In this topic we are going to learn about the varioustheories of social change. After studying this post, you are expected to haveachieved the objectives listed below. At the end of this topic, you should beable to:

·discuss the theories of causation

·outline briefly the theories ofprocess

·write short note on the theories offunctional analysis

·explain, vividly, the modernizationtheory.

Theories of Social Change

“Theory” has been described by Homans, (1950) as theform in which the results of observation may be expressed. It is thus ageneralized conceptualization, a body of logically interdependent generalizedconcepts with empirical reference (Parsons, 1954). Parsons has identified twofunctions of theory, description and analysis. Analysis involves causalexplanation and the generation of general laws.

Social thinkers have from antiquity formulated broadtheories of social change. Among early theories are those that base change ondivine determination, holding that changes occur in the social world on thebasis of man’s obedience or disobedience to the will of God. Man was blessedfor good deeds and punished for his ill deeds and changes for improvement ordeterioration of his lot in his social world accordingly took place throughdivine determination. Early Greek social philosophers explained change asdevelopment from the original nature of man; man was considered social bynature and changes evolved because of such nature. Others felt that man, whileborn good as a creation of God, degenerates by his own actions. Thus change wasconceived as a departure or development of man from his original nature.

Social change through a series of developmentalstages, theological, metaphysical and positive, was the theory of August Comte,the father of sociology. Darwin’s theory of biological evolution influenced thethinking of sociologists, like Gumplowicz, Ward, Sumner, Keller andRatzenhoffer, who applied such thinking to social change. The variousexplanations of social change may be classified as belonging to theories ofcausation, theories of process or theories of functional analysis.

Theories of Causation

These major theories can be groupedon the basis of four factors:

  1. Geographicdeterminism
  2. Biologicaldeterminism
  3. Economic determinism
  4. Culturaldeterminism

Theories that explain social change in terms of somefeature or features of the natural environment constitute theories based ongeographic determinism. Arnold Toynbee and Ellswooth Huntington are among the leadingexponents of such theories. Theories that explain social change on the basis oftraits or characteristics of the human organism are referred to as biologicaldeterminism. Included in such theories are those contained in doctrines ofracial superiority and inferiority. Such theories generally were popularized bywriters, and Adolf Hitler followed this theory in his book “Mein kampf”.Theories that consider economic factors such as production, demand and supplyas the bases of social change are referred to as economic determinism. Culturaldeterminism refers to theories that seek to explain social change as a resultof some element or elements of cultural heritage. Max Weber and Williams, F.Ogburn are two sociologists who have expended theories based on culturaldeterminism.

While contributing much to early understanding ofsocial change, these four single factor theories are now largely withoutsupport.

Theories of Process

These theories of social change have been classifiedinto:

  1. Linear theoriesconceive of social change as an unfolding line. The concept of evolution is thebasic influence in the formulation of the linear theory. August Comte, LewisHenry Morgan, and Hebert Spencer are among the formulators of such evolutionarytheories of social change. Sociology actually began with evolutionary theory,and much of contemporary sociology bears the imprint of the 19th century evolutionary theories. Evolutionary theory in the 19th century drew heavily upon the biological sciences; although fewtheorists went so far as Comte in drawing analogies between the “socialorganism” and its biological counterpart, the biological sciences clearlyprovided many models for would be science of society. Karl Marx’s theory of developmentof a “classless” society may also be classified under linear theories. Conflicttheorists conceive of social organization, as arising in response to a scarcityof desired resources. For Marx, these resources were economic in nature – themeans of subsistence, or property generally. Marx’s propositions concerning thehistorical development of class conflict derive from his observation ofhistorical data and seem to fit the data well.
  2. Cyclic theoriesstress the undulating character of social change. Each phase of the cycleemerges from the previous phase and gives birth to the next phase. Toynbee’scyclic theory consisted of three phases – the state of social equilibrium, thetransition to disequilibrium, and the disequilibrium leading to a new state of equilibrium.
  3. The trend modelis another way expressing the linear theory. Social change is characterised byan overall trend that exists in spite of minor fluctuations and variations. Thetrend of movement of society was described by Tonnies as transitionGemeinschaft to Gessellschaft or communal to associational society. The sacred traditionalorientation of communal society in its trend gives way to associational societythat is characterized by secularism, rationality and a more pragmatic approach

