Professor Marshall

LESSON 4: Evolutionary Theory

Evolutionary Theory

By definition, using an evolutionary lens requires us to ask the main question: How is ________ changing? Evolutionary theories want us to see society as changing due to factors related to use of resources. The answers to the two key questions:

  1. How do we exist? Evolutionary theory rests on the notion that society MOVES toward some "better" state. This theory explains social reality in terms of having a "starting point."
  2. How do we change? This theory states that from a point, society will be influenced by resources and technology, and that due to these influences, social movement will occur. This movement will cause society to become a better place.

Remember that this is a MACRO theory, which means the focus is on the structure and systems of society and their impacts on the individual.

Now, let's review some of the historical concepts which lay the foundation for contemporary evolutionary theory.

Historical Interpretations

Recall that there were three events which influenced the academic development of sociology:

We can look back to these events with the understanding of hindsight. Of course events would turn out the way they have! Based on the Enlightenment (which gave us the seed to be able to view society with a critical lens), the French Revolution (which showed us that when social conditions are bad, things happen to the structure of society) and the Industrial Revolution (which set the West on a specific path of social development), we might say that things couldn't have gone any other way.

But, we have the luxury of looking back on history. Imagine if you were LIVING in those events--could you theorize about how society was at that moment in time? Further, could you theorize about how future society would be? Even with all of the technological advances we have available to us today, it would be hard to put together ideas about why things are the way they are. Imagine doing so without telephones, the internet, or computers...

The Role of Evolution

Evolution has played a strong role in sociology. As we will see, theory and the concept of evolution are very strongly tied together. Sociologists do not use the concept of evolution in the same exact ways as biologists, but there is a strong relationship between the ideas of both sciences.

While sociologists sometimes assert that we have natural social tendencies and that some behaviors have non-genetic causes (meaning that they are learned in a social environment through social interaction), some sociologists also assert that societies exist in complex environments which cause constraints. These constraints (and the use of resources) cause humans to adapt to their environment. This adaptation leads to change. Theorists try to figure out how societies use their resources to evolve.

Early in the development of sociology, Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer (with the help of Charles Darwin) developed ideas about the evolution of society. These theories were basic in that they described a linear progression:


This type of thinking was ethnocentric, and these early theorists asserted that THEIR OWN societies were the better, more civil societies since they were more industrially developed. These types of theories have historically been used to justify many types of oppression--if a group believes they are superior because they have evolved to be so, then colonialism and slavery might not be far behind.

Contemporary evolutionary theory does not take such an approach. Rather, theorists in this field today tend to look at evolution as a multi-lineal event, rather than as a tool for comparison between societies. Today, the sort of thinking of the past (where some countries were more civilized than others due to some sort of measureable and legitimized progression) is not the basis of thought. Today, the main thought of sociologist with regard to the evolution of society is to understand social evolution so that we can understand the present.

We must be willing (and eager) to understand society in terms of historical and cultural context--if we do not take the time to understand the past, then we cannot have an accurate concept of why we are the way we are today. We also will likely not understand the implications for our futures.

Karl Marx

We can carry over many of the ideas of Karl Marx--applications of his theories to the world today are relevant and insightful. Marx's ideas about the evolution of society were very important to future world events in that he influenced revolts around the world. He felt that, due to the greed of the powerful who exploited the less fortunate, a revolution would evetually occur. The dialectic process was his method of change:

While Marx envisioned a society where self-regulation would be the primary form of "government," a different form of communism came to be:

Talcott Parsons

We have already discussed Parsons' pattern variables and his AGIL model of society. Parsons' ideas about evolution were tied to these two theories. He saw societies as going through three basic stages:

Parson's Stages

Parsons said that societies in the primitive stage were characterized by religion and kinship. These societies had language, but not written language. Written language was an aspect of his next social stage, the intermediate stage. During this time, societies would develop a written language which would allow for a "history" to occur--without the written word (with only word of mouth) much of history is lost. Writing things down allows for records to begin, and for a differnt type of structure to emerge. The modern stage incorporates the stages of the past to emerge with institutionalization of concepts and formal relationships. Clearly, Parsons saw the modern society as the most proficient model, and the most agreeable for most members of the group.

Parsons, never content to stop with a simple theoretical model, expanded his three stage model to incorporate his "evolutionary universals." The universals were characteristics or components of society which he felt would help to further its evolution. Prior to getting to the universals, a society would need language, kinship organization, religion, and basic technology. He saw these PRIMITIVE/INTERMEDIATE stage aspects as prerequisites to the modern society. Once a society had those four, the following structures and processes would come about:


"Stages" that societies would have to go through in order for them to become more evolved.


Structures assist EVOLUTION of society

PROCESS: Differentiation

...leads to

The key to social evolution.

