6 Most Important Theories of “Social Change”

1. Theory of Deterioration:

Some thinkers identify social change with deterioration. According to them man originally lived in a perfect state of happiness i.e. golden bliss. Subsequently, however, deterioration began to take place with the result that man reached an age of comparative degeneration. This was the notion in the ancient times. It was expressed in the epic poems of India, Persia and Sumeria. According to Indian mythology man has passed through four ages. Satyug, Treta, Dwapar and Kaliyug.

The Satyug was the best age in which man was honest, truthful and perfectly happy. Thereafter degeneration began to take place. The modern age is the age of Kaliyug wherein man is deceitful, treacherous, false, dishonest, selfish and consequently unhappy.

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This view of social change as deterioration dates ancient times. It stands rejected in contemporary times However, even today some thinkers project such a thinking when they lament and say that in our times there has taken place a deterioration in almost every walk of life.

2. Linear Evolutionary Theory or Stage Theory of Social Change:

Evolutionary theory is based on the assumption that societies change gradually from simple to complex forms. Early anthropologists and sociologist like L.H. Morgan gave three stages of social evolution-savagery, barbarism and civilization through which all societies pass. August Comte believed that human societies evolved in a unilinear fashion i.e. in one line of development.

He protected a relation between the development of human thought and social evolution. He identified three stages of social evolution/change-the age of theology, the age of metaphysics and the age of positivism (reason and facts).

Man has passed through the first two stages, even though in some aspects of life and thought these still prevail. Man on gradually reached the positivist and multilinear 1st stage, which still continues. In the first stage man believed that supernatural forces controlled and designed the World. He advanced gradually from a belief in fetishes and deities to monotheism.

This stage gave way to the Metaphysical stage, during which man tried to explain all phenomena by resorting to abstractions. In the Positivists stage, man considers the search for ultimate cause hopeless and seeks the explanatory facts that can be empirically observed. This implies progress, which according to Comte gets assured when man adopts a positive attitude in the understanding of natural and social phenomena.

Spencer believed that all societies followed the uniform natural law of evolution passing from simple to complex/compound societies.

Herbert Spencer, who described society as an organism, maintained that human society has been gradually progressing towards a better stage. In its primitive stage, the state of militarism, society was characterised by warring groups involved in a merciless struggle for existence.

From this stage of militarism, society moved towards a state of greater differentiation and integration of its parts. The establishment of an integrated social system made it possible for the different groups – social, economic and racial – to live in peace.

Darwin’s ‘Organic Evolution Theory’ also gave the concept of social change from simple and primitive societies to complex and advanced societies. Durkheim identified the cause of societal evolution as a society’s increasing ‘moral density’. He held the view that societies are changing in the direction of greater differentiation, interdependence and formal control under impact of the presence of increasing moral density.

Some Russian sociologists also subscribe to the stage theory of social change. Nikolai K. Mikhailovsky opines that human society passes through three stages: (1) the objective anthropocentric stage, (2) the eccentric stage, and (3) the subjective anthropocentric stage.

In the first stage, man considers himself as the center of the universe and remains preoccupied with mystic beliefs in the supernatural. In the second stage, man gets subjected to abstractions; the abstract is more “real” to him than the actual.

In the third stage, man comes to rely upon empirical knowledge by means of which he exercises more and more control over nature for his own benefit. Soloviev conceived of three stages of social evolution as the tribal stage, the national governmental stage, and the stage of universal brotherhood.

The multilinear evolutionary theory holds that change can occur in several ways and that it does not inevitably lead in the same direction. Multilinear theorists recognise that human culture has evolved along a number of lines. For example, the theory of demographic transition graphically demonstrates that population change has occurred differently in more developed versus developing nations.

Medical and public health technology was introduced gradually in the developed nations which gave them time to adjust to falling death rates and resulting rise in populations. However developing nations got this technology in a short span of time and it led to o dramatic population growth and a severe pressure on social services and natural resources including food production.

3. Telic Theory of Social Change:

A number of sociologists have held that social change can be brought about by means of conscious and systematic efforts. Lester F. Ward has asserted that progress can be achieved by means of purposive effort or conscious planning. Through education and knowledge intellect can assert itself over emotions and this can lead to the possibility of effective planning.

According to Ward, natural evolution is a very slow process, whereas intelligent planning can and in fact always accelerates the process of natural evolution. German sociologist, Ludwig Stein and English sociologist L.T. Hobhouse also expounded theories closely resembling Ward’s telic theory of social change.

They expressed the view that progress can be achieved through the use and control of reason and, therefore, rational element in our nature must be developed so that it may be used as a factor in the evolutionary process.

4. Cyclical Theories of Social Change:

Cyclical theories of social change hold that civilizations rise and fall in an endless series of cycles. Oswald Spengler wrote a book ‘The Decline of the West’ in 1918, in which he wrote that the fate of civilisation was a matter of ‘destiny’. He saw society moving in continual cycles of growth and decay.

He said that each civilisation is like biological organism, taking birth and then going to maturity, old age and ultimately to death. He studied eight major civilisations, including the western civilisation and said that western society is in its old stage and is entering the period of decay. This type of cyclical theory of social change has become obsolete. Spengler’s idea of destiny stands rejected as inadequate and unacceptable.

