10. Social Change

Syllabus: 10. Social Change in Modern Society (a) Sociological theories of social change. (b) Development and dependency. (c) Agents of social change. (d) Education and social change. (e) Science, technology and social change.

Table of contents


Classical Evolutionist Theories a.k.a. Linear Change Theories

Auguste Comte

Law of three stages of evolution. Society progresses from:

  1. Theological mode of thought.
  2. Metaphysical mode of thought.
  3. Positivistic mode of thought. (Modern science)

This progress is accompanied by moral development, particularly the growing predominance of altruism over egoism. It was criticised for being too deterministic.

Herbert Spencer

His theory was comprehensive and based on more empirical data than Comte’s theory. According to Spencer, two causes lead to social change:

  1. Increase in size of society. (Population growth)
  2. Increasing differentiation of functions within society. (Brought about by warfare)

His analysis depended upon the basic idea of evolution which could not be avoided. Evolution is the twin process of differentiation and integration.
EB Tylor. A social anthropologist who based his theory on his study of indigenous tribes. He said that every society must pass through certain number of stages to go from being primitive to civilized. The stages were:

  1. Primitive band.
  2. Tribe.
  3. Chiefdom.
  4. Civilised state.

His basic idea was that all societies go through these stages just at different rates.

LT Hobhouse

He distinguished five stages in the intellectual history of mankind and set about to demonstrate the growth of rationality in all spheres rather than the simplistic contrasts of Comte’s theory. The stages were:

  1. Beginning of articulate thought in pre-literate societies.
  2. Proto-science in the ancient east (Babylon, Egypt and ancient China).
  3. Reflection in the later east (8th-5th century BCE in China, Palestine, Iran).
  4. Systematic and critical thought in Greece.
  5. Development of modern scientific thought from 16th century CE.

The principal criticism against him was that he deals with an abstract thought, humanity, rather than concrete societies.

Functional Theories of Change

(mostly ignore change due to nature of methodology)

Merton dysfunctional items lead to change.

Parsons increasing structural differentiation causes energy flow in the system to increase, thereby leading to an adaptational upgrade which creates a need for integration which is met by value generalization.

Conflict Theories of Change

Karl Marx

The concepts of Relations of Production and Forces of Production can be applied for any study of change, but since Marx’s main thrust was on capitalism, that is where its application remains most valid. The general idea is that as private property develops, it leads to two classes (ownership/non-ownership) with one accumulating surplus. This leads to exploitation and objective opposition of interests. If pauperisation, polarisation, and homogenisation develop, it leads to formation of class for itself and thus social revolution (one of the many possibilities according to Weber). The resolution comes by abolition of class.

Max Weber

Ideas can instigate a change though he agrees that change is never mono-causal. Ex. protestant ethos and the spirit of capitalism. He further said that charismatic leaders can trigger change due to the loyalty of their followers. Ex Ghandi.
Cultural borrowing or diffusion can also lead to change in society. Leads to acculturation. May cause conflict.

Diffusion Theory of Change

Hershkovitz. He said that diffusion will occur because of cultural contact. It is of two kinds:

  • Acculturation Characterised by intense, prolonged, and asymmetrical contact between two cultures. Leads to far-reaching changes in the subordinate culture. Ex. British colonisation of India. Acculturation can occur through three major processes:

    • Addition: New aspects added to already occurring activities. Ex. puja is done before and after harvests whereas earlier tribals only had post harvest parties.
    • Origination: Completely new activities introduced in the subordinate culture. Ex. commensal relations began to take shape within tribal populations with differentiation between levels of purity depending on level of purity.
    • Substitution: Old ways of doing an activity completely replaced by new ways. Ex. anarchic sax cause it's amaze.

    If the donor culture’s ideas attack the core of the subordinate culture, then a contra-acculturative reaction (Bruce Lawrence) occurs.
    Over time even the core is changed, leading to assimilation of the two cultures. Currently the world is going through American acculturation.

