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a school of theory emerging in the middle of the 20th-century which attempted to revivify the explanation of SOCIAL CHANGE according to evolutionary principles (see DARWIN, EVOLUTIONARY THEORY).

Neoevolutionism probably received its most theoretically complex expression in the work of PARSONS (1964,1966,1971). The key texts here represent a systematic attempt to show that FUNCTIONALISM could produce an adequate account of social change, and that neoevolutionary theory could overcome the deficiencies of its forerunners. Nineteenth-century evolutionism has been compromised by three principle problems: its unidirectional assumptions (see UNILINEAR), an inability to specify adequately the intermediate stages of development between simple and complex societies, and a moralistic and ethnocentric view of progress.

The problem of unilinearity is dealt with, in the neoevolutionary approach, by drawing a distinction between the general evolutionary process, conceived in terms of crucial cultural, institutional or structural breakthroughs (such as language, writing, legal systems, money, markets, bureaucracy stratification, etc.) achieved in different societies at different times, and the concrete evolution of any specific society. The development of these breakthroughs (or EVOLUTIONARY UNIVERSALS, as Parsons calls them) plays a critical part in his approach, for ‘universals’ enhance SOCIAL DIFFERENTIATION (see also FUNCTIONAL PREREQUISITES AND FUNCTIONAL IMPERATIVES) and so the ‘general adaptive capacity of society’. Given that evolutionary universals may be ‘borrowed’by, or diffused from, one society to another, the specific evolutionary path of any concrete society will not necessarily follow the general evolutionary pattern.

These concepts also allow Parsons to confront the issue of how to characterize intermediate stages of social development. Simply, this is achieved by using the degree of structural differentiation achieved, and kinds of integrative (see INTEGRATION AND MALINTEGRATION) solutions adopted. In effect, this is equivalent to the number and kinds of evolutionary universals which have been incorporated. Parsons identifies five distinct stages in the general evolutionary process, each of which is exemplified by historical or existing societies. The final stage, that of advanced industrialism, is the ‘terminus’ of the evolutionary process, and the future therefore of all currently existing societies which have not yet achieved industrialization.

The solution to the final problem – that of obtaining a value-free definition of evolutionary advance – should now be apparent. In Parsons’ scheme, notions of ‘progress’ are reduced to the empirically specifiable concept of‘general adaptive capacity’. Other neoevolutionary theorists, for example the anthropologists Sahlins and Service (1960), share the Parsonian tactic of using empirically identifiable criteria. Rather than relying on a concept such as ‘evolutionary universal’, however, they suggest that evolutionary advance may be measured in terms of the efficiency with which societies are able to exploit energy resources, which is in turn related to enhanced autonomy from environmental factors, and the ability to displace and replace less advanced societies.

Parsons (1964) is specific that neoevolutionary theory has substantive implications for development policy in the Third World. It is on this issue that most of the deficiencies of the approach have come to light. A. C. FRANK's (1969) famous polemic points out that what neoevolutionary theory such as that of Parsons, or an economic version such as that proposed by W. W. ROSTOW (1960), lacks is the perception of an historical connection between development and UNDERDEVELOPMENT, i.e. that the development of the First World led to, and continues to sustain, the underdevelopment of the Third World. The Third World has continued to face problems of development, despite the centuries-long exposure to the diffusion of‘Western’ evolutionary universals, and the values of ‘achievement’ and ‘universalism’ which underpin the patterns of role relationships in successful industrialized societies.

It is doubtful, too, whether Parsons actually succeeded (or even really meant to succeed) in producing a value-free theory of social change. Development is still conceived in Western terms. This is apparent in terms of the implications which neoevolutionary theory was meant to have for Third World governments interested in development, and even more so in terms of its implications for the developed communist world. One of the crucial evolutionary universals for Parsons is the ‘democratic association’ (held to separate POWER from bureaucratic office). Industrial societies lacking this political complex, like the USSR, are then held to be deviant or pathological examples of development. In this way, Parsonian theory can easily supply theoretical justification for democratic powers to intervene in Third World affairs where communist movements threaten to take control of the state.

Further important critical contributions may be found in GELLNER (1964), POPPER (1957) and BENDIX (1970). see also EVOLUTIONARY SOCIOLOGY.

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