1)   Linear models (aka evolutionary theories/models)

Change is cumulative, nonrepetitive, developmental, usually permanent (Tonnies theory of change from gemeinschaft to gesellschaft);  2 or more stages;  view broad historical pattern of change in human societies as involving transition from small, undifferentiated societies with homogeneous culture to large societies with high degree of structural differentiation and heterogeneous culture.  

Lenski’s macro stage theory or historical development of human societies:  caused by innovations in the technology of economic production that produced ever larger surplus of material resources

hunting and gathering

pastoral and horticultural



Urbanization:  involves ancient process of interaction between cities and surrounding countryside;  cities have 3 distinct characteristics of a marketplace (economic production), of a centre of political and administrative authority (political power) and of urban community (community conflict); 

ancient and medieval cities:  community conflict dealt with peasant tax and rent revolts in countryside, competing elite groups and dynasties

commercial cities:  community conflict dealt with import-export taxes on trade, competition between merchant families, wages & working conditions for craft workers and seamen,

industrial cities:  community conflict from disadvantaged US farmers, urban factory workers and industrialists

corporate cities:  decentralized industrial production and more service-based economy, postwar 1950’s;  community conflict and popular protest was about the urban community itself, about issues to do with urban decline, i.e. slums, poverty, jobs, housing, crime and racial discrimination

 world cities:  global economy, international banking & trade, recent decades;  community conflict deals with old residents and newer immigrant communities, disparities in taxes and municipal services between political jurisdictions, foreign investment and capital flight


2)   Cyclical models:  change is cyclical and repetitive; expressions history repeats itself and from French plus ça change plus c’est the meme chose; classic rise and fall theories of civilizations; argues important aspects of change are historically repetitive but what are these important aspects – problem of selectivity.    E.g.:  some patterns of cyclical change:  business cycles, families, college life.

Classic models: 

Pitirim Sorokin:  initially had moral cycles of recurring decadence - cycles of idealism (e.g. Medieval Europe), and then hedonism and materialism (e.g. contemporary Western societies) with transition periods (e.g. Rennaissance & Reformation) blending the two in between;  

Cycles based on biological models of growth and decay, societies were like organic systems;

Contemporary macro cyclical models: 

political & economic cycles in US (Phillips):  pertains to inequality and concentration of wealth;  characteristics – free market capitalist expansion and extraordinary technological creativity, rags to riches myth renewal, entrepreneurialism, public philosophy of laissez faire, tax cuts, lower inflation, doubts about role of gov’t, depression in agriculture, strong financial markets, increasing corporate restructuring, steady concentration of wealth;  e.g. Gilded Age aka Gay 90's (1890s), Roaring Twenties followed by Great Depression;  


long cycles and global change:  

  1. Kondratieff cycles of long wave cycles of expansion and contraction in world economy approx. every 50 years (1830s, 1890s, 1930s, 1990s);  

  2. Chirot’s theory:  repetitive cycles are embedded in longer term historical eras;  had preindustrial cycles (premodern era) and now industrial cycles (modern era)  – cycles begin with new technological invention applied to production, new profits and economic growth then market saturation and aging industries lead to economic crisis with high levels of unemployment, political stress and social disruption, then development of new economic technologies leads to economic expansion once again.  Describes 4 industrial cycles beginning with industrial revolution; now may be in 5th cycle (post-industrial). 

3)  Dialectical models

Contains elements of both cyclical and linear change, and thus change is spiral; significant change takes place as an attempt to resolve the accumulation of intolerable contradictions, the unraveling of stresses that are inherent in social life;  short term repetitive change but with long term cumulative directional change; processes of change persist but the contents of the processes are changing.   

Materialistic dialectic perspectives: 

Classic Marx

Contemporary - Immanuel Wallerstein3 contradictory modes of political and economic organization:

1)  contradiction between older subsistence agriculture with its serfs and the newer commercialized cash crop agriculture with its wage workers

 2)  contradiction between the older decentralized craft production and the newer centralized factory system

 3)  the contradiction between the small market system of local trade with the vast expansion of markets that attended the colonial expansion into the non-European world

 Also developed World systems theory (stemming from dependency theory):  have core, semiperiphery and periphery nations  (used to be referred to as 1st, 2nd, & 3rd world), all at different levels of developement

Contradictions result from differential rates of change in various institutional sectors of society, e.g. technology and production change more rapidly than political and ideological superstructure, e.g. Ogburn's cultural lag theory

 Non-materialistic dialectic perspectives:

Contradictions are between structural characteristics and individual aspirations/cultural themes (Aron) - common sources of inner contradictions in contemporary capitalist societies:

  1. egalitarian aspiration of people versus hierarchical structure and organization of society thus dialectic of equality;  

  2. individualism versus mass society thus dialectic of socialization;

  3. high levels of affluence and national autonomy versus global interdependency, thus dialectic of universality. 


Differences between the three models are units of analysis and levels of abstraction.  There is yet to be a unified, integrated theory which provides a complete understanding of social life where the relationship between equilibrium processes, cyclical processes and cumulative processes is explained.  



Sources:  see social change bibliography




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Revised: September 06, 2001 .