The difference in occupations and roles where some carry higher expectations and others carry lower expectations; as differentition increases, stratification begins

The structures below happened at different stages of the processes to the left:

STRUCTURE:Social Stratification: When differentiation increases, stratification occurs. Parsons asserted that stratification is an ESSENTIAL element of a modern society

STRUCTURE:Cultural Legitimation: When kinship groups begin to band together as larger groups and begin to share a sense of community, a nation emerges and its culture is accepted by its groups

STRUCTURE: Bureaucratic Organization and Money and Markets: The better organization of government, companies, and other administrations, the more evolution can occur. These are both a type of adaptive upgrading to the environment in that they require control over the economy and labor

STRUCTURE: Generalized Norms: Norms must be embraced by a majority of members of society. When norms are generalized, they become part of the structure.

STRUCTURE: Democratic Associations: When norms are internalized and accepted by members of society, groups of "like-minded" people will form to assist in the stabilization of the structure of society and the cohesion of the group


PROCESS: Adaptive Upgrading

...leads to

Controlling or conquering the environment

PROCESS: Inclusion

...leads to

The recognition that social groups cannot be excluded from the structure of society; society must recognize that groups which have been excluded will contribute to the smooth functioning of the social machine; increasing dominance over the environment

PROCESS: Value Generalization

The first three processes (differentiation, adaptive upgrading, inclusion) must be accepted by most members of society. Without acceptance a society will not "gel" together; near complete control over the environment and skills to adapt to environmental changes; value generalization allows for an increasingly complex system to meet the needs of most groups

 So, in a nutshell, Parsons viewed the processes and the structure as working together to smoothly "encourage" evolution to occur--it should be no surprise to note that Parsons viewed American contermporary society as the most evolved (and therefore the BEST functioning) society in the world. It is not likely that many American sociologists today hold that view.

Contemporary Interpretations

Joseph Schumpeter

Joseph Schumpeter advanced Marx's work by relating change in society with changes in power of social groups. While Marx felt that society could be viewed with regard to competition between conflicting groups, Schumpeter viewed society as changing due to changes in the power within groups. Today, capitalist society is "in charge." Schumpeter argues that this will not be the case in the future--he sees Capitalism has having had it's "day in the sun" and sees the legitimacy of capitalism being threatened by groups with new ways of thinking.



Society changes when groups have conflict

Society changes when groups gain power

Change occurs when groups feel deprived

Change occurs when power is gained by subordinate groups

Subordinate groups become power groups

Subordinate groups become power groups

Eventually power ceases as groups become one

Power groups lose as new subordinate groups gain power

Immanuel Wallerstein

Immanuel Wallerstein took Marx's ideas about exploitation and applied them to his contemporary views of society. His World Systems Theory explains globalization and the market economy as exploitative tools which keep some countries in power over others. Remember that, while Marx's core ideas are considered under the conflict umbrella, Marx still saw societies as EVOLVING.

Gerhard Lenski

Gerhard Lenski also draws on Marx and theorizes about how inequality grows when societies become more technolgically "advanced:"

Jurgen Habermas

Jurgen Habermas, as we have already noted, was a Frankfurt theorist in the tradition of Karl Marx. He was very interested in how sociology could help to decipher political action. He also spent a considerable amount of time thinking about how individuals helped to maintain the social structure. As did Lenski, Habermas set out to explain how society forms. His work is Marxist in orientation as he sees conflict as the "method" by which change happens. However while Marx (and other critical theorists) concentrated on class conflict, Habermas concentrated on how peoples' ideas influenced changes in society. He creates a typology of social formations:

Type of Society






Modern Civilization



Liberal Capitalism

Organized Capitalism


We'll concentrate on this type of society:

This category is considered by Habermas to be the "class" society in that the structures of these societies support stratification. Note that these models of society (all of the capitalist forms) are formed on the premise that a market system is fair and just. Also note that when a society is based on a fair market and the market fluctuates (such as ours in the US today), social order is threatened.

Habermas would suggest that the US is near the end of the "Liberal Capitalist" stage now. He sees this as a time when corporate America has gained an immense amount of power, and due to the competitiveness of these corporations, greed sets in. Once this begins to happen, we realize that the market is not fair; rather it is the playground of the rich where some groups are better positioned to accumulate status and power than others.

At this stage, the government begins to set in to regulate and steer the market in the right direction and we move to the "Organized Capitalist" stage. He argues that the only way this type of arrangement can happen is if all people in a society think that the structure is fair to all. Habermas is reluctant to assert this could actually happen.


