrative devices to fix its terms. Under a post-positivist understanding of science, then, the idea of a science of history looks much less problematic than it does under positivism, and the first criticism against evolutionary historical sociology is no longer a serious obstacle. The next criticism, however, would appear to be less tractable.

For many sociologists, it is precisely because evolutionary theory is associated with functionalism that it is rejected. Functionalism is straightforwardly regarded as an illegitimate, teleological form of analysis where consequences are held to call forth their causes (for a discussion, see Isajiw, 1968). There are two aspects to this problem. One is that while it is clear that the teleological form of explanation is inadequate and that many functionalists have committed this error, illegitimate teleology is not a necessary consequence of functionalism (Isajiw, 1968; Turner and Maryanski, 1988). The evolutionary paradigm in biology since the Modern Synthesis, for example, has succeeded in removing teleology from functional accounts of change. Evolutionary theory there encompasses variation as the explanation of the origin of a new form, with fitness as the explanation of its survival and reproduction. Why should the situation be logically different in historical sociology? Why shouldn’t the integration of evolution and functionalist approaches be the solution to the problem of teleology in sociology, rather than its accentuation?

The second point is that the mere recognition of the problem of illegitimate teleology does not solve or prevent it. In the case of Spencer, his theoretical weaknesses are at least partly the result of his failure to understand the problem. He explicitly claimed that ‘to understand how an organization originated and developed, it is requisite to understand the need subserved at the outset and afterwards’ (1897: 2). Parsons’s teleological errors, on the other hand, occurred in spite ofhis clear recognition of the illegitimacy of backwards causation. Durkheim, too, was careful to distinguish between the explanation of the reproduction of an item and the causal explanation of its origins, writing that, ‘when…,’ the explanation of a social phenomenon is undertaken, we must seek separately the efficient cause which produces it and the function it fulfils. We use the word ‘function,’ in preference to ‘end’ or ‘purpose,’ precisely because social phenomena do not generally exist for the useful results they produce’ (1964 [1895]: 95). Yet Durkheim’s care was to little avail, for he too slipped into a deficient form of functionalist teleology that was similar to Spencer’s. The problem of functionalism cannot, therefore, be simply solved by recognizing the dangers of attributing causal powers to effects, and we will elaborate below on what the solution actually is and why the replication occurs.

The other standard charge of functionalism is that it nurtures conservatism and promotes social arrangements to maintain the status quo. This criticism, we believe, is unjustified (and, indeed, frequently only arises as an adjunct of the previous criticism). Functionalist explanations are invariably adaptationist (or adjustment-oriented) accounts, and understanding change is built into them (Hempel, 1965: 323-4; Nagel, 1956: Ch. 10). Although functionalist approaches may have trouble identifying how to intervene in processes in order to bring about desired change, it would be hard to think of any intervention that would not have unintended consequences, no matter the explanation that informed it (see Hull, 1988: 355-6, and our discussion of Spencer, below). It is the empirical interconnectedness of any system’s elements and processes that is the source of the problem, not functionalism per se, and Spencer clearly recognized this issue. Functionalist accounts can be used to justify conservative politics, but they can also be used in the service of any other political agenda (Merton 1968 [1948]; Nagel, 1956: 282-3).

The greatest problem remaining in these common criticisms is that when conjoined with evolutionary theory, functionalism has almost invariably produced a linear and developmental approach to history. In functional-developmental history, the modern capitalist West is always presented as the outcome of a necessary and progressive sequence of stages. Critics of this interpretation of history usually consider development to be a mechanical social process, which, while being historically inept, is also (more importantly) irredeemable, because it does not give due consideration to human agency. These criticisms of the unsatisfactory teleology of functionalism, where system needs apparently call forth their fulfilment, usually set out a different teleology of human purposes. This argument proposes that a proper recognition of the role of intentional action would, in fact, resolve many of the problems of functionalism.

The history of sociological theory, however, does not advance the critics’ cause. Each generation of evolutionary functionalism has set itself the task of fully accounting for human agency and its capacity to bring about change. Spencer’s teleological functionalism was deeply concerned with individual human action, conceiving of it as the driving force of social evolution and one with a superior moral claim. He was followed by a wave of sociologists whose overriding objective was also to reconcile evolutionary theories of social change with a theory of purposeful human action and individual responsibility (for example, Ward, 1897 [1883], 1906 [1893]; Giddings, 1906 [1893], 1922 [1896]; Hobhouse, 1913 [1911], 1966 [1924]). All of these evolutionary sociologists are now largely forgotten, except as historical curiosities, precisely because they failed to produce that reconciliation. Parsons, as we shall show, is a more recent representative of that same failure.

