During its early phase, sociological inquiry was mainly directed toward an interpretation of the rapid and violent changes that had overtaken European societies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The approach was connected with the philosophy of history.
Early sociologists were all concerned to explain or interpret the Social and political revolutions of their age within the framework of a general theory of history.
The writings of Saint-Simon, Comte, Marx and Spencer bear witness to this. Though Max Weber did not present a theory of universal history, he was inspired by a historical concern with the origins and significance of modern Western Capitalism and with the increasing rationalistion of social life over the years.
Even Durkheim, who rejected Comfe’s evolutionary approach, classified societies in terms of an evolutionary scheme.
In these sociological theories, social change, social evolution, social development and social progress have been often treated as synonymous terms. Even when treated differently, these were treated as logically related terms.
We have to examine how far this contention is correct. That society changes is a demonstrable certainty. The notion of social evolution, which was adopted in order to describe social change, was taken directly from the theories of biological evolution which, in the nineteenth century, powerfully reinforced the influence of the philosophy of history upon sociology.
“The term ‘evolution’ is used to describe any form of orderly change. In biology, it stands for a particular type of orderly change, namely, that whereby new specific forms have arisen by a process of differentiation from the old. In other words, biological evolution refers to ‘descent with modifications”. This means the diversification of species from a common genus.
In the social field, however, the notion of evolution in the sense of the diversification of species cannot be appropriately applied. The term ‘evolution’ could be used in sociology in a sense analogous to that given to it in biology, if new elements of culture can be shown to arise from the old by a process of diversification.
According to Morris Ginsberg, the notion of evolution in the sense of the diversification of species can be fruitfully applied in, at least, two realms of culture, namely, in the field of language and of tools. Languages have been classified into families or stock s and their similarities and differences have been studied with the aid of a theory which can be appropriately described as ‘descent with modifications’.
Comparative philosophy is concern with establishing connections between linguistic stocks which had formerly been regarded as remote from each other in order to explain their derivation from a common source. In the case of tools, a similar approach has also proved fruitful.
As Tylor pointed out:
“The geographical distributions of these things and their transmission from region to region have to be studied as the naturalist studies the geography of his botanical and Zoological species”.
Marx made a similar point when he called for a history of tools which would be to social progress what Darwinism was to organs of animal species, and he thought that such a history of human technology ought to be easier to write than the history of ‘natural technology’.
The idea of evolution in the sense of diversification of species may prove to be valuable in certain elements of culture. But in many cases the idea of evolution may not be applicable at all. According to Ginsberg, this is due to the difficulty in arriving at a workable social morphology.
The concept of social evolution which holds that each society passes through the same stages of development has been almost entirely abandoned. That is, the crude application to society of such concepts of biological evolution as natural selection, adaptation, and survival of the fittest has been thoroughly discredited.
While rejecting the concept of social evolution, V. Gordon Childe observes:
“… it is essential not to lose sight of the significant distinctions between historical progress and organic evolution, between human culture and the animal’s bodily equipment, between the social heritage and the biological inheritance. Figurative language, based on the admitted analogy, is liable to mislead the unwary…Man’s equipment and defences are external to his body; he can lay them aside and don them at will. Their use is not inherited, but learned, rather slowly, from the social group to which each individual belongs. Man’s social heritage is not transmitted in the germ-cells from which he springs, but in a tradition which he begins to acquire only after he has emerged from his mother’s womb. Changes in culture and tradition can be initiated, controlled, or delayed by the conscious and deliberate choice of their human authors and executors. An invention is not an accidental mutation of the germ-plasma, but a new synthesis of the accumulated experience to which the inventor is heir by tradition only. It is well to be as clear as possible as to the sort of differences subsisting between the processes here compared.”
In view of the difficulties associated with the use of the term ‘evolution’, some sociologists have used the term ‘development’ to denote the change of society from one stage to the other.
