Evolutionary Theories of Social Change in Sociology

Evolutionary theories were given by Auguste Comte, Spencer and Veblen etc. From the primitive times, the scholars have explained their views about the following questions.

What are the factors and rules including the social changes in society and what is its speed and direction?

In the beginning, the philosophers presented the principles of social change and later the sociologists also gave their contributions . They believed that social change occurs according to these rules and theories.

Evolutionary Theory Of Social Change

In the 19th century, thinkers such as Comte, Hegel and Karl Mannheim gave much significance to the role of thoughts of social change. Evolutionary theories are based on assumption that change always occur from simple to complex, similarity to dissimilarity and from good to evil. Scholars such as Comte, Spencer, Hobhouse etc believe  that social change occurs in a definite straight line. Each society has to go through these levels. Comte believed that there are three levels for evolutionary form( from religion to specific). Spencer believed that there are four levels (from hunting to industrial). Marx believed that there are five levels ( from primordial communist to modern communist). Marx and Veblen presented not only the linear order of social change, but both of them also gave significance to the economic and technological factors. Hence their theories are also called Deterministic Theories.


Comte has related the social change with intellectual development of man. According to him there are three stages of mental development and social change

  • Theological Stage

Theological Stage was the first stage. In this stage man tried to understand events in context of God and religion. During that period, there were different forms of religion. Polytheism, monotheism and worship of environment were prevalent.

  • Metaphysical Stage

The second  stage of social change is Metaphysical Stage in which man use to explain events based on their qualities. In this stage, man’s belief in supernatural powers decreased. The abstract power present in living beings was only supposed to be responsible for all the events.

  • Scientific Stage

The third stage is the Scientific  Stage that exists in the present time. In this stage man does not explain events on the basis of religion, God and supernatural powers. Rather logic and scientific rules are applied.

Review – There is no doubt that the schematic and successive description of the changes in society by Comte is commendable. But this theory cannot be accepted completely. He has pointed three stages of human development, but it is not mandatory that every society has undergone all these stages. These stages can take place either in the first stage or can occur in two stages simultaneously.


Spencer also presented the evolutionary theory of social change. He expressed social change based on social selection. Spencer was impressed by Darwin’s evolutionary theory of living beings. According to Darwin struggle for existence is found in living beings. In this struggle survival of the fittest and elimination of the unfit exist. This is because environment also selects such living beings those who are able and efficient. Hence theory is also called Theory of Natural Selection. Spencer implemented Darwin’s theory of evolution of living beings on society.

According to him, man is a social living being, therefore his selection or birth and death rates influence social factors such as traditions, values and principles directly or indirectly. In this selection only man survives at the topmost. It is he who forms the society and bring changes in it. Every new generation makes more progress in the field of knowledge and science. Similarly the society keeps on moving successively in forward direction and keeps on changing. In this way, Spencer believes that the base of social change is unnatural and social selection.

In addition to Spencer, Gobineau and Lopez also believed that biological factors are responsible for social change. They assume that the formation and progress of society is possible by the people who are superior from the racial view-point. From the racial view  point, when there are deficient people in any society, it undergoes a downfall. Similarly when there are superior people from physical and mental view-point then the society undergoes progress.

Many scholars have criticised theories of Spencer and vitalists on the basis that natural selection cannot be applied on human society.


According to Thorstein, technological conditions are responsible for social change in a direct way. That is why his theory is also called as “technological investigation “. Veblen has categorised human characteristics in two parts

  • Static characteristics -That have relations with human instincts and inspiration in which the change occurs very less.
  • Changeable Characteristics– Such as habits, thoughts, psychology etc.

The social change is related to second characteristic, especially the habit of thinking process of human. According to his theory, human gets controlled by his own habits and is the slave of them. What and how will his habits be, depends on man’s materialistic environment. This materialistic environment depends on technology. When change occur in the environment or technology,  it also occurs in habits of the man. Answering to “how are man’s habits formed?” Veblen says, the way man lives his life by doing types of work and technicality, in the same way he has his habits and temper.

These habits bind the person to spend his life for a definite lifestyle. Also the work done by him influences his thoughts. A person thinks in the same way as he does his work. For example, the type of work do e by a soldier, farmer, doctor or engineer etc also influences their thoughts and habits. The type of work the person does for his lifestyle depends on his materialistic environment. Hence we can say, materialistic environment defines man’s work and his work defines his thoughts and habits.

Habits only after getting established and robust take the form of organization. Organizations only form the social structure. Hence when the change comes, it also comes in social organization and structure, which we call social change. He believes that social change is associated with novel technology and technological factors.


The theory of Veblen has the following deficiencies

1. He has considered man as a controlled living being, which is not correct. Man instead of his habits is more controlled by his intelligence.

2. Social change comes along with the technological change. This is not right to state as sometimes change occurs because of ethical, religion or other factors.

3. His theory is one-sided in a same way as of other determinists and sociologists. Social change is not the result of any one factor but of many factors. This is a complete process, which has been presented in a very simple way.


Malthus presented the theory of increased population for social change. According to him, in human society there is increased rate of population as compared to production of food stuff. Population rate increases in the geometrical form such as in the order of 1,2,4,8,16,32,64 etc. In comparison to this, the increase in food stuff occurs in the following order of 1,2,3,4,5,6,7 etc. As a result a time will arrive when there will be lack of food stuff, if the population is not controlled. And when there will be either increase or decrease in population rate, social change will occur in society.


Sadler also supported the theory related to population rate. He has related the increase in population rate to man’s well-being and mutual relationships. According to him, with the development of human being, there is decrease in his reproducibility and an increase in his well-being. All these things are also responsible for the social change. Thomas believes that the combination and spiritual togetherness of various cultures are responsible for the social change.


In his book “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” Max Weber recognises religion to be responsible for social change. According to him, when there was Roman Catholic religion in Europe, there was different type of society. But as the Protestant religion came into existence, the society of modern capitalism was established. After studying the six main religions (Hindu, Christian, Muslims, Chinese etc) he said that only Protestant religion had those things which could give rise to modern capitalism. In his view,  code of conduct of every religion has its rules, which decides the thoughts and behaviour of people. Hence when religion changes, then change occurs in society. He considers religion as a variable that brings the change.

Theory of Weber is also criticised as he was not able to specify why a change occurs in the religion.


Ogburn has demonstrated the theory of “Cultural Lag” in his book Social Change in 1922. He categorised culture in two parts i.e. material and nonmaterial cultures. Material culture includes thousands of material things such as aeroplane, train,fan, watch, utensils, books etc. In non material culture we can include religion, art, philosophy, knowledge, science, faith etc.

He believes that in the past years both the cultures have developed much. In his view material culture changes at a rapid rate as compared to non material culture. Because of this material culture increase and non material culture lags behind. Hence the forward movement of material culture and lagging behind of non material culture is called Cultural Lag. This is the condition of imbalance. To end this imbalance efforts are made for accommodation and adaptation. During this phase change occurs in society. In the same way, when an imbalance occurs in these two cultures, then it does have influence on the society and it also brings changes in it.


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