The argument of this chapter is that understanding why sociology has so far failed to achieve such integration will allow us to see more clearly both how to deliver the promise of evolutionary and functional historical sociology, and how it is distinct from its usual representation in the sociological literature. In the process, we shall identify a paradox at the heart of current understandings of historical sociology. We shall show that a deficient, teleological and developmental approach to history frequently derives from attempts to overcome the problems of evolutionary functionalism by resort to what is believed to be an alternative emphasis on human agency. In part, this explains the curious phenomenon of why writers as diverse as Giddens (1976, 1981) Habermas (1976 [1973], 1979 [1976]) and Eder (1992, 1999) can identify the limitations of functionalism and argue for the peculiarities of the human species in terms of the special role of communication through meaning and symbols, and yet be brought back to a developmental scheme of evolutionary history. Thus, Habermas and Eder emphasize collective learning, where, as Habermas puts it, ‘not learning, but not-learning is the phenomenon that calls for explanation at the socio-cultural stage of development’ (1976 [1973]: 15). Paradoxically, then, the early foundations of evolutionary sociology appear to be ‘true’ foundations, however deficient they are, because they persist in a variety of theories which claim their validity through ‘refuting’ this historical basis.

In this chapter, then, we are concerned with two ways in which the task of explicating foundations can be understood and the relationship between them: the first is that of the historical roots and assumptions of the approach, while the second is that of identifying the factors that ensure its replication. Although the history of sociology offers many evolutionary functionalists who would typify the troubled nature of functionalist analysis, it is the relationship between Spencer and Parsons that most clearly exemplifies both aspects of the problematic with which we are concerned. In what follows, we shall argue that Spencer’s evolutionary functionalism is, indeed, deficient. However, the problem is not one that can be solved by resort to a teleology of ‘action.’ This is Parsons’s solution and, after him, it has become the default response in sociological theory. We shall conclude by suggesting an alternative interpretation of the evolutionary paradigm in historical sociology.

Spencer: The Problems of Typological History

Spencer typifies the ambivalent relationship evolutionary sociology has had with history, and exemplifies why evolutionary approaches are not often considered to be proper candidates for historical sociology. History on its own, Spencer argued, was far inferior to a synthesizing evolutionary framework: ‘Until you have got a true theory of humanity, you cannot interpret history; and when you have got a true theory of humanity, you do not want history’ (1852, in Duncan, 1908: 62; 1929 [1860]: 34-5; 1961 [1873]: 26-33).

Such a theory of humanity, Spencer continued, was to be found in observable facts and the general laws of life. These laws, his investigations told him, were fundamentally evolutionary. ‘There are not several kinds of Evolution having traits in common, but one Evolution going on everywhere after the same manner,’ he proclaimed (1937 [1862]: 490). To establish this, he outlined an over-arching theory of evolution based on universal principles which were applicable to all phenomena and observable in their effects as an increase in complexity. Deducing from the primary principles of existence (the indestructibility of matter, the continuation of motion and, most fundamentally, the persistence of force), he defined evolution as ‘an integration of matter and concomitant dissipation of motion; during which, the matter passes from an indefinite, incoherent homogeneity to a relatively definite, coherent heterogeneity’ (1937: 358-9).

Spencer conceived of the specialization of functions and their increasing interdependence as the ‘incidental’ effects of a constant drive to equilibriation, in which a temporary balance was reached between dissipating and integrating forces external and internal to the system. All systems, therefore, were in a perpetual process of equilibration even in fairly stable environmental conditions. Within his statement of the different aspects of human evolution (biological, psychological, social and moral) he posited a dual evolutionary process in which Lamarckist and Darwinian mechanisms worked hierarchically to achieve development. This is where the key flaw of Spencer’s ‘evolutionary’ theory is located. Evolution in terms of selection is opportunistic. It follows no pathway, and is exogenously determined. Development, however, means a sequence of changes driven by the internal state of the developing entity, in a way that overrules environmental influences (Nisbet, 1986: 42; Sober, 1984: 153). Spencer’s conflation of evolution and development continues to bedevil evolutionary accounts in historical sociology and, of course, contributes to its teleological character, where evolution is conceived as the progressive realization of higher forms.

Spencer’s analysis of society depended explicitly on the close parallel he drew between social organization and the way in which organisms worked. The ‘scaffolding’ of the organic analogy at least partly transformed the principles of classical mechanics on which his more general evolutionary theory was based, by emphasizing that social evolution was the adaptive increase of differentiation and integration. Von Baer’s developmental embryology was Spencer’s means of fusing differentiation and development into a ‘universal law of change,’ since it specified a direction to evolution through a progressive increase of organizational complexity. Societies exhibited the same processes of equilibriation as any other system, and their evolutionary paths were responses to environmental factors ranging from resource availability to inter-societal conflict. Natural and social environments were the substantive forces behind evolutionary change. Environmental conditions worked either directly on system units to bring about equilibriation, or indirectly, through the elimination of the maladapted by natural selection or survival of the fittest.

The direct process was Lamarckian, and it explained individual difference as a consequence of ongoing and direct adaptation of individuals to environmental change. The indirect was Darwinian, and it explained species or society difference as the greater adaptive success in a competitive situation of certain structural adaptations. This conceptual strategy allowed Spencer to absorb Darwin’s natural selection as merely a supplementary mechanism within his theory of social evolution. ‘Survival of the fittest’ became an account of collective and not of individual processes; the development of the socially integrated individual was accounted for by the Lamarckian mechanism. The mechanisms worked together since individual habits were inheritable (through embryonic germ cells), and eventually, the better adaptations would dominate quantitatively (through elimination or preservation). Social progress was the overall result. The complete fulfilment of individual human nature and interests was, in Spencer’s vision, the final development of society. Progress, therefore, was an indivisible goal that was achieved by the accumulated action of all individuals within a society (1888 [1850]: 482-3, 490; 1978 [1892-3]: Vol. 1, 332).

