When many people discuss social change, they tend to use a particular language which sounds neutral, but actually has a lot of baggage. One example of this is the “TED talk” given by Steven Pinker and discussed in the Wednesday lecture of Week 1 in ANTH 1002 (2018). Pinker suggests that over history, human societies have become more peaceful. He assumes that all societies develop over time, which is true, but that this development always goes along the same route, and ends up at the same destination. Any kind of social change is thus somehow related to this inexorable movement forward to a better future. I call this kind of fallacy “the trap of modernism” because it assumes that all societies are reaching toward the same thing, modernity.
In fact, they aren't. All societies change, but no two societies end up in the same place.
There is no such thing as modernity in the sense that some societies are objectively different or more advanced than other societies. Although a lot of people use this word–modern–and it may seem perfectly innocent, but if you look closely at how people use it, you can see that it hides an ethnocentric bias. If a contemporary society is different from the observer's, then the ethnocentric observer usually says that these differences are due to the fact that the other society is “still” stuck in the past.
There are even many anthropologists who look to hunter-gatherers and other societies as “our contemporary ancestors” (Chagnon 1983: 214). That is, they are contemporary, but hunter-gatherers and rainforest dwellers are living examples of the prehistoric past. And who is the “we”? These anthropologists assume that they and their readers are distinct from the people they study, and that the observers' society is the model for analyzing other people's ways of life.
Even when anthropologists use the term modernity, they put it in “scare quotes”. It's not their word, but someone else's, and they want us to be skeptical of it. Here are some key points about what's wrong with using the concept of modernity as a theory of society:
- Even though all societies do change over time, societies do not travel the same single road of progress, or go through the same steps over history.
- Societies cannot be ranked on a single scale of modernity or progress. This is ethnocentric in the same way that evolutionary theories of culture are.
- Modernity is like race. Just as race does not exist biologically, modernity is not objective either. However, just as racial ideologies influence how people understand human differences, the Western narrative of progress also influences people's understanding of history. The ideology of modernity masks how societies really change, and it serves to make certain kinds of structural domination seem natural and permanent.
- Social change is never just a from–to story, e.g. from tradition to modernity, from gift system to capitalism, from rural to urban, from isolated to connected, or from cultural diversity to monoculture, or from happy harmony to chaos and suffering.
- Social change is a both–and story, e.g. In contemporary societies, we see both gifts and commodities coexisting, and people simultaneously occupy many different kinds of systems at once which all depend on each other.
Chagnon, Napoleon A. 1983. Ya̦nomamö: The Fierce People. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
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