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Stephen K. Sanderson


Stephen K. Sanderson’s Evolutionary Materialism

By Frank W. Elwell


There are two characteristics about Stephen K. Sanderson (b. 1945) and his evolutionary materialism that I wish to emphasize in this brief essay. The first is that Sanderson is a synthesizer. While all theorists borrow from those who preceded them to some extent, Sanderson attempts to construct a coherent and consistent theory of social evolution by blending elements of two distinct theoretical traditions: ecological-evolutionary theory, particularly from Gerhard Lenski and Marvin Harris, and the world-systems perspective of Immanuel Wallerstein.

So taken was Sanderson with the works of these men that he dedicated a major book, Social Transformations (1992 & 1999), to the three. In explaining the dedication, Sanderson notes that Lenski was the first to point him in the direction of a material evolutionary approach. Harris then showed him how to systematically develop and elaborate this approach. Finally, Sanderson reports, Wallerstein added the important context of a capitalist world-system in understanding sociocultural evolution in the modern world (Sanderson 1999, xi).

Social Transformations

The second characteristic of Sanderson’s work that I wish to note in this brief presentation is the heavy reliance that Sanderson places on anthropological, historical, and sociological data in testing his theoretical propositions. What I try to capture in these pages is a basic outline of Sanderson’s evolutionary materialism. What I must largely ignore is the wealth of comparative-historical data and scholarship Sanderson brings to the exploration of this theory. Sanderson is well versed in both social theory and history; he moves well between the particular case and the general perspective and back again.

Sanderson’s “evolutionary materialism” is intended as an extension of Marvin Harris’s theory of cultural materialism. Cultural materialism (CM), Sanderson claims, is well suited to explaining sociocultural conditions and changes in pre-modern societies such as the domestication of plants and animals, the development of chiefdoms and the state, social inequality, and the rise of stratification. But CM does not do well when dealing with advanced agrarian societies, the transition to modernity, or with modern capitalist-industrial societies themselves (1999, 1). Harris’s CM, according to Sanderson, has not developed concepts or posited relationships that allow for a full examination of inequality within and between modern nation-states, and has not adequately developed a vocabulary or strategy for dealing with such phenomena as corporate capitalism, modern war, or the influence of mass media on political behavior.

Starting from a foundation of Harris’s cultural materialism, Sanderson’s intent is to develop a theory that is more capable of dealing with the origin, maintenance, and evolution of the entire range of human societies—from hunting and gathering through horticultural, agrarian, and modern industrial societies. As the name implies, evolutionary materialism is primarily focused on the process of social evolution. Rather than view history (or pre-history) as a series of unique and non-recurrent events, social evolutionists see “general and repeatable patterns” of social evolution. These patterns are produced by the cumulated interactions of the sociocultural system with its natural and social environments; these interactions cause societies to change in broadly similar ways.

Thus the domestication of plants and animals occurred in several isolated societies around the globe without the benefit of cultural contact with one another. Cultural contact, however, is part of the social environment of almost all societies, and such contact is often the stimulus in causing evolutionary change. The vast majority of societies domesticated plants and animals because of contact with those who had already gone through the process.


It is not the case, Sanderson reminds us, that all elements of sociocultural systems are in constant state of change. Social stability (or “stasis”) is also very much a part of social evolution. Social stability refers to the long-term preservation or maintenance of social institutions, behavioral patterns, and belief systems. Many sociocultural systems are remarkable for their unchanging nature (1999, 133). The ancient Mesopotamians, Egyptians, and Indus peoples, for example, created extremely stable civilizations that lasted for thousands of years. But one does not have to look to pre-history alone for examples of social stability. In general, pre-modern societies also have elements that remained unchanging for centuries. Horticulture, for example, was the primary means of subsistence for thousands of years with little innovation over the generations (McNeill1993, 27-55). The same may be said for various agrarian civilizations throughout the world. It is only in relatively modern times that the hold of tradition on people’s lives begins to loosen; only in modern times that sociocultural change becomes a far more common phenomenon (1999, 15).

In addition to social stasis, “extinction” is another phenomenon that must be accounted for in any evolutionary theory. Extinction is the elimination or collapse of a social system. This can occur in a number of ways. War, disease, natural disaster, or ecological change can sometimes lead to the death of all the members of a social system or to such disruption that the social system collapses. Should society collapse, surviving members are often absorbed into other social systems or they adapt earlier (and simpler) social forms to survive, a process known as “devolution” or “regression” (Sanderson & Alderson, 2005, 27).

It is also possible, Sanderson maintains, that the growing complexity of society may well lead to collapse. Citing Joseph Tainter’s (1988) theory of societal collapse, Sanderson argues that growing complexity leads to greater and greater costs of maintaining administrative bureaucracy. These costs eventually reach a point of diminishing returns, whereby further increases in complexity bring marginal benefit to either elites or to the population as a whole. Maintaining complexity becomes such a financial drain that the society is in a weakened state, so any major shock to the sociocultural system (such as war, disease, natural disaster) will then make it vulnerable to collapse (1999, 127-128; 383).

Societal Collapse

Sanderson notes that many evolutionary theorists in the functionalist tradition maintain that growing differentiation or complexity is the main adaptive mechanism of sociocultural change. Sanderson, on the other hand, maintains that increasing complexity is not the only adaptive mechanism. Some evolutionary events are regressive (going back to more simpler forms) or are completely neutral (neither more complex nor regressive) (1999, 385). Tainter’s societal collapse theory throws doubt on the supposed adaptation qualities of societal complexity. Differentiation, specialization, and growing complexity may be beneficial in the short run (particularly for elites), but it may well be maladaptive strategy for the long-term. “The frequency of societal collapse in world history surely provides a reason for having extreme doubt about the allegedly adaptive benefits of social complexity” (131). Having said all this, Sanderson adds in an Afterword that greater complexity seems to be one of the “directional patterns” to social evolution (403).