The progressive Lamarckian emphasis makes it very difficult to write off Spencer’s social evolutionism as a ruthless ‘social Darwinist’ culling-out of inferior individuals and groups. While he did accept the trials of life as necessary to the emergence and development of good qualities, he also genuinely believed that altruism and a sensibility for justice were progressive developments in the minds and behaviours of individuals, as well as in societies. It was state-administered forms of benevolence which he condemned (1981b [1871]: 473; 1981c [1884]). Even here, his object of attack was not so much intervention itself as the over-simplified understandings of social processes and simplistic conceptions of what intervention could achieve. The very complexity of social phenomena in advanced societies meant unintended effects were rampant and development could as easily be obstructed as fostered by social engineering. ‘A fly seated on the surface of a body has about as good a conception of its internal structure as one of these schemers has of the social organization in which he is embedded,’ he complained (1897: 403). Only by realizing the functional needs of a society in relation to particular external or internal conditions could even limited state intervention be justified, especially since he correlated the increasing limitation of the state’s functions with the progressive increase of individual liberty (for example, 1893b [1879, 1882]: 660).

To analyse the needs of social systems, Spencer distinguished between three basic requirements of regulation, sustenance and distribution. They governed the evolution of the structures that carried out those functions (1893a [1876]: Pt 2, Chs 6-9; 1898-9 [1864, 1867]: Vol. 1, Pt 1, Ch. 3; 1961: 54-6). He conceived of ‘the multiplication of particular structures adapted to particular ends’ (1893b: 659, emphasis added), and stressed that these ‘specially-adapted’ structures naturally performed their ‘purpose’ better than a more generally adapted structure. Here we see a theoretically laden interpretation of adaptation. Instead of simply adapting to present and prior circumstances, adaptation is made in relation to achieving certain purposes. Divergence, rather than underlying adaptation as it does in modern biology, was held by Spencer to be an effect of adaptation (for example, 1888: 75-6; 1898-9: Vol. 1, Pt 2, Ch 9; see also La Vergata, 1995: 223). ‘Structural changes are the slowly accumulating results of functional changes,’ he repeatedly insisted (1937: 406). Spencer was obviously minimizing the significance of chance variation (Darwin’s perspective), overriding it with a more ‘meaningful’ Lamarckian law of structures and systems constantly meeting the demand for fitness ‘until the[ir] adaptation is complete’ (1888: 74-5; 1892 [1886]: Vol. 1, Ch 9; 1908 [1899]: 558-9;1937: 455-63).

While all see that the immediate function of our chief social institutions is the securing of an orderly social life by making these conditions [of harmonious social life] imperative, very few see that their further [more important] function is that of fitting men to fulfil these conditions spontaneously. The two functions are inseparable. (1961: 318, emphasis added).

Such a strategy not only conflates causes and effects, but can also lead to the general presumption that all structures should be analysed as actually adaptive or functional. As Alexander Rosenberg points out in his discussion of sociological functionalism, with such a perspective, ‘nothing will refute the hypothesis that the institution has some function or other’ (1995 [1985]: 149-50). If survival ‘needs’ cannot be established independently of the actual survival of an institution, a circular argument results: the structure persists, therefore it meets needs (or the other way around). Consequently, the approach can be ‘empirically empty’ and condemned to explanatory vacuity.

Further to this problem, however, is how functionalism generates developmental classifications of social change. ‘Functional adaptation is the sole cause of development,’ said Spencer (1908: 541), making it clear that his version of functionalism did not account for all change as adaptive or functional. By building criteria of progress into the evolutionary functionalist model, he compared existing societies’ structures to ideal standards and diagnosed some of them (such as an interventionist government in a complex society that was without external threats or internal fractures) as maladaptive or dysfunctional. Freedom was the measure of progress in Spencer’s social evolutionary analyses. ‘The greatest attainable amount of individual liberty’ was, as far as he was concerned, ‘the true end’ of social evolution (1892: Vol. 3, 382). The key functionalist question Spencer asked throughout his evolutionary analyses was, therefore, not ‘how does it function to achieve order?,’ but ‘how does it function to achieve freedom?’ Spencer’s conception of an ideal social trajectory, then, is a perfect illustration of Rosenberg’s claim that ‘functionalism is a natural development of the strategy of finding meaning in human affairs’ (1995: 146). Social institutions and their evolution are invested with purpose (above and beyond individual purpose), and a progressive pattern attributed to social history.

On the basis of an eclectic array of evidence gleaned from secondary sources on past and present societies, Spencer constructed two typologies of societies which were obliquely and directly concerned with categorizing social structures and organization in relation to how they facilitated freedom. The first divided societies into four stages of organizational complexification, which he termed simple, compound, doubly-compound and trebly-compound. The primary categorical distinction was ‘the degree of composition,’ or how many units clustered together to form the society. The subsequent categories were secondarily described by the type and stability of political leadership as well as level of sedentariness or settlement. Shifts from one category to another were driven by population growth, followed by the integration of simple social units, and the increasing heterogeneity and co-ordination of an evolving society’s components and their functions (1893a: Pt 2, 537-44; 1961: 309-11). War functioned to catalyse this consolidation process, since ‘simple growth’ and ‘direct union’ did not lead on their own to the next stage. That function, however, was cancelled by the social arrangements of the most complex societies.