  • Transculturation Characterised by short, symmetric and indirect contact. Ex. trade links cause transmission of ideas, Buddhism (adapted according to local culture).

Non-Linear Theories of Change

Pitrim Sorokin

His basic concept was that of weltanschauung (way of life). It is an idea that pervades every aspect of the system/society. Using historical data he developed a theory based on two basic kinds of weltanschauung which are manifested in three forms:

  1. Sensate. 600BCE-545CE. Truth is revealed by the senses. Goal: sensory gratification.
  2. Ideational. 545CE-Renaissance. Truth is supra-sensory, only knowable through revelation. Goal: achievement of freedom through removal of desires.
  3. Idealistic. Renaissance-Enlightenment. A synthesis of the other two.
    Currently we are in the sensate weltanschauung with the advent of modern science. It is different from the first sensate weltanschauung content-wise, though the basic principle is the same. He considered the America of 1940s as a sensate culture in decline.

Principle of immanent change.

  1. Change was inevitable but there was a limit to the amount of change that could occur.
  2. The limit was reached when a weltanschauung's creative potential is exhausted.
  3. Social institutions fail to adapt to emergent situations and take ever more drastic measures.
  4. While the dominant paradigm is in decline, other forces begin taking shape in the background opposed to it.
  5. As reaction of authority keeps getting intensified, one crisis leads to the next.
  6. Such a decline leads to conflict, which initiates change, though the decline can last for centuries according to Sorokin (Galactic Empire & Foundation). He finally said that by 1940s the sensate was on decline again, leading to conflict (world wars, family breakdown, anarchic sex etc.) and the solution lies in shift to an ideational weltanschauung (would account for the resurgence of religion).
    His theory was critiqued as being untestable due to its large time scale.


NOTE: science and technology are usually used interchangeably nowadays.One of the factors that led to the rise of sociology was the material changes introduced by industrial revolution in European society. Acceptance of the fact that sociology rose because of industrial revolution, as it is based on science itself, is a confirmation of the contribution made by science and technology to sociology right from the start.

Technological Theories of Change

Karl Marx. Marx’s theory also recognizes importance of FoP (technology is one of them) but it is not causal. For Marx, conflict occurs when FoP and RoP are out of sync.

Neo-Evolutionist Theories of Change

Leslie Whyte

Society has 3 components:

  1. Techno-economic component. Triggers evolution and influences the other two.
  2. Organisational component. Patterns of relations.
  3. Ideational component. Values and belief systems.

Technology becomes instrument of change by increasing per capita consumption of energy. Ex. originally human energy, later animal energy harnessed followed by fossil fuels. Per capita energy consumption increases with industrialisation and this leads to cultural change.


Levels of technology, an improved version of Morgan. Identified stages of evolution, each stage represents a technological advance.

  1. Paleolithic. Old stone tools, inferior material and quality.
  2. Mesolithic. Microlithic tools, slight improvement in material quality.
  3. Neolithic. Quality and variety of tools vastly improved.
  4. Metal age. Copper, bronze and iron tamed.
  5. Agricultural revolution. Domestication of plants and animals. Generation of surplus, leisure class develops. Advances in agricultural technology, transport, irrigation, religion etc. Written language emerges.
  6. Urban revolution. Large urban centres (political/religious) emerge. Leads to drastic growth of trade and growth of cross-cultural knowledge. With formal learning an elite class emerges and theoretical sciences flourish.
  7. Industrial revolution. (Now we’ve had 4 industrial revolutions, with corresponding social changes)He only identified the stages, different societies may follow different paths (like Parsons).

William Ogburn

Identified stages of technological development. Change occurs through technological development. The stages are:

  1. Innovation. Greatest in societies where diversity is high. Acceptance of plurality is essential for innovation. Ex. USA is one of the most innovation friendly countries, Jugaad tech in India which is not officially recognised due to archaic laws.
  2. Accumulation. When multiple innovations converge to create a breakthrough.
  3. Diffusion. To effect change, diffusion should be spread widely. This happens only if:
  • Technology answers a felt need. A problem is solved.
  • Technology is user friendly.
  • Technology is cost-effective.

