The literature on economic growth seems to have settled on productivity as the defining measure of progress, which is not unreasonable. But there is a largely empirical literature from the second half of the previous century that was interested in cultural complexity. That literature was mostly and anthropological interest in preliterate societies, though there was some archaeological work on ancient civilizations as well. That work, as far as I know, has been given almost consideration in economist’s study of growth.
In the mid-1990s the late David Hays undertook a review and synthesis of the literature on cultural complexity: The Measurement of Cultural Evolution in the Non-Literate World (1998). I would like to quote a passage from that book. Though I quote it without explain the context, the import should be obvious enough (p. 203):
Using the 1953 Yellow Pages for central Los Angeles, Naroll estimated that there must exist 500 craft specialties in that area, and guessed at 1000 or more in “the entire Los Angeles settlement” (1956:702). That would be 10-20 times as many as his regression line predicted:
What is involved may be a curved line of regression or it may be a step function, a jump from one allometric line to another reflecting a sudden fundamental change in developmental dynamics . . .
[…] The number of occupational specialties recognized by the United States government in its official classification is in the tens of thousands. But something different again can be seen in contemporary life. Whereas middle-aged workers who lose factory jobs have much difficulty preparing for a new kind of work, educated young persons switch from one specialty to another spontaneously. The concept of a lifetime dedication to a single craft specialty, which may be as old as burnt pottery and woven cloth, is perhaps about to lose its hold on economic life.
Two things: 1) that regression line was based on studies of non-literate cultures. The number of craft specialties would seem to represent a fundamentally different kind of social organization, rather than simply more and more of the same old same old. 2) What about the proliferation of craft/occupational specialties in the last quarter to half a century?
That may not represent growth as economists understand it, but it surely represents an important aspect of cultural change. Perhaps the economists need to take account of it.