History Of Progress Research Paper

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The idea of progress was integral to the project of creating social sciences in eighteenth-century Europe, and the relationship has continued since. During the nineteenth century, the idea that ‘civilization has moved, is moving, and will move in a desirable direction’ (Bury 1932) was the historical framework and central problematic of social science theory and practice. The idea of progress as inevitable collapsed in the vicissitudes of the twentieth century, although in mitigated forms, it continued, waxing and waning with historical expectations. One component, the idea of the progress of the social sciences, figured prominently as the ideology of the social science disciplines.

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1. Eighteenth-Century Origins

The idea of progress and the idea of social science were centrally involved in each other’s origin. Both emerged as part of the historicist understanding of history as a realm of human construction, propelled ever forward in time and taking new qualitative forms. Modern society was thus decisively different from its feudal and ancient forerunners, engaged upon a novel historical course. Replacing earlier cyclical and supernatural views of historical time, progress instantiated in human history the teleological movement that governed the Christian drama of redemption. Progress was a universal journey, and the array of human differences sharpened for European thinkers the progressive character of their own society and the stages by which they had reached modernity (Meek 1976). The emergence of the social sciences was itself a lynchpin of progress. Science was understood as the most advanced form of reason and the extension of the progress of science into the realm of government and morals—barely begun—was central to the expectation of civilizational advance. By the same token, the task of the social sciences was to understand the forces that were propelling the modern European world and to guide it into the future.

The theories of progress propounded in the eighteenth century drew upon, and were often coincident with, the early formulations of social science. Associationist psychology explained the ability of human mental capacities to improve over time, while the studies of historians and economists and the observations of travelers set the trajectory of progress toward greater complexity and refinement: with increasing social differentiation and intercourse, came improving manners, morals, knowledge, and rationality. The guiding role of providence in this process was still visible, but it was understood to work through nature. Particularly in the UK and France, natural principles assured the existence and continuation of progress.

Several major theories of progress emerged in this context. Scottish ‘philosophical historians’ like Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson developed four or five-stage theories of history in which the economic mode of production at each stage shaped political organization, customs, and moral temper. The expansion of population, the division of labor, and technological advance nonetheless emerged within a complex social process, as history was often the result of unintended consequences. In contrast, the philosophes of the French Enlightenment like Condorcet believed reason to be the key factor in historical progress. The rational acts of enlightened individuals, and particularly of utilitarian science, moved history forward, while ignorance and war held it back. In Germany, Kant and Herder made historical progress the work of philosophical and moral reason. History was the progressive fulfillment of humanity’s moral and spiritual destiny, realized through the unique development of each historical people.

Emerging in contested political arenas, the early theories of progress staked out ideological positions of longstanding influence in politics and the social sciences. Designedly, Smith’s view lent itself to a liberal presumption against state action; Condorcet’s view, to a justification of the authority of social scientists in the guidance of society; and Kant’s view, to a liberalism subordinated to idealist ends. If the reliance on progressive reason assigned all evil to its reactionary enemies, the Scottish view recognized that progress involved secondary losses. Smith’s critique of the diminished life of industrial labor began a longstanding discourse that made progress itself responsible for the problems of modern society.

2. The Nineteenth-Century Triumph Of Progress

The French Revolution raised the stakes for both progress and social science as the millennial hopes it aroused were projected into the secular future. Progress became the dominant view of history among the educated classes of Europe and North America, while contesting versions of progress proliferated. Responding to rapid capitalist development and the continuing possibility of political and social revolution, theorists of political economy, sociology, and anthropology recast the eighteenth-century theories of progress and sought to specify the factors that controlled the course of history.

The classical political economy that developed from Smith focused on the natural laws of economic growth and, of equal importance, on how the expanded product would be distributed. The question of whether the average workman would be better off, despite growing inequality, became urgent as egalitarian, utopian versions of progress appeared. The Reverend Thomas Malthus argued that food supply would keep wages at subsistence level. His political economy, informed by an Anglican reading of history, supported a cautious view of progress, incorporating cyclical movement and the necessity of suffering. The theories of David Ricardo were often pressed into this mold, though most practicing economists, including Ricardo, maintained a more optimistic scenario of growth based on capital accumulation. By midcentury, recognition of the role of technology in increasing productivity shifted the weight of economic opinion toward more optimistic predictions of growth (Berg 1990).

