Structure, Agency, and..Energy?!

technology changes structures in ways completely unanticipated and unwanted


“Man becomes, as it were, the sex organs of the machine world, as the bee of the plant world, enabling it to fecundate and to evolve ever new forms. The machine world reciprocates man’s love by expediting his wishes and desires, namely, in providing him with wealth.” – Marshall McLuhan, 1964

“The technology is the independent variable, the social system the dependent variable. Social systems are therefore determined by systems of technology; as the latter change, so do the former.” – Leslie White, 1949

The role between the structure of cultural systems and the agency of the actors within them has received a great deal of attention in the anthropological literature since the 1990s. Although we know that most people are constrained by the structure imposed upon them, it is true that from time to time people do manage to change the structure they are in. The anthropologist Sherry Ortner tends to define the relationship between agency and structure as a negotiable one- whereby the agency of individuals and groups of actors in a structure, through their own demands, tend to change the structure of the system they are in. This approach is known as practice theory.

In Ortner’s explorations of this relationship, the role of the individual is essential yet fundamentally intertwined with the structure; in her view the structure is built by competing projects, projects being defined as the pursued goals and aspirations of an individual or groups of individuals in a society. In many of her writings, Ortner provides an interesting perspective on the relationship between agency and structure where agency can act out and push the limits of structure and structure defines what pathways are initially available. Although in her work she often gives examples of changes which have been negotiated within cultures by competing groups, I find some difficulty in these examples as they often fail to illustrate agency itself is the mechanistic link which pushes structure. Usually, I have to wonder if the examples she gives are not simply the observation of sub-cultures filling the larger gaps left in the woodwork by an overarching monoculture’s structure. That is, these examples may represent something of an unstable cultural equilibrium which are an artificial product of modern-day movements of peoples. Although this filling-of-the-gaps is worthy of anthropological exploration, the answer to what mechanism what really drives changes in an established structure is absent, as I’m not convinced that a monoculture will entirely give in to the demands of a competing subculture without some large-scale demographic shift.

I have stated before, at least in my About Me section of this website, I believe the ideas of the anthropologist Leslie White are due for a resurrection. As I will attempt to illustrate here, White hit the nail on the head on the head with a mechanistic link between changes in structure many years ago. White’s belief, in his own words was that, “the technology is the independent variable, the social system the dependent variable. Social systems are therefore determined by systems of technology; as the latter change, so do the former.” In many of Ortner’s own examples of agency driving structural change, the only variable which truly seems to change the shape of a structure is new technology, which in many case provides a leveling tool for competing interests. One major example she discusses which is often cited is the shift from arranged marriages to non-arranged marriages in Magar society (a cultural group found in present-day Nepal). In this example, it appeared that both men and women in Magar society loathed having to follow-through on marriages arranged by their parents. Given the local nature of their world and inability to meet people otherwise, the Magars were forced into these marriages despite their personal unwillingness to do so. Yet something happened in recent history which changed the system completely. The introduction of letter writing and postage to the Magars gave young Magars the ability to negotiate their way out of the structure. These marriages no longer had to take place since technology had given these young people the ability to reach out. We see similar examples in Indian-American arranged marriages in the United States, where the introduction of internet dating has allowed young people to arrange their own marriages.

Other examples of cultural change are evident with large-scale increases in technology. For example, the switch from ritual human sacrifices to animal sacrifices has been theorized to be a result of a switch from the human body as the essential unit of labor to domesticated animals (this was, in fact, White’s second stage of cultural evolution). Patterns of non-bilineal kinship come to fruition with the advent of agriculture and the abolition of slavery came with the advent of more economic ways for harvesting and processing agricultural goods.

Now, perhaps it could be argued that I am putting the cart before the horse and that without the internal desire to do something else, the introduction of technology into the system would be meaningless. Certainly, but without the introduction of technology, the wants and desires of these people would have permanently been relegated to Ortner’s definition of an “unobtained project”. Even more evident to White’s case is the fact that technology changes structures in ways completely unanticipated and unwanted by the actors within the system. There is no place more evident of this than American society today. The plastic revolution, the invention of the microwave, and the mastering of baby formulas in the beginning of the 20th century had a larger impact on changing the lives of women than any single other event in human history. Despite the female urge for self-sufficiency and “realized projects” independent from the careers of their male partners which had governed women’s’ lives since time beginning, structural change was never achieved until humans stumbled upon it. Most of the results of these inventions were happy accidents which were by-products of technological changes happening across society. Was Joy Mangano’s invention of the amazing self-wringing mop motivated by the urge for money or by the desire to free women from the shackles of housework? We may never know, but her inventions were the by-product of completely unrelated technological changes of the time.

It was technology which mediated the change in structure, not dialectics. It is technology today that is creating massive zeitgeist shifts around the world thanks to the influence of Amazon, Facebook, and internet pornography. Even now in the West, we are seeing large-scale shifts in our fundamental concepts of gender and monogamy. It seems that the legally and culturally mediated, conservative, monogamous systems of our Christian predecessors are dropping out once again for the limited-access masculine systems that was observed in a great number of agricultural societies in human history. All of these changes and the sub-cultures resulting from them have been mediated, and perhaps created, by technology.

White believed that cultural progress was the result of advances in technology (measured as an increase in a culture’s energetic efficiency), and I am inclined to agree with him. In his own view, humans were simply the carriers of culture, with culture being carried further and further by ever-building complexity. The concept of the ratchet effect whereby natural cultural systems irreversibly reinforce themselves over time helps explain this. Of course, some people do believe it is the case is that individual human actors have more of an effect on changing things than we realize. In historical studies, this is known as great man theory, a view which I am tentative to endorse. Certainly, figures like Napoleon and Jesus Christ changed the Western world in ways which we could have never seen and these changes took place outside the realms of technological advance, but I often come to think of cases like the Soviet Union which shows us that some changes are never permanent. Perhaps the case is that Jesus Christ was not as influential a figure as the combined efforts of Augustine of Hippo, Hermes Trismegistus, Thomas Aquinas, and the Desert Fathers. Christianity in any case would have never developed without Roman roads. Perhaps Napoleon was unique only in the same sense that the preceding French monarchs were unique and the cultural changes of his time were comparable to the back-and-forth styles of fashion in the previous centuries.

It seems to me that the most permanent changes in culture are due to technology, not a simple urge to change things. In the future I plan to expand on this further to help elucidate what factors drive technological change to begin with. I hope you all stay reading.


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