SOCIAL STRUCTURE AND CHANGE (excerpts)- From Enc. Britannica
The term structure has been used with reference to human societies
since the 19th century. Before that time, it had been already applied
to other fields, particularly construction and biology. Its biological
connotations are evident in the work of several social theorists of the
19th and early 20th centuries, such as Herbert Spencer in England.
He and others conceived of society as an organism, the parts of which
are interdependent and thereby form a structure that is similar to the
anatomy of a living body.
The metaphor of construction is clear in the work of Karl Marx, where he
speaks of "the economic structure [Struktur] of society, the real basis
on which is erected a legal and political superstructure [Überbau] and to
which definite forms of social consciousness correspond." This phrase
expresses the Marxian view that the basic structure of society is
economic, or material, and determines, at least to a large extent,
the rest of social life, which is defined as spiritual or ideological.
Although social scientists since Spencer and Marx have disagreed on the
concept of social structure, their definitions have certain elements in
common. In the most general way, social structure may be defined as those
features of a social entity (a society or group within a society) that
have a certain permanence over time, are interrelated, and determine or
condition to a large extent both the functioning of the entity as a
whole and the activities of its individual members.
As may be inferred from this definition, several ideas are implicit in
the notion of social structure. The concept expresses the idea that
human beings form social relations that are not arbitrary and
coincidental, but exhibit some regularity and persistence. The concept
also refers to the observation that social life is not amorphous but is
differentiated into groups, positions, and institutions that are
interdependent, or functionally interrelated. These differentiated and
interrelated characteristics of human groupings, although constituted by
the social activities of individuals, are not a direct corollary of the
wishes and intentions of these individuals; instead, individual choices
are shaped and circumscribed by the social environment. The notion of
social structure implies, in other words, that human beings are not
completely free and autonomous in choosing their activities, but rather
they are constrained by the social world they live in and the social
relations they form with one another.
The social structure is sometimes simply defined as patterned social
relations--those regular and repetitive aspects of the interactions
between the members of a given social entity. Even on this descriptive
level, the concept is highly abstract: it selects only certain elements
from ongoing social activities. The larger the social entity considered,
the more abstract the concept tends to be. What is considered as the
social structure of a small group is generally much nearer to the daily
activities of its individual members than that which is regarded as the
social structure of a larger society. In the latter case the problem of
selection is acute: what to include or not include as components of the
social structure. The solution to the problem varies with the different
theoretical views according to which characteristics of the society are
regarded as particularly important.
Apart from these different theoretical views, some preliminary remarks
on general aspects of the social structure of any society may be made.
Most generally, social life is structured along the dimensions of time
and space. Specific social activities take place at specific times, and
time is divided into periods that are connected with the rhythms of
social life--the routines of the day, the month, and the year. Specific
social activities are also organized at specific places; particular
places, for instance, are designated for such activities as working,
worshiping, eating, or sleeping. Territorial boundaries delineate these
places. These boundaries are defined by rules of property, which in any
society structure the use and possession of scarce goods. In any society,
moreover, there is a more or less regular division of labour. Yet
another universal structural characteristic of human societies is the
regulation of violence. The use of violence is everywhere a potentially
disruptive force; at the same time, it is a means of coercion and
coordination of activities. Human beings have formed political units,
such as nations, within which the use of violence is strictly regulated
and which, at the same time, are organized for the use of violence
against outside groups.
In any society, furthermore, there are arrangements within the structure
for sexual reproduction and the care and education of the young. These
arrangements partly take the form of kinship and marriage relations.
Finally, systems of symbolic communication, particularly language,
everywhere structure the interactions between the members of a society.
Within the broad framework of these and other general features of human
society, there is an enormous variety of social forms between and even
within societies. Several theories have been developed to account for
both the similarities and the varieties. In these theories certain
aspects of social life are regarded as basic and, therefore, central
components of the social structure.
Some social scientists use the concept of social structure as a device
for creating an order for the various aspects of social life. Thus,
the U.S. anthropologist George P. Murdock, in his Social
Structure (1949), a comparative study of kinship systems, used the
concept as a taxonomic scheme for classifying, comparing, and
correlating aspects of kinship systems of different societies.
In other studies, the concept is of greater theoretical importance;
it is regarded as an explanatory concept, a key to the understanding
of human social life. Some of the more prominent of these theories are
A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, a British social anthropologist, gave the concept
of social structure a central place in his approach and connected it to
the concept of function. In his view, the components of the social
structure have indispensable functions for each other--the continued
existence of the one component is dependent on that of the others--and
for the society as a whole, which is seen as an integrated, organic
Radcliffe-Brown defined the social structure empirically as patterned,
or "normal," social relations (those aspects of social activities that
conform to accepted social rules or norms). These rules bind society's
members to socially useful activities.
Structural functionalism was elaborated further by Talcott Parsons,
a U.S. sociologist, who, like Radcliffe-Brown, was strongly influenced
by the French social scientist Émile Durkheim. While Radcliffe-Brown
focused on so-called primitive societies, Parsons attempted to formulate
a theory that was valid for large and complex societies as well.
For Parsons, the social structure is essentially normative; it consists
of "institutionalized patterns of normative culture." Social behaviour
is structured insofar as it conforms to norms, ranging from general
ideas of right and wrong (values) to specific rules of behaviour in
specific situations. These rules vary according to the positions of the
individual actors: they define different roles, such as various
occupational roles, or the roles of husband-father and wife-mother.
Norms also vary according to the type of activities or sphere of life:
they form clusters called social institutions, such as the institution
of property or the institution of marriage. Norms, roles, and
institutions are components of the social structure on different levels
Theories of class and power.