Another Cyclical theory holds that human society goes through certain cyclic changes of days and nights and of eliminate. Some sociologists believe that society has a predetermined life cycle and has birth, growth, maturity and decline.

Modern society is in its last stage. It is in its old age. But since history repeats itself, society after passing through all its stages, returns to the original stage, whence the cycle begins all over again.

This concept it’s found in Hindu mythology, according to which Satyug will again start after Kaliyug is over. J.B. Bury, in his ‘The Idea of Progress’, points out that this concept is also found in the technings of stoic philosophers of Greece as well as in the teachings of some of the Roman philosophers, particularly Marcus Trelius.

Cyclical Theory of Recent Thinkers:

The assumption that change takes place in a cyclical way has been a quite long held one. This ancient concept of cyclic social change is still held even by some modern thinkers who however give different versions of it.

The French anthropologist and biologist Vacher de Lapouge holds that race is the most important determinant of culture. Lapouge maintains that civilization develops and progresses when a society is composed of individuals belonging to superior races and declines when racially inferior people are absorbed into it.

According to him, Western civilization is doomed to extinction because of the constant infiltration of foreign elements and their increasing control over it. The German anthropologist, Otto Ammon, the Englishman Mouston Stewart Chamberlain and Americans Madison Grant and Lothrop Stoddard also agree with the view of Lapouge which may be called the theory of biological cycle.

Spengler developed another version of cyclical theory of social change. He analyzed the history of various civilizations including the Egyptian, Greek and Roman and concluded that all civilizations pass through a similar cycle of birth, maturity and death. The western civilization is now on its decline which is unavoidable.

Relying upon data drawn from the history of various civilizations, Sorokin concluded that civilizations fall into three major types, namely, the ideational, the idealistic and the sensate. In the ideational type of civilization, reality and value are conceived of in terms of a “supersensory and super rational God”, while the sensory world appear as illusionary.

In simple words, ideational civilisation is God-ridden. In the idealistic type of civilization (culture) reality and values are regarded sensory as well a supersensory. This is a synthesis of ideational and the sensate type. The thought and behaviour of man are partly anchored in the materialistic and partly concerned with the other world.

In the sensate type of civilisation (culture) the whole way of life is characterized by a positivists-materialistic outlook. Reality and value are merely what the senses perceive and beyond sense perception there is no reality. The western civilization, according to Sorokin, is now in an “overripe” sensate phase.

In recent times Arnold J. Toynbee, the noted English historian, has also propounded a cyclical theory of the history of world civilization. He maintains that civilizations pass through three stages, corresponding to youth, maturity and decline. The first is marked by a “response to challenge”, the second is a “time of troubles” and the third is characterized by gradual degeneration.

He is also of the view that our civilization, although in the stage of final downfall, can still be saved by means of proper guidance by the “Creative minority”, by which he means a select group of leaders who withdraw from the corrupting influences, commune with God, become spiritually regenerated and then return to inspire the masses.

Arnold Toynbee also proposed a cyclical theory of human history. He wrote the book ‘A study of History’ in 1946 which was a multi volume work and which drew material drawn from the studies of twenty four civilizations. The key concept in Toynbee’s theory has been ‘Challenge and Response’. Every society has to face challenges from outside environment and also from internal and external enemies.

The achievements of a civilisation consist of its successful responses to such challenges and in case it cannot mount any effective response to the challenges, it dies out. However Toynbee does not explain as to why some societies are in a position to make effective response to challenges while some others do not.

While critically examining Toynbee’s work, Barness writes, “It is not objective or even interpretative history. It is theology, employing selected facts of history to illustrate the will of God as the medieval bestiaries utilized biological fantasies to achieve the same results Toynbee’s vast material throw far more light upon the processes of Toynbee’s mind than upon the actual processes of history. He writes as the thinks it should be to further the cause of salvation, rather than as it has really been”.

The above theories of the cyclical nature of social change are , as a matter of fact, the result of philosophical rather than scientific studies. The authors of these theories begin with presumptions which they try to substantiate by marshalling a mass of data from history, as really has been”.

Cyclical Theory is neither really helpful in anticipating the changes which may not occur nor is it useful in distinguishing positive changes from negative changes, except in retrospect.

5. Structural-Functional Theory of Social Change:

The Structural-Functional theory of social change has been a very popular theory of our times. It is strongly advocated by several sociologists, particularly by Tallcott Parsons and Morton. According to its advocates, every social system has two aspects, one structural and the other functional. A structure is an arrangement/unit for the performance of functions. Function is the consequent of the activities of structures.

All the structures are closely related to each other and all the functions are interrelated and interdependent. Change in one leads to changes in others. Each structure serves its own function and at same time helps others to function.

In this way the whole social system functions and undergoes social change. A change in the marriage system from an arranged marriage system towards a love marriage system leads to changes in caste system, family system, joint family system, rate of divorce and even religion.

