This main focus of this paper is the critical analysis of Lewis Henry Morgan legacy; with the main emphasis on his contribution to the field of sociology. The first will basically deal with his life in general and the subsequent sections will focus on his contribution to the understanding of sociology.
By profession, Lewis Henry Morgan was an attorney, but later became an ethnologist and anthropologist and he was renowned for his outstanding theory of social revolution. He was born on 21 November 1818, in New York’s Aurora area. He studied and graduated from Schenectady area’s Union College in 1840. He later studied law and later opened an office in 1844 in Rochester. He passed on 17th of December, 1881 in New York’s Rochester (Stern, 1960).
Despite of his professional work in law, his interest in western New York’s Iroquois people started growing. His interest in these people grew to the point he started championing for the rights of the Native Americans against oppression by the white people. Morgan carried out an extensive evaluation of the Iroquois confederation, specifically the Seneca tribe. The Seneca tribe had adopted Morgan in 1846. He carried out a survey on this people’s history, material culture and social organizations all of these culminated in his publication: League of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee, or Iroquoisof 1851. This publication is one of the earliest ethnographic works that was objective (Nisbet and Gottfried, 2004).
After his election as president of Association for the Advancement of science during the 1879 meeting of the organization, Morgan decided to continue with his anthropological work or interest from a scientific perspective. In his earlier survey he had noted that the Seneca had a unique way of designating relatives when compared to the white civilization. These people i.e. the Seneca people put their close relatives such as nephews, uncles, cousins into a direct line that categorized these relatives or kin as brothers, fathers etc. unlike the white civilizations which was characterized with clear distinction in descent line, these people (Seneca) lacked it. After his 1885 business trip to Michigan, he found out that the Ojibwa tribe had similar classification of relatives as the Seneca people of western New York. This prompted him to carry out an extensive research on the terms of kinships employed by different people (Trautman, 1998).
His initial research involved the sending of questionnaires to potential respondents. On his quest for information on both designation terms and other cultural aspects, Morgan travelled into different parts of the United States of America between 1859 and 1862. This pioneer research led to the presentation of an outstanding work which formed the foundation of present day anthropological evaluation on the systems of kinship as the basis for organization in majority of societies that are tribal in 1871. This work was termed:Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family (Stern, 1960). Morgan was able to demonstrate the wide spread of this system of classification both in the ancient and present world. This was his major contribution to the field of anthropology.
According to Morgan, kinship classification system originated from an “era of promiscuity”. He argued that during this period people had no ability to distinguish uncle from father or nephew from son, for example. Despite the adoption of marriage rules or regulations on later days, the ancient terminologies never ceased to be used and later still, in Morgan’s perspective, as civilization of societies advanced, individuals made distinctions between his/ her relatives and immediate family. But majority of anthropologist are opposed to the existence of an “era of promiscuity” at any given time of human development or development of the family (Trautman, 1998).
From this research on kinship, Morgan postulated his cultural evolution theory which was contained in his 1877 famous compilation Ancient Society, or Researches in the Lines of Human progress from Savagery through Barbarism to Civilization. This formed the first major scientific explanation of origin of evolution and civilization. Morgan was of the opinion that the three phases/ stages of evolution of human culture i.e. savagery, barbarism and civilization are as a result of changes in food production. For Morgan, savagery (stage of hunting and gathering), took place in pre-agricultural period. Barbarism was characterized with the making of pottery and agriculture that was settled. Civilization in Morgan’s words was characterized with the advent of writing, advanced agriculture and this is the most advanced stage (Stern, 1960).
Morgan postulated that the evolution of humans was a unidirectional process that started from savagery and ended at civilization; with the latter being the most advanced stage. Morgan emphasized on the role played by material factors on evolution and this emphasis caught went down well with Friedrich Engels and Karl Marks who were of the same opinion and felt that Morgan was complementing on their own findings (Nisbet and Gottfried, 2004).
Morgan’s works and theories indicated the existence of a link between technological advance and social progress. He greatly pointed out the vitality of property and family relations. He elucidated the complex interplay between technological advancement, of property relations, family relations, of complex social structures and governance systems and development in terms of intelligence (Morgan, 1997).
Despite of the fact that majority of Morgan’s findings have been disputed by modern day anthropologists, the impact he left in the field of anthropology was enormous. His was the founder of the kinship sub-discipline studies. The modern day anthropologies are specifically interested with studying the connections between social structure and material culture. Morgan’s works had left an impact on the other anthropologists like Karl Marx and Engels who also shared his views. His works have an impact even in the modern day political system of the United States. Morgan was of the opinion that the progress and greatness of the United States of America rested on the property and power diffusion. He believed that earning of wages should be permanent a stage in America. According to Morgan, greed is what drives progress. This is evident in the social theory that he developed. He was against the culture accumulation of power and wealth during America’s civil war (Maus, 2001).