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Macrosociology: The Study of Sociocultural Change

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rbert Spencer's Evolutionary Sociology
Gerhard Lenski


Lenski’s Evolutionary Theory

By Frank W. Elwell


Recall that the 9th Postulate of Lenski’s ecological-evolutionary theory was that “societies evolve in response to changes in their natural and social environments.” Sociocultural change is of two types, innovation and extinction. The first involves adding new elements such as technologies, social practices, institutions, or beliefs to the system. The second type of change is, of course, the elimination of old elements in the system. While extinction certainly occurs, the process of sociocultural evolution is predominantly a cumulative process, that is, change and innovation are added far more to the system than older elements are eliminate. This, Lenski adds, is one reason why sociocultural systems have grown more complex over time.

There are ultimately only three major factors determining the characteristics of the sociocultural system: 1) Human’s genetic heritage; 2) The biological, physical, and social environment; and 3) The influence of prior social and cultural characteristics of the society itself. The force of historical experience therefore plays a major role in shaping social institutions and thought. The rate of innovation and change varies across different societies. There are several factors that influence this rate. 1) Store of existing cultural information; 2) Population size; 3) Stability of the physical and biological environment itself; 4) Contact with other societies; 5) Character of the physical environment itself; 6) Attitudes and ideologies toward change; and 7) Technological innovation itself

Sociocultural change occurs as a consequence of individual members of society making adaptive changes to their natural and social environments. Of course, not all people have equal power in the decision making process; “who decides” often depends on the nature of the choice and one’s position in the stratification system. As a consequence many important decisions are made by a few, and these few may well choose alternatives that enhance or bolster their interests rather than the interests of the total society. It is, after all, an imperfect social system. Structural elites acting in their own interests therefore provide positive and negative reinforcements for the adoption or extinction of technological and social change. This feedback can often be decisive in determining whether change is propagated throughout the sociocultural system or whether it is extinguished.

Changes in subsistence technology (food, energy, and material extraction) and population have far ranging consequences for human organization, cultural beliefs, and values. This configuration is, of course, identical to Marvin Harris’s concept of  “infrastructure.” Technology and population are, of course, closely intertwined. Technology and population combined set strong limits on widespread social organizational characteristics as well as ideas and ideologies. These limits include maximum community size and complexity, the division of labor, the degree of inequality, the degree of military power that the society can project, complexity of stratification systems, and the overall wealth of the society. Advances in subsistence technology are important because they are often related to improvements in other technologies such as transportation and communications, all of which leads to greater societal growth and complexity.

The demographics of population, over and above sheer size, can also have dramatic impact on the rest of the sociocultural system. Lenski considers population and subsistence production critical in understanding sociocultural systems because these two variables are the principle means by which society regulates the flow of energy from its environment. Increases in the food supply made possible by innovations in subsistence technology is a necessary precondition for high population levels, both of which are preconditions for significant increases in the complexity of a society. The resulting complexity creates many new problems for sociocultural systems, all of which call for further technological, social, and cultural change.


Recall that enlightened self-interests of humans leads them to equitably distribute goods and services to productive classes in order to ensure their survival and continued productivity. However, any surplus is likely to be divided in accordance with self-interest, that is, on the basis of social power. This leads Lenski to the following hypothesis: “The more intensive the subsistence technology, the greater the surplus, the greater the surplus, the greater the inequality.”

As technology and productivity increases a portion of the new goods and services will go toward necessary population growth and feeding a larger population. However, with technological development and subsequent increases in productivity, a larger surplus of goods and services will be produced. Lenski’s second hypothesis predicts that with technological advance, an increasing proportion of goods and services available to a society will be distributed on the basis of power. If true, then when examining sociocultural systems we should see that the greater the technological advance, the greater the inequality of goods and services within the society. 

In his studies Lenski indeed finds increasing degrees of inequality up to and including early industrial society. At this stage of development, however, he finds the degree of inequality peaking and then beginning to lessen as industrial society matures. In mature industrial societies the lower social classes appear to materially benefit more than in agrarian or early industrial societies both in absolute and relative terms. Elites appear to receive less of a proportion of the nation’s income. Lenski thus concludes that mature industrial societies represent a reversal of a long-standing evolutionary trend in which inequality increased with technological development. He linked the lessening inequality to a variety of factors: 1) Necessity of a large administrative and technical structure; 2) Satiation of elites (there are only so much they can consume); 3) The buying of allegiance and commitment of the middle and working classes in order to promote further growth; 4) Changes in population and production dynamics; and 5) The rise of ideologies that advocate more economic equality.

 Evolution and Global Systems

There is a process of selection in the world system that favors larger, more powerful societies at the expense of smaller, less powerful ones. Sociocultural change is largely a cumulative process which is the major factor in the growth of the complexity and size of societies over the course of human history. But to fully appreciate the process of sociocultural evolution, you must recognize that it includes both continuity and change. The vast majority of societies have experience very little change over the course of their history. But in the global system as a whole, societies have gotten larger, developed more sophisticated methods of exploiting their environments, and developed more complex divisions of labor.

This paradox has created some confusion. How can the global system of societies change so radically, particularly in the last 10,000 years when individual societies appear so resistant to change? The answer is that social evolution exists on two different levels, and these two levels—individual societies and the global system of societies—follow divergent evolutionary paths. At the global system level, there has been a dramatic reduction in the number of societies in the last 10,000 years due to a process of “inter-societal selection.” Societies that have grown in size and technology have also grown in complexity and military power; and this has allowed them to prevail in conflict over territory and other resources with societies that have maintained more traditional sociocultural patterns. Successful adaptations are spread through social contact, military, and economic conquest. Societies that adopted innovations that led to increases in productive capacity, population growth, structural complexity, and military power are those that have survived to transmit their culture and institutional patterns.

At the individual societal level, societies respond to changes in their natural and social environments, which, in combination with their distinctive histories, produces the innovative adaptations, some of which get passed on to other societies within the global system and become part of the inter-societal selection process. Sociocultural evolution therefore operates on two distinct levels, within individual societies and within the world system of societies. The two processes combined determine “which societies and which cultures survive and which become extinct, and the role that each of the survivors plays within the world system.”

For a more extensive discussion of Lenski’s theories refer to Macro Social Theory by Frank W. Elwell.  Also see Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change to learn how his insights contribute to a more complete understanding of modern societies.


Elwell, F. (2009) Macrosociology: The Study of Sociocultural Systems. Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press.

Elwell, F. (2013), Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change. Alberta: Athabasca University Press.

Lenski, G. (2005). Ecological-Evolutionary Theory: Principles and Applications. Colorado: Paradigm.

Lenski, G., & Lenski, J. (1987). Human Societies: An Introduction to Macrosociology (5th edition). New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.

Lenski, G., Lenski, J., & Nolan, P. (1991). Human Societies: An Introduction to Macrosociology (7th edition). New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.

Lenski, G. (1966). Power and Privilege: A Theory of Social Stratification. New York: Random House. 


To reference Lenski's Evolutionary Theory you should use the following format:

Elwell, Frank W. 2013. "Lenski's Evolutionary Theory," Retrieved August 31, 2013 [use actual date]