For the most part, social scientists either intentionally/unintentionally make vague the unit of selection, or what is being selected on (Runciman 2009; also, a previous post), or turn to the meme or something analogous (Blute 2010; Lenski 2005). But, much cultural evolution is not equivalent in reality or metaphor to its biogenetic cousin (also, Atran 2001; Boyd and Richerson 1992). We are left, then, imagining what exactly social forms of selection might work on. To this, I would argue institutional entrepreneurs (Eisenstadt 1980; Colomy 1998; Abrutyn 2009, 2014; Abrutyn and Van Ness 2015), or special collective actors who monopolize the production/distribution of “solutions” to key universal human concerns, parlay this monopoly into structural and symbolic independence, and, ultimately, carve out autonomous physical, temporal, social, and symbolic space that qualitatively transforms social reality for a significant portion of the population. Entrepreneurs are late sociologist, S.N. Eisenstadt’s, updated and modified version of Weber’s (1946) charismatic carrier groups who, in his estimation, carried various types of ethics capable of being the switchmen of history by changing the material and ideal interests adopters of these ethics pursued and, therefore, their practices and beliefs.
My argument, in essence, is that sociocultural evolution works on two inextricably linked things: the material, corporeal aspects of institutional entrepreneurs and the content of what Colomy (1998) has called their institutional projects – the construction of new “ethics” in Weberian terms or, in my terms, cultural assemblages (2016). The two are tough to decouple because they shape each other reciprocally. Well organized and structured groups are better able to activate and mobilize collective power in consequential ways, but organization and structure depend tremendously on the assemblage of cultural elements that justify and motivate (or legitimate) this collective action, while also fostering integration (and thereby some semblance of self-sacrifice) and regulation (in the form of internalization of normative emotions, attitudes, and actions). Moreover, the two work hand-in-hand in the two key measures of success or fitness: they facilitate or constrain the group’s desire and ability to reproduce and expand its human and material resource base, and they play an outsize role in the crystallization of autonomous institutional space that concomitantly elevates/protects the entrepreneur’s power and privilege as well as authority to impose their vision of social reality on a wide swath of people.
Before detailing their usefulness more clearly and also sketching greater descriptive and explanatory theoretical elements, it is worth address a key criticism my own work has received: the economic nature of the term entrepreneur. Admittedly, there are some assumptions that go along with this, and a rich literature on entrepreneurs as special economic actors (DiMaggio 1988; Aldrich and Ruef 2006). Yet, the term is quite fitting for several analogous reasons. First, entrepreneurship implies innovation. All evolution works on variation and diversity, and entrepreneurship is an apt term for denoting the creation of variation. Second, they are associated with high-risk, high-reward projects. The difference in evolutionary terms, particularly beyond the economic sphere, is that risks (particularly in many pre-liberal democractic times) scale all the way up to exile and death. Many a prophet and her closest charismatic confidants have been unceremoniously killed, squashing their institutional projects. However, the rewards are also far more than the money and prestige that comes with being an Bill Gates or Elon Musk. The elevation of an institutional entrepreneur implies some degree of ability to steer society (Luhmann 1995). That is, they not only reshape the realities of large portions of the population, and gain power, prestige, and wealth, but they also contribute to the broader trajectory of the society. Thus, like Bourdieu’s capital which reeks of economic determinism, sometimes co-opting words from currently-dominant institutional spheres serves a greater purpose than inventing a new term altogether.
What are Entrepreneurs?
Entrepreneurs are not just any group, but they work to monopolize the resources associated with one or more universal human concerns, and thus become agents of qualitative transformation. They often are built by a charismatic founder and/or charismatic group surrounding that founder, but become a force of evolution as they attract an “army” of members who carry their assemblage throughout a population. The Buddha and his disciples were charismatic carriers, but the rank and file monks become the entrepreneur (even though there remain leaders/elites). During the Gregorian Reformation (c. 1075-1200 CE), Gratian and a group of legal professors/scholars in Bolonga, Salerno, and Paris were the charismatic carriers, but the emergence of a legal profession whose practices and beliefs were relatively standardized through training became the entrepreneur. Some other notable elements are listed below:
- Entrepreneurs pursue institutional projects in which they (a) assemble cultural elements around real, perceived, or manufactured exigency(ies), (b) mobilize human and material resources, (c) articulate a frame about existing elites/structures/cultures as morally bankrupt or suspect while promoting their own, and (d) attempt to pry open structural holes to secure some independence in their activities, including producing, transmitting, and applying knowledge.
- Their innovations come in four independent, yet interrelated forms. Technological, both in the form of material objects (e.g., the plow) and knowledge of their use (e.g., metallurgy). Organizational, or the reconfiguration of divisions of labor, role-sets, and status positions. Normative, or the invention of new moral criteria for evaluating emotions, attitudes, and behaviors. And, symbolic, or the creation of new interpretations of social reality and/or bases of legitimacy.
- Their success is predicated on their assemblages ability to tip the balance of the ratio between integrative and disintegrative forces. On the one hand, this means the greater is their assemblages ability to generate internal solidarity, the greater the degree to which they are likely to reproduce themselves and their assemblage over, including drawing new members (if all things remain equal). On the other hand, once institutionalized, their assemblage must be able to sustain commitment from a broader, more diverse population and thus, again, its integrative capacities are paramount. To be sure, integration in the case of structural evolution may mean that the elite are unified in their activities and the closest ring of entrepreneurs are committed to the project, even though they often bear the brunt of inequities perpetrated by the elite. If these two rings are in lockstep, then even brutal social control and stark uneven distribution of resources can be sustained over several generations, even if the balance between integrative and disintegrative forces is nearly zero. Thus, the greater is the degree to which an institutionalized cultural assemblage generates external solidarity and/or the greater the degree to which this assemblage reduces sources of disintegration, the greater is the degree to which entrepreneurs and their assemblages will outlive the founders’ natural lives and their cultural blueprint will be reproduced intergenerationally.