Heterogeneity of structure was not itself invested with ethical desirability, and for this reason, the differentiation typology was only supplementary to the second. Spencer’s second typology made the connection between complexity and freedom clearer by positing a polar categorization of social modes of organization: militant and industrial (1893b: Pt 5, Chs 17-18). The former described a society in which the outer system needs for defence (and offence) predominated; the latter, one in which the inner system needs for sustenance dominated the organization of activities. These types were ‘distinct in origin and nature’: one arose consciously from the coercive pursuit of social ends, whereas its alter arose unconsciously from the co-operative pursuit of individual ends. For the most part, the militant industrial schema could be mapped into the first typology so that all societies (except the very simplest) had both features, with one type relatively dominant over the other (1893a: Pt 2, 544). Spencer also, however, presumed that social systems with less centralized regulatory systems and more developed sustaining systems were more advanced evolutionarily (1893a: Pt 2, 567; 1893b: Pt 5, 568; 1897: 361; see also Peel, 1971: 208). Consequently, even though his ideal typology claimed these two modes of organization to be antithetical and distinct in their origins, it also implied an optimal directional shift from a militant to an industrial phase, one that occurred within advanced compound societies in particular.

In this evolutionary incorporation of organizational types, Spencer further proposed that the industrial stage was not the ultimate or most desirable end of social evolution. Beyond it lay the achievement of an ‘ethical state’ of humankind, a state that he occasionally speculated on as a shift from ‘life to work to work for life,’ and sustenance to gratification (1893a: Pt 2, 563). It obviously represented the most progressive synthesis of individual and society described by his two mechanisms, and embodied the full realization of equal freedom. The real purpose, then, of Spencer’s second typology was to capture the conditions necessary for the achievement of this future ethical state as well as to describe freedom’s increase. Institutional heterogeneity was one of those requisites, and this is why the first typology is subordinate to the second.

Spencer’s undoubted drive towards internal cohesion of the typologies and mechanisms within his theory, however, by no means indicates his theory of social change to be adequate. We do not believe that it is possible to forgive Spencer the deficient form of his functionalism and focus on the ‘profound substance’ of his sociology, as Jonathan Turner urges (1985: 55). The problem is that Spencer’s functionalism is all-pervasive when his sociology is looked at in the light of his moral theory, which, in turn, is a necessary part of his synthetic ambition. Moreover, the typologies his functionalism helped produce have little to commend them from a historical-sociological point of view. The militant industrial distinction exhibits all the problems of unfalsifiable ideal-types, and both it and the differentiation typology impose a stage model on history and its interpretation, pressing historical evidence into a pre-defined shape. Spencer is notorious for discarding many items that provided counter-examples to his classifications, with the justification they were ‘incidental’ rather than ‘essential’ pieces of evidence, or for accepting travellers’ narratives with little substantiation simply because they fit the typologies (Brinton, 1937: 703; Haller, 1971: 128-9; Peel, 1972: xxviii). These failings are part of a bigger problem, in which sociological typologies are derived from a priori categories and ruled by a developmental logic (Nisbet, 1969: 162-3). The whole scheme becomes simply a template to be applied to the historical record.

We must stress here the distinction we are making between the two processes of development and evolution. Development is not evolution: ‘they are altogether different phenomena,’ says biologist Peter Medawar, who is unable to make up his mind as to ‘whether Spencer grasped this point or not’ (1967: 45-6). Spencer certainly made a distinction between the two processes, but only to claim that development was an ‘increase of structure and not [an] increase in bulk’ (1898-9: Vol. 1, 162). Evolution, however, entailed both processes and so was itself developmental. This conceptual conflation of evolution and development consequently put Spencer’s vast historical data collection at the service of a project with little capacity for further theoretical reconstruction. Although evolution in Darwin’s day did mean development and complexification (Bowler, 1975: 109), the reconstructions of Darwinism (through probabilistic reasoning, Mendelian and molecular biology) into the Modern Synthesis no longer permit the conceptual conflation of development and evolution. Only by conceiving of evolution as a process of directionless selection could the functionalist impasse have been avoided, and with his ideas of purpose and freedom at stake, Spencer was not prepared to submit to selectionism. He thereby perpetuated a tradition of conceptualizing social change as purposeful, meaningful and directional, which was precisely the source of his appeal to Parsons.

Parsons: Teleological History and the Teleology of Action

It is our claim that the attempt to find a solution in action to objectionable functionalist teleology is precisely what leads Parsons back to Spencer, just as it is the resort to action on the part of Parsons’s critics that takes them back to the forms of functionalism they object to in Parsons (and Spencer). Parsons (1937: 3) began his first major work elaborating an action frame of reference with a repudiation of Spencer, and yet, scarcely two decades later, he came to rely on a Spencerian concept of differentiation to understand social change. In conjunction with his own four-function paradigm, Parsons set out a developmental account of the emergence of modern societies in terms of stages derived from the application of his functional requirements to historical societies (1966, 1971). As with Spencer, Parsons’s typologies were generated by the logic of his a priori categorical scheme. For both of them, concrete empirical systems were not themselves the basis for the re-specification of types and underlying categories: they were either taken as confirming them, or they were ignored.