Thus, Hobhouse held the view that in the historical development of society from the primitive stage to the advanced one, four characteristic features gradually emerged, namely, expansion, increase in efficiency, mutuality and cooperativeness, and extension of individual freedom.
The question is: Whether such an advance can be characterized as ‘development’? In its application to social phenomena, the term ‘development’ is no more precise than the term ‘evolution’. Development is a process whereby that which exists ‘potentially’ becomes actual.
In this sense, we speak of the development of a child or of a disease. It is not clear if we can speak of social development in the same way by referring a particular social phenomenon to its germ. In the case of an organic body, we can speak not only of its development but also of its decay. Can we speak in the same way of the development and decay of the whole society?
The theories of social development may be expressed in the form that human development consists in the unfolding of man’s powers, individual and collective, and the use of such powers in dealing with nature and with himself.
Bottomore elaborates this point thus:
“There are only two (related) social processes to which it seems possible to apply the term ‘development’ with any accuracy, namely, the growth of knowledge and the growth of human control over the natural environment as shown by technological and economic efficiency. It is, indeed, these two processes which have figured most prominently in developmental or evolutionary accounts of human society”.
It is clear, therefore, that the term ‘development’ can be, applied to particular aspects or features of society, and not to the society and a whole. That is, we cannot speak in terms of ‘development’ of the society. There is another difficulty in speaking in terms of ‘development’.
Nagel points out that the term has not only a backward reference in the suggestion that something latent or hidden is progressively made manifest, but also a prospective one; “it possesses a strong teleological flavor.”
This is apparent from the fact that the development of a child is related to some known characteristics of the adult human being. In the case of particular social phenomena, we can relate the development of knowledge to a condition of more extensive and exact knowledge, and the development of control over nature to such things as survival and population size.
But the development of society as such can hardly be related to any prospective condition of society except in terms of a moral ideal. In that case development becomes synonymous with progress. We have examined the difficulties in using the terms ‘social evolution’ or ‘social development’ with reference to changes that take place in society. That society changes in course of time is an undoubted fact.
But is there any specific direction in which the process is moving? Can we say with any amount of certainty that all these changes had led to social progress? An answer to these questions involves a definition of the concept of progress. Progress is development or evolution in a direction which satisfies rational criteria of value.
All throughout the nineteenth century, the idea persisted that all social change marked successive stages toward social progress. A few quotations would be revealing. Tocqueville, for whom progress consisted in the movement towards equality, urged that it was a providential fact, possessing all the characteristics of a divine decree: “it is universal, it is durable, it eludes all human interference”. From a totally different point of view.
Spencer concluded that:
“The ultimate development of the ideal man is logically certain — as certain as any conclusion in which we place the most implicit faith”.
The popularity of the idea of progress was due in great measure to two factors:
(i) The buoyant hopefulness inspired by the triumphs of applied science,
(ii) The idea was given powerful impetus by its association with the biological theory of evolution.
With reference to these two developments, Marris Ginsberg observes: “The culminating point in the history of the belief in progress was reached towards the end of the nineteenth century. Its high priests and incense bearers were…. all rationalists. It owed its wide prevalence to the optimism inspired by the triumphs of applied science, made visible in the striking advances made in the technical conveniences of life, and, on the theoretical side, by the deeply ramified influences exerted by the ideas of development and evolution on all branches of thought and inquiry”.
Though the culminating point, of the idea was reached toward the end of the nineteenth century, no law of progress had, in fact, been scientifically established. But the general idea of progress harmonized with notions of development that had become current during the period in science and philosophy.
It also provided an inspiring justification for movements of social and political reform. In spite of the fact that the concept of progress was vague and imprecise, it became “part of the general mental outlook and for many it provided the basis for a working faith of great value”.
In the twentieth century, the mood is more cautious. The concept of unilinear or automatic progress is subjected to searching criticism. The devastation of World War I shattered to pieces the confident optimism of the inevitability of progress.