Theories of Functional Analysis

Social change is conceptualized as a social function.Functional analysis emerged form evolutionary theory, but Durkheim gave it itspresent form. The determination of function is necessary for the complete explanationof social phenomena. To explain a social fact, Durkheim writes, “is not enoughto show the course on which it depends, we must also show the functions in theestablishment of social order” (Durkheim, 1933). Radchiffe-Brown (1949) laterreasserts this Durkheimean conception when he argues that the function of anysocial phenomena should be perceived in terms of the contribution of thosephenomena to maintenance social order. Rather than engage in the formulation oftheories of social change, sociologists instead follow the approach of studyingchange as a class of social phenomena. Following this approach, efforts are toidentify, describe and measure social change to be able to identify the socialand other environmental conditions that underlie it. The phenomena comprising socialchange are thus subjected to study and analysis as other social phenomena thatare the object of sociological study.

Modernization Theory

Interest in the concept of development flourishedafter the Second World War. This interest was however more consciouslyinfluenced by the work of liberal economists, although the ideas of evolution,progress and stages characteristic of work of the earlier philosophers remainedimportant elements in the understanding of the concept. The work of economistsbecame influential because the problem of development came to be specificallyassociated with the issue of alleviating the problems of non-Western Societiesas these problems were perceived by Western nations and indigenous leaders. Inthe post-war era many of these nations were gaining political independence fromtheir colonial masters and it was understood that changes must occur withinthese societies where they would breakout of the depressing cycle of unemployment,illiteracy, diseases, poverty, and so on. In short they must be set on the pathof “development”, with the assistance of theory and empirical studies in theirproblems.

Modernization is not a fixed condition. It is oftenseen as a period, a period of transition during which a society sheds its“traditional” characteristics and become dominated by “Modern” types ofinstitution and action. The functionalist theory of social change is thetheoretical foundation of all the modernization perspectives.


  1. Whatis theory?
  2. Twofunctions of theory according to Parsons are: a)……………………………………..(b) ………………………………………
  3. Theoriesof causation consist of (a)…………………………….(b)……………………(c)……………….(d)…………………
  4. Whatis linear theory?
  5. .………………………………. and …………………………… are among theformulators of evolutionary theories of social change
  6. Conflicttheories conceive of social organization as arising in responseto a scarcity of described…………………………..
  7. Listthe three phases of cyclic theory
  8. Functionalanalysis emerged from ……………………theory
  9. Whatis functional analysis?
  10. Interestin the concept of ……………………….flourished after theSecond World War
  11. Define modernization


In this topic you have learnt the meaning of theoryand the various theories of social change. We centred our view of the theoriesof social change around the discussion of concepts in order to show how culturallyrelative and historically specific these concepts are:


The main points in this unit includes the following

  • Theory is beendefined as the form in which the results of observation may be expressed.
  •  a) Geographic determinism b) Biologicaldeterminism c) Economic determinism d) Cultural determinism
  • Theories ofProcess have been classified into: a) Linear theories b) Cyclic theories d)Trend model
  • Thefunctionalist theory conceptualise social change as a social function and is thetheoretical foundation of all the modernization perspectives.
  • Modernizationis not a fixed condition, but a period of transition during which a societysheds its “traditional” characteristics and become dominated by “modern” typesof institution and action.


  1. Writeshort note on evolutionary theory
  2. Discussthe theories of causation
  3. Outlinebriefly the theories of process
  4. Explainthe theory of functional analysis
  5. Write explanatory noteon modernization theory


Afonja, S. and Pearce, T.O. (1984). Concept of Social ChangeSocial

Evolution to Models ofProduction. In: Afonja, S.and Pearce,

T.O. (edns). Social Change inNigeria, 14-49pp.

Chitambar, J.B. (1973). Introductory Rural Sociology:A Synopsis of

Concepts and Principles. New Eastern Limited, India, 369pp.

Durkheim, E. (1933). The Division of Labour in Society. The Free Press,


Homans, G.C. (1950). The Human Group Hacourt. Bruce & World,

New York.

Parsons, T. (1954). Essays in Sociological Theory. Free Press, New


Raddiffe-Browne, R. (1949). Social Structure. Clarendon Press, Oxford.

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