Although he believed he disagreed with the early evolutionists about what progress entailed, Parsons was as convinced as any of them that social evolutionary theory was a ‘paradigm of a progressive, developmental social change’ (1977: 297). He summarized this paradigm’s guiding statement as follows:

The assumption is that, in the complex of ‘goal directed thrusts’ in a system of action, there will on the one hand be some kind of balance between internal pressures towards innovative change and factors of situational and environmental opportunity for it. If the combined ‘pressure’ of these factors is sufficient they will bring about some kind of ‘outlet’ for the tendency to change. For this to happen new structures and processes may be necessary. (1977: 275)

The criterion he considered to be the measuring stick of advance was ‘greater generalized adaptive capacity’ (1966: 26; 1977: 230-1). Adaptation concerned ‘the relations of a living system to its external environment’ (1977: 111). Adaptive upgrading occurred with the improvement of a social system’s capacity to adapt to its environments, and was, he believed, observable and measurable. Parsons’s ability to ‘measure’ this increased capacity, however, depended entirely on his description of the process that supposedly enabled it: differentiation.

Differentiation occurred with the splitting of a generalized structural unit (meeting a number of functional requirements) into functionally specialized units. These specialized structures were able to attain their functional goals far more efficiently than their more general predecessors (1977: 51, 282). The system goal, over time, was more effective performance, a claim Parsons justified by citing Mayr’s (1974) famous account of teleonomy or direction-seeking behaviour in organisms (1977: 112). The higher the species, the greater the importance of this factor. A divergence from Spencer’s differentiation can be noted here. Parsons focused on structural differentiation and did not theorize the differentiation of the four general functions (which remained static categories, features of all societies), whereas Spencer foregrounded functional differentiation rather than general functions. Just as for Spencer, however, Parsons’s differentiation led to the system problem of integration and how the solidarity of the social entity was to be achieved. Since differentiation was concerned with the relationship of structures to external phenomena, the concept of integration, conversely, was about the internal relationships of the system. Integration could, therefore, be considered to be adaptation in relation to internal environments. Foremost amongst integrative processes (from the point of view of development) was inclusion, which, according to Parsons, referred to the incorporation of newer, more functionally efficient structures within the normative framework of the societal community (1971: 27; 1977: 293).

Parsons made an explicit turn to biology as a source of analogy for the process of social development in terms of ‘evolutionary universals.’ Vision was an example of an evolutionary universal in the animal kingdom; the hand and brain were good examples of evolutionary universals for human biological evolution. All organisms, said Parsons, had to develop vision in order to evolve to ‘higher levels.’ The structures of vision might have been somewhat different, but their function was the same. Hands and brains illustrated the increased adaptive capacity of a species, even though losses of lower-level functions (locomotion, infantile independence) may have been incurred as a result (1964: 340). In societies, the most basic evolutionary universals were fourfold: religion (as the most basic form of culture), language (for communication), kinship (for organization) and technology. These complexes were definitional of human society in its most primitive form, and came as a set (1964: 341-2).

After these, in the next tier, come the evolutionary universals that shifted society into the intermediate level: social stratification and cultural legitimation. They were accompanied by the emergence of written language. These processes could most generally be described as the differentiation of the cultural and social systems. Initially unified, these systems had now lost their identity with each other and could never be reunited. Stratification was the ‘hierarchical status differentiation that cuts across the overall seamless web of kinship’ (1964: 346). It functioned to permit dynamic leadership and more flexible use of resources by ‘releasing’ the society from the obstacles of ascription (in the early stages of stratification at least), as did its partner universal. Cultural legitimation was closely connected to stratification, according to Parsons, and both together were prerequisites for social advance. Legitimation entailed the ‘differentiation of cultural definitions’ from ‘taken-for-granted fusion with the social structure’ and the institutionalization of the legitimating function (1964: 346). Parsons was most concerned with the institutionalized identification of a society’s members with that society. It was invariably political in its effects, he claimed, although always based in religious sentiment. This identification functioned to co-ordinate action collectively, once the traditional adherence to a non-differentiated kinship system had been supplanted (1964: 345-6). Written language was the critical breakthrough which assisted this process by giving a society an objective record of its culture and norms, thereby further crystallizing the independence of the cultural system from the social system it circumscribed (1966: 26-7).

These universals laid the ground for the next advance, from intermediate to modern. The prerequisites that had to stimulate such a shift were administrative bureaucracy, paired with money and markets, and universalized norms in partnership with democratic association. Bureaucracy was institutionalized power, backed up by the system-wide legitimation of that power. As was Weber, Parsons was convinced that bureaucracy was the most efficient form yet invented of administration, and the only form capable of organizing the specialized operations of a modern society (1964: 347-9). Power had to be concentrated for performance to improve, and that was why bureaucracy was needed for social advance. It was connected to the capacity to utilize resources effectively and to meet general collective goals. Money and markets, which liberated resources from ascriptive and particularistic bonds, allowed these resources to be used flexibly in achieving social goals (1964: 349-50).