Parsons' work has been criticized for several reasons. One has been the
comparatively meagre attention he paid to inequalities of power, wealth,
and other social rewards. Other social theorists, including
functionalists like the U.S. sociologist Robert K. Merton, have given
these distributional properties a more central place in their concepts
of social structure. For Merton and others, the social structure
consists not only of normative patterns but also of the inequalities of
power, status, and material privileges, which give the members of a
society widely different opportunities and alternatives.
In complex societies these inequalities define different strata, or
classes, which form the stratification system, or class structure, of
the society. Both aspects of the social structure, the normative and
the distributive aspect, are strongly interconnected, as may be inferred
from the observation that members of different classes often have
different and even conflicting norms and values.
This leads to a consideration contrary to structural functionalism:
certain norms in a society may be established, not because of any
general consensus about their moral value, but because they are forced
upon the population by those who have both the interest and the power
to do so. To take one example, the "norms" of apartheid in South Africa
reflect the interests and values of only one section of the population,
which has the power to enforce them upon the majority.
In theories of class and power this argument has been generalized:
norms, values, and ideas are explained as the result of the power
inequalities between groups with conflicting interests.
The most influential theory of this type has been Marxism, or historical
materialism. The Marxian view is succinctly summarized in Marx's phrase
that "the ideas of the ruling class are, in every age, the ruling ideas."
These ideas are regarded as reflections of class interests and are
connected to the power structure, which is identified with the class
This Marxian model, which was claimed to be particularly valid for
capitalist societies, has met with several criticisms. One basic problem
is its distinction between economic structure and spiritual
superstructure, which are identified with social being and
consciousness, respectively. This suggests that economic activities and
relations are in themselves somehow not conscious, as if they were
conceivable without knowing and thinking human beings.
Nevertheless, the Marxian model has become influential even among
non-Marxist social scientists. The distinction between material
structure and nonmaterial superstructure continues to be reflected in
sociological textbooks as the distinction between social structure and
culture. Social structure here refers to the ways people are
interrelated or interdependent; culture refers to the ideas, knowledge,
norms, customs, and capacities that they have learned and share as
members of a society.
The concept of structure in the study called structuralism, as in
structural functionalism and the class and power theories, is
theoretical and explanatory. Unlike those other studies, however, it
is not descriptive. The concept here refers to the underlying,
unconscious regularities of human expressions, which are not observable
but explain what is observed.
Claude Lévi-Strauss, a French anthropologist, derived this concept from
structural linguistics as developed by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de
Saussure. Any language is structured in the sense that its elements are
interrelated in nonarbitrary, regular, rule-bound ways; a competent
speaker of the language largely follows these rules without being aware
of doing so. The task of the theorist is to detect this underlying
structure, including the rules of transformation that connect the
structure to the various observed expressions.
According to Lévi-Strauss, this same method can be applied to social
and cultural life in general. He constructed theories concerning the
underlying structure of kinship systems, myths, and customs of cooking
and eating. The structural method, in short, purports to detect the
common structure of widely different social and cultural forms.
The structure does not determine the concrete expressions; the variety
of expressions it generates is potentially unlimited. The structures
that generate the varieties of social and cultural forms ultimately
reflect, according to Lévi-Strauss, basic characteristics of the human
Structuralism became an intellectual fashion in the 1960s in France,
where such different writers as Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and
Louis Althusser were also regarded as representatives of the new
theoretical current. Structuralism in this wide sense, however, is not
one coherent theoretical perspective. The Marxist structuralism of
Althusser, for example, is far removed from Lévi-Strauss's
anthropological structuralism. The structural method, when applied by
different scholars, appears to lead to different results.
The criticisms launched against structural functionalism, class theories,
and structuralism indicate that the concept of social structure is
problematic. Yet the notion of social structure is not so easy to
dispense with, because it expresses ideas of continuity, regularity,
and interrelatedness in social life. Other terms are often used that
have similar, but not identical, meanings, such as social network,
social figuration, or social system.
The British sociologist Anthony Giddens has suggested the term
"structuration" in order to express the view that social life is, to a
certain extent, both dynamic and ordered.
Social change in the broadest sense is any change in social relations.
In this sense, social change is an ever-present phenomenon in any
society. In order to give the concept a more restricted meaning, it has
been defined as change of the social structure. A distinction is made
then between processes within the social structure, which serve, at
least partially, to maintain the structure (social dynamics), and
processes that modify the structure (social change).
Because the concept of social structure does not have one generally
accepted and unambiguous meaning, however, this distinction does not
clearly determine which social processes belong to the field of social
The specific meaning of social change depends first of all on the social
entity considered. Changes in a small group may be important on the
level of that group itself, but negligible on the level of the larger
society. Similarly, the observation of social change depends on the time
span taken; most short-term changes are negligible if a social
development is studied in the long run. Even if one abstracts from
small-scale and short-term changes, social change is a general
characteristic of human societies: customs and norms change, inventions
are made and applied, environmental changes lead to new adaptations,
conflicts result in redistributions of power.
This universal human potential for social change has a biological basis.
It is rooted in the flexibility and adaptability of the human species
--the near absence of biologically fixed action patterns on the one hand
and the enormous capacity for learning, symbolizing, and creating on the
other hand. The human biological constitution makes changes possible
that are not biologically (genetically) determined. Social change, in
other words, is only possible by virtue of biological characteristics of
the human species, but the nature of the actual changes cannot be
reduced to these species traits.
