Social Change Essay

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Change can be defined as a succession of events which produce over time a modification or replacement of particular patterns or units by other novel ones” (Smith 1973: 1). Sociology as a discipline emerged in the middle of the nineteenth century as an attempt to explain the great waves of change sweeping Europe in the form of industrialization and democratization, and the observed gap between European and colonized societies.

The diagnosis of change or stability depends on the theoretical approach used to explain the causal mechanisms operating on the observed unit of analysis. Classical sociology was not only preoccupied with the explanation of the uniqueness of observed change, for example, the rise of capitalism in the west, but it was grounded on the assumption that some general principles and mechanisms producing all observed changes could be discovered. For Comte, such principles were the development of knowledge and ideas, for Marx dialectics of productive forces and productive relationships.

Theoretical approaches to the question of macro-societal change can be divided into two broad groups. In the first are theories starting from the assumption that underlying principles, general laws of social change, could be discovered. Although they differ in the acceptance of directionality or nonlinearity of change, they have in common the belief of basic principles.” On the other hand, we have theories rejecting this assumption and trying to explain particular historical events or configurations of factors characterizing group of events like revolutions or empires.

The first group of theories is based on the idea of evolution. According to that approach, the general mechanism of historical change can be described as going through certain stages driven by some inherent forces. These stages are the expression of some basic principle and are pointing in a certain direction. For Comte, societies go through three stages: a theological-military, a metaphysical-judicial and a scientific-industrial stage. Karl Marx can also be classified within the frames of classical evolutionary thinking. His evolutionism was of a particular kind, with class conflict being the main force producing change.

Another subgroup of evolutionary theories is based on the idea of close resemblance of biological and social evolution. Herbert Spencer developed an evolutionary scheme for explaining historical change. The evolution of society can be understood by comparing it to the growth of an organism. Both increase in size and in structure, from a few like parts to numerous interrelated unlike parts.

Modern evolutionary theory is less rigid in interpreting the stages of history. Nolan and Lenski in Human Societies, An Introduction to Macrosociology (1999) based their explanation of social change on the increased technological capacities of societies. New technologies of material production, as of information processing, send ripples of change through all aspects of social life. The evolution of societies is not predetermined but some general evolutionary patterns can be detected.

Another approach intertwined with evolutionism is functionalism. It regards change as the adaptation of a social system to its environment by the process of differentiation and increasing structural complexity. Society is viewed as a complex and interconnected pattern of functions, and change is explained as an epiphenomenon of the constant search for equilibrium. The dominant system structure is taken as the fixed point of reference against which other structures or latent consequences are seen as potentially disruptive. This means that deviance and strains of various kinds are residual in the model. They are not given full-fledged status as integral parts of the system as in the conflict model of social change.

Another group of theories emphasizes the cycles of growth and decay. The roots of this approach are in the works of philosophers like Arnold Toynbee and Oswald Spengler. The four volumes of Social and Cultural Dynamics (1937-41) by Pitirim Sorokin are a sociological version of philosophizers’ cyclical analysis. He saw societies oscillating among three different types of mentalities; sensate, ideational, and idealistic.

The main position of modern historical sociology, which is another type of general theory, is that there can be no single explanation for all the important transitions in human history. Important contemporary work in that tradition includes Barrington Moore’s The Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (1966), Theda Skopcol’s States and Social Revolutions (1979) and Randall Collins’ Weberian Sociological Theory (1986) and Macrohistory (1999).


  1. Smith, A. (1973)The Concept of Social Change. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.
  2. Vago, S. (2004) Social Change. Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.

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