“In more recent times the belief in progress has been further weakened by the growing recognition that advances in technical knowledge are by no means sufficient to ensure social and moral progress and the fear that the use of scientific knowledge for destructive purposes may outpace and arrest the growth of its powers for good”.
The idea of progress is not popular with social scientists in this century for some other reasons also. In the first place, there is no universal agreement on the standards of value and, as such, we cannot tell from the mere fact that a thing has changed whether it has progressed or not. Evolution or change is an objective condition.
Progress, on the contrary, means change for the better, and hence implies a value judgment. Secondly, since the components of society are interdependent, change at any point is likely to precipitate changes elsewhere. Some of these changes may be unwanted. A social change is never received as an unmixed blessing.
In the words of Maclver:
“Every achievement has its costs, and men often differ as to whether the costs out weight the values accrued.” Thirdly, values change over time. What is universally hailed as a progressive measure at one period of history may be condemned with equal or even greater force as a retrograde measure at some other period of time.
Faced with the difficulties involved in giving clear-cut connotation to the term progress, attempts are sometimes made to settle the matter by proclaiming a set of social values that are sufficiently general to be accepted by everybody.
Some of these generalized social values are:
“Thou shalt not kill, ‘Do not tell a lie’; ‘The greatest good of the greatest number’, etc. It is true that opinions will not clash on this level of abstraction. They will clash, however, when it comes to a specification of these values. For example, there might be a general consensus on the goal of social policy that it should strive to secure the greatest good of the greatest number. But controversies will arise as to what actions are to be taken to secure these ends. People have different ideas of what is good for them. Similarly, the commandment prohibiting ‘killing’ is accepted by almost all cultures. But while some people look upon both war and legal hanging as necessary, even though each results in loss of life, there are some others who want both the practices to be abolished unconditionally. It is, therefore, obvious that while it may be possible to formulate conceptions of progress or valuations of change which apply to all time, the statements are too general to afford definite and sure guidance in specific situations at different times and in different cultures”.
Sometimes attempts are made to avoid these difficulties by adding a qualifying adjective to the word ‘progress’, such as ‘agricultural’, ‘industrial’, ‘economic’, etc. It is true that progress in these specific fields can be measured. What cannot, however, be measured is the degree in which these measurable advances in specific fields ‘contributes to the ill- defined and unmeasured end, which is progress itself.’
Despite these limitations and many-sided attacks, the idea of progress has not lost its vitality. It is so deeply rooted in the modern mind that its critics never reject it entirely. Some examples may be given.
Professor Toynbee, who strongly upholds a cyclic theory of civilizations, ends by suggesting that “the breakdowns and disintegrations of civilizations might be the stepping stones to higher things on the religious plane” and even goes so far as to say that the next stage in this advance may lead to a. new species of society “embodied in a single world-wide and enduring representative in the shape of the Christian Church”.
Even the Marxists, who reject the ‘bourgeois’ concept of progress, retain the belief of the early rationalists ‘What man can make himself. They look forward confidently to an age when the ‘true realm ‘of freedom will blossom out of the realm of necessity in the fully developed Communist Society of the future.
The concept of progress is as old as mankind. In all ages, people had a concept of that which would most desirable. Thes6 concepts may and do vary from age to age. Even when everything seems lost, people look forward to a better future.
In all that we do, there is a consciousness that we are working to usher in a brighter and happier future. It rings through the speeches of religious preachers, social reformers, and even politicians. The faith in progress sustains us through all vicissitudes and trials and gives us the necessary strength to face the hard and cruel realities of life.
Emphasizing that faith in progress is ineradicable from the life of man, Maclver observes:
“To live is to act, and to act is to choose, and to choose is to evaluate. Hence as human beings we cannot get rid of the concept of progress, though we are of course entitled to deny the reality of progress. The fact that men in-inevitably differ about it, that we cannot demonstrate the validity of our concept as against theirs, only makes it indubitably ours. If one can prove it none can refute it. At the least it is a vital myth, ineradicable from the creative strivings of life”.