American exceptionalists and socialist radicals transformed this liberal political economy in opposite directions. Henry C. Carey argued that the uncultivated American continent would abrogate altogether the action of Malthusian law, vindicating America’s utopian historical course (Ross 1991). Socialists, charging the capitalist economy with the degradation of workmen and the destruction of community, made capitalism an intermediate stage, to be superceded by socialism. In Karl Marx’s formulation, history progressed by a process of historical contradiction between the forces and social relations of production: capitalism produced within itself the revolutionary proletariat that would destroy it and the technological basis of abundance that would support socialism (Cohen 1978).

August Comte, inheriting Condorcet’s identification of historical progress with progress of the human mind, made social science its central agent. Civilization moved by necessary law from the theological to the metaphysical to the ultimate stage, the scientific, still struggling to be born. Although this trajectory was inevitable, action in accord with historical law could ease the transition. A new science of society, sociology, would objectively examine the world as it is and, based thereon, set out a plan for the rational ordering of society, opinion, and feeling (Lenzer 1975). Herbert Spencer’s version of sociology, influenced by liberal political economy and Scottish philosophical history, removed the central planning role from sociology, but gave it the same power to discern the laws of historical progress to which successful social action must conform. More complacent about his own era, Spencer believed that the industrial age would encourage moral, intellectual, and social improvement. Spencer turned historical progress into a process of social evolution, drawing on biological notions of adaptation to the environment, the inheritance of acquired characteristics, and an embryological model of differentiation to form a cosmic law of evolution (Peel 1971).

Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859) reinforced both the idea of progress and the use of biological analogy. Despite the radically nonprogressivist implications of natural selection, Darwin’s theory, with its suggestion of the continuity of animal and human life, was often read in this era of faith in progress—even by Darwin himself—as a proof of the progressive character of both evolution and history. The contemporaneous recognition of the long age of the earth created a space for ‘prehistory,’ solidifying the uniquely advanced position of European civilization (Segal 2000). Social scientists developed a ‘comparative method’ that sorted peoples and races on an evolutionary grid, assigning them to stages of a single evolutionary process by Euro-centered hierarchical standards, although that gradient was always subject to Romantic subversion (Bowler 1989).

3. The Problem Of Progress, 1890–1914

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the social sciences formed specialized, university-based disciplines, in part to grapple with the accelerating problems of modernity. As industrialization, democracy, and imperialism transformed society, Enlightenment hopes for modernity took chastened forms. At the same time, more stringent conceptions of science outlawed deterministic laws of history like those of Comte and Spencer as metaphysical constructions and called attention to the moral valuation inherent in the concept. By the early twentieth century, the rediscovery of Mendelian genetics attenuated the link between evolutionary biology and historical change, and critics, notably anthropologist Franz Boas, attacked the comparative method and its assumption of a single line of evolutionary advance. Progress no longer appeared to leading social scientists as an inevitable, universal process, guaranteed by natural or historical law. Yet the question of what form, and how beneficial a form, modern society would take remained central as did many nineteenth-century terms of discussion.

In economics, marginalism shifted the focus of attention from economic growth to allocation. Those who joined the mixed neoclassical discourse that resulted grounded capitalism in laws analogous to the laws of physical nature and retained optimistic assumptions of economic growth and its central role in social advance, but those assumptions no longer framed their specialized and dehistoricized discourse. Other economists who sought a qualitative change in capitalism worked within a self-consciously historical or institutional framework, like the socialist Thorstein Veblen, who asked in 1899 ‘Why Is Economics Not an Evolutionary Science?’ (Ross 1991).

