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The Shapes of Progress: Configurations of Social Change Before and After Modernization

September 07, 2017
12:00 PM - 02:00 PM
Humanities Center Conference Room D

Dan Reichman presents as part of the Jesse L. Rosenberger Work-in-Progress Seminar Series. Lunch will be provided. Please RSVP to

Does progress have a shape? This paper is an intellectual history of how anthropologists and other social scientists have thought about social change, particularly modernization. I focus primarily on the period between 1945 and 1970, when the theory and practice of “Third World” modernization was at the height of its influence. During this period, progress became an object for technical study and governmental intervention in a way that it never had been before. I argue that the post-World War II period was marked by a major shift in how intellectuals gave aesthetic form to the abstractions like progress and its more technical sibling, development. Prior to this period, progress was configure through cyclical, wave-like shapes, which showed long-term rises and falls of civilizations over time. At some point in the late 1940s, these undulating shapes were largely supplanted by unidirectional configurations of progress or decline, depicted as either lines or spirals that moved upward or downward. When and why did the shape of progress shift from waves into lines and upward and downward spirals?

Category: Work in Progress Seminar