Several ideas of social change have been developed in various cultures
and historical periods. Three of them may be distinguished as the most
(1) the idea of decline or degeneration, or, in religious terms, the
fall from an original state of grace;
(2) the idea of cyclical change, a pattern of subseq5ent and recurring
phases of growth and decline; and
(3) the idea of continuous progress.
These three ideas were already prominent in Greek and Roman antiquity
and have characterized Western social thought from that time. The
concept of progress, however, became the most influential idea,
especially since the 18th-century Enlightenment. Social thinkers like
Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot and the Marquis de Condorcet in France and
Adam Smith and John Millar in Scotland advanced theories on the progress
of human knowledge and technology.
Progress was the key idea in 19th-century theories of social evolution,
and evolutionism was the common core shared by the most influential
social theories of the century. Evolutionism implied that mankind as a
whole progresses along one line of development; that this development is
predetermined and inevitable, since it corresponds to definite laws;
that some societies are more advanced in this development than other
ones; and that Western society is the most advanced and therefore
indicates the future of the rest of mankind.
Auguste Comte, a French philosopher and sociologist, advanced a "law of
three stages," according to which mankind progresses from a theological
stage, which is dominated by religion, through a metaphysical stage, in
which abstract speculative thinking is most prominent, and onward toward
a positivist stage, in which scientific theories based on empirical
research come to dominate.
The most encompassing theory of social evolution was developed by
Herbert Spencer, who, unlike Comte, linked social evolution to
biological evolution. According to Spencer, biological organisms and
human societies follow the same universal, natural evolutionary law:
"a change from a state of relatively indefinite, incoherent, homogeneity
to a state of relatively definite, coherent, heterogeneity." In other
words, as societies grow in size, they become more complex; their parts
differentiate, specialize into different functions, and become,
consequently, more interdependent.
Evolutionary thought also dominated the new field of social and cultural
anthropology in the second half of the 19th century. Anthropologists
such as Sir Edward Burnett Tylor and Lewis Henry Morgan classified
contemporary societies on an evolutionary scale. Morgan ranked them
from "savage" through "barbarian" to "civilized." Tylor postulated an
evolution of religious ideas from animism through polytheism to
monotheism. Morgan classified societies on the basis of the level of
technology, or sources of subsistence, which he connected with the
kinship system. He assumed that monogamy was preceded by polygamy, and
patrilineal descent by matrilineal descent.
Marx and Friedrich Engels too were highly influenced by evolutionary
ideas. The Marxian distinctions between primitive communism, the Asiatic
mode of production, ancient slavery, feudalism, capitalism, and future
socialism may be interpreted as a list of stages in one evolutionary
development, although the Asiatic mode did not fit well in this scheme.
Marx and Engels were impressed by Morgan's anthropological theory of
evolution, which became evident in Engels' book Der Ursprung der Familie,
des Privateigentums und des Staats (1884; The Origin of the Family,
Private Property and the State).
The originality of the Marxian theory of social development lay in its
combination of dialectics and gradualism. In Marx's view social
development was a dialectical process: the transition from one stage
to another took place through a revolutionary transformation, which was
preceded by increasing deterioration of society and intensifying class
struggles. Underlying this discontinuous development was the more
gradual development of the forces of production (technology and
organization of labour).
Marx was influenced by the countercurrent of Romanticism, which was
opposed to the idea of progress. This influence was evident in his
notion of "alienation," which meant that in the cour3e of social
development people had increasingly lost control over the social forces
that they had produced by their own activities.
Romantic counterprogressivism was, however, much stronger in the work
of other social theorists of the century, such as Ferdinand Tönnies,
a German sociologist. He distinguished between the community
(Gemeinschaft), in which people were bound together by common traditions
and ties of affection and solidarity, and the society (Gesellschaft),
in which social relations had become contractual, rational, and
Durkheim and Max Weber, sociologists who began their careers at the end
of the 19th century, showed ambivalence toward the ideas of progress.
Durkheim regarded the increasing division of labour as a basic process,
which was at the roots of modern individualism, but could also lead to
"anomie," or lack of moral norms. Weber rejected evolutionism by arguing
that the development of Western society was quite different from that of
other civilizations and therefore historically unique. It was
characterized, according to Weber, by a peculiar type of rationalization,
which had brought modern capitalism, modern science, and rational law,
but also, on the negative side, a "disenchantment of the world" and
The work of Durkheim, Weber, and other social theorists around the turn
of the century marked a transition from evolutionism toward more static
theories. Evolutionary theories were criticized on empirical grounds
--they could be refuted by a growing mass of research findings--and
because of their determinism and Western-centred optimism. Theories of
cyclical change that denied long-term progress gained popularity in the
first half of this century; these included the theory of the Italian
economist and sociologist Vilfredo Pareto on the "circulation of elites"
and those of Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee on the life cycle of
civilizations. Although the interest in long-term social change never
disappeared, it faded to the background, especially when, from the 1920s
until the 1950s, functionalism, emphasizing an interdependent social
system, became the dominant paradigm both in anthropology and in
sociology. "Social evolution" was substituted for the more general and
neutral concept of "social change."
From the 1950s and increasingly through the 1960s and 1970s there was a
revival of interest in long-term social change. Neo-evolutionist theories
were proclaimed by several anthropologists, including Ralph Linton,
Leslie A. White, Julian H. Steward, Marshall D. Sahlins, and
Elman Rogers Service. These authors hold to the idea of social evolution
as a long-term development of mankind, which is patterned and cumulative
in some respects. Neo-evolutionism differs from 19th-century
evolutionism in that it does not assume that all societies go through
the same stages of development; much attention is paid to variations
between societies as well as to relations of influence among them. The
latter concept has come to be known by the term acculturation. Moreover,
social evolution is not regarded as predetermined or inevitable but is
rather conceived in terms of probabilities. Finally, evolutionary
development is not equated with progress.
