episodic characterization

episodic characterization

a theoretical approach in the study of social change in which change is represented as ‘discontinuous’ and ‘historically CONTINGENT’, rather than corresponding to an evolutionary or developmental pattern (see also EPISODE). This approach has been central in the work of a number of prominent historical sociologists, including Michael MANN (1986), Ernest GELLNER (1964) and Anthony GIDDENS. As expressed by Michael Mann, the thinking behind this view is that while general evolutionary theory may be applied up to, and including, the Neolithic Revolution, ‘general social evolution ceased (with) the emergence of civilization’, when distinctively historical change, not subject to laws, takes over. In Gellner's phrase, historical change does not fit any simple ‘world growth story’.

Those sociologists who emphasize ‘episodic characterizations’ usually stand opposed to such doctrines as HISTORICAL MATERIALISM, as well as to EVOLUTIONARY THEORIES, in sociology. However, supporters of the latter positions claim that the identification of evolutionary sequences is not incompatible with a recognition that historical change has ‘accidental’, as well as general, features (see Jary, 1991).

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