Elman Rogers Service

From New World Encyclopedia

Elman Rogers Service (May 18, 1915 – November 14, 1996) was an American neo-evolutionary cultural anthropologist, famous for his contribution to the development of the modern theory of social evolution. Service made detailed studies of early cultures in Central and South America, focusing on the development of political structure. He developed a four-stage model of societal evolution, arguing that all cultures progressed from societies based on family and kinship structures to chiefdoms and then states. He argued that such development occurred naturally, with leadership by the tribal elders giving way to chiefs who led benevolently, taking care of the members of their society, gradually developing bureaucracies and the rise of the state. His concept of the chiefdom has been particularly well-accepted among archaeologists, and its application to their research has led to coherent syntheses of early human histories.


Elman Rogers Service was born on May 18, 1915, in Tecumseh, Michigan. Due to the Great Depression, his high school closed in 1933, shortly before his final year. Service somehow managed to graduate and wanted to continue to study at the University of Michigan. Lack of money, however, prevented him from pursuing his dream immediately. Instead, he found a job in a southern California aircraft factory, and after earning enough money he finally enrolled in the University of Michigan.

The social tragedy of the Depression and his own experiences of hardship inevitably influenced Service’s decision to turn to social sciences. His later focus in his career—studying the origins and institutionalization of inequality and the problem of injustice—can be understood in this light. Furthermore, in the mid-1930s Service joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain to fight fascism. It was during this experience, and his friendship with an anthropologist whom he met during those years, that Service decided to dedicate his career to anthropology.

After he returned to the United States in 1938, he continued with his studies at the University of Michigan, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English literature in 1941. He continued with graduate studies at the University of Chicago in 1942, but then decided to join the U.S. army, serving in France in a mapping unit during World War II.

At the end of the war, he entered Columbia University. The Columbia Anthropology Department at the time was divided into two camps: one that advocated a comparative approach, headed by Julian Steward and his students, and the other that was formed of Boasian followers and grouped around Ruth Benedict, espousing cultural relativism. Service and a number of other students, among them Stanley Diamond, Morton Fried, Robert Manners, Sidney Mintz, and Eric Wolf supported Steward, forming a group they called the Mundial Upheaval Society (M.U.S.). They met regularly holding weekly seminars, discussing each others papers, and grew to become a rather popular society. Service received his Ph.D. in 1950 with a thesis on Guarani acculturation and a year of fieldwork in Paraguay.

Service began teaching at Columbia in 1949, and remained there until 1953. From there, he went back to the University of Michigan to teach from 1953 to 1969. He later taught at the University of California at Santa Barbara from 1969 to 1985, when he retired. He is remembered as a great lecturer and an eloquent writer. His published numerous books and articles, many of which passed through several editions. He served as the Secretary-Treasurer of the American Ethnological Society and a member of the American Anthropological Association.

By the end of his career Service’s sight deteriorated, leaving him nearly blind. He died in 1996 in Santa Barbara, California. He was survived by his wife Helen Stephenson, a fellow anthropologist, who was a great help in his work. They were married for more than 50 years.


Elman Service researched Latin American Indian ethnology, cultural evolution, the evolution of political institutions, and theory and method in ethnology. He studied cultural evolution in Paraguay and Mexico, and several other cultures in Latin America and the Caribbean. His major fieldwork was systematized in his work Tobati: Paraguayan Town (1954), which he wrote with his wife, Helen. These studies led to his theories about social systems and the rise of the state as a system of political organization.

Service argued that early societies were based on kinship relationships and blood lineage, and therefore did not need any official government. Tribe elders usually led other members of the society. Once government was developed as a leading body of society, ruling elites took over and social inequality became institutionalized. In his integration theory, he explained that early civilizations were not stratified based on property or unequal access to resources. They were only stratified based on unequal political power. He believed that in early civilizations there were no true class conflicts (as suggested by Marxists), but only power struggles between and within the political elites.

Service defined four stages of social evolution, which also constitute the four levels of political organization: band, tribe, chiefdom, and state. He developed the "managerial benefits" theory that chiefdom-like society developed because it was apparently beneficial for all members, and because of centralized leadership. The leader provided benefits to the followers, which, over time, became more complex, benefiting the whole chiefdom society. This kept the leader in power, and allowed a bureaucratic organization to grow, which then developed into the state. Benefits offered by ruling groups, according to Service, outweighed the exploitative nature of their rule in early civilizations, enabling their peaceful growth.

Critics, however, objected that the peace within such societies was achieved rather through coercion, the cost paid by the ruled class. These contrasting views are known as the "integrationist" and "conflict" positions, and have continued to be debated.


Service’s proposal of “chiefdom” as the missing link between tribe and state was an important concept in theories of the development of early societies. Archaeological excavations in Service’s time mostly supported his ideas, and archaeologists overwhelmingly embraced his concept as the theoretical framework for their work. For example, Sanders' and Price's 1968 synthesis of Mesoamerican prehistory was one of the first applications of Service’s evolutionary theory.

Service gave cultural evolution theory a new boost, after years of stagnation under the prevailing anti-evolutionist milieu that dominated mid-twentieth century anthropology.

His long teaching career of over 40 years encompassed an extensive audience, augmented by the fact that his textbook, Profiles in Ethnology, which went through three editions (1958, 1963, 1971), was widely adopted. Other books, such as Primitive Social Organization (1962, 1971) and The Hunters (1966, 1979), were adopted as texts; a number of his books were issued in translation (in Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, German, and Hungarian); many of his articles and chapters, such as "Indian-European Relations in Colonial and Latin America" (1955), "Kinship Terminology and Evolution" (1960), and "The Law of Evolutionary Potential" (1960), were reprinted in collections directed to students. Thus, his influence was great within the academic community of the time.


  • Service, Elman R. 1954. Tobati: Paraguayan Town. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
  • Service, Elman R. 1955. Indian-European relations in colonial Latin America. American Anthropological Association.
  • Service, Elman R. 1958. A Profile of Primitive Culture. Harper & Row Publishers.
  • Service, Elman R. and M. D. Sahlins. 1960. Evolution and Culture. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press. ISBN 0472087762
  • Service, Elman R. 1970. Cultural Evolutionism: Theory in Practice. International Thomson Publishing. ISBN 0030804655
  • Service, Elman R. 1971 (Original 1962). Primitive Social Organization (2nd edition). New York: Random House. ISBN 0394316355
  • Service, Elman R. 1975. Origins of the State and Civilization. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. Inc. ISBN 0393092240
  • Service, Elman R. 1978. (Original 1958). Profiles in Ethnology (3rd edition). Addison Wesley Publishing Company. ISBN 0060459123
  • Service, Elman R. 1979. (Original 1966). The Hunters. Prentice Hall. ISBN 0134481003
  • Service, Elman R. 1985. A Century of Controversy, Ethnological Issues from 1860 to 1960. Academic Press. ISBN 0126373825

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Rambo, Terry A. & Kathleen Gillogly. 1991. Profiles in Cultural Evolution: Papers from a Conference in Honor of Elman R. Service. University of Michigan Museum. ISBN 0915703238

External Links

All links retrieved February 13, 2024.


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