Herbert Spencer III: Evolution of Society

Herbert Spencer Evolution of Society Site Photo(3)

British Sociologist Herbert Spencer was a Social Darwinist. So, it’s not suprising for him to be interested in evolution of society.

Regarding this, he rejected the Auguste Comte’s Law of the Three Stages for being based only on intellectual development and went on to develop his own evolutionary theory based on real, material world.

There are two major perspectives in his evolutionary theory.

First one is related to increasing size of society.

Let’s begin with this example, suppose you are a member of a simple primitive society, where all your friends, relatives and neighbour do the same thing. All the people around you grow or hunt their own food and make all the necessary items like tools, traps, house, clothes by themselves. In this society, everyone has more or less the same status and power. Overtime, your simple primitive society either grow by giving birth to more children or uniting with other neighbouring societies. Now, this bigger society needs to be managed in new way, it has to evolve, it has to become more efficient and effective if it is to survive and meet the demands of it’s large population. For this, division of labour takes place, in this scenario you and your neighbor will no longer do the same work but based on the knowledge and skill, you specialize in certain field and may become doctor, engineer, teacher, businessman and so on but not all. Whereas your neighbor will specialize in something other. Along with this, Specialized social structures like university, hospital, administrative offices also appear in the society to do their specialized function; along with this, complex stratification based on wealth, power and prestige also appears. For example, our primitive society in which each member used to have the same status and power has now evolved into today’s society which is stratified into rich and poor, powerful and powerless and so on.

As per