Neither of this pair of universals would be stable or effective enough without the next pair of evolutionary universals: generalized universalistic norms and democratic association. System-wide norms, especially those institutionalized in the legal system, defined and regulated power structures and their administration. They also regulated market relations and the resources represented by money. So important were these universal norms that Parsons considered their ‘crystallization into a coherent system’ to have been more important than the Industrial Revolution in bringing the modern world into being (1964: 351). Just as the development of written language had been the developmental impetus of the shift from primitive to intermediate, the institution of a formal universalized legal system had launched modernity from the intermediate stage (1966: 27). The fullest early exemplar of such a universalistic normative order was English common law, claimed Parsons, and only once it had developed could the Industrial Revolution have materialized in England (1964: 353). Such a legal system then allowed the final evolutionary universal to emerge: a full-blown democracy of elected representation and universal adult suffrage. Since power depended on consensus, it had to be not only legitimated at the level of universal values, but also legitimated by ‘structured participation’ (1964: 356). Totalitarian organization would eventually prove unstable, predicted Parsons, who was obviously thinking of the USSR in particular. Altogether, these ‘organizational complexes’ constituted the ‘structural foundations of modern society.’ They conferred ‘adaptive advantage(s)’ on their vehicle societies over societies without such ‘structural potential’ (1964: 357).

With this model of social development, Parsons clearly felt he had overcome problems in his earlier work, such as The Social System (1951), which had emphasized static, structural categories over dynamic processes of social change. Parsons now classified societies according to the extent of institutional specialization around functions, such as the extent to which political institutions are separated from economic institutions, or economic institutions separated from the household, and how the household then becomes specialized around functions of socialization. His scheme of functional imperatives was, however, supposed to apply to all societies. Societies with lesser specialization, therefore, could be no less ‘adequate’ than those with greater degrees of specialization. There could, therefore, be no ‘internal’ requirement for greater structural differentiation except by assuming an over-arching system goal of more effective performance.

At the same time, the idea of ‘superiority’ carried the implication of evolutionary change, where better-adapted forms are realized out of the deficiencies of ‘lesser’ forms. Furthermore, the way in which structural differentiation occurred around the four functions, each with its characteristic ‘subsystem,’ suggested an ‘end’ to the process of development. This end coincided with the realization of the institutional structures of modern capitalism. Unlike Spencer, Parsons and other modernization theorists did not selfconsciously organize their functional analysis in terms of a direct affirmation of a final ‘ethical state,’ but it was implicit in the logic of structural differentiation. Progress was guaranteed by the very way in which they theorized social change.

Even Parsons’s sympathizers were uneasy about the implications of his scheme as they began to emerge around the writing of The Social System. One early critic was Merton, whose codification of functional analysis as a sociological paradigm (1968) was also intended as a coded critique of Parsons. Merton characterized existing functionalist approaches in anthropology in terms of three distinctive postulates: ‘universal functionalism’ (where every item was assumed to have a function), ‘indispensability’ (where each function was held to be necessary) and ‘functional unity’ (where each item was held to contribute to the functioning of a whole). Merton’s concern was to establish functionalism as what would now be termed a research programme, in which these postulates were addressed as variables and the circumstances of their variation made the object of research. At the heart of his critique was the postulate of ‘functional unity,’ or the idea of society as a functioning whole or totally integrated system, in relation to which functions could be defined.

While Parsons’s theory increasingly came to exemplify the problems which Merton had associated with the postulate of ‘functional unity,’ Merton’s elaboration of his own argument led him directly onto the terrain occupied by Parsons. In order to come up with a more satisfactory statement of functional analysis, he argued that it would be necessary to make a further distinction between latent and manifest functions. The latter referred to the conscious intentions of actors, and the former to the objective consequences of their actions. According to Merton, most of the unfortunate consequences of functional analysis in sociology were the result of the conflation of these categories. In turn, he argued that the distinction was constitutive of the problems social inquiry had to address, although it was unnecessary in biology. This feature, as far as Merton was concerned, explained both why functionalism was relatively unproblematic in that discipline and why there were limits to the organic analogy. Thus, for Merton, ‘the motive and the function vary independently and… the failure to register this fact in an established terminology has contributed to the unwitting tendency among sociologists to confuse subjective categories of motivation with the objective categories of function’ (1968: 115).

Simply put, Merton’s proposed codification of social inquiry in terms of an analytical distinction between subjective motivation and objective function was the resolution that Parsons himself had proposed in The Structure of Social Action and associated essays. Later generations of critics, such as Habermas and Giddens, make similar arguments to those of Merton. Habermas conceives of social inquiry as divided between two conceptual strategies, one of systems which ‘ties the social scientific analysis to the external perspective of the observer,’ while the other ‘begins with the members’ intuitive knowledge (1987 [1981]: 151). This is quite similar to Merton’s distinction between latent and manifest functions, even if it is dignified with a deeper philosophical discusssion. According to Habermas, the fundamental problem of social theory is how to connect in a satisfactory way the two conceptual strategies indicated by their respective notions of ‘system’ and ‘lifeworld’… (1987: 151), and he offers his own theory as just such a generalized integration of categories.

