The Theory of Social Change

Veblen's theory of social change is essentially a technological theory ofhistory. He believed that in the last analysis the"state of the industrial arts,"that is, the technology available to a society, determines the character of itsculture. Invention was the mother of necessity. Yet this influence of technology,while crucial, was to Veblen by no means immediate and direct. A newtechnology does not automatically bring forth new systems of laws, new moralattitudes, or new types of education. Rather, it challenges old institutions andevokes their resistance. "Institutions are products of the past process, areadapted to past circumstances, and are therefore never in full accord with therequirements of the present." Those who have a "vested interest'' in the oldorder will bend every effort to maintain old institutions even when they areno longer in tune with technological developments. The characteristic attitudeof those advocates of the status quo "may be summed up in the maxim: 'What-ever is, is right;' whereas the law of natural selection as applied to humaninstitutions, gives the axiom: 'Whatever is, is wrong." In the end, Veblenbelieved, a new technology erodes vested ideas, overcomes vested interests, andreshapes institutions in accord with its own needs. But this process may takeconsiderable time, and in that time lag--when, for example, an industrialsociety is still governed by legal and moral rules dating from the handicraftera--society suffers from the waste that is brought about by the lack of cor-respondence between its institutions and its technology.

In periods of transition between an old order and one about to be born,social conflicts are likely to be accentuated. In contrast to Marx, Veblen didnot conceive of the class struggle as the motor of history. He saw as the shap-ing force of history the clash between advancing technology and retarding in-stitutions. Only during periods when this clash was particularly acute did heexpect an exacerbation of class antagonisms between those engaged in thepecuniary employments, who had vested interest in things as they were, andthose in industrial employments who were in tune with the technological de-mands of the hour.

Although he was beholden to a general evolutionary doctrine, Veblen didnot believe in unilinear evolution. He was acutely aware of what later theoristscalled "the skipping of evolutionary stages"; hence he focused attention on"the advantage of borrowing the technological arts rather than developing themby home growth." When technologies are borrowed from another society,Veblen argued, they "do not carry over the fringe of other cultural elementsthat have grown up about them in the course of their development and use."Technological elements can therefore be acquired ready-made and they do notcarry the institutional ballast with which they were freighted in the countryof origin. Thus the Germans took over British machine technology "withoutthe fault of its qualities." While in England older institutions still hamperedand impeded this technology and older and newer technological techniquesand processes existed side by side, the Germans took over the more advancedtechnologies and applied them to the fullest in an environment unimpeded byvested interests. These observations seem especially pertinent today in the lightof the problems faced by developing societies.

While borrowing may help to accelerate the evolutionary growth of theborrowing country, it leads to relative decline in the competitive positionof the country of origin. This is "the penalty of taking the lead." An industrialsystem like that of England, which "has been long engaged in a course of im-provement, extension, innovation and specialization, will in the past havecommitted itself to what was at the time an adequate scale of appliancesand schedule of processes." But such established equipment will be out ofdate as the industrial process proceeds. Hence obsolescent technologies arelikely to exist alongside new equipment. There will be improvements, adapta-tions, and repairs but also a "fatal reluctance or inability to overcome thisall-pervading depreciation by obsolescence." The railroads of Great Britain,for example, were built with too narrow a gauge and the "terminal facilities,tracks, shunting facilities, and all the means of handling freight . . . are alladapted to the bobtailed car." From the point of view of the community atlarge all this equipment should be discarded, but since it is still profitable thecaptains of the railroad industry have a vested interest in maintaining it,thereby contributing to the industrial decadence of England. "All this does notmean that the British have sinned against the canons of technology. It is onlythat they are paying the penalty for having been thrown into the lead and sohaving shown the way."

Veblen wrote this when England was governed by Lloyd George, andGermany was ruled by the Kaiser. But fifty years later, the England of PrimeMinister Edward Heath and the Germany of Chancellor Willy Brandt stillseem subject to the same forces; and the contemporary development of Japanfurnishes even stronger evidence for Veblen's far-reaching prescience.

The preceding pages have not touched upon a number of Vebleniannotions, in particular his theory of "instincts." This omission is deliberate."The instinct of workmanship," "the parental bent," or "the instinct of idlecuriosity"--concepts Veblen used to "explain" the concern for a job well done,the solicitude for one's offspring, and the motive force for scientific curiosityrespectively--are vague and unsatisfactory. Veblen introduced them as a kindof deus ex machina when he wished to defend a practice or behavior patternhe liked to see maintained, even though his "instincts" are not meant to denoteunchangeable biological impulses but rather prepotent propensities subject tocultural conditioning and modification. Veblen, like all instinct theorists, wasprone to infer the operation of instincts from observed behavior--which theseinstincts were then supposed to explain. This device has little scientific utility.

What is likely to endure in Veblen's sociological work is not the theoryof instincts but his theory of the socially induced motivations for competitivebehavior, his acute ferreting out of latent functions, and certain elements of histechnological interpretation of history and of his theory of the lag betweentechnological and institutional development. It is likely that analysts of theprocess of "modernization" will still be making use of his notions about the"advantage of borrowing" and the "penalty of taking the lead" when hisdoctrine of instinct will long have been forgotten.

From Coser, 1977:272-274.


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