Functional theorists are concerned with the role of cultural elements in preserving the social order as a whole. Functionalists see society as a system in equilibrium. If some external force disrupts the equilibrium of the society, there takes place a counter force for maintaining the social equilibrium.

For example, when terrorism disrupts the normal life, the authorities counter with laws like POTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act), TADA (Terrorist and Disruptive activities Act) and the people launch anti-terror movements for educating the masses against terrorism and the forces of terrorism.

Parson’s equilibrium model says that any change occurring in any part of the society is countered by adjustments in other parts. If this does not take place, the society’s equilibrium gets threatened and several strains develop. Like evolutionary theorists, he believes that societies evolve from simple to compound societies.

Parsons maintains that three key concepts characterize the process of evolutionary change.

(a) Structural differentiation

(b) Functional specialisation

(c) Social integration.

The structured differentiation refers to the increasing complexity of social organisation. A change from ‘medicine man’ to ‘physician, nurse and a pharmacist is an illustration of differentiation in the field of health system. As communities grow larger and larger, societal units get divided and subdivided.

The functions of the old structures are taken over by several differentiated structures. Structural differentiation leads to functional specialisation. Just as different structures and agencies specialise in different functions, individuals also tend to specialize in specific occupations.

Functionalists assume that social institutions cannot not persist unless they contribute to overall social integration. As social units multiply and specialised occupations tend to grow, it becomes necessary to coordinate all aspects of society.

6. Deterministic Theory of Social Change:

The Deterministic theory has been a widely popular theory of social change among several contemporary sociologists. According to this theory there are certain forces, social or natural or both which bring about social change and the circumstances which determines the course of social change.

Sumner and Keller insist that social change is automatically determined by economic factors. Keller maintains that conscious effort and rational planning have very little chance to affect change unless and until the folkways and mores are ready for it.

It was Karl Marx, who got deeply impressed by the German philosopher Hegel’s metaphysical idealism and held that material conditions of life are the determining factors of social change.

He advocated his theory of Historical Materialism which offered a ‘materialistic interpretation of history’ and held economic factors were the factors of social change and evolution of all societies. Karl Marx held a total faith in the theory of Economic Determinism of history and social change.

Marx held that human society passes through various stages, each with its own well defined organisational system. Each successive stage comes into existence as a result of conflict with the one preceding it. Change from one stage to another is due to changes in the economic factors namely the methods of production and distribution of material means of life.

A change in the material conditions of life brings changes in all social institutions, properly system, state, religion and family. To put it in the words of Karl Marx: “Legal relations as well as forms of State could neither be understood by themselves, nor explained by the so-called general progress of the human mind, but they are rooted in the material conditions of life.

The mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political and spiritual process of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness.”

Thus the economic factor is primary factor of all social relations and social change. All aspects and phases of social life are dependent upon the economic factors and are almost entirely determined by it.

According to Marx, the social order has passed through five phases called the oriental, the ancient, the feudal, the capitalistic and the communist. The prevailing capitalist system has been moving towards its doom because the conditions it produced and the forces it unloosed make its disintegration inevitable.

“The weapons with which the bourgeoisie felled feudalism to the ground are now turned against the bourgeoisie itself. Not only has the bourgeoisie forged the weapons that bring death to itself, but also it has called into existence the men who are to wield those weapons—the modern working class, the proletarian.” The growth of capitalism also is its march towards its grave and this happens due the economic factors of the capitalist society.

Capitalism is destined to meet its end which will come through a proletarian revolution which will lead the society to the next stage – a new social order. The resulting social order will not reach its full development at once but will go through two stages. In the first, there will be dictatorship of the proletariat during which the proletariat will rule and crush out all the remnants of capitalism.

In the second stage, there will be real communism, in which there will be no state, no class, no conflict and no exploitation. Marx visualized a society in which the social order will have reached a stage of perfection. In that society the prevailing principle will be “from each according to his capacities, to each according to his needs.

Marx’s theory of Economic Determinism contains a large element of truth but it cannot be said to contain the whole truth. No one can deny that economic factors always influence social conditions of life and the process of social change.

But no can also hold that economic factors are the only activating forces of human history. There is no scientific proof that human society is going through the stage visualized and explained by Marx. His claim that man is destined to attain an ideal stage of existence is little more than Utopia.

A number of social thinkers opposed to the theory of economic determinism do not consider material elements of culture as the basic factors of social change. Some of them reject the deterministic theory of social change while other simply reject the theory of Economic determinism but prefer to hold ideas as the moving force of history. They regard ideas as the prime movers in social life. Gustavo Le Bon, George Sorel, James G. Frazer and some others held hold that religion is the chief initiator of social change.

The theory of religious determinism has been criticised by Sorokin. He posed the question, “If all social institutions change under the influence of the changes in religion, how, when and why does religion change itself?” According to Sorokin change is caused by the interaction of the various parts of a culture, none of which may be considered primary.

It means that change is pluralistic rather than monistic in origin. He advocates the view t change is initiated in the material culture and then it spreads to other spheres. Change is caused not only by economic factors but several factors acting together. Social Change comes under the impact of several factors and not by any single deterministic factor. Hence the Deterministic Theory of Social Change is not fully valid.