An Anthropological Perspective on Social Change


There is a growing ideology in the United States and western Europe which is very much opposed to the status quo in politics and economics—it goes by the general name of libertarianism [1]. Dimly realized by friend and foe alike is the fact that libertarianism is also at odds with most of the rest of Western culture, i.e., attitudes, social forms and norms, ethics, etc.

It is quite true that libertarianism has certain roots in the political values of the American Revolution and the frontier ethics of individual responsibility and self-reliance; but does invoking America's heritage tell us much about libertarianism's reception in America today? (Obviously such invocation gives libertarians a more "respectable" image "left wing" radicals have always been suspect as European or Russian influenced.) Does this past convey any information, such as the American public's being more susceptible to libertarian ideas than, perhaps, the Canadians or Dutch or Japanese?

I would say no: libertarianism will not be more readily accepted in America than anywhere else. For one thing, it must be realized that there is no one America and Daughters of the American Revolution types are the minority. Who among you readers had ancestors who were in North America in 1776 and were rooting for the colonies to win? This country isn't called the melting pot for nothing. People came from many countries and many cultures and they came much too fast to be absorbed into the "American Way of Life" without permanently altering it.

In addition, many antilibertarian facets have been present in America's heritage right from the beginning [2]. Eminent domain, regulation of commerce, government monopolies—all these were present, not to mention slavery, sumptuary laws, and invasion of Indian lands [3].

Where does that leave libertarians? It leaves them with 200 million people who, by and large, accept government regulation and taxation, who are bound and determined to be their brother's keepers with regards to personal habits and morals, who consider welfare in some form a right, who rely on religion and astrology rather than themselves, and who hold patriotism and loyalty to the government in very high regard. The social change job ahead will not be easy!

Much more is involved in social change of the profound type that libertarianism represents than merely changing a few laws or electing a few sympathetic officials. Nor is revolution the answer [see "Revolution Repeats the Problem," this issue—Editor]. A whole culture (or, more accurately, many subcultures) has to be changed, right down to its basic premises and values; and this cannot be accomplished overnight.

Also, this change must be accomplished very carefully, with much thought as to the consequences of any action taken. Anyone who meddles in other people's lives, which is what promoting social change involves, should be responsible enough to do a good job, since many innocent people are involved. People who advocate bringing the system down, either through revolution or through promoting policies designed to overburden an already unstable system, should be aware that not only will the baddies catch it, but so will the good and the uninvolved (e.g., children). Hurting someone for his own ultimate good is never justified, unless he's requested it.

In short, a disciplined, professional approach to social change is needed. One must know what one is doing, what society is all about, how different parts of it interconnect. One should have some basis for determining the probable consequences of actions, some notion of where a particular change can be made for maximum effect. A complex modern society is in many ways like a human body, and in neither case does one just hack away and expect any good to come of it!

Disciplines for studying problems of social change exist. Called anthropology and sociology in liberal arts colleges, and systems analysis [4] and modeling [5] in the engineering schools, these fields are still in their infancy, but their potential is great. Anthropology, in particular, has, for approximately a century, addressed itself to the structure of cultures [6], how people interact, and what is involved when new elements are introduced into a culture.

For instance, a theory of anthropology, called functionalism [7, 8], has much to offer the student of social change. Functionalism views any culture as an integrated whole, as an interconnected system. Individual institutions and customs aren't isolated phenomena and can't be fully appreciated except in the context of the whole culture: they have a function in the whole, meeting certain needs of the people participating in them. Functionalism in anthropology is in many ways equivalent to antireductionism in biology.

Determining the actual working of a social system is not always easy, of course. The people participating in a particular institution generally have a rationale for it, which may or may not correspond to what is actually taking place. This could, perhaps, be one reason why anthropologists have only recently begun studying the industrialized cultures that they themselves live in—it is very difficult to get outside of 30 or so years of socialization and view the whole process objectively! (Indeed, many people have trouble accepting the fact that most of the rest of the world lives differently from them. Such people are culture-bound, much the same way that a plant whose roots are all turned in on themselves is pot-bound.)

A functional analysis of the churches and religious institutions of the United States, for example, would reveal that these social units serve many purposes beyond their ostensible ethical and soul-saving function. A church is also a place to commemorate important life events such as birth, marriage, and death. Puberty rites of primitive peoples are analogous to confirmation, bar mitzvah, and holy communion ceremonies. (For the irreligious, school graduation appears to have a similar function.) Christmas and Chanukah have roots in old winter solstice ceremonies and Easter and Passover nicely mark the start of spring.

Then, of course, there is the purely social function of church-going. One meets friends and neighbors for choir practice, pot-luck suppers, and chatting after the service. It is no coincidence that many churches emphasize the fellowship hall, youth groups, and church schools. Christians often look askance at the Jews because many of the latter wish to have a Jewish nation—Israel: the Christians neglect the fact that they themselves already claim the United States and many other countries as their own!

What this analysis should show to anyone interested in supplanting the power of the churches over people's lives is that much more is involved than simply presenting a rational ethic and metaphysics. Religion offers a whole lifestyle that satisfies many needs—the need for morality, the need for companionship, the need for some structure in life, etc.

