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Friday, October 7, 2011

Leslie White: Does Technology Define Complexity or the Man?

I didn’t know whether to scream or scratch my head at the fact that anthropologist Leslie White regarded the human race as a uniform quality i.e., as a constant, and, hence, he eliminated it completely from his study . Dealing with the dynamics of society in anthropology, and the people in it, is crucial to understanding the evolution and origin of that culture, yet White focused on “the material, mechanical mean with which man exploits the resources of nature”.

While I don’t dispute the importance of technology and the advancement of it within society, I do believe that approaching technology, and basing it on the cosmological order, is what White’s critics believed, as do I, was just like accessing a virtual scientific world.

If White was to disregard the human organism from his research, than how was he to come to the conclusion that cultural development may be measured by “need serving goods” . Goods produced for the people, who were non-existent in White’s functionalist and scientific approach. Yet, his functionalist methodology dealt with biological advantages and not just technology, so you can see where there’s a sharp fork in the road.

Likewise, White’s idea of culture came from a physicist’s perspective. He even posited that strict laws governed culture. In my opinion, culture is not a scientific experiment seen through the lens of a microscope. Yes, culture determines how biology is expressed and it’s dynamic, but it’s a fluid concept as well, not stymied by one central idea, or even shaped by science. Nevertheless, White takes one position on the idea of energy capture (Physics) in order for human survival. Does energy mean access to technology or money? Power or class standing?

Energy can mean a great many things. White believed people within society with a lack of technology or access to energy, let’s use swineherders as an example, could never achieve greatness, or rather “greatness would never have found them”. Hardly the case I believe. Are there not tribes like the Trobriand Islanders of Papua New Guinea who become great because of the amount of swine they acquire, and actually share with the rest of the village?

Another point of White’s research was his overtly socialist agenda and his commitment to it. While it seems my argument is multilinear (or all over the place for that matter), there is a point in which it becomes unilinear. Culture has a particular path in which it takes using constructs of both society and technology. That pace can vary and cultures don't have to change at all, but my opinion is, White is approaching technology and how culture evolves from it, from a physicist’s perspective.

Ultimately, White studied culture and not cultures, yet culture is not independent of specific societies. Consequently, society may and can be a machine, but can culture be as well? I don’t believe so. Culture is learned and changes over time. It does not operate with the press of a button.

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