There are other notable characteristics (see Abrutyn and Van Ness 2015). But, for brevity’s sake, we turn to the utility these entrepreneurs have for evolutionary sociology.
The Theoretical Utility for a New Evolutionary Sociology
Institutional entrepreneurs offer social scientists a significant advantage over the vague cultural alternatives and the poor analogies between genetic replication for several reasons. For one thing, I have argued previously that sociocultural evolution has to take seriously the very real likelihood that evolution is not linear, progressive, towards greater [insert your favorite outcome such as complexity], or complete. Entrepreneurs, being human actors, are prone to mistakes, lack of information, overestimation, blind spots, the limits of existing technologies, and existing economic/political/cultural/historical contexts and contingencies. But there are other reasons for their utility.
- Entrepreneurs are meso-level – that is, they are located above individuals, but below macro-level abstractions. As such, their efforts may operate on multiple levels highlighting the incompleteness of sociocultural evolution. They may begin by carving out autonomous institutional space or they may focus on reconstructing the stratification system. Their efforts may alter an organization, a field of organizations, or they may begin by altering how people interact within these various units of analysis.
- Entrepreneurs also point the way to two different, if interrelated, evolutionary processes in sociology (Runciman 2009). The first is at the “cultural” level, in which “fitness” or success is measured in terms of the degree to which a cultural assemblage diffuses horizontally or across a population. Some of this diffusion is purposive, as entrepreneurs recruit non-members into their movement, while some is unintentional as people conform or learn through weaker ties about the group and its project. The second process is “structural” and involves (a) the crystallization of an assemblage into the invisible frameworks of an organization or institution (e.g., the division of labor) and (b) the vertical transmission of the assemblage. This last point underscores a key difference between biological and sociological evolution: existing or new systems of domination can impose their assemblage on others in ways that increase the entrepreneur and its assemblage’s fitness (even if the assemblage is not beneficial to many who are forced into adopting it).
- This last point highlights another key difference that neo-Darwinians tend to ignore. Selection is much more varied at the sociocultural level than the biogenetic. Elevation, for instance, is one path (Verkamp 1991). The Mauryan emperor, Ashoka, and the Roman emperor Constantine, selected Buddhism and Christianity, respectively, by elevating them to official state religions. They imposed these assemblages on the people, and worked to eradicate competitors. (Of course, as Jan Assmann  demonstrates, eradication is rarely as simple or effective in the cultural world as cultural can be stored externally and thus endure). Moreover, evolution is sometimes surprising in that elites may not elevate an entrepreneur, but instead absorb, co-opt, accommodate, or share power with them. In addition to the variety of non-survival of the fittest qualities, entrepreneurs are motivated by a dizzying array of factors. Variation is not always accidental, but sometimes the product of manipulation or nefarious interests being realized. It may, in fact, be innovation in the search for traditional authority. The various waves of Israelite entrepreneurs beginning in the late 8th century BCE shows innovation kept occurring when new entrepreneurs yoked their new projects to old traditions, reworking them and redacting them to suit the changed conditions and interests of the new entrepreneurs.
- Though I am wary of the mismatch between biological & cultural analogies, entrepreneurs do open the door to introducing the other evolutionary mechanisms to sociology. The likeness to mutations is obvious, as entrepreneurship is neither guaranteed to do anything, nor is evolution guaranteed to be adaptive for a society, a segment of a society, or for a significant portion of a society. But, we can also think about gene flow, as entrepreneurs are not only capable of leaving their politically/culturally/socially bounded space and traveling to new places, but like Christianity, Buddhism, or Islam, assemblages can be made portable and can travel across boundaries through myriad paths. Sometimes adopted wholesale, other times piecemeal.
- Finally, we can return once more to the role of memory and cultural storage. Entrepreneurs can reassemble their assemblages by drawing from seemingly-dead cultural artifacts or mining forgotten or peripheral elements of existing assemblage. Culture is never really dead, unless it is forgotten. And, while many preliterate societies and their assemblages are long gone, museums, textual artifacts, and physical artifacts (e.g., walls/buildings) present potential and nascent entrepreneurs with an extensive palette to draw from. It is what makes entrepreneurship so fascinating that they are not only assembling variation that works for their members, but also because they have to react to the reactions of other strata. Powerful people create resistance and change what is most important to the assemblage; a tepid response by an important strata may cause the reconfiguration or change in emphasis of the existing assemblage.
A thought beyond the scope of the discussion is worth pointing to, as I want to write more about this moving forward. In short, Weber’s greatest insight into social change – one that is often overlooked in order to emphasize the opposition between charisma and order (traditional or legal-rational) – was his belief that an continuous tension between charisma and routine was always ready to boil over. This tension and its boil point produce crises that demand some sort of attention. Often, these crises are rooted in the over flow of disintegrative forces vis-a-vis integrative ones, but take on many specific forms throughout history. Moreover, this tension and the ensuing crisis explains both punctuated and gradual sociocultural evolution (Abrutyn and Lawrence 2010). That is, quick change may generate revitalization movements capable of reconstructing the world swiftly (Wallace 1956) or they may result from the gradual push towards entropy that is common to all societies. A sociology of crisis is something worth pursuing, even though it has seen some development from a range of scholars including Kai Erikson’s work on natural disasters, Vaughan’s work on organizational failures, functionalisms concerned with the center, such as Edward Shils, and more recently Jeffrey Alexander’s recurring theme of cultural trauma, pollution, and crisis. Fodder for another post and another day.