In this topic we are going to learn about the various theories of social change. After studying this post, you are expected to have achieved the objectives listed below. At the end of this topic, you should be able to:

· discuss the theories of causation

· outline briefly the theories of process

· write short note on the theories of functional analysis

· explain, vividly, the modernization theory.

Theories of Social Change

“Theory” has been described by Homans, (1950) as the form in which the results of observation may be expressed. It is thus a generalized conceptualization, a body of logically interdependent generalized concepts with empirical reference (Parsons, 1954). Parsons has identified two functions of theory, description and analysis. Analysis involves causal explanation and the generation of general laws.

Social thinkers have from antiquity formulated broad theories of social change. Among early theories are those that base change on divine determination, holding that changes occur in the social world on the basis of man’s obedience or disobedience to the will of God. Man was blessed for good deeds and punished for his ill deeds and changes for improvement or deterioration of his lot in his social world accordingly took place through divine determination. Early Greek social philosophers explained change as development from the original nature of man; man was considered social by nature and changes evolved because of such nature. Others felt that man, while born good as a creation of God, degenerates by his own actions. Thus change was conceived as a departure or development of man from his original nature.

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

Theories of Causation

These major theories can be grouped on the basis of four factors:

  1. Geographic determinism
  2. Biological determinism
  3. Economic determinism
  4. Cultural determinism

Theories that explain social change in terms of some feature or features of the natural environment constitute theories based on geographic determinism. Arnold Toynbee and Ellswooth Huntington are among the leading exponents of such theories. Theories that explain social change on the basis of traits or characteristics of the human organism are referred to as biological determinism. Included in such theories are those contained in doctrines of racial superiority and inferiority. Such theories generally were popularized by writers, and Adolf Hitler followed this theory in his book “Mein kampf”. Theories that consider economic factors such as production, demand and supply as the bases of social change are referred to as economic determinism. Cultural determinism refers to theories that seek to explain social change as a result of some element or elements of cultural heritage. Max Weber and Williams, F. Ogburn are two sociologists who have expended theories based on cultural determinism.

While contributing much to early understanding of social change, these four single factor theories are now largely without support.

Theories of Process

These theories of social change have been classified into:

  1. Linear theories conceive of social change as an unfolding line. The concept of evolution is the basic influence in the formulation of the linear theory. August Comte, Lewis Henry Morgan, and Hebert Spencer are among the formulators of such evolutionary theories 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 few theorists went so far as Comte in drawing analogies between the “social organism” and its biological counterpart, the biological sciences clearly provided many models for would be science of society. Karl Marx’s theory of development of a “classless” society may also be classified under linear theories. Conflict theorists conceive of social organization, as arising in response to a scarcity of desired resources. For Marx, these resources were economic in nature – the means of subsistence, or property generally. Marx’s propositions concerning the historical development of class conflict derive from his observation of historical data and seem to fit the data well.
  2. Cyclic theories stress the undulating character of social change. Each phase of the cycle emerges from the previous phase and gives birth to the next phase. Toynbee’s cyclic theory consisted of three phases – the state of social equilibrium, the transition to disequilibrium, and the disequilibrium leading to a new state of equilibrium.
  3. The trend model is another way expressing the linear theory. Social change is characterised by an overall trend that exists in spite of minor fluctuations and variations. The trend of movement of society was described by Tonnies as transition Gemeinschaft to Gessellschaft or communal to associational society. The sacred traditional orientation of communal society in its trend gives way to associational society that 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 its present form. The determination of function is necessary for the complete explanation of social phenomena. To explain a social fact, Durkheim writes, “is not enough to show the course on which it depends, we must also show the functions in the establishment of social order” (Durkheim, 1933). Radchiffe-Brown (1949) later reasserts this Durkheimean conception when he argues that the function of any social phenomena should be perceived in terms of the contribution of those phenomena to maintenance social order. Rather than engage in the formulation of theories of social change, sociologists instead follow the approach of studying change as a class of social phenomena. Following this approach, efforts are to identify, describe and measure social change to be able to identify the social and other environmental conditions that underlie it. The phenomena comprising social change are thus subjected to study and analysis as other social phenomena that are the object of sociological study.

Modernization Theory

Interest in the concept of development flourished after the Second World War. This interest was however more consciously influenced by the work of liberal economists, although the ideas of evolution, progress and stages characteristic of work of the earlier philosophers remained important elements in the understanding of the concept. The work of economists became influential because the problem of development came to be specifically associated with the issue of alleviating the problems of non-Western Societies as these problems were perceived by Western nations and indigenous leaders. In the post-war era many of these nations were gaining political independence from their colonial masters and it was understood that changes must occur within these 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 path of “development”, with the assistance of theory and empirical studies in their problems.

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


  1. What is theory?
  2. Two functions of theory according to Parsons are: a)…………………………………….. (b) ………………………………………
  3. Theories of causation consist of (a)……………………………. (b)……………………(c)……………….(d)…………………
  4. What is linear theory?
  5. . ………………………………. and …………………………… are among the formulators of evolutionary theories of social change
  6. Conflict theories conceive of social organization as arising in response to a scarcity of described…………………………..
  7. List the three phases of cyclic theory
  8. Functional analysis emerged from ……………………theory
  9. What is functional analysis?
  10. Interest in the concept of ……………………….flourished after the Second World War
  11. Define modernization


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


The main points in this unit includes the following

  • Theory is been defined as the form in which the results of observation may be expressed.
  •  a) Geographic determinism b) Biological determinism c) Economic determinism d) Cultural determinism
  • Theories of Process have been classified into: a) Linear theories b) Cyclic theories d) Trend model
  • The functionalist theory conceptualise social change as a social function and is the theoretical foundation of all the modernization perspectives.
  • Modernization is not a fixed condition, but a period of transition during which a society sheds its “traditional” characteristics and become dominated by “modern” types of institution and action.


  1. Write short note on evolutionary theory
  2. Discuss the theories of causation
  3. Outline briefly the theories of process
  4. Explain the theory of functional analysis
  5. Write explanatory note on modernization theory


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Evolution to Models of Production. In: Afonja, S. and Pearce,

T.O. (edns). Social Change in Nigeria, 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.