Habermas' Theory of Communicative Action

Habermas does not think that there is one overarching "knowledge base" which forms the rules by which societies function. He does however believe that rational thought is possible, and that it can be achieved when people are able to, without any type of power differential or coercion, come to consensus. This does not mean that there will come a time when these ideas that people agree upon will form the FOUNDATION of knowledge; rather it means that Habermas sees communication as the way in which societies exist and function. While other evolutionary theorists searched for CHARACTERISTICS of different types of societies, Habermas concentrated on how communication helped societies to form, exist and evolve. Here he draws on a phenomenological point of view and uses the concept of "Lifeworld."

To Habermas, Lifeworld is a way of understanding. He argues that because we have agreed on the reality in which we live, the lifeworld is like a background from which we can draw our personal attitudes. The lifeworld is, therefore, a foundation of social and cultural "artifacts" and meanings. We use the lifeworld to manage our everyday interactions with others in that it allows us to go about our business and know that when we're interacting with others, they have a lifeworld that is similar to ours. We can therefore have interactions with others which are formed based on a sort of understanding about how that interaction will proceed. For example, when you and I meet, we can both be reasonably sure that we'll greet each other nicely, we'll have a short conversation, and that we'll part ways, perhaps with a handshake. Without the lifeworld, anything could happen during this meeting! We however have a common lifeworld, and this allows us to proceed in the social world without too much concern or caution. This communicative action, Habermas said, is the foundation of society--is the fundamental building block of social structure (and this is why this is a MACRO theory).

→The LIFEWORLD is a background by which we are able to interpret and agree on social reality.

Communicative action is the process by which communication with others helps to change society.

→For Habermas, communication was RATIONAL, meaning it has a basis of practical use for members of a group.

→The LIFEWORLD is compromised by individuals with power who use communication to exploit others or when people use communcation to get power for themselves.

→When the LIFEWORLD is COMPROMISED, society ceases to be rational, and people become deceived by powerful interests (like Marx's concepts of false consciouness and alienation).

→When our social systems become distorted, some will become disenfranchised.

Essentially, Habermas believes that people can agree on "correct" ways of proceeding in social settings. There are some problems with this line of thinking:

  1. How can we be sure that everyone who communicates is bringing the same rationality to the table? We can't.
  2. If communcation is a rational tool to advance society, then why do we continue to have such devastating problems, wars and other events which show us that people don't always agree?

Anthony Giddens

Anthony Giddens was concerned, as was Robert Merton, in integrating the macro and micro worlds of society. Recall that we have discussed the concepts of micro/macro:

Giddens overarching work was called the Theory of Structuration--he asserted that we could not only look at one level of analysis (meaning either macro or micro). Rather, he said that we must account for both pieces of the puzzle in order to fully understand how structure happens in a society:

Giddens Structuration

In the end, he asserts that we must understand that individuals modify and reproduce social actions, and therefore, looking for a structural explanation is unsatisfactory. Why is this a MACRO theory? Because it is interested in how the STRUCTURE of society becomes created.

Giddens comes up with some insightful ideas about how social change occurs:

→He asserts that there is no necessary mechanism for social change--there is no ONE thing that we can point to which has changed all societies.

→He asserts that (unlike our other theorists from this lesson) that there are no universal stages to social development.

→He asserts that PEOPLE, not structures, have needs, and so he rejects the claims of some theorists who would assert that systems do have needs which must be met.

→He asserts that even pre-capitalist societies were divided (again, unlike other theorists of this lesson).

His ideas leave us with the same problem that we've experienced with all of our other theories so far:


This is essntailly known as the PROBLEM OF ORDER in sociology, which forces us to think about whether or not the indivdual, when stressors are applied, will choose self over others, or individual needs over the needs of society. Many theorists have tried to address this central argument in the field of sociology. So far, no theory has been capable of providing a solid resolution to the problem of order. It is rather like the "chicken and the egg" tautology: how can we PROVE which comes first? Likewise, how can we PROVE what comes first when decisions must be made: the indivdual's needs or those of society?


Evolutionary theories can have their foundation in function or in conflict. It is important for us to know that, while we may view Marx's work as "hating" capitalism, he actually saw capitalism as step toward a better society in that it did away with feudalism (which was miserable for MOST people and which was a system against which one could not speak out). He viewed capitalism as a necessary step toward the evolution of an equal and just society. People often misinterpret the works of Marx as a type of anti-progressive theory in which eventually, we all end up "equal." And, while he did want to see a communist utopian society, it is beneficial for us to keep in mind that much of what Marx envisioned in the late 1800s is part of our world today.

The term "evolution" necessarily means that we go from a bad (or worse-off) condition to a good (or better-off) condition. In the spirit of reflexive sociology, we should think about the application of these types of terms to societies around the world. Are we necessarily better off as we evolve and become more technologically adapted to our surroundings? The jury is out.