Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


A fast-paced novel of conjecture and surprises



core definition

Culturologicalism refers to an approach in the social sciences that uses cultural changes as basis for analysing social change .

explanatory context

The culturological approach was developed and popularised in the 1920s and 1930s by such people as Ogburn, White, Dorothy Thomas and Kroeber and developed later by Merton.


A major concern of the culturological approach is the ‘progress of science’. The culturologists argued that what is crucial for a culture is the practical manifestation of the development of science, i.e., invention. Further, science does not develop as the result of the work of individual geniuses, but rather is the result of cultural developments. They suggested a cultural version of the adage ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ implying that if somebody does not invent a given product someone else will. Invention is the result of the level of technological innovation not the historical accident of an individual inventive genius.


The culturological approach was opposed to the mentalistic view derived from biology and espoused by Galton (1869) and other similar products of Social Darwinism. Following the line of social critics such as Cooley, Ward and Baldwin (the first two reputedly, and, in the case of Cooley at least, evidently, having a significant impact on the Chicagoans in general), the culturological approach denied that scientific discovery was based on hereditary genius any more than inequality was based on biological differences


Culturologists did not assert that inventions were ineviatble but that they were highly probable given a certain level of mental ability. As evidence of this cultural rather than individual basis for invention, the culturologists cite the widespread occurrence of multiple discovery.

Brannigan (1982) argued that multiple discovery is the single most important argument for the culturological approach. He goes on, however, to demolish most of the instances Ogburn and Thomas cite of multiple discovery. Nonetheless, Ogburn and Thomas were convinced that discoveries were the result of cultural contexts and that if one person had not discovered them another would. Multiple simultaneous diacoveries illustrated this, rather than proved it. 'There is a good deal of evidence to indicate that the accumulation or growth of culture reaches a stage where certain inventions if not inevitable arecertainly to a high degree probable, given a certain level of mental ability.' (Ogburn, 1922, p. 343).


Brannigan notes that while Ogburn still retains a reference to menatal ability, White (1949), in citing the above passage omits the reference to menatal ability and makes it clear that genius is irrelevent to mental ability. For him, discoveries occur when culture reaches a 'critical mass' and he draws the analogy with the chain reaction in uranium once a critical size is reached. (Branniganm refers to the culturological approach as early functionalist, by the way).

Brannigan points out that A.L. Kroeber was the main source for Ogburn, Thomas and White. (See Kroeber, 1917). Kroeber's comments on the superorganic were a direct rejection of Galton's (1869) arguments relating to the determination of the social world by the organic. He took up and extended Cooley's early (1897) attack on Galton.

'According to Kroeber great periods of history emerged as a function of cultural development. Nor was Kroeber prepared to settle for the familiar nature-nuture synthesis. He reasoned that 'Organic evolution is essentially and inevitably connected with the hereditary process [but] the social evolution which characterizes the progress of civilization, on the other hand,is not, or not necessarily tied up with hereditary agencies.', Kroeber, 1917, p. 167.' (Brannigan, 1981, p. 49).

Note that as time goes on the dropping of hereditary becomes more pronounced, Kroeber, Ogburn to White.

Kroeber concentrated on an exposition of the historical patterns of discovery in science, rather than, as Cooley had done, in attacking the weaknesses in the organic view of Galton that ignored the environmental factors, notably education. Brannigan found this surprising, and while Kroeber might have enhanced his attack on the organic position, he might also have been attempting to provide an alternative stance, taking Cooley's critique (which was doubtlessly well known) as read. [Essentially, Brannigan's attack on the culturological approach leads him to a retrospective devaluation of the cultural side of Kroeber's argument].

The problem with Kroeber's view (and that of the culturological approach in general) as Brannigan points out is a circularity of argument, or, an effectively untestable propositional stance. Why ? Because to say that an invention occurs because it is culturologically the right time is effectively tautological. Whenever it occurs is the right time, irrespective of the discoverer. Society is ready for it. The only evidence that can be offered is (a) discoveries are readily accepted and assimilated by a waiting world (b) simultaneous discovery. The culturological approach approach is unable to provide any indication of when a society has reached its critical size for (certain) discoveries, this concerns Brannigan's thesis on the nature of discovery, for one is unable to predict discovery from the culturological approach appraoch.


Later, culturologists were less concerned with the level of mental ability and instead tend to a ‘critical mass’ explanation. That is, discoveries occur when culture reaches a critical mass, i.e. a level of development that explodes in a chain reaction of inventions.


Merton developed the culturological approach, contesting the Ogburn-Thomas thesis of specific simultaneous discoveries, suggesting that, in principle, all discoveries are multiples, that genius serves a functional end and that priority disputes originate. Merton (1961) offered considerable ‘related evidence’ such as statements by scientists that they have discontinued work because others have anticipated their results, that unpublished work by scientists (often published posthumously) shows that published work by others in the intervening years had been anticipated, and so on. Brannigan (1981) considered most of Merton's evidence redundant or superficial, some of it quite hypothetical and fatuous. Brannigan argued that Merton merely shows that knowledge of multiples is common but not that discoveries are in principle multiples.