The revival of interest in long-term social change has been partly
induced by the problems of the so-called underdeveloped countries. In
order to explain the gaps between rich and poor countries, Western
sociologists and economists in the 1950s and 1960s elaborated
modernization theories. These theories implied a covertly
Western-centred evolutionism insofar as they assumed that poor countries
had stagnated on a relatively low level of development and could and
should develop, or modernize, in the direction of a Western-type society.
Modernization theories have been criticized for their lack of attention
to international power relations, in which the richer countries dominate
the poorer ones. These relations have been brought into the centre of
attention by more recent theories of international dependency or, in
Immanuel Wallerstein's terms, the "world capitalist system."
Since about 1965 there has been some convergence between sociology and
anthropology on the one hand and history on the other. Historians have
become interested in theories of long-term social change, while many
sociologists and anthropologists increasingly turn toward history for
the empirical testing and refinements of their theoretical viewpoints.
Patterns of social change.
The common assumption of theories of social change, old and new, is that
the course of such change is not arbitrary but, to a certain degree,
regular or patterned. The three traditional ideas of social change
--those of decline, cyclical change, and progress--have influenced
modern theories. However, insofar as these theories are nonnormative,
or scientifically determined, they do not distinguish explicitly between
decline and progress. Such values cannot be derived from empirical
observations alone but depend on normative evaluations, or value
judgments. In nonnormative terms, then, two basic patterns of social
change emerge: the cyclical and the one-directional. Often the time span
of the change determines which pattern is observed.
A regular alternation of stages characterizes cyclical change. Much of
ordinary social life is organized in cyclical changes: those of the day,
the week, and the year. These short-term cyclical changes may be
regarded as conditions necessary to structural stability. Other changes
that have a more or less cyclical pattern are less regular. For example,
business cycles, recurrent phenomena of capitalist and industrial
societies, are patterned to some extent yet hard to predict in concrete
cases. A well-known theory of the business cycle is that of the Soviet
economist Nikolay D. Kondratyev, who tried to show the recurrence of
long waves of economic boom and recession on an international scale.
He charted the waves from the end of the 18th century, with each
complete wave comprising a period of about 50 years. Subsequent research
has shown, however, that the patterns in different countries have been
far from identical.
Long-term cyclical changes are rendered by theories on the birth,
growth, flourishing, decline, and death of civilizations. Toynbee
conceived world history in this way in the first volumes of A Study of
History (1934-61), as did Spengler in his Untergang des
Abendlandes (1918-22; Decline of the West). These theories have been
criticized for their conception of civilizations as natural entities
with sharp boundaries because this tends to neglect the interrelations
A continuation in terms of more or less characterizes one-directional
change. Such change is usually cumulative; it implies growth or increase,
such as that of population density, the size of organizations, or the
level of production. However, the direction of the change may also be
one of decrease, or a combination of growth and decrease. An example of
this last process is what the American cultural anthropologist
Clifford Geertz has called "involution," found in some agrarian
societies: population growth coupled with decreasing per capita wealth.
Or the change may be a shift from one to the other pole of a
continuum--from religious to scientific ways of thinking, for example.
Such a change may be defined as either growth (of scientific knowledge)
or decline (of religion).
The simplest type of one-directional change is linear: the extent of
social change is constant over time. Another type of regular social
change is exponential growth, in which the growth percentage is constant
over time and the change accelerates correspondingly. Population growth
and production growth often approximate this pattern during some periods
A pattern of long-term growth may also conform to a three-stage S-curve:
at the beginning of the period under consideration the change is almost
imperceptibly slow, then accelerates, then slackens, until it approaches
a supposed upper limit. The model of the demographic transition in
industrializing countries exhibits this pattern. In the first stage,
premodern or preindustrial, both the birthrate and the mortality rate
are high, and, consequently, the population grows very slowly; then
mortality decreases, and the population grows much faster; in the third
stage both the birthrate and the mortality rate have become low, and the
population growth approaches zero. The same model has been suggested,
more hypothetically, for the rate of technological and scientific change.
Combined patterns of change.
Cyclical and one-directional changes may be combined in one way or
another. Very often short-term changes are cyclical while long-term
development is in one direction. Figures on the production rates of
industrializing countries conform, more or less, to this pattern,
short-term business cycles occurring within long-term economic growth.
All of these pattern models cannot be applied simply and easily to
social reality. They are at best approximations of parts of social
reality. Comparing the model with the reality is not always possible
because of a lack of reliable data. Moreover, and more importantly, many
social processes do not lend themselves to precise quantitative
measurement. Processes like bureaucratization or secularization, for
example, can be defined as changes in a certain direction, but it is
hard to measure the extent to which the change in a given period has
taken place. It is doubtful that models like those of linear or
exponential growth can be used in such cases.
It remains to be seen whether or not long-term social change in a
certain direction may be ascertained. Many investigations have sought
answers to this question for Western society since the Middle Ages. The
transformation of medieval society into the Western nations of the 20th
century may be conceived in terms of several interconnected, long-term,
one-directional changes; some of the more important of these include
commercialization, increasing division of labour, growth of production,
formation of national states, bureaucratization, growth of technology
and science, secularization, urbanization, spread of literacy,
increasing social and geographical mobility, and growth of organizations.
