Economics, Culture and Social Theory

Economics, Culture and Social Theory

New Horizons in Institutional and Evolutionary Economics series

William A. Jackson

Economics, Culture and Social Theory examines how culture has been neglected in economic theorising and considers how economics could benefit by incorporating ideas from social and cultural theory.

Chapter 11: Social and Economic Evolution

William A. Jackson

Subjects: economics and finance, institutional economics


Ideas of culture and cultivation have usually entertained the likelihood of gradual social change. A culture is replicated only if succeeding generations are cultivated in the same way of life, and small variations can accumulate and transform society. Possibilities for social evolution are inherent in culture when it is viewed as a process: it provides continuity with the past by reproducing beliefs, values and practices, but leaves openings for novelty. Accounts of social evolution were in vogue during the Enlightenment, prompted by the benefits of the new scientific methods. As knowledge piled up and was applied within society, the result would be steady improvement. Evolution was linear and predictable, based on knowledge that had universal value and offered the same rewards for all societies. Few doubts were expressed about the certainty of progress or reliability of scientific methods. Such unbounded confidence was challenged by the cultural thinkers of the Counter-Enlightenment and Romanticism. Their pluralism disclaimed a single evolutionary route towards omniscience and found virtues in historical societies and primitive peoples. In their view, development branches out into greater diversity and alternative paths to self-fulfilment, rather than following a unique, optimal path. Scepticism about scientific progress has resurfaced with the revival of cultural thought since the 1960s. Postmodernism has forsaken grand Enlightenment narratives and replaced them with relativism and diversity. In modern academic discourse, evolution is associated with Darwinism and its offshoots. Darwinian thought extended evolution to the natural realm and brought new ideas of natural selection that dug down to...

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