For his part, Parsons had taken it as axiomatic both that the social sciences required a general framework of categories and that it must take as its point of reference human action. Hitherto, he argued, the dominant emphasis had been upon ‘positivistic’ schemes which sought to explain behaviour in terms of the ‘external’ influences upon it. Action, he said, was a process oriented to the realization of an end. It occurred in conditional circumstances that had to be calculated and utilized by actors in the pursuit of their ends. However, ‘ends’ and ‘conditions’ (including ‘means’) had to be understood as analytically distinct categories. This claim was important because it meant that action could not be understood as an emanation of cultural values, which is the case with some forms of idealism. Parsons’s action was not free from determination by circumstances. Consequently, his idea of action involved ‘effort’ to conform with norms (which governed ends and the selection of their means of realization), since action had to transform circumstances and, therefore, accommodate and assess its conditions in order to be successful. Additionally, in order to be rational, action had to be based upon an adequate understanding of the factors necessary to the realization of ends. Thus, Parsons referred to the ‘intrinsic rationality of the means-end relation’ in terms of the necessary role of ‘valid knowledge as a guide to action’ (1937: 600). Action, however, could not be reduced to its conditions, since an understanding of the agency of the actor and, consequently, of the subjective meaning of an action was necessary for an adequate account. With conditions and means classified as technical in substance and, as such, external to any given actor, the ‘subjective’ voluntary aspect of action was associated with the actor’s capacity to form ends.

Parsons saw the problems of positivism as consisting of the problematic role of the category of ‘ends’ within such schemes. He addressed his criticisms primarily to the ‘utilitarian’ conception of action, where ends are ‘given.’ By this he meant that the way in which actors arrive at their preferences had not been addressed, and attention had been focused solely on the processes by which they are realized. The implication, Parsons suggested, was that ends varied ‘at random relative to the means-end relationship and its central component, the actor’s knowledge of his situation’ (1937: 63).

A discussion of ‘unit acts’ provided only the basic elements of an action frame of reference. Explanation, argued Parsons, required a further step in the analysis, from ‘unit acts’ to their location within ‘systems’ of action. This step, he said, ‘consists in generalizing the conceptual scheme so as to bring out the functional relations in the facts already descriptively arranged’ (1937: 49). This further generalization of the scheme was intended to identify emergent properties of systems of action; that is, properties which appeared in relation to any consideration of the co-ordination of actions and which were not reducible to analysis in terms of unit acts alone. Thus, Parsons wrote that,

action systems have properties that are emergent only on a certain level of complexity in the relations of unit acts to each other. These properties cannot be identified in any single unit act considered apart from its relation to others in the same system. They cannot be derived by a process of direct generalization of the properties of the unit act. (1937: 739)

The concept of emergent properties, then, served to identify the ‘elements of structure of a generalized system of action’ (1937: 718), and these elements of structure were to be further analysed in terms of their functional relations; that is, in terms of the logical relations established within the theoretical system.

As Parsons developed his theory—in The Social System and after—he offered a distinction between different levels of analysis, namely personality, social system and culture. He added a fourth level of ‘organism’ once the four-fold scheme of functional imperatives had been fully elaborated. These levels corresponded to the analytical distinctions made in the earlier statement of the action frame of reference. The level of personality, therefore, matched the individual actor viewed as a system. The level of culture referred to the symbols and meanings which were drawn upon by actors in the pursuit of their personal projects as they negotiated social constraints and facilities. As Parsons said, the three key features of the cultural system were

that culture is transmitted, it constitutes a heritage or a social tradition; secondly that it is learned, it is not a manifestation, in particular content, of man’s genetic constitution; and third, that it is shared. Culture, that is, is on the one hand the product of, on the other hand a determinant of, systems of human social interaction. (1951: 15)

Finally, the social system corresponded to that level of interaction among a ‘plurality of actors’ which was the primary focus of the analysis of the ‘problem of order’ in the earlier work. The social system was a structure of positions and roles organized by normed expectations and maintained by sanctions.

Parsons proposed that each of the levels formed a system in its own right, where the characteristics of a system are relations of logical coherence among its parts. At the same time, each system functioned in relation to the other systems and interpenetrated them. In other words, their interpenetration, or interdependence, also constituted a system. This is what Parsons had previously referred to as the ‘total action system.’ His real focus of sociological attention, however, was the social system, and he proposed four functional prerequisites, or imperatives, which were necessary to its constitution and operation. Two of the imperatives (pattern maintenance and integration) were concerned with normative issues, and two (adaptation and goal attainment) were concerned with the non-normative. Similarly, two were concerned with cultural principles (integration and goal attainment) and two with issues of integrity in a potentially hostile lower-level environment (pattern maintenance and adaptation). Together they supplied the axes of the two by two tables that proliferated throughout Parsons’s later writings.