Many of these changes have also occurred in non-Western societies. Most
changes have not originated in the West, but some important changes did
originate there--particularly such complex transformations as the rise
of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution. These subsequently had a
strong impact on non-Western societies. Groups of people outside
western Europe have been incorporated in a global division of labour,
in which the Western nation-states dominated both politically and
The extent to which these changes are part of a global, long-term social
development is the central question of social evolution, which is
conceived as a very long-term one-directional change for mankind as a
whole. Although knowledge concerning this question is far from complete,
some very broad and general trends may be hypothesized on firm ground.
First, technological innovations and growing empirical knowledge led to
an increasing control of natural forces for the satisfaction of human
needs. Parts of this development were the use and control of fire, the
cultivation of plants and the domestication of animals (dating from
about 8000 BC), the use of metals, and the process of industrialization.
This technological development, combined with long-term capital
accumulation, led to rising production levels and, therefore, made
possible population growth and increasing population density. Energy
production and consumption grew, if not per capita then at least per
Interconnected with technological development and growth of production
were the process of division of labour and social differentiation. On
the one hand, it was only by division of labour and corresponding
specialization of knowledge and abilities that the technical control of
natural forces could increase beyond certain limits. n the other hand,
the growth of production as a result of technological innovations
contributed to further social differentiation; more people, in other
words, could specialize in activities that were not immediately
necessary for survival. Growing size and density of populations and
social differentiation led to increased interdependence between growing
numbers of people over longer distances. In hunting and gathering
societies people were strongly interdependent within their small bands,
depending on very little outside their groups. In modern times, most of
the world's people are enmeshed in worldwide networks of interdependence.
These processes were not inevitable in the sense that they corresponded
to any "law" of social change. They had the tendency, however, to spread
whenever they occurred. For example, once the set of transformations
known as the agrarian revolution had taken place anywhere in the world,
their extension over the rest of the world was predictable. Societies
that adopted these innovations grew in size and became more powerful.
As a consequence, other societies had only three options: to be
conquered and incorporated by a more powerful agrarian society; to adopt
the innovations; or to be driven away to marginal places of the globe.
Something similar might be said of the Industrial Revolution and other
power-enhancing innovations, such as bureaucratization and the
introduction of more destructive weapons. This last example illustrates
that these processes should not be equated with progress in general.
Explanations of social change.
One way of explaining social change is to show causal connections
between two or more processes. This may take the form of a kind of
determinism or reductionism, which explains all social change by
reducing it to one supposed autonomous and all-determining causal
process. A more cautious assumption is that one process has relative
causal priority, without implying that this process is completely
autonomous and all-determining. Following are some of the processes
conceived as having caused social change.
Changes in the natural environment may vary from climatic ones to those
caused by the spread of diseases. For example, both the worsening of
climatic conditions and the epidemics of the Black Death have been
submitted as factors that explain the crisis of feudalism in
14th-century Europe. Changes in the natural environment may be either
independent of human social activities or the result of these activities.
Deforestation and erosion, air pollution, and the exhaustion of natural
resources belong to the last category, and they in turn may have
far-reaching social consequences.
Population growth and increasing population density represent, in
particular, demographic forms of social change. Population growth may
lead to geographical expansion of a society, military conflicts, and
the intermingling of cultures. Increasing population density may also
stimulate technological innovations, which may increase division of
labour and social differentiation, commercialization, and urbanization.
This has been observed as affecting western Europe from the 11th to
the 13th century and England in the 18th century, where population
growth was a factor in the Industrial Revolution. On the other hand,
population growth may contribute to economic stagnation and increasing
poverty, as may be witnessed in several Third World countries today.
According to several theories of social evolution, technological
innovations are regarded as the most important determinants of societal
change. The social significance of such technological breakthroughs as
the invention of the smelting of iron, the introduction of the plow in
agriculture, the invention of the steam engine, and the development of
the computer is indeed evident. Of course, it is possible to dispute the
relative importance of such innovations when compared to other
determinants of social cha.ge.
Technological changes are often considered in conjunction with economic
processes, including the formation and extension of markets,
modifications of property relations (such as the change from
feudal lord-peasant relations to contractual proprietor-tenant relations),
and changes in the organization of labour (such as the change from
independent craftsmen to factories). Historical materialism, as
developed by Marx and Engels, is the most influential theory that gives
priority to economic processes, but it is not the only one. Materialist
theories have been developed even in opposition to Marxism, one being
the "logic of industrialization" thesis by the U.S. scholar Clark Kerr,
which states that industrialization everywhere has similar consequences,
whether the property relations are called capitalist or communist.
Other theories have stressed the significance of ideas in the causation
of social change. Comte's law of three stages is such a theory. Weber
regarded religious ideas as important in contributing to economic
development or stagnation; according to his controversial thesis, the
individualistic ethic of Christianity, and in particular Protestantism,
partially explains the rise of the capitalist spirit, which brought
economic dynamism in the West.
A change of collective ideas is not merely an intellectual process;
it is often connected to the formation of a new social movement. This
in itself might be regarded as a potential cause of social change.
Weber called attention to this factor in conjunction with his concept
of "charismatic leadership." The charismatic leader, by virtue of the
extraordinary personal qualities attributed to him, is able to create
a group of followers who are willing to break established rules.
Changes in the regulation of violence, in the nature of the state
organization, and in international relations may also determine social
change. For example, the German sociologist Norbert Elias has analyzed
the formation of states in western Europe as a relatively autonomous
process that led to an increasing control of violence and, consequently,
to rising standards of self-control. According to recent theories of
political revolution, the functioning of the state apparatus itself and
the nature of interstate relations are of decisive importance in the
outbreak of a revolution: it is only when the state is not able to
fulfill its basic functions of maintaining law and order and territorial
integrity that revolutionary groups have any chance of success.