Like his mentors Harris and Lenski (and thus consistent with Malthus), Sanderson insists that adaptations are made by individuals, not by the sociocultural systems themselves (1999, 384; 2005, 29). Individuals are strongly motivated to satisfy their own needs and wants because humans are strongly egoistic. We seek to maximize the benefits of our actions and minimize the costs. Acting as individuals seeking to satisfy our own needs, we enter into relationships and form social structures, institutions and systems that “are the sum total and product of these socially oriented actions” (1999, 12-13). 

Changes in the natural or social world (or both) cause some individuals to make adaptation in their social patterns to more effectively meet their biological and psychological needs and desires. Specific adaptations on the part of individuals can be the result of discovery or invention (innovation) on the part of individuals involved, or borrowing from other individuals or societies who have already made the innovation (diffusion). While these adaptations may allow the individual to better meet her needs or desires, large numbers of people making the adaptation may well have negative consequences for other individuals (1999, 10).Cultural Diffusion

In a complex society, particularly in those with high degrees of inequality between groups, adaptations are likely to positively or negatively affect more people in some groups than in others—say by race, class, religious group, or sex. Therefore, adaptations on the part of individuals lead to changes in the social environment itself, making further adaptations on the part of others probable (1999, 10; 2005, 29). 

There is, therefore, no direction to social evolution, there is no grand historical plan, and history is not unfolding in any predetermined direction. Rather, social evolution is driven by individuals entering into and changing social arrangements and institutions to further their own interests. But, because there are many individuals with different interests and unequal power involved, the social structures that are continually being recreated are not the result of conscious human design but rather are unintended phenomenon which often have unforeseen consequences (1999, 13).

Social structure is therefore a product “of human intention but it is not an intended project” (1999, 399). The continuously recreated social system and structures constitute “new sets of constraints within which individually purposive action must operate” (1999, 13). Social evolution is therefore the cumulative change of social systems and structures as the result of individuals acting to the best of their abilities and foresight in their own self-interests.

Also like his mentors, Sanderson identifies the “principle causal factors in social evolution” as the “material conditions of human existence.” Sanderson’s ideas of what constitutes these material conditions are consistent with Harris and Lenski in that he includes ecological, technological, and demographic factors. These three factors are focused on the infrastructural-environmental interactions of population, production technology, and the environment as it concerns the availability of vital resources to sustain population levels with the current form of production (1999, pp. 8-9).

However, Sanderson differs from Harris and Lenski in that he also incorporates economic factors within $100these material conditions. For Sanderson, “economic factors relate to the modes of social organization whereby people produce, distribute, and exchange goods and services; an especially important dimension of economics is the nature of the ownership of the basic means of production” (1999, 8-9).

In addition to incorporating economic factors into the infrastructure, Sanderson also differs from Harris and Lenski in that he posits that different material conditions (environment, demography, technology, economy) have different causal priority and strength at different stages in the evolutionary process and in different historical periods (1999, 9).

“The driving engines of social evolution differ from one social-systemic type (historical epoch, evolutionary stage) to another” (1999, 9). Specifically, Sanderson asserts that ecology and demography are dominant infrastructural characteristics in explaining hunter and gatherer, horticultural, and pastoral societies in prehistory. He posits that ecology and demography as well as technology and economy are all important for agrarian societies in the historical era before 1500. And, that the economy is the most important infrastructural variable in explaining the modern world after 1500, both in terms of a society’s internal structure and in its effects upon relations with other sociocultural systems. Sanderson & Alderson 2005, 275).

Going further, Sanderson asserts that the ceaseless accumulation of capital is the “driving engine” of social evolution today, an engine that is ever accelerating and may well lead us to environmental crisis (1999, 361-366 & 392). Sanderson thus combines Marx with his Malthusian-Evolutionary base: he performs a slightly modified cultural materialist analysis through 1500 and then with the transition to capitalism, he shifts gears to a Marxian-economic analysis. 

Sanderson, like Harris and Lenski before him, also claims that the pace of social evolution varies through history, but goes on to posit that it appears to be speeding up in modern times. He also agrees that the preferred method of the evolutionary analyst is the historical comparative method (1999, 15). That is, examining specific sociocultural systems through the use of anthropological, historical, and sociological data as well as comparing and contrasting systems within evolutionary stages and historical epochs. 

Of particular interest for evolutionists are transitions from one sociocultural form to another. And it is in performing comparative historical analysis that Sanderson truly shines: he marshals an incredible amount and variety of social science data to test the power of evolutionary materialism in explaining sociocultural stability and change.

For a more extensive discussion of Sanderson'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. W. 2006. Macrosociology: Four Modern Theorists. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.

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.

McNeil, W. H. (1993). A History of the Human Community. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Sanderson, S. (2007, June 20). About Sanderson. (F. Elwell, Interviewer)

Sanderson, S. K. (2007). Evolutionism and Its Critics: Deconstructing and Reconstructing an Evolutionary Interpretation of Human Society. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.

Sanderson, S. K. (1990). Social Evolutionism: A Critical History. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Sanderson, S. K. (1999). Social Transformations: A General Theory of Historical Development. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Sanderson, S. K., & Alderson, A. S. (2005). World Societies: The Evolution of Human Social Life. Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.


To reference Stephen K. Sanderson’s Evolutionary Materialism you should use the following format:

Elwell, Frank W. 2013. "Stephen K. Sanderson’s Evolutionary Materialism,” Retrieved August 31, 2013 [use actual date]


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