The Social Theories of Lewis Henry Morgan

Lewis Henry Morgan

Lewis Henry Morgan

On November 21, 1818, pioneering American anthropologist and social theorist Lewis Henry Morgan was born. Morgan is best known for his work on kinship and social structure, his theories of social evolution, and his ethnography of the Iroquois. Interested in what holds societies together, he proposed the concept that the earliest human domestic institution was the matrilineal clan, not the patriarchal family.

During the 1840s, Lewis Henry Morgan befriended Ely Parker of the Seneca tribe and the Tonawanda Reservation. With his help, Morgan was able to study the culture and the structure of Iroquois society. He noticed that they used different terms than Europeans to designate individuals by their relationships within the extended family and he had the creative insight to recognize this was meaningful in terms of their social organization. Morgan published his The League of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee or Iroquois in 1851, which presented the complexity of Iroquois society in a path-breaking ethnography that was a model for future anthropologists.

In 1871, Lewis Henry Morgan published his Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family. In it, Morgan argumented for the Morgan set forth his argument for the unity of humankind. At the same time, he presented a sophisticated schema of social evolution based upon the relationship terms, the categories of kinship, used by peoples around the world. Through his analysis of kinship terms, Morgan discerned that the structure of the family and social institutions develop and change according to a specific sequence.

In later research, Morgan became increasingly interested in the comparative study of kinship relations as a window into understanding larger social dynamics. Morgan saw kinship relations as a basic part of society. In further publications, Morgan was able to introduce a critical link between social progress and technological progress. He emphasized the centrality of family and property relations. He traced the interplay between the evolution of technology, of family relations, of property relations, of the larger social structures and systems of governance, and intellectual development. Lewis Henry Morgan presented three major stages: savagery, barbarism, and civilization, dividing and defining the stages by technological inventions, domestication of animals, agriculture, metalworking (in the barbarian era) and development of the alphabet and writing (in the civilization era).

Morgan’s final work, Houses and House-life of the American Aborigines (1881), was an elaboration on what he had originally planned as an additional part of Ancient Society. In it, Morgan presented evidence, mostly from North and South America, that the development of house architecture and house culture reflected the development of kinship and property relations.

Even though many of Morgan’s theories have later been rejected by anthropologists, he is credited with founding the sub-discipline of kinship studies. Anthropologists further remain interested in the connections which Morgan outlined between material culture and social structure.

During the 1880s, Karl Marx started reading Morgan’s Ancient Society, thus beginning Morgan’s posthumous influence among European thinkers. Frederick Engels is also known to have read Marx’s work. Although Marx never finished his own book based on Morgan’s work, Engels continued his analysis and Morgan’s work on the social structure and material culture is known to have influenced Engels’ sociological theory of dialectical materialism.

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