Each of these processes is a possible determinant of other ones; none
of them is the only determinant. One reason why deterministic, or
reductionist, theories run into difficulties is that the process they
use to explain the process as a whole is actually not autonomous but
has to be itself explained. Moreover, social processes are often
intertwined to such a degree that it would be misleading to consider
them separately. For example, there are no sharp and fixed borderlines
between economic and political processes, nor between economic and
technological processes. Technological change may in itself be regarded
as a specific type of cultural or conceptual change. The causal
connections between distinguishable social processes are a matter of
degree and vary over time.
Mechanisms of social change.
The scope of any causal explanation of social change in which initial
conditions or basic processes are specified is limited. A more general
and theoretical way of explaining is to construct a model of recurring
mechanisms of social change. Such mechanisms, incorporated in different
theoretical models, include the following.
Mechanisms of one-directional change: accumulation, selection,
Some evolutionary theories stress the essentially cumulative nature of
human knowledge. Because human beings are inno6ative, they add to
existing knowledge, replacing less adequate ideas and practices with
more adequate ones. As they learn from mistakes, they select new ideas
and practices in a trial-and-error process (sometimes compared to the
process of natural selection). The expansion of collective knowledge
and capabilities beyond a certain limit is only possible by
specialization and differentiation. Growth of technical knowledge
stimulates capital accumulation, which leads to rising production
levels. Population growth may also be incorporated in this model of
cumulative evolution: it is by the accumulation of collective technical
knowledge and means of production that human beings can multiply their
numbers; this growth then leads to new problems that stimulate further
Mechanisms of curvilinear and cyclical change: saturation and exhaustion.
Models of one-directional change assume that change in a certain
direction induces further change in the same direction; models of
curvilinear or cyclical change, on the other hand, assume that change
in a certain direction creates the conditions for change in another
(perhaps even the opposite) direction. More specifically, it is often
assumed that growth has its limits and that in approaching these limits
the change curve will inevitably be bent. Ecological conditions like the
availability of natural resources, in particular, set limits to
population growth and economic growth.
Shorter term cyclical changes are explained by comparable mechanisms.
Some theories of the business cycle, for example, assume that the
economy is saturated periodically with capital goods: investments become
less necessary and less profitable, the rate of investments diminishes,
and a negative spiral resulting in a recession sets in. After a period
of time, however, essential capital goods will have to be replaced:
investments are pushed up again and a phase of economic expansion begins.
Conflict, competition, and cooperation.
Group conflict has often been viewed as a basic mechanism of social
change, especially of those radical and sudden social transformations
identified as revolutions. Marxists in particular tend to depict social
life in capitalist society as a struggle between a ruling class, which
wishes to maintain the system, and a dominated class striving for
radical change; social change then is the result of that struggle.
These ideas are basic to what Dahrendorf has called a conflict model of
The notion of conflict becomes more relevant for the explanation of
social change if it is broadened to include competition between rival
groups as well. Nations, firms, universities, sports associations, and
artistic schools are groups between which such rivalry occurs.
Competition stimulates the introduction and diffusion of innovations,
especially when they are potentially power-enhancing. Thus, the leaders
of non-Western states feel the necessity of adopting Western science
and technology, even though their ideology may be anti-Western, because
it is only by these means that they can maintain or enhance national
autonomy and power.
Additionally, competition may lead to the growing size and complexity
of the entities involved. The classic example of this process, analyzed
by Marx, is the tendency in capitalism for monopolies to form as small
firms are driven out of competition by larger ones. Marx's analysis has
been applied to another area by Norbert Elias, who explained the
formation of national states in western Europe as the result of
competitive struggles between feudal lords.
Competition is also put forward in individualistic theories, which
conceive social change as the result of the actions of individuals
pursuing their self-interest. With the help of game theory and other
mathematical devices it has been shown that individuals acting on the
basis of self-interest will cooperate, given certain conditions, in
widening social networks.
Tension and adaptation.
In structural functionalism, social change is re'arded as the adaptive
response to some tension within the social system. When some part of an
integrated social system changes, a tension between this and other parts
of the system is created, which will be resolved by the adaptive change
of the other parts. An example is what the U.S. sociologist William
Fielding Ogburn has called cultural lag, which refers in particular to
a gap that develops between fast-changing technology and other slower
paced sociocultural traits.
Diffusion of innovations.
Some social changes are to be regarded as the result of the diffusion of
innovations, such as technological inventions, new scientific knowledge,
new beliefs, or a new fashion in the sphere of leisure. Diffusion is not
automatic but selective; an innovation is only adopted by people if they
are motivated to do so and if it is compatible with important aspects of
their culture. One reason for the adoption of innovations by larger
groups is the example of higher status groups, which are reference
groups for other people. Successful innovations, which affect the
majority of the people of a society, tend to follow a pattern of
diffusion from higher to lower status groups. More specifically, most
early adopters of innovations in modern Western societies, according to
several studies, are young, urban, and highly educated, with a high
occupational status. Often they are motivated by the wish to
distinguish themselves from the mass of the population. After diffusion
has taken place, however, the innovation is no longer a symbol of
distinction, which motivates the same group to look for something new
again. This mechanism may explain the succession of trends in several
Planning and institutionalization of change.
Social change may be, to a certain extent, the result of goal-directed,
large-scale social planning. The possibilities of planning by government
bureaucracies and other large organizations have increased in modern
societies. Most social planning is short-term, however; the goals of
planning are often not attained, and, even if the planning is successful
in terms of the stated goals, it often has unforeseen consequences. The
wider the scope and the longer the time span of planning, the more
difficult it is to attain the goals and to avoid unforeseen and
undesired consequences. This has become especially clear in Communist
societies, where the most serious efforts have been taken to put the
ideal of integral and long-term planning into practice. Large-scale and
long-term social developments in any society are still largely unplanned.
