Practice Question – Critically examine the cultural theories of social change with suitable examples.[UPSC 2013]

Approach – Introduction, Give Sociological theories on Social Change with examples, Quote sociologists and their perspectives, Criticism, Conclusion. 



Change is a very broad concept. Though change is all around us, we do not refer to all of it as social change. Thus, physical growth from year to year, or change of seasons do not fall under the concept of social change. In sociology, we look at social change as alterations that occur in the social structure and social relationship. The word “change” denotes a difference in anything observed over some period of time. Social change, therefore, would mean observable differences in any social phenomena over any period of time.



(i) Jones. “Social change is a term used to describe variations in, or modifications of, any aspect of social processes, social patterns, social interaction or social organisation.”

(ii) Mazumdar, H. T. “Social change may be defined as a new fashion or mode, either modifying or replacing the old, in the life of a people, or in the operation of a society.”

(iii) Gillin and Gillin. “Social changes are variations from the accepted modes of life; whether due to alteration in geographical conditions, in cultural equipment, composition of the population or ideologies and whether brought about by diffusion or inventions within the group.”

(iv) Davis. By “Social change is meant only such alterations as occur in social organisation, that is, structure and functions of society.”



i) Social change is essentially a process of alteration with no reference to the quality of change.

ii) Changes is society are related/linked to changes in culture, so that it would be sometimes useful to talk about ‘socio-cultural change.

iii) Social change can vary in its scope and in speed. We can talk of small scale or large scale changes. Changes can take a cyclical pattern, e.g. when there is the recurrence of centralisation and decentralisation in administrative organisations. It can also be revolutionary. Revolutionary change can be seen when there is an overthrow of government in a particular nation. Change can also include short term changes (e.g. in migration rates) as well as long term changes in economic structures.



Evolution expresses continuity and direction of change. It means more than growth. ‘Growth’ implies a direction of change but essentially in size or quality. Evolution involves something more intrinsic, a change not only in size but also of structure. Progress implies change in direction towards some final desired goal. It involves a values judgement. All changes are not evolutionary and all changes are not progressive





Evolutionary theory is based on the assumption that societies change gradually from simple to complex forms. Early anthropologists and sociologist like L.H. Morgan gave three stages of social evolution-savagery, barbarism and civilization through which all societies pass. August Comte believed that human societies evolved in a unilinear fashion i.e. in one line of development. The notion of social evolution was taken from the theories of biological evolution. Spencer propounded an analogy between social and organic growth and between  society and an organisation. The theories of social evolution are composed of one or more of the following principles−change, order, direction, progress and perfectibility. The principle of change states that the present system is the outcome, of more or less continuous modification from its original state. Some evolutionists add to the principles of change the notion that change must have an order.

TELIC theory

A number of sociologists have held that social change can be brought about by means of conscious and systematic efforts. Lester F. Ward has asserted that progress can be achieved by means of purposive effort or conscious planning. Through education and knowledge intellect can assert itself over emotions and this can lead to the possibility of effective planning. According to Ward, natural evolution is a very slow process, whereas intelligent planning can and in fact always accelerates the process of natural evolution. German sociologist, Ludwig Stein and English sociologist L.T. Hobhouse also expounded theories closely resembling Ward’s telic theory of social change.

CYCLICAL theories

Cyclical theories of social change hold that civilizations rise and fall in an endless series of cycles. Oswald Spengler wrote a book ‘The Decline of the West’ in 1918, in which he wrote that the fate of civilisation was a matter of ‘destiny’. He saw society moving in continual cycles of growth and decay. The Roman Empire rose to power and then gradually collapsed.
The British empire grew strong, and then deteriorated. Spengler believed that social change may take the form of progress or of decay, but that no society lives for ever. In recent times Arnold J. Toynbee, the noted English historian, has also propounded a cyclical theory of the history of world civilization. He maintains that civilizations pass through three stages, corresponding to youth, maturity and decline. 


It is strongly advocated by several sociologists, particularly by Tallcott Parsons and Morton. According to its advocates, every social system has two aspects, one structural and the other functional. A structure is an arrangement/unit for the performance of functions. Function is the consequent of the activities of structures. Structural functionalists believe that society, like the human body, is a balanced system. Each institution serves a function in maintaining society. When events outside or inside the society, disrupt the social order, social institutions make adjustments to restore stability. They also argue that change generally occurs in a gradual, adjustive fashion and not in a sudden violent, radical fashion. Even changes which appear to be drastic, have not been able to make a great or lasting impact on the core elements, of the social and cultural systems.


 According to this theory there are certain forces, social or natural or both which bring about social change and the circumstances which determines the course of social change. Sumner and Keller insist that social change is automatically determined by economic factors. Keller maintains that conscious effort and rational planning have very little chance to affect change unless and until the folkways and mores are ready for it. It was Karl Marx, who got deeply impressed by the German philosopher Hegel’s metaphysical idealism and held that material conditions of life are the determining factors of social change. He advocated his theory of Historical Materialism which offered a ‘materialistic interpretation of history’ and held economic factors were the factors of social change and evolution of all societies. Karl Marx held a total faith in the theory of Economic Determinism of history and social change.

CONFLICT theories

The conflict theory takes the principle of dialectic (opposites) as central to social life. Conflict theory also has its origins in early sociology, especially in the works of Marx. Conflict theorists do not assume that societies smoothly evolve to higher or complex levels. Modern life is full of examples. The legalisation of abortion has provoked the anti-abortion movement. The feminist movement has stimulated a reaction from men and women. The liberalisation of sexual mores has led to open denunciation. The basic premise is that one of the outcomes of conflict among groups is social change. The greatest limitation of this approach is that it lays too much emphasis on conflict, as the most important factor of change.



No single theory or factor can explain the origin, direction, manner or consequences of social change. Change is such a complex process, that it is difficult to explain its causes, limits and consequences in a definitive specific manner. Sociological research studies in recent years have concentrated on specific process of social change, and its effects on society.
Though, sociologists say that they are trying to look at change in an objective manner, the idea of progress is still very much present in modern social thought. According to Bottomore, it is evident in the serious commitment to economic growth in the industrial countries, and subsequently in the countries of the Third World. More recently, he feels, it has provided the impetus for critical evaluation of unlimited and uncontrolled economic growth. 




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