Libertarians have invented institutions which parallel those of religion, but these are not in any long term form and were not done with any apparent attempt to compete with religion. The most successful of these parallel institutions was, of course, Nathaniel Branden Institute (NBI) which sponsored lecture courses as well as socials and balls. In many ways NBI courses were similar to services of Ethical Culture- and Unitarian-type churches: people came to hear a lecture rather than a sermon, and they had a chance to meet others of similar persuasion.

Another parallel institution is the libertarian conference—a rational revival meeting, so to speak. As conferences have been organized in the past, libertarians and some curious outsiders get together, listen to some inspiring talks, meet all their friends, and in general get reenergized. (An outsider might even consider that they are all speaking in tongues!)

Finally, as the ultimate parallel institution to the mystically-oriented churches, some libertarians in Milwaukee have formed the Rationalist Church of America (RCA) [9]. As its name implies, this church rejects mysticism and dogma and, further, asserts that "the intrinsic worth and liberty of each individual is the highest possible value in human society." Whether the RCA gets tax-exempt status as a recognized church remains to be seen. It will also be seen if it can do more for its members than provide them with something to fill in on forms after "religious affiliation." Will it provide meaningful life ceremonies, celebrations, etc.? In any event, it has interesting possibilities.

Another area in which the functional anthropology approach can be useful is semantics and language. Here the idea is to concentrate on what people are saying (meaning), not the words they use. Ayn Rand, in particular, has documented the fuzzy thinking, faulty concept formation, and poor epistemology endemic in Western culture and has presented a rational epistemology [10] as an alternative. Given such documentation, why then do intellectuals, including Objectivists, still persist in taking people at their word?!

When an engineering professor talks about engineers' "responsibility to society" in producing safe cars, why assume he is an evil altruist bent on enslaving the engineering profession (unless, of course, one has some reason for expecting the worst of people)? Could he not simply be sloppy with words and be using a common buzz-phrase "responsibility to society" to denote the concept of an engineer's striving to turn out the best car possible, based on his personal and professional integrity?

A more striking example is that of Eastern European experiments with capitalism. When Ota Sik and his colleagues in Czechoslovakia started introducing marketplace mechanisms into the socialized economy, they did not refer to it as "capitalism"; they called it "human socialism." The political situation they were in simply didn't permit the use of the word capitalism in any sort of favorable sense, so they resorted to circumlocution, much the same way that peoples whose languages don't contain a past tense (e.g., some American Indian languages) are still able to refer to events in the past. Unfortunately for the Czechs, the Soviets are experts in doubletalk: they looked at what was happening rather than what people said was happening and called a quick halt to the whole experiment.

A more recent example of words obscuring meaning is a paper that appeared in SCIENCE, entitled "Altruism is Rewarding" [11]. Rather than being a paean to self-sacrifice, however, the paper is really saying that human beings don't like to see other human beings suffer and will learn a conditioned response (in this case pushing a button) where the only reward is seeing the cessation of another's pain. The paper could have been more aptly titled "Benevolence is Rewarding," but one had to look beyond the words the authors used (this sloppy use of the term "altruism" seems very common in experimental psychology) to see what they meant [12]. Examples like this are relatively frequent—it should be a warning to read beyond the headlines.

The above examples are on a microscale, relative to what can be done. There is an even greater need for macroanalyses—studies of whole industrialized cultures. Work of this type has already been done in anthropology, but on a superficial level. Ruth Benedict's THE CHRYSANTHEMUM AND THE SWORD [13] is the classic in the field as a study of pre-War Japan (Anthropologists were in great demand during World War II since Japanese customs, motives, values, etc. were utterly alien to the West. The anthropologists had to interpret Japan to the Allies.) Margaret Mead's book AND KEEP YOUR POWDER DRY [14] is an interesting look at the United States during the same period.

On a more advanced level there was "Project Camelot" [15], a mid-1960s attempt at a multidisciplinary study of a major Latin American society. One of the purposes of "Camelot" was to gather data for later use in social change decisions. The clandestineness of the whole operation did not go over at all well with the target country, Chile: nor did the fact that the United States was sponsoring the study. In fact, the United States' relations with all of Latin America suffered a sharp decline and "Camelot" was hastily cancelled—no country wanted to be host to what seemed to them like a super-CIA.

Perhaps the most sophisticated work being done now is the World Dynamics study led by Jay W. Forrester and sponsored by the Club of Rome [16]. This is a computer model of the world's economy which takes into account various elements of technology, institutional and governmental decisions, etc. and permits forecasts of the effects of various technological and policy changes. The implications for social change are obvious: one can test ideas of the computer model before interfering in human lives. Of course, a model is only as accurate as the studies that go into it. Forrester and his people are primarily engineers and hence possibly not so attuned to the human cultural elements as anthropologists might be. Anthropologists, on the other hand, seem barely aware of the organizational capabilities of computers. As the two groups discover each other, models can be expected to correspond more and more closely to reality.

