Gerhard Lenski and Jean Lenski

The Evolution of Technology

Gerhard Lenski is a contemporary U.S. sociologist who is well known for his research on religion, social inequality, and history. Jean Lenski, a writer and poet who passed away in 1994, frequently collaborated with her husband in sociological research. Together, they brought to the attention of their sociological colleagues a wide range of research on the role of technology in human societies. To the Lenskis, technology underlies all other facets of social life by determining how that society processes material resources from its natural surroundings. With little ability to manipulate nature, technologically simple societies are at the mercy of their surroundings (a situation we sometimes wistfully call living “in tune” with nature). Technologically simple societies tend to resemble one another; the variations among them basically correspond to their distinctive natural environments. By contrast, technologically sophisticated societies like our own wield enormous power to reshape the physical world according to human designs, and develop the striking cultural diversity described in Chapter 3 (“Culture”). Yet human technology is homogenizing much of the cultural variation in the world today. In light of this increasing global connectedness, it is interesting to wonder whether human cultures are making a shift toward greater similarity once again.

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