White, A. Leslie

White, A. Leslie

Bio: (1900-1979) American anthropologist. Leslie White received a master’s degree in psychology from Columbia University and completed his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago under the mentorship of Edward Sapir. He lectured at the University of Buffalo and the University of Michigan.


White is best known for his commitment to the development of the science of culture, i.e. culturology. He was influenced by the works of Henri L. Morgan, Herbert Spenser, and Edward B. Tylor. Culturology, according to his view, should encompass most of what anthropology and sociology deal with. Apart from social psychology, everything that the theoretical sciences of society dealt with would thus fall under culturology. This point of view is a consequence of White's expansion of the concept of culture, so he includes, in addition to the symbolic aspects of social life, also economic and political aspects, as well as everything that Durkheim calls society and social. This leaves only social psychology in the purview of sociology, while any further theoretical work should fall under the field of cultural studies. White's culturology can be divided into two main sections: cultural determinism and the utilitarian nature of culture.

Cultural determinism has two distinct meanings. The first meaning refers to the determinism of human behavior, that is, the actions of a human individual are completely conditioned by culture. In accordance with this notion White denied the free will of individuals, because, for individuals, who are not limited by their biology, the culture created by symbolic communication appears as an overdeterminant of individual behavior. Another meaning of cultural determinism is reflected in the observation of culture as an independent and self-determined system. The individual is not able to change his culture, but only to respond to its stimuli; so even inventive and creative behavior is nothing more than the manifestation of cultural tendencies. He denies the existence of geniuses and great men, they are only there to fulfill the inherent cultural logic. Neither Newton nor Ikhnaton, when they created their theories and new religions, did not create culture, culture created them.

The utilitarian nature of culture is reflected in the principle of usefulness. "The purpose and function of culture are to make life secure and enduring for the human species" (White, 1959: 8). The utilitarian principles of culture are mostly beyond the consciousness of the people themselves. When a new cultural form emerges that is more useful for society, it replaces previous cultural forms.

White's evolutionism is close to the evolutionism of Henry Morgan, in that White never considers the evolution of individual sociocultural systems, but the evolution of the entire culture of mankind, i. e. universal evolution. Unlike Morgan, White notes the importance of the diffusion of cultural patterns, which means that not every single culture has to go through all the stages, because, due to the process of diffusion, some stages may be skipped. White takes into consideration the last million years of the development of the human species, where a million years before the present appears as a crucial period when man's power to symbolize, to use and create symbols, arose. He takes that date as the beginning of cultural evolution because without symbols there is no culture. In his consideration of cultural evolution, he deals little with concrete historical data, because, for him, history is a particularizing process, while evolution is a generalizing process.

In the book, The Evolution of Culture (1959) White distinguishes four separate components of cultural systems: technological, sociological, ideological, and sentimental (attitudinal). The technological sector is most directly involved in the adaptation process, and the determining feature of technology development is the amount and type of energy used to meet human needs. While animals use only the power of their muscles, primitive people use tools and the energy of fire, to later tame the energy of the sun, through the domestication of plants and animals, then fossil fuels, and finally the power of atoms. Energy and technology appear as dominating over other sectors of culture. The evolution towards larger political units is fundamentally a technological matter. Society, philosophy, and sentiments are, in fact, non-technological forms of expression of the basic technological process. When a technological system comes into conflict with other cultural elements, then depending on the strength of the technological system it wins or submits. But if the technology is strong enough then it creates a new social system. The importance of technology for the development of culture makes White's theory of universal evolution based on technological determinism.

White believes that every social system is determined by three determinants (subfactors): securing subsistence (nutrition and other means of living), protection from the elements, and defense. These subfactors are always present, but they do not always have the same importance or influence, so culture and its direction of development largely depend on the relationship between the environment and these determinants. Livelihoods include clothing, tools, and even magic; protection is focused on battling weather and other elements of nature; and defense concerns confrontation with both internal and external enemies.         

White believes that man's anthropoid ancestors lived in societies in which dominant males appropriated females for themselves, and the weaker ones were left without a partner. But with the advent of symbolization, weaker men could band together through communication to overthrow dominant men and take women for themselves. Thus came the period of monogamy in human evolution. The family was the basic social unit, and the rules of exogamy, i.e. the prohibition of incest, were adopted in order to extend cooperation to a wider group, and this was followed by kinship classification systems. The prohibition of incest is applied more strictly in primitive societies because, for them, integration and cooperation in society are more important for survival. The rules of exogamy are always followed by the rules of endogamy because it is necessary to find a partner who is socially neither too close nor too far so that the highest possible degree of social integration is achieved.

Structure, the types of parts that make up the whole, and function, the relationships between the parts and between the parts and the whole, are just two ways of looking at the same system. Human societies consist of segments, classes, and special mechanisms. Segments are an indefinite number of parts that make up a whole, where each part is similar to the other in composition, structure, and function. These are families, kinship lines, clans, and moieties. Class is one of an indefinite number of parts into which society, as a whole, is divided, and they differ in composition, structure, and function. All societies consist of both segments and classes. Special mechanisms are structures that differ from the system as a whole, but they are not classes into which the whole society can be divided. A chief, a shaman, or a secret society are such special mechanisms. Some societies do not have special mechanisms - Tasmanians, Eskimos, and Pygmies don’t have them. At the beginning of human evolution, families were segments, and classes were formed based on gender, age, and marital status. The process of segmentation increases the size of the system, but it also has the function of maintaining cohesion and solidarity. Systems at one level can be integrated as segments at a higher level of cultural development.

The development of agriculture is the most significant change in human evolution because it enabled a much larger number of people to live in one territory, farming led to a sedentary lifestyle, and animal husbandry provided a constant source of food. In addition to the increase in population density, there was also an increase in the size of society and the complexity of society, because a part of the population could devote itself to crafts and other occupations. Thus, there was a need to develop an economic system, and with it came the creation of a special political mechanism that White calls „the state-church“, and the end result was the division of society into a ruling class and a subordinate class. Thus there was a transformation from a society based on kinship to a society based on property.

Main works

The Acoma Indians (1932),

The Pueblo of San Felipe (1932)

Excerpts From the European Travel Journal of Lewis H.Morgan (1937)

Pioneers in American Anthropology: The Bandelier- Morgan Letters 1837–1883 (1940);

The Pueblo of Santa Ana, New Mexico (1942);

The Science of Culture (1949);

 The Evolution of Culture: The Development of Civilization to the Fall of Rome (1959);

 The Concept of Culture (1973).

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