Historical and social change

This post looks at what is social change, causes of social change, what is historical change, and theories of social and historical change. This final section of the post includes something on Marxist theories of history.

I looked at theories of change at the social movement and institutional level in previous posts: part 1, part 2, part 3.

What is social change?

Social change is the changes to the social structure and social relationships of society. There is also cultural change. Social changes include changes in age distribution, birth rates, changes in the relationship between workers and employers when there is more union activity. Cultural changes include the invention and popularisation of new technology, new words added to a language, changing concepts of morality, new forms of music and art. They overlap and all important changes include both social and cultural changes. In sociology, ‘sociocultural change’ is used to describe changes of both forms. [1]

The main characteristics of social change include:

  • social change is universal to all societies
  • social change happen across a whole community or society, not small groups of individuals
  • the speed of social change is not uniform within a society
  • the speed of social change is different in each age or period, it is faster than in the past
  • social change is an essential law of nature
  • definite prediction of social change is not possible
  • social change shows a chain-reaction sequence – on change leads to the next
  • social change results from the interaction of several factors
  • social changes generally result in modification or replacement [2]

Causes of social change

There are several causes of social change:

  • Natural factors such as storms, earthquakes, floods, drought and disease
  • geographical factors such as availability or national resources and levels of urbanisation
  • demographic factors such as birth and death rate
  • socio-economic factors such as levels of industrialisation, market capitalism and bureaucratisation
  • cultural factors as describes in the section above
  • science and technology factors
  • conflict and competition factors such as war and popular movements for change
  • political and legal power factors such as redistribution of wealth or corporate power
  • ideas and ideology factors such as religious beliefs, political and economic ideology
  • diffusion factors which is the rate that populations adopt new goods and services
  • acculturation which is the modification of the culture of a group due to contact with a different culture [3]

What is historical change?

This is gradual and fast (rupture) transformation change in society. The transition from feudalism to capitalism was a historical, transformation change. So is a transition from capitalism to an alternative – socialism, communism.

Theories of social and historical change

There are four broad theories of social change: evolutionary, cyclical, functionalist, and conflict. And several other theories of historical change.

Evolutionary theories

These are based on the assumption that societies gradually change from simple or basic to more complex. There are three forms.

Linear or unilinear evolution describes the change to be progress to something better, more positive and beneficial to reach higher levels of civilisation. This theory was developed by the early theorists of human society in the 19th century. They believed that each society would pass through a “fixed and limited number of stages in a given sequence.”

Universal evolution is similar to the previous theory but does not view each society going through the same fixed stages of development.

Multilinear evolution has been developed by modern anthropologists. They see the process of social change as flexible, open-ended and not a universal law. They still see societies developing from small-scale to large-scale and complex. These theorists state that change takes place in many different ways and does not follow the same direction in every society. They do not believe that ‘change’ means ‘progress.’ [4]

Cyclical theory

This is also known as process theory and natural cycles. This describes how civilisations go through a process of birth, growth, maturity, decline and death in the same ways as living beings. Then the process is repeated with a new civilisation. [5]

Functionalist theories

These theories focus on social order and stability so some argue this limits their ability to explain social change. These theories ask what function different aspects of society play in maintaining social order. Examples include religion, education, economic institutions and the family. Some see society as at equilibrium and change results in a new equilibrium forming. Changes can come from other societies outside the society or from inside. [6]

Conflict theories

These can be seen as a response to the functionalist theories, that were seen to not have a place for change so could not explain social change. Conflict theorists argue that institutions and practices were maintained by powerful groups. Conflict theorists do not believe that societies evolve to a better place but that conflict is necessary for change and groups must struggle to ensure progress. Conflict theories are influenced by Karl Marx. [7]

Great man theory of history

This is a 19th-century idea that states that history is driven by great men or heroes, who are “highly influential and unique individuals who, due to their natural attributes, such as superior intellect, heroic courage, extraordinary leadership abilities or divine inspiration, have a decisive historical effect.”[8] Recently this concept has been ‘de-gendered’, replacing ‘Great Man’ with ‘Big Beasts’ [9]

Marxist theories of history

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote about and inspired several Marxist theories of historical and social change. See a previous post on Marx’s Marxism.

The materialist conception of history (or Historical materialism), Marx argued that the material conditions of a society’s mode of production (productive force and relations of production) that determine a society’s organisation and development and not ideas or consciousness. ‘Material conditions’ mean the ability for humans to collectively reproduce the necessities of life. [10]

Dialectical materialism can be understood as Marx’s framework for history:

“History develops dialectically, that is to say, by a succession of opposing theses and antitheses followed by their synthesis, which contains part of each original thesis. For Marx, this dialectical process would necessarily be a material one; developments in the substructure of economic life, such as those in production, the division of labor, and technology, all have enormous impact on the superstructure of the political, legal, social, cultural, psychological, and religious dimensions of human society.” [11]

Marx and Engels’ “stages of economic development, or modes of production, build on one another in succession, each brought about by a development in technology and social arrangement” They argued that societies pass through various stages with their own social-economic system – slavery, feudalism, capitalism, communism. Each stage develops because of conflict with the previous one. [12]

Economic determinism states the economic relationships such as being a business owner or worker, are the foundation on which political and societal arrangements in society are based. Societies are therefore divided into conflicting economic classes (class struggle) whose political power is determined by the makeup for the economic system. There is some controversy over Marx and Engel’s exact position on this concept. [13]

There is a Marxist gravediggers thesis (also known as gravediggers argument/dialectic or Marxist teleological theory of history). This is based on the quote from the Communist Manifesto “What the Bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave diggers.” That the internal contradictions of capitalism will result in its inevitable destruction. As capitalism continues the class antagonism between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat will increase and push more and more people into the proletariat. [14] There is some controversy about this theory among Marxists and this post does a good job arguing that the end of capitalism is not inevitable.