Sociologists narrowed their focus to the tendencies of modern society. In Germany, where antimodernist attitudes flourished, sociologists were most pessimistic. For Ferdinand Tonnies and Max Weber, traditional community (Gemeinschaft) and modern capitalist society (Gesellschaft) marked polar modes of social organization. The impersonality and loss of spirituality of modern society were inevitable con- sequences of its organizing principles. Weber, more than Tonnies, saw the positive advantages of instrumental rationality, yet termed the framework it built for modern society an ‘iron cage’ (Liebersohn 1988).

Emile Durkheim, like American sociologists, retained the more hopeful nineteenth-century formulation that placed the present troubled society in transition to a more harmonious modernity. Durkheim (1933, [1893]) argued that a new kind of functional and normative social integration was forming; the anomie of individuals thrown outside the regulative norms of society by the upheavals of social transformation would subside as modern society reached equilibrium. Edward A. Ross posited a transition from the natural social control of face-to-face community to the more fragile, ‘artificial’ controls of modern society, similar to the German model of Gemeinschaft Gesellschaft, but he too expected that a harmonious adjustment would be reached (Ross 1991).

It was primarily in thinking about their own role in modern society that social scientists returned to, and reaffirmed, the central role of science in progress. In his presidential address to the American Psychological Association in 1899, John Dewey expressed both the anxieties of modernity and the solution favored by his colleagues. ‘With tremendous increase in control of nature,’ he noted, ‘we find the actual realization of ends, the enjoyment of values growing unassured and precarious.’ But, he added ‘the entire problem is one of the development of science and of its application to life.’ When the social sciences are further developed, ‘we can anticipate no other outcome than increasing control in the ethical sphere’ comparable to ‘the revolution that has taken place in the control of physical nature’ (Dewey 1976, 1: 149–50). That science itself progressed, that it produced increasing control over nature and social life, and that such control worked to the benefit of humanity remained un- questioned. This faith served as the ideological basis for the social science disciplines.

4. Progress Dethroned, 1914–1945

The most severe challenges to the idea of progress occurred in the decades spanned by the two world wars: economic depression, totalitarian politics, and wars that unleashed mass destruction made possible by modern science and technology. At the same time, the intellectual and cultural changes that had undermined the idea of progress in the late nineteenth century gathered force after World War I. A sharp sense of historical discontinuity, breaking off the new world of mass production, mass consumption, and mass politics from the past, also broke the sense of cumulative gain in civilization on which progress depended. Historians mark World War I as the end of progress both as an unquestioned public faith and as an idea that social scientists could presuppose or hope to demonstrate.

What remained open was the possibility of limited lines of progress, as human constructions, and the hope, still carried by the Marxist and liberal traditions and in the USA by an exceptionalist historical faith, that limited the gains worked toward the larger progress of history. Thus the American sociologist William F. Ogburn explained that social scientists had dropped the term progress and were instead studying ‘social change,’ as a ‘term free from dogmatic or moral implications.’ Social change is caused by inventions, Ogburn argued, but inventions occur unevenly, creating ‘lags’ until society ‘adjusts.’ In his analysis, however, adjustments can always be made and society was always better off when they were. Progress was not so much abandoned as forced underground (Ogburn 1930).

The point at which it remained still vibrantly alive, especially in the USA, was the faith in science. The new understanding of science itself suggested that if science did not mirror reality, it could more readily reconstruct reality to human purposes (Porter 1994). While Ogburn was moderate in his hopes for prediction and control, other American social scientists of the 1920s, like the Behaviorist psychologist John B. Watson and the political scientist Charles Merriam, expressed utopian faith in science and technology (Ross 1991). A more sober tone emerged throughout the West in the 1930s, but the possibility of historical progress through science remained a central feature of American social science theory and ideology.

5. The Return Of Progress, 1945–1970

In the decades after World War II, the vision of a progressive modern society guided by science gained energy and urgency from the defeat of fascism, the disintegration of colonial empires, and the threat of communism. As the strongest power to emerge from the war, the USA embraced that vision with renewed self-confidence. In what was experienced as the ‘American Moment’ of an ‘American Century,’ the USA already appeared to stand at the summit of world history ready to embody the values its exceptionalist history promised.