Planning implies institutionalization of change, but institutionalization
does not imply planning. Many unplanned social changes in modern
societies are institutionalized; they originate in organizations
permanently oriented to innovation, such as universities and the
research departments of governments and private firms, but their social
repercussions are not controlled. It is in the fields of science and
technology especially that change is institutionalized, producing social
change that is partly intended and partly unintended.
These mechanisms of social change are not mutually exclusive. On the
contrary, some of them are clearly interconnected. For example,
innovation by specialized organizations is stimulated by competition.
Several mechanisms may be combined in one explanatory model of social
Social structure and social change are central theoretical concepts of
the social sciences that refer to basic and complementary
characteristics of social life in general--permanence, continuity, and
repetitiveness on the one hand, dynamics and changeability on the other.
Both concepts are interconnected: the social structure cannot be
conceptualized adequately without some notion of actual or potential
change, and social change as a more or less regular process is
inconceivable without the notion of continuity. To the degree that
change processes are regular and interconnected, social change itself
is structured. Any separation of the two concepts, as though they refer
to divergent fields, is therefore misleading. This is not to deny that
the relative stress on either structural continuity or dynamic change
varies in social scientific theories and empirical studies. Since about
1965 there has been a shift from "structure" to "change" in social
theory. Change on different levels--social dynamics in everyday life,
short-term transformations and long-term developments in society at
large--has become the focus of attention.
A general reader on social structure is
PETER M. BLAU (ed.), Approaches to the Study of Social Structure (1975).
The most important theoretical works in structural functionalism are
A.R. RADCLIFFE-BROWN, Structure and Function in Primitive Society
(1952, reissued 1965, reprinted 1968); and
TALCOTT PARSONS, The Social System (1951, reprinted 1964).
For coverage of the debate on structural functionalism, see
N.J. DEMERATH and RICHARD A. PETERSON (eds.), System, Change, and
Conflict (1967, reprinted 1968).
A more empirical type of functionalism is represented by
ROBERT K. MERTON, Social Theory and Social Structure: Toward the
Codification of Theory and Research, new ed. (1968),
in which due consideration is given the distributive
aspects of the social structure. These are stressed
even more by
PETER M. BLAU, Inequality and Heterogeneity: A Primitive Theory of
Social Structure (1977).
RALF DAHRENDORF, Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society
(1959; originally published in German, 1957), advances
a power-and-conflict model of society.
Other, more sophisticated power models are contained in
PETER M. BLAU, Exchange and Power in Social Life (1964);
STEVEN LUKES, Power: A Radical View (1974); and
NORBERT ELIAS, What Is Sociology?
(1978; originally published in German, 3rd ed., 1978).
An introduction to structuralism is
DAVID ROBEY (ed.), Structuralism (1973).
CLAUDE LÉVI-STRAUSS, Structural Anthropology, 2 vol.
(1963-76; originally published in French, 1958-73),
contains several articles on the structural method
and its applications.
Examples of different empirical applications of the concept of social
GEORGE PETER MURDOCK, Social Structure (1949, reissued 1965);
PETER M. BLAU and OTIS DUDLEY DUNCAN, The American Occupational
Structure (1967, reprinted 1978); and
PETER V. MARSDEN and NAN LIN (eds.), Social Structure and Network
A synthesis of different views is offered by
ANTHONY GIDDENS, Central Problems in Social Theory: Action, Structure
and Contradiction in Social Analysis (1979, reprinted 1983).
On the history of ideas concerning social change, see
ROBERT A. NISBET, Social Change and History: Aspects of the Western
Theory of Development (1969).
An introduction to 18th- and 19th-century evolutionism is
LOUIS SCHNEIDER, Classical Theories of Social Change (1967).
Original texts in social evolutionism are
HERBERT SPENCER, The Principles of Sociology, 3 vol. in 4
(1876-96, reprinted in 3 vol., 1975), and
Herbert Spencer: Structure, Function, and Evolution, ed. by STANISLAV
ANDRESKI (1971, reissued 1972);
LEWIS HENRY MORGAN, Ancient Society (1877, reissued 1985); and
EDWARD B. TYLOR, Primitive Culture, 2 vol. (1871, reissued 1970).
Good selections of Marxian texts are
KARL MARX, Selected Writings in Sociology and Social Philosophy,
ed. by T.B. BOTTOMORE and MAXIMILIAN RUBEL (1956,
reprinted 1964); and
KARL MARX and FREDERICK ENGELS, Selected Works, 2 vol.
(1935, reissued in 1 vol., 1968).
The most influential study in Marxist evolutionism is
FREDERICK ENGELS, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the
State (1902, reissued 1978; originally published in German, 1884).
A criticism of Spencer's evolutionism is contained in
ÉMILE DURKHEIM, Émile Durkheim on the Division of Labor in Society
(1933, reissued 1984 as The Division of Labor in Society;
originally published in French, 1893); while
MAX WEBER, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism
(1930, reprinted 1985; originally published in German, 1920,
in vol. 1 of his Gesammelte Aufsätze), contains a criticism
of historical materialism.
Anthropological neo-evolutionism is represented by:
LESLIE A. WHITE, The Evolution of Culture: The Development of
Civilization to the Fall of Rome (1959);
JULIAN H. STEWARD, Theory of Culture Change: The Methodology of
Multilinear Evolution (1955, reprinted 1973);
MARSHALL D. SAHLINS and ELMAN R. SERVICE (eds.), Evolution and Culture
(1960, reprinted 1982);
W.F. WERTHEIM, Evolutie en revolutie: De golfslag der emancipatie (1971),
from which an abridged English trans.,
Evolution and Revolution: The Rising Waves of
Emancipation (1974), was made; and
ELMAN R. SERVICE, Cultural Evolutionism: Theory in Practice (1971).