Technological theories

Technology refers to the use of knowledge to make tools and utilise natural resources. Changes in technology result in changes in social relations. For Marx, “the stage of technological development determines the mode of production and the relationships and the institutions that constitute the economic system. This set of relationships is in turn the chief determinant of the whole social order.” [15]

Multiple causation theory of history

This states that historical change is complex and likely due to multiple causes related to political, economic, social, cultural and environmental events, as well as the significant individuals. [16] Max Weber supported this perspective “historical events are a matter of the coming together of independent causal chains which have previously developed without connection or direct import for one another” [17]

World-systems theory

This is a large scale approach to world history and social change, with the focus of social analysis on the world-system over the nation-state. The ‘world-system’ refers to the inter-regional and international division of labour, which divides the world into ‘core countries’, ‘semi-periphery countries’ and ‘periphery countries’. Core countries focus on ‘higher skilled capital-intensive production’, with the rest of the world focusing on ‘low-skilled, labour-intensive production’ and extraction of raw materials. Immanuel Wallerstein’s World-systems theory describes the shift from feudalism to capitalism; and then during the modern era, the centre of the core has moved from the Netherlands in the 17th century, Britain in the 19th century and the US after World War I. [18]


  1. https://www.masscommunicationtalk.com/different-theories-of-social-change.html
  2. https://www.sociologydiscussion.com/sociology/theories-of-social-change-meaning-nature-and-processes/2364
  3. http://people.uncw.edu/pricej/teaching/socialchange/causes%20of%20social%20change.htm, https://ourfuture.org/20080514/why-change-happens-ten-theories, https://www.shareyouressays.com/knowledge/7-main-factors-which-affect-the-social-change-in-every-society/112456)
  4. https://www.masscommunicationtalk.com/different-theories-of-social-change.html, https://www.sociologydiscussion.com/sociology/theories-of-social-change-meaning-nature-and-processes/2364, https://www.yourarticlelibrary.com/sociology/top-5-theories-of-social-change-explained/35124, https://guide2socialwork.com/theories-of-social-change/, https://www.academia.edu/25227760/Theories_of_Social_Change, https://www.shareyouressays.com/knowledge/6-most-important-theories-of-social-change-2/112462, https://article1000.com/theories-social-change/
  5. https://www.masscommunicationtalk.com/different-theories-of-social-change.html, https://www.sociologydiscussion.com/sociology/theories-of-social-change-meaning-nature-and-processes/2364, https://science.jrank.org/pages/8918/Cycles-Twentieth-Century.html, https://www.yourarticlelibrary.com/sociology/top-5-theories-of-social-change-explained/35124, https://guide2socialwork.com/theories-of-social-change/, https://www.shareyouressays.com/knowledge/6-most-important-theories-of-social-change-2/112462, https://article1000.com/theories-social-change/
  6. https://www.masscommunicationtalk.com/different-theories-of-social-change.html, https://www.yourarticlelibrary.com/sociology/top-5-theories-of-social-change-explained/35124, https://guide2socialwork.com/theories-of-social-change/, https://www.shareyouressays.com/knowledge/6-most-important-theories-of-social-change-2/112462, https://article1000.com/theories-social-change/
  7. https://www.masscommunicationtalk.com/different-theories-of-social-change.html, https://www.yourarticlelibrary.com/sociology/top-5-theories-of-social-change-explained/35124, https://guide2socialwork.com/theories-of-social-change/, https://article1000.com/theories-social-change/
  8. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_man_theory
  9. https://www.historytoday.com/archive/head-head/there-still-value-%E2%80%98great-man%E2%80%99-history, https://www.andrewbernstein.net/2020/01/the-great-man-theory-of-history/, https://www.visiontemenos.com/blog/the-great-man-theory-of-1840-leadership-history, https://www.communicationtheory.org/great-man-theory/
  10. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_materialism
  11. Dialectical Materialism and Economic Determinism: Freedom of the Will and the Interpretation of Behavior, Estelio Iglesias http://www.fau.edu/athenenoctua/pdfs/Estelio%20Iglesias.pdf
  12. Dialectical Materialism and Economic Determinism: Freedom of the Will and the Interpretation of Behavior
  13. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economic_determinism
  14. https://www.enotes.com/homework-help/explain-quote-what-bourgeoisie-therefore-produces-99615
  15. https://www.yourarticlelibrary.com/sociology/top-5-theories-of-social-change-explained/35124, https://www.yourarticlelibrary.com/sociology/top-5-theories-of-social-change-explained/35124, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Fielding_Ogburn
  16. https://aeon.co/ideas/we-must-recognise-that-single-events-have-multiple-causes
  17. Perspectives in Sociology, E.C. Cuff, 2006, page 46
  18. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World-systems_theory#The_interpretation_of_world_history