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Theories of social change

sociology, history, anthropology

evolutionary, cyclical, functional, conflict theories
studying the theories give insight into sociology of knowledge and
timely theories widely accepted
I. Evolutionary Theories
assumption: societies gradually develop from simple beginnings
into even more complex forms
simple ----> complex
A: unilinear evolution
Auguste Comte: development is one recurring line
Social change = positive progress
colonial expansion & the start of anthropology
On The Origin of Species (Charles Darwin, 1859)
biological evolution tends toward greater complexity
evolution as law (biological & social)
Herbert Spencer: Social Darwinism
late 19th century until WWI (Europe, U.S.A.)
Western societies are better adapted to face the conditions of life
o white > nonwhite, rich > poor, powerful > weak
- answers why are some societies more advanced?
o flattering, convenient explanation for colonial rule
o no concept of cultural relativity
- ethnocentrism & white mans burden
- problem:
1) describe (what?)
explain (why, how?)
2) faulty interpretation of data
-R.I.P. 1920s
B: multilinear evolution
evolution as tendency
Steward (1956): change can take place in many different ways
Greater social complexity =/= greater human happiness
(Gerhard Lenski, 1966; Gerhard Lenski and Jean Lenski, 1978; Morton Fried,
1967; Talcott Parsons, 1966; Service, 1971)
II. Cyclical Theories (Colleen)

III. Functionalist Theories

Advantage: statics before dynamics
Mills, 1958; Dahrendorf, 1958: too much emphasis on order and
Emile Durkheim: examined function of institutions (e.g. schools, religion) in
maintenance of social order
Talcott Parsons: general theory of social order based on functionalist
a. Parsons Theory of Social Order
Parsons (1937, 1951): society has interdependent parts which help maintain
stability of the system
cultural patterns are inherently conservative, resist radical changes
equilibrium / balance
The Social System (1951): focus on statics; only one chapter on social
social change must be introduced into the system
changes as dysfunctions
popular in 1940s to 1950s
major social conflict in late 50s to 60s raised doubts
C Wright Mills; Lockwood (1956): is a theory of equilibrium and
stability relevant to societies that are in a state of constant change and
social conflict?
b. Parsons Theory of Social Change
Parsons (1961, 1966): change alters, not disturbs; results in new
2 sources of change:
1) outside contact with other societies
2) inside adjustments to resolve strains within
draws from evolutionary views
increased complexity leads to differentiation & integration
differentiation: specialization
integration: link new institutions (e.g. new norms, bridging
Too much focus on statics
scope does not cover all possible forms of social change
institutional changes associated with modernization
Robert Merton (1968) and other functionalists conclude that tensions may
also cause social change
strain, contradiction, and discrepancy between component parts of
social structure

conflict theories
IV. Conflict Theories (Colleen)