It is proposed that societies develop through stages akin to those of individual development. After all, any society consists of individuals (although, of course, it cannot be reduced to them). This view was popular in the past, but has been abandoned at present not so much because of empirical data (that are open to various interpretations), but mainly because of two concerns: determinism and inequality.
Determinism - until the 20th century the determinism of social development was a popular notion among both, idealists (e.g. Hegel) and materialists (e.g. Marx). In the 20th century, however, the idea that there is a particular trajectory was abandoned. The idealist concept was not acceptable for its teleological overtone (this issue has already been addressed, so it will not be discussed here). The other concern was that such a determinism is incompatible with human freedom. If global social processes were fully determined, this could mean that historical events and consequently individuals themselves are also determined, which does not leave much room for something that can be called free will. However, recognising that there is a particular trajectory of social development (at least up to a point, which will be clarified below) does not imply inevitability of any social event and can be compatible with self-determination. It only means that a society and humankind as a whole sooner or later, in one way or another, can reach a certain point or plateau (that is, if that society or humankind does not perish before). To make an analogy, the fact that every person (who lives long enough) goes through the stage of adolescence does not diminish shis freedom. So, as in quantum physics, a global pattern can be discerned but no single event can be claimed to be pre-determined. The Intent operates in accord with the principle of minimal interference. It only sets the boundaries to the process and is not concerned with immediate outcomes, so in a way, it is even beyond ‘good and evil' as commonly understood. Siding with the good would be unproductive to developing agency - people would choose to be good because it pays off, which would reduce the whole process to conditioning. Improbable outcomes may occasionally occur, but only if something threatens the boundaries, and this is rare indeed. Therefore, events and individuals are not determined, but social processes and relations between them may be favourable to some events and individuals. In other words, they allow some potentials to be realised although, of course, in some cases circumstances may also play a role. For example, Napoleon (and Kutuzov, the general who defeated Napoleon in Russia) became prominent not because they were creating history, but because the flow of history at that particular moment allowed them to surface. If they were not there (say, they died before the crucial events) somebody else would take their roles, which could affect particular happenings and their quality, but not the global dynamics. Individuals are important for history, they may speed up or slow down the process, and even change its direction on a local scale, but they are not irreplaceable. This also applies to societies. If one does not take a particular step, another will.
Inequality - there is a reasonable worry (if judging by the past) that the concept of stages could be used to legitimise the claim that some societies are superior. Such a claim is, however, groundless. To make again a parallel with students, a second year student is not a superior human being to a first year student. S/he may even be less intelligent or a worse scholar than the latter (which is not to say that using the term superior could be justified if s/he was not - there is more to being human than intelligence or studentship). The same applies to societies. A stage of development does not make them superior or inferior. In fact, more advanced societies are potentially more destructive, so a further stage only implies a greater responsibility. By the same token, being at an early stage of development does not imply being primitive. There are primitive individuals and groups at every stage, including the stage of transcendence (they can exhibit elitism, rigidity, dogmatism, exertion, lack of humour). Moreover, humankind may be better grounded if there are cultures at all stages (so attempting to force or coerce societies into change is a mistake). Those that have remained at one stage for a long time are likely to have acquired some wisdom that other societies lack. For example, the founder of multiple intelligences theory, Gardner, added spatial intelligence to the list after being impressed with the spatial orientation of some indigenous people.
The above concerns highlight possible dangers if the notion of stages is not correctly understood, but there is no need to ‘throw the baby out with the bath water'. These issues are not intrinsically related to this concept, but are rather the consequence of its misinterpretation. To minimise this, a few further clarifications need to be made.
Although the stage a society is at and the average stage of the individuals in that society may coincide, these two cannot be equated. What matters is the dominant social pattern at that moment. Thus, the stage at which a particular group is can, perhaps, say something about the majority or else a powerful or influential minority, but nothing about an individual from that group, who can be at any stage. In fact, it is likely that within any reasonably large society there are individuals at all stages.
The stages of social development also cannot be associated with stable features, inherent to the group. Evidence clearly shows that such a link does not exist. Using biological (genetic) or geographical factors to determine a stage of development is nothing more than a crude attempt at reductionism. Those who try to connect race or nationality, for example, to development are most likely motivated by a need to simplify and generalise, which only reveals their own limited degree of development. Most people have a brain of sufficient capacity and other potentials to achieve any stage. If there are some minor chemical and structural differences between groups they may, arguably, affect the path of development, but not its stage. The stage depends on individuals and the society as a whole. Any group can progress, stagnate, and regress, even if the physical characteristics associated with a group do not. Of course, some circumstances and living conditions may not be favourable (e.g. not allowing any spare time for self-development), but this is a separate issue.
Stages may provide a platform, an opportunity for progress (that may happen or not), but progress should not, however, be identified with them. It seems that accumulative quantitative development plays a greater role in this respect. For example, while human sacrifices were common in the past throughout the world, nowadays they are extinct in all societies, at any stage.
The stages of social development are described below from a historical perspective (which is not to say that all societies nowadays are at the same stage). Each stage has its cross-cultural characteristics in every area of social life (religion, social and economic organisation, art, the interpretation of time, personality constructs etc.). The emphasis in the text will be on religion though, since it has less exceptions and is clearer in this respect than other areas (possibly because religion usually has a strong grip on society and affects other areas). It should be pointed out, however, that religions do not form, but provide a framework for the stages. They are taken as an example of social organisation that structures dominant processes. In any case, what follows is no more than an outline. Its only purpose is to illustrate a broad tendency, and is by no means an attempt to provide even a remotely comprehensive account of historical processes. It would be easy to find many aberrations and exceptions, but they should not cloud the view of an overall trend emerging from history.
- . This, of course, does not mean that individual and social development can be identified (tables have legs and animals have legs, but this is not to say that they are the same).