Morgan LewisHenry

Morgan LewisHenry

(1818-81) American ethnologist and anthropologist, whose principal influence on sociology, and on Marxism, can be traced to his materialistic theory of social evolution (see EVOLUTIONARY THEORY) presented in Ancient Society (1877).

Morgan's first venture into ETHNOGRAPHY was a detailed study of the Iroquois Indians, the results of which were not published until 1891, after his death. Struck by the distinctive mode of relative classification, Morgan hypothesized that a search for similar systems abroad might establish the geographical origins of the American Indian. This led to a massive research effort. The result, which Morgan held to prove the ‘Asiatic origin’ of the tribes, appeared in 1871 (Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family).

Morgan's analysis of KINSHIP terminology suggested an evolutionary process, with family relationships developing through early promiscuity to ‘civilized’ monogamy Later, Morgan was to give the hypothesis of a general process of social evolution more systematic attention. This resulted in his most famous work, Ancient Society (1877). Two approaches to SOCIAL CHANGE were explored: IDEALISM and MATERIALISM. According to the former, social INSTITUTIONS developed as a reflection of changing and accumulating human ideas; according to the latter, human CULTURE evolved to the extent that people were able to exert increasing control over nature. In this way human society moved through three basic stages: SAVAGERY, BARBARISM, and CIVILIZATION.

Morgan drew on a wide range of ethnographic data in pursuing these ideas, ranging from material on Australian aborigines to the societies of Ancient Greece and Rome. His idea of the evolutionary role of increasing control over the material reproduction of life resonated strongly with the materialist conception of history being evolved by Marx and Engels. For Morgan the history of property and the evolution of culture were inextricably linked. Moreover, the property-centredness of modern societies stood in the way of advance to a social order of greater justice. It is small wonder that Ancient Society became a classic text in the foundation of Marxist thought. Marx himself planned a text on Morgan, though this was never written. Engels, in The Origin of the Family Private Property and the State (1884), explicitly recognized Morgan's independent formulation of historical materialism.

Morgan remains one of the founding figures in anthropology, and together with E. B. TYLOR and Herbert SPENCER, stands out as one of the great systematic evolutionary theorists of the 19th-century

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000