I mean as a nonnormative, purely technical, sociological-scientific designation of a condition of a culture.
Tonight I was watching a rerun of Bones, where the victim was identified as a nine-year-old kiddie-pageant star, and Bones makes a remark about obsession with beauty being a common feature of “cultures in decline.” Saying it as if it were a scientific fact, and as an anthropologist she should know.
It reminded me of an SF short story I read once, dating from the 1950s or ‘60s, in which the first ET visitors to Earth turn out to be giant snails with elaborate, flattersome, self-abasing manners. They sell the Earthlings (at a high price, I forget what, probably uranium) some wonderful devices which stop working shortly after they leave. One of the characters, an anthropologist, finally figures out: “Of course! They’re decadent! They have all the signs!” IOW, the ETs’ behavior shows their culture is in a period with no real creativity, so they get along by buying clapped-out machines from other species and sell them to interstellar rubes. This being the Silver Age of SF, the age of John Campbell, the humans soon prove themselves masters of the situation in a way I won’t spoil. But, the story seems to reflect an assumption of the time that “decadence” is an objectively observable condition of a civilization, and one that any anthropologist worth his salt can reliably recognize, from signs that transcend the context of culture and even species. For all I know, anthropologists and sociologists in the 1950s might actually have believed that; but there really anything to it?