On genius, Merton does not deny genius, nor does he rehabilitate it as central, he merely argues that genius is functionally equivalent to all the other workers who (later) discover what the genius discovers.Brannigan again points out the circularity in this position.Merton's position on genius leaves him with a culturological view and he clearly falls back on the Ogburn, Thomas White position 'innovations become virtually inevitable as certain kinds of knowledge accumulated in the cultural heritage and as social developments directed the attention of investigators to particular problems.' (Merton, 1973, p. 352). Given that Merton holds that all discoveries are in principle multiples the issue of priority is very important. (This has led to some studies of the reward system in science.) Merton dismisses disputes as at core egotistical (noting that disputes are not always conducted by the principles themselves) instead he suggests that community norms (originality, humility, disinterestedness) are vital.


The problem with the culturological approach is the tautological assertion that an invention occurs because it is ‘culturologically’ the right time. This is untestable. Whenever it occurs is the right time, irrespective of the discoverer. Society is ready for it. The only evidence that can be offered is (a) discoveries are readily accepted and assimilated by a waiting world (b) simultaneous discovery.


The culturological approach approach is unable to provide any indication of when a society has reached its critical size for (certain) discoveries, hence one is unable to predict discovery from the culturological approach. Further, the cited cases of simultaneous discovery have been criticised as often innacurate reconstructions by the culturologists.


See also review of Brannigan 1982 by Lee Harvey (pdf.file)


Cuturology has also developed in Eastern Europe as a branch of social sciences concerned with the scientific description and analysis of cultural activities.

analytical review

Epstein (1999) wrote the following about the Russian development of culturology:

Culturology is a specific branch of Russian humanities that found its earliest expression in the works of Nikolai Danilevsky (1822-85) and Pavel Florensky (1882-1937), culminating in the 1960s-80s with works by Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975), Aleksei Losev (1893-1988), Yury Lotman (1922-93), Vladimir Bibler (b. 1918), Georgy Gachev (b. 1929), and Sergei Averintsev (b. 1937). Culturology investigates the diversity of cultures and their modes of interaction and functions as a metadiscipline within the humanities, the aim of which is to encompass and link the variety of cultural phenomena studied separately by philosophy, history, sociology, literary and art criticism, etc.

The philosophy underlying culturology may be traced to the German intellectual tradition, particularly the views of Goethe, Herder, Windelband, Simmel, and Spengler on culture as an integral organism. From this standpoint, culture embraces various kinds of cognitive and creative activity, including politics, economics, science, the arts, literature, philosophy, and religion. All of these fields find their roots in the primordial intuition, the "para-phenomenon" of a given culture, which varies with specific historical and ethnic formations.

In Russia, this organicist concept of culture found its earliest expression in the work of Nikolai Danilevsky, a late-nineteenth-century Slavophilic thinker who half a century before Oswald Spengler outlined a certain number of cultural-historical types, including "European" and "Slavic." For Danilevsky, culture is the broadest concept that embraces four kinds of activities: religious, political, socio-economic, and cultural in the narrow sense (art, science, and technology). Culturological topics were widely discussed in prerevolutionary Russian religious philosophy, where Nikolai Berdiaev, Dmitry Merezhkovsky, and Pavel Florensky speculated on culture as a complementary aspect of cult, that is, as a free creative response of man to God's act of creation. According to Berdiaev, "in social life, the spiritual primacy belongs to culture. The goals of society are fulfilled in culture, not in politics and economics."

The concept of culture proved to be central for many important thinkers in post-Stalinist Russia as an alternative to the concept of society dominant in Marxist theory. While society is divided into classes and parties, each fighting for power and supremacy, culture has the potential to unite people and transcend social, national, and historical divisions. From a culturological standpoint, culture can be defined as a symbolic responsiveness: Any new artistic work or philosophical theory introduced into the system of culture changes the meaning of all other elements, and in this way not only does the past influence the present, but the present gives shape to the past. The model of history as a unidirectional vector, which long held sway over the Soviet mentality, was challenged by the concept of culture as a multidimensional continuum on which epochs are not successive steps in humanity's progress but coexist on equal terms and give meaning to each other.

associated issues


related areas

See also

Chicago School



Harvey review of Brannigan (1982).pdf


Brannigan, A., 1981, The Social Basis of Scientific Discoveries, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cooley, C.H., 1897, 'Genius, fame and the comparison of races', Philadelphia: Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 9, pp. 1–42.

Epstein, M., 1999, 'From Culturology to Transculture' in Transcultural Experiments: Russian and American Models of Creative Communication, New York: St. Martin's Press, pp. 15-30, available at, accessed 4 February 2013, still available 2 June 2019.

Galton, F., 1869, Hereditary Genius, London: Macmillan.

Kroeber, A. L., 1917, 'The superorganic', American Anthropologist, 19(2): 163–213.

Merton, R.K., 1961, 'Singletons and multiples in scientific discovery: a chapter in the sociology of science' Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 105(5), The Influence of Science upon Modern Culture, Conference Commemorating the 400th Anniversary of the Birth of Francis Bacon (Oct. 13, 1961), pp. 470–86.

Merton, R.K, 1973, The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and empirical investigations, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Ogburn, W. F., 1922, Social Change with Respect to Culture and Original Nature, New York: Viking Press.

White, L., 1949, The science of culture, a study of man and civilization, New York : Grove Press.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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