Once the technology gets diffused in society, it leads to social change. Social change occurs by providing alternative ways of doing things. This requires a social support to succeed. Ex. charge stations required to be built in order to maximise diffusion of electric cars. This social support system triggers a chain reaction which leads to change in all aspects of the society. Ex. once electric cars widespread, dependence on fossil fuels will go down and lead to improvement in environment. Also charge stations may allow other electric cars to also proliferate.
Since the pace of change of material and non-material culture is different, Ogburn further says that technology driven change can never be smooth as it produces a cultural lag i.e. the culture (non-material) takes time to catch up to the present realities of technology (material). Thus he explains conflict in society through this concept. When culture catches up, change has occurred (For ex. social media used to form caste groups online). Technology driven change in society is akin to letting loose a bull in a china shop. Possibilities of a contra-acculturative reaction (Bruce Lawrence) to tech driven change.

Changes Observed due to Technology



With agricultural societies, population begins to expand rapidly due to high fertility and reduction in mortality caused by availability of adequate nutrition. Population explodes in industrial societies with advances in technology which lead to further decline in mortality, and fertility starts declining. With advanced industrial societies, a rapid decline in fertility is seen due to advent of birth control technology (i.e. ze sex wizout ze bebies). Renewed demand for labour leads to introduction of women to the workforce causing further decline in fertility rates.NOTE: mortality is highly technology sensitive. Gender curve has been discussed in stratification.

Family Life

  1. Functions of family overtaken by other institutions with advent of industrial society.
  2. Leads to pluralisation of family forms,
  3. greater gender equality (also greater gender plurality), and
  4. high failure of marriages (due to high expectations from marriage - Fletcher).


  1. Improvement in technology leads to development of leisure for everyone.
  2. Everyone consumes luxury goods, culture industry (Adorno) develops.
  3. Labour force moves from primary and secondary sectors to tertiary sectors.
  4. Quarternary sector develops.
  5. Mass urbanisation results. (Western countries have more that 90% urbanisation)
  6. Development of cultural lag. Ogburn.

Social Stratification

  1. Increased mobility leads to rise of status conventional society. Pakulski & Waters.
  2. High level of specialisation in advanced industrial societies leads to a decline in mobility.
  3. Tyranny of merit, Sandel.
  4. New hierarchy between knowledge and manual workers.


  1. Advanced industrial societies are technocratic/knowledge societies.
  2. Now technology is based on theoretical knowledge, whereas earlier it was based on hit & trial (ex. Edison and Tesla).
  3. Technology leads to vertical and horizontal growth of education, in terms of higher education and mass education.
  4. Education policies based on changing needs of society. Ex NEP 2020 covers vocational education to inculcate employable skills in the people. Feudal societies were about land, industrial societies about factories, modern societies are all about research institutes. Bell labs, MITs, IITs, etc.


  1. Technology leads to secularisation and pluralisation/privatisation of religion.
  2. It also lead to religious revivalism which can further contribute to development of religion as a protest ideology and thus a source of change. (Sorokin's ideational weltanschauung)
  3. Fundamentalism as a contra acculturative reaction to modernity.
    Classsical theories point to development of rational social values (organic DoL, gesellschaft PVs, goal-rational authority). Development of a contra-acculturative reaction. B Lawrence.


  1. Francis Fukuyama says that only pluralistic liberal democracy is compatible with technological social change.
  2. Russia fell down due to cultural-lag.
  3. He holds that liberal democracy is the endpoint of human socio-cultural evolution and the final form of human government.