A sociological textbook with an evolutionary approach is
GERHARD LENSKI and JEAN LENSKI, Human Societies: An Introduction to
Macrosociology, 4th ed. (1982).
S.N. EISENSTADT, Tradition, Change, and Modernity (1973, reprinted 1983),
represents a sophisticated version of the modernization
Good examples of historical sociology are
NORBERT ELIAS, The Civilizing Process, 2 vol. (1978;
originally published in German, 1939);
BARRINGTON MOORE, JR., Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy:
Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World
(1966, reissued 1984); and
IMMANUEL WALLERSTEIN, The Modern World-System, vol. 1, Capitalist
Agriculture and the Origins of the European
World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century (1974).
Akin to these books are comprehensive historical studies on long-term
developments, such as
WILLIAM H. McNEILL, The Rise of the West: A History of the Human
Community (1963, reissued 1965); and
FERNAND BRAUDEL, Capitalism and Material Life, 1400-1800 (1974;
originally published in French, 1967).
An overview of this field is given by
THEDA SKOCPOL (ed.), Vision and Method in Historical Sociology (1984).
General theoretical books on social change are:
WILBERT E. MOORE, Social Change, 2nd ed. (1974), and
Order and Change: Essays in Comparative Sociology (1967),
two treatises in the functionalist tradition;
EVA ETZIONI-HALEVY and AMITAI ETZIONI (eds.), Social Change: Sources,
Patterns, and Consequences, 2nd ed. (1973),
a reader representing various approaches;
WILLIAM FIELDING OGBURN, Social Change with Respect to Culture and
Original Nature, new ed. (1950, reprinted 1965);
AMITAI ETZIONI, The Active Society: A Theory of Societal and Political
Processes (1968, reprinted 1971), which explores the
possibilities of planned change;
ROBERT L. HAMBLIN, R. BROOKE JACOBSEN, and JERRY L.L. MILLER,
A Mathematical Theory of Social Change (1973);
HENRY TEUNE and ZDRAVKO MLINAR, The Developmental Logic of Social
Systems (1978); and
KENNETH E. BOULDING, Ecodynamics: A New Theory of Societal Evolution
(1978, reprinted 1981).
Controversial theories on the cyclical development of civilizations
have been advanced by
OSWALD SPENGLER, The Decline of the West, 2 vol. (1922,
reissued 1981-83; originally published in German, 1918-22); and
ARNOLD J. TOYNBEE, A Study of History, 12 vol.
(1934-61, reprinted 1948-61).
A theory of the circulation of elites can be found in
VILFREDO PARETO, The Mind and Society: Treatise on General Sociology,
4 vol. (1935, reprinted 1983; originally published
in Italian, 2nd ed., 3 vol., 1923),
and Sociological Writings, ed. by S.E. FINER (1966,
An empirical test of theories of economic growth and the business cycle
is given by
ANGUS MADDISON, Phases of Capitalist Development (1982).
The concept of involution is explained by
CLIFFORD GEERTZ, Agricultural Involution: The Process of Ecological
Change in Indonesia (1963, reprinted 1968).
The significance of demographic processes is analyzed by
CARLO M. CIPOLLA, The Economic History of World Population,
7th ed. (1978), and
an analysis of one stage of development is presented in
MARK NATHAN COHEN, The Food Crisis in Prehistory: Overpopulation and
the Origins of Agriculture (1977, reprinted 1979).
A classic account of the influence of technological change is
V. GORDON CHILDE, Man Makes Himself, rev. ed. (1951, reissued 1983).
CLARK KERR et al., Industrialism and Industrial Man: The Problems of
Labor and Management in Economic Growth, 2nd ed.
(1964, reissued 1973), represents a non-Marxist
Theories of political revolution are developed by
CRANE BRINTON, The Anatomy of Revolution, rev. and expanded ed. (1965);
THEDA SKOCPOL, States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of
France, Russia, and China (1979).
EVERETT M. ROGERS, Diffusion of Innovations, 3rd ed. (1983), deals with
the social aspects of technological innovations.
The individualistic approach to social change processes is exemplified
DOUGLASS C. NORTH, Structure and Change in Economic History (1981);
MANCUR OLSON, The Rise and Decline of Nations: Economic Growth,
Stagflation, and Social Rigidities (1982, reprinted 1984); and
ROBERT AXELROD, The Evolution of Cooperation (1984).
An influential criticism of deterministic theories of social development
KARL R. POPPER, The Poverty of Historicism, 2nd ed. (1960).
Examples of pessimistic social forecasting with much attention to
ecological conditions are
DONELLA H. MEADOWS, et al., The Limits to Growth, 2nd ed. (1974,
reprinted 1982); and
MIHAJLO MESAROVIC and EDUARD PESTEL, Mankind at the Turning Point
(1974, reissued 1976).
Much more optimistic examples are
HERMAN KAHN and ANTHONY J. WIENER, The Year 2000 (1967);
DANIEL BELL, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in
Social Forecasting (1973, reprinted 1976); and
CLARK KERR, The Future of Industrial Societies: Convergence or
Continuing Diversity? (1983).
For a history of ideas about future social developments, see
KRISHAN KUMAR, Prophecy and Progress: The Sociology of Industrial and
Post-Industrial Society (1978). (N.Wi.)
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