This static notion of historical time was mirrored in social science theories of functionalist, cybernetic, and equilibrium systems that nonetheless incorporated the idea of progress. The sense of progress achieved was embodied most visibly in modernization theory, which measured the distance the underdeveloped world still needed to traverse to achieve the American or Western norm (Latham 1999).

Modernization theory also marked one of the many points in these decades at which the social scientists’ ideology of progress through social science entered into the substance of social science theory. Thus modernization was defined as a ‘process of social change that seeks to govern itself by rational policy planning’ for which social scientists were ‘indispensable’ (Lerner 1968). Talcott Parsons suggested that academic intellectuals and the practical professionals they trained had become ‘the most important single component in the structure of modern societies,’ displacing from leadership the older political and newer capitalist class (Parsons 1968).

The possibility of progress, along with the liberal and Marxist traditions in which it was imbedded, revived in Western Europe with postwar reconstruction, although with far greater circumspection. In Germany, Jurgen Habermas blended native Marxist traditions with American theories of pragmatism and democracy to project not a utopian future, but an ideal against which modern society might measure its defects (A. Giddens on Habermas, in Skinner 1985). The dehumanizing character of modern society remained a powerful, and sometimes dominant, theme in German sociology.

The idea of progress and its drawbacks also played a conspicuous role in the development of the social sciences in the non-Western world. As an arm of secular, Western-style development, the social sciences had been since the nineteenth century a major site of debate over whether Western or native paths to modernity should be chosen. After World War II, the developing world also served as a major source of critical revision of Western conceptions of modernization, recasting modernization as economic dependency, or redefining tradition and modernity as mutually transformative rather than diametrically opposed processes.

6. Postmodernism And Progress

Political conflicts in Europe and the USA in the 1960s shattered the American Moment, opening the way for longstanding discontents with modernity and reconsideration of the idea of progress (Salomon 1955). The most radical challenge—the postmodern critique of modernity—emerged in the home of the rationalist Enlightenment. Francois Lyotard attacked the idea of progress, with its universalist and rationalist premises, as the basis of the most oppressive, totalitarian impulses of modern Western society. Michel Foucault pointed specifically to the professions and social sciences as the source of the knowledge power that disciplined the unruly masses of modern society in the name of enlightened rationality. The pluralistic and libertarian values that animated this critique gained power from the increasing reach of Western capitalism into every area of the world and the proliferation of multi-ethnic societies. Globalization in the postmodern reading was producing not a single narrative of universal progress, but a pluralistic, hybrid world of many historical narratives. However, as the term postmodern suggests this vision can be read as a liberationist narrative of progress, drawn from Romantic, rather than Enlightenment, strains of modernity (McGowan 1991).

This pluralistic vision had some influence on the social sciences as a support of feminism and multiculturalism within the USA and as a counter to Americanization elsewhere. The liberal, Western- centered idea of progress revived, however, on the strength of the free-market neoclassical paradigm in economics, with its presumption of capitalist-led progress, and a revival of the narrative of American exceptionalism after the fall of communism. Globalization in that context defined progress as the Americanization of the world.

The most fundamental aspect of the postmodern critique of progress, however, was its critique of scientific reason. Here, postmodern critics joined broader currents of philosophical criticism of positivism and analysis of the linguistic and social construction of knowledge. Although Thomas Kuhn argued that The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) did not destroy the idea of scientific progress, it did radically remove the sciences from a universalistic narrative of the progressive discovery of truth and re- situate them in a social-historical world of shifting purposes and uncertain directions (B. Barnes on Kuhn, in Skinner 1985). Most social scientists in the USA have not paid attention to the philosophical debates around this work. Indeed, in those segments of social science identified most closely with mathematics and natural science, like economics, older positivist understandings of science are especially powerful (Backhouse 1997). However, the context of critique has weakened the self-confidence, and with it, the ideological construction of the progress of social science, among other segments of the social science disciplines. While the eighteenth-century formulation of historicism as the story of progress gave the social sciences their charter, the critical historicism of the late twentieth century called for a reformulation of both the historical assumptions and the self-understanding of the social science disciplines.


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