It is not necessary to follow Parsons through the details of every additional specification of his scheme, where everything was divided by four and four again. The social system will serve as one example. This subsystem was further divided into ‘sub-subsystems,’ which were defined by the priority accorded to one or other of the functional prerequisites in its organization. The economy subsystem was defined by the adaptation prerequisite, the polity subsystem by the goal attainment prerequisite, the societal community subsystem by the integration prerequisite, and the socialization subsystem by the pattern maintenance prerequisite. Each subsystem, however, was also specified by the subordinate but mutual operation of the other prerequisites. The diagrams of exchanges between systems and among subsystems within systems became increasingly complex, but they could never shake off the problems that defined them.

Were the prerequisites to be merely the categories of a descriptive approach to societies, as Parsons sometimes suggested in the context of his application of the scheme to the evolution of societies, then it might be argued that they could have served a heuristic purpose where the extent of their realization in practice would be an ‘empirical’ issue. However, the variance of empirical systems in terms of the specific ‘values’ of their elements was supposed to occur alongside invariant relations between their elements. Consequently, the idea that there could be an ‘indefinite number of concrete empirical systems’ was already compromised by the theoretical logic of the categorical scheme.

As we have seen, Parsons (1966, 1971) did describe more extensive differentiation as an improvement in ‘adaptive upgrading,’ and this affirmed the ‘superiority’ of more specialized systems over those which were less specialized. This strategy, however, reproduces the position he initially criticized in Spencer, where the only source of change was adaptive reaction to the external environment. It is very difficult, overall, to find any improvement on Spencer’s supposed evolutionary theory in Parsons. Several commentators, in fact, believe Parsons’s version to be the inferior one (for example, Peel, 1969). Certainly, his resort to an action frame of reference only served to reinforce the Spencerian elements, rather than to transcend them. An ongoing examination of evolutionary sociology would demonstrate that just as Parsons reproduced Spencer’s core approach and its problems, so too do Parsons’s critics reproduce the central elements of his scheme (see notes 6, 7, 31 and, especially, 32).

Evolution without Developmental Schemes

The key issue for an evolutionary approach to historical sociology must surely be to allow a proper role to historical research through which theoretical claims can be revised and transformed, similar to the manner described by post-positivist accounts of science. If so, it would seem that the answer will not be found by founding evolutionary theory on an a priori scheme of categories. The standard resolution of seemingly antithetical orientations toward the particular and the general in terms of a general framework of action produces the very deficiencies it is self-consciously designed to overcome. It is precisely that proposed resolution that gives to this form of historical sociology its underlying ahistorical character of being dependent upon a set of logical presuppositions that transcend research. Moreover, if action is made universal, so, too, will any functions that are derived from the elaboration of the scheme. Functions become definitional of societies, rather than the means of distinguishing among empirically variable social practices and institutions with the consequent reification and teleology that has discredited functionalist and evolutionary approaches in historical sociology. If the impasse of developmental typologies imposed upon the historical record is to be avoided, then the appropriate objects of analysis in historical sociology would have to be institutions, not whole societies (as Merton implied in his critique of the postulate of functional unity).

Succumbing to developmental functionalism is, of course, not a uniquely sociological fault. Biological ‘Darwinism,’ until the 1920s at least, fell into the same habit when natural selection was assimilated to a directional model of biological complexification (Bowler, 1988). It took biology several decades from the publication of Darwin’s Origin to find methods, supplementary theories (of inheritance) and evidence by which to realize the implications of selection. Both Rosenberg’s (1995: 147) and Turner and Maryanski’s (1988: 116) cogent analyses of sociological functionalism point out that the only way effectively to ‘ground’ functionalist analyses as causal accounts and purge them of illegitimate teleology is by invoking selectionism. Sociology, with the notable exception of Runciman (1998), however, has shied away from an explicitly selectionist explanation of social change. Such an account would have to describe a causal process, premised on variation and transmission, and its functional effects. It would explain successive changes by adaptation and fitness, but insist on empirical analysis to establish such explanations. By integrating levels of analysis, it would refuse reduction.

If, as we have argued, natural history and the history of societies are epistemologically equivalent undertakings, the way is open to consider that each might be approached in terms of a common evolutionary framework. We should be careful at this point, however, to suggest that this is not at all to recommend a reduction of history to biology, such as the project of sociobiology (although we do not accept that sociobiology is as straightforwardly reductionistic as critics like Rose and Rose [2000] make out). Nor do we wish to propose that evolutionary sociology be couched at the level of biological change. Social change is not independent of biology but its entities and processes are quite different objects of analysis. Indeed, current arguments by philosophers and researchers of evolution are largely anti-reductionist. They deem evolutionary explanations to be specific to the different levels and characteristics of phenomena manifest in species and societies, populations and individuals.

Not only has selection proved to be highly successful in explaining biological variety and speciation, but it has also marked out a conceptual space that is separate from age-old developmental accounts of change. If evolutionary and functionalist approaches are to win any support in historical sociology it is clear that presuppositions of general needs have to be abandoned for empirical research programmes, in which testable claims are made about adaptation and functionality. Non-tautologous criteria of fitness are not easy to establish about any phenomena, but without their establishment, evolutionary sociology is condemned to tendentious speculation, rediscovered and then denied for its all too evident faults by each generation of sociologists.