What implications does all of this have for libertarians wishing to develop effective social change strategies? Needed first are analyses of our current culture by competent professionals. In particular, the social forms that libertarians are now living implicitly should be made explicit and examined (for example, with marriage, is the standard Judeo-Christian concept valid for those living a libertarian ethic? What form should a libertarian or Objectivist marriage take? Can any sort of long-term commitment be made in a rapidly changing world?). Diffusion or imitation is a powerful force in modifying cultures, and if libertarians expect to change Western culture it is not unreasonable to ask them to start with themselves. Social change begins at home, as it were.

These analyses can presumably lead to one or more functional models of possible freedom-oriented societies. Some analyses have already been done (e.g., THE MARKET FOR LIBERTY [17]), but these only deal with some institutions and there is no indication that larger social forms have been considered. Institutions, values, laws, lifestyles, technology—all of these are interrelated (imagine what the world would be like if the automobile had never been invented!).

In addition to setting goals, these studies will give some idea (with, of course, inputs from other social science and systems analysis sources) of just how our present culture functions. After all, all the goal setting in the world is to no avail if you don't know where you are and how to get from here to there. Time is running out. Where are the lever points [18]? Where are the places that badly need shoring-up if libertarians are to have enough time to change this society? The stakes are very high. This is the only world around—study it or lose the chance to change it.


(This article is intended to serve as a brief introduction to problems and methods involved in studying literate cultures. For those who wish to pursue the subject further, the following books are recommended:

Arensberg, Conrad M. and Arthur H. Niehoff, INTRODUCING SOCIAL CHANGE (Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company, 1964).

Goldschmidt, Walter, COMPARATIVE FUNCTIONALISM: AN ESSAY IN ANTHROPOLOGICAL THEORY (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966).

Hsu, Francis L.K., THE STUDY OF LITERATE CIVILIZATIONS (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969).

Jarvie, I.C., THE REVOLUTION IN ANTHROPOLOGY (New York: The Humanities Press, 1964).

Klausner, Samuel Z. (editor), THE STUDY OF TOTAL SOCIETIES (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1967).

Kroeber, A.L., ANTHROPOLOGY: CULTURE PATTERNS AND PROCESSES (New York: Harbinger Books, 1963).

Martindale, Don (editor), FUNCTIONALISM IN THE SOCIAL SCIENCES: THE STRENGTH AND LIMITS OF FUNCTIONALISM IN ANTHROPOLOGY, ECONOMICS, POLITICAL SCIENCE, AND SOCIOLOGY (Philadelphia: The American Academy of Political and Social Science, Monograph 5, February 1965).

Niehoff, Arthur H. (editor), A CASEBOOK OF SOCIAL CHANGE (Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company, 1966).

Sorokin, Pitirim A., SOCIOLOGICAL THEORIES OF TODAY (New York: Harper & Row 1966).


1) As an excellent introduction, see "The New Right Credo—Libertarianism," by Stan Lehr and Louis Rossetto, NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE, 10 January 1971.

2) Oliver, Michael, A NEW CONSTITUTION FOR A NEW COUNTRY (Reno, Nev.: Fine Arts Press, 1968).

3) Nichols, Rosalie, "Right-Wing Rationale for Non-Recognition of Indian Rights," THE INDIAN HISTORIAN, Volume 3, Number 2, Spring 1970 (reprinted in REASON, December 1969 and January 1970, as "America the Beautiful: On Whose Lands?").

4) Churchman, C. West, THE SYSTEMS APPROACH (New York: Delta Books, 1968).

5) Forrester, Jay W., PRINCIPLES OF SYSTEMS (Cambridge, Mass.: Wright-Allen Press, 1968).

6) "Culture" is a much broader term than "society." "Society" is the aggregation of individuals in groups, whereas "culture" subsumes everything those people do, including behavior, technology, customs, etc.

7) White, Leslie, "History, Evolutionism, and Functionalism: Three types of Interpretation of Culture," SOUTHWESTERN JOURNAL OF ANTHROPOLOGY, Volume 1, Summer 1945.

8) Keesing, Felix M., CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY (New York: Rinehart and Company, 1958), pp. 150-55.

9) The Rationalist Church of America, PO Box 1059, Milwaukee, Wisc. 53201.

10) Rand, Ayn, INTRODUCTION TO OBJECTIVIST EPISTEMOLOGY (New York: The Objectivist, Inc., 1967).

11) Weiss, R.F., et al., "Altruism is Rewarding," SCIENCE, 26 March 1971, p. 1262.

12) It might be noted that Weiss' paper provides an answer to those welfare statists who maintain that people would not help each other if they were not forced to do so.

13) Benedict, Ruth, THE CHRYSANTHEMUM AND THE SWORD (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Company, 1946).

14) Mead, Margaret, AND KEEP YOUR POWDER DRY (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1942, 1965).

15) Wolfe, D., "Social Science Research and International Relations," SCIENCE, 14 January 1966.

16) "'Club of Rome' Computerizing the World," BUSINESS WEEK, 10 April 1971, p. 42.

17) Tannehill, Morris and Linda Tannehill, MARKET FOR LIBERTY Box 1383, Lansing, Mich. 48904.

18) See "Leverage Points for Social Change," this issue of REASON.