Work & Leisure

Technology leads to a lot changes in work & leisure:

  1. Automation of work.
  2. Technical complexity of work increases.
  3. Hierarchy of labour develops, mental and manuel.
  4. Leisure increases. Culture industry develops.
  5. Chronic anomie. Crisis of adaptation and uncertainity.
  6. Alienation of work – deskilled and repetitive. Ex. making excel sheets all day.
  7. Social relations become impersonal. Role-bargaining in kinship relations.
  8. Planned obsolescence. Tech upgrades become outdated in a few years’ time. Rising e-waste.
  9. Right to repair movement.


The elements which cause a domino effect when changed themselves:

  1. Population.                                               Comte, Spencer, Durkheim.
  2. Technology.                                              Whyte, Ogburn.
  3. Class conflict.                                           Marx.
  4. Ideology.                                                   Weber.
  5. Collective mobilisation.                          Social movements.
  6. Education.                                                 Amartya Sen, Pierre Bourdieu.
  7. Planned social change.                           Planning in India,  USSR and China.
  8. Charismatic leader.                                  Weber.
  9. Acculturation.                                           Hershkovitz.
  10. Fortuitous happenings.                          New World.


Education is the formal process of transfer of knowledge (about norms, values, ideals etc.) from the older generation to the newer.

Formal education came into being with the advent of agricultural societies as literacy and numeracy developed. In such societies, education is restricted to the elite and its content is overwhelmingly religious. Such an education system is not an agent of change rather it maintains the status quo.

With the advent of the industrial society, education becomes exoteric (need for trained workers) and its content becomes increasingly secular, scientific and utilitarian. Such a system play an important role as an agent of change in society.

  • Provides avenues for social mobility by skill training. Intra-generational mobility greatly improved.
  • Increases economic growth from both supply & demand sides. Supply: skill upgrade; demand: raises expectations by providing new RGs.
  • Secularisation of world view and life goals.
  • Transmits new values/beliefs and creates a consensus with respect to new values.
  • Acts as an instrument of modernisation. Nationalism, democracy, rationalism developed the cause of modern education and vice versa.
  • Transmits values of equality and social justice. Widens horizons and introduces changes towards equality for all.
  • Education also impacts the family. Leads to greater individualism and reduction in fertility rates.
    Marxist scholars critique education system as:
  • Education leads to social reproduction of class inequality.
  • Education further leads to legitimation of class inequality through the myth of meritocracy.

Bowles and Gintis.

Correspondence principle: sync between values taught at school and those required at the workplace through the hidden curriculum. Passive subservience to the teacher becomes passive subservience of the manager, acceptance of hierarchy at school becomes acceptance of hierarchy at work etc.

  • Dropout rates are higher in lower classes than in upper classes. Filters out the poor.
  • Cultural capital (Pierre Bourdieu) shapes performance in education systems.
  • Poor develop immediate gratification norms while education system demands delayed gratification. (Scarcity mindset).
  • Opportunity cost is high for the poor, also they are less motivated (due to inadequate RGs) than upper classes to remain in the system.
  • Helps maintain cultural continuity, a generational affiliation of sorts and as dominant strata controls the curriculum it perpetuates the status quo.
  • Sukhdeo Thorat - documented caste based discrimination in AIIMS. Prevents development of talent.
  • Radical feminists say that abuse of girls in school is ignored and underplayed. Example of rapes in Gurugram schools. Further, subject choices reproduce gender inequality.

However, thinkers like Henry Giroux say that Marxist theories are too deterministic and that not every working class student fails at school.Similarly, the correspondence principle may not be as applicable in the current highly complex labour market.

Education is inversely proptional to fertility.

Michael Young - The Rise of Meritocracy

  1. Said that society based on meritocracy would eventually mutate into a dystopia.
  2. Those judged to have merit of a certain kind harden into a new social class while excluding others from it.
  3. Ex. from stratification 7 class studies.


Marxist theory of development.

According to Dependency theory, the underdevelopment of many countries is the fault of the West. It points out that the last 500 years of history have seen Western European Nations and companies exploit people and resources in Latin America, Asia and Africa, leaving them poor, helpless, and dependent on aid. Dependency theory criticises modernisation. It blames the Western Capitalist Nations rather than the ‘backward’ cultures of developing countries.

World Capitalist System

Andre Gunder-Frank argued that since the 16th century, there has been a global capitalist system that operates in a similar way to class-based societies. The system consists of metropolis or core nations (the developed, industrialized world) who have taken the resources of the satellite or peripheral countries (the developing world) and made themselves rich at the expense of these countries. He calls this the development of underdevelopment. The Core nations have traditionally worked with Elites in satellite nations, who are always a small minority of the population and who benefit from this system of inequality.

Theotonio Dos Santos, another dependency theorist from Latin America wrote that dependency is a condition where a country's economy is conditioned by the growth and development of another economy. In order to be self-reliant a country must avoid being dominated or dependent on another economy.

Origins of Dependency

The unequal relationship between the developed West and the underdeveloped East has its origins in Slavery and then Colonialism.

  • Slavery helped to kick start Britain’s economic growth in the 18th and 19th centuries.
  • Colonialism locked much of Africa, Asia and Latin America into exploitative relationships with Western European Nations from about 1750 – 1900.
    Satellite nations were then exploited by the core nations for:
  • Cheap food, labour and raw materials.
  • Fertile land was appropriated for growing profitable cash crops - such as tea, rubber.
  • As a field of investment for foreign capital in high return markets. Example: government of colonial India guaranteed fixed interest on investments in railways.
  • New markets were created for the manufactured goods from the West.
  • Local industries that attempted to compete with the west were systematically undermined by cheaper machine made goods. Market monopolies by western firms.
  • Divisions were created between ethnic groups or forced and tribes loyal to the colonisers were given economic and political power rewards. Ex. Tutsi in Rwanda.
  • Arbitrary borders were imposed in Africa & Middle East which form the basis of ethnic conflicts even today. Lines in the sand.


Most African countries gained their independence in the 1960s. Still, Gunder-Frank argues that they are exploited by more developed countries, in a situation which he describes as Neo-Colonialism. Such forms of exploitation are more subtle than slavery and colonialism, but the effect is still to keep the developing world in a state of dependency on the West.
Dependency theory says that economies of developing countries were prevented from developing because of the following:

  1. Economies of many ex-colonies still dependent for their export earnings on a small number of commodities.
  2. 66% of African countries derive 80% of export earnings from one or two items.
  3. Over reliance on one or two commodities caused by colonial policies to secure cheap raw materials. Ex. oil, coffee, tobacco, and cotton.
  4. Value addition  occurs mainly in the West. Western companies benefit most.
  5. Manufactured goods have become costlier while raw materials have become cheaper. Developing countries have to produce more goods to earn the same relative income. (Problems of farmers wrt commercial agriculture in India) Example: price of seeds goes up year on year while the price realised by the farmer from the sale of the crop has remained stagnant.
  6. Western Nations can limit the amount of goods they receive through tariffs on imported goods and subsidies for home produced goods. Non-tariff barriers created in the age of WTO.
  7. In Africa colonies, the French maintained a political and economic presence in order to ensure that French companies benefited from any development activities. Example: West African nations still use the Franc as a currency, guaranteed by the Central Bank of France.

Strategies for Development

  • Breaking Away from Dependency. Dependency is not just a phase, but rather a permanent position. Developing countries can only escape dependency by escaping from capitalist system. Different paths to development:
  • Isolation. Ex. China from about 1950 to 1980.
  • Break away at a time when the metropolis country is weak. Ex. India.
  • Socialist revolution. Ex. Cuba.
  • Associate or Dependent Development. Adopt national economic policies to bring about economic growth such as import substitution-industrialization as successfully adopted by many South American countries.
  • Did not address inequalities within the countries.
  • ISI was controlled by elites. Led growth while increasing inequality.
  • Many leaders in Africa adopted dependency theory, and worked on developing political movements that aimed to liberate Africa from western exploitation, stressing nationalism rather than neo-colonialism.
  • New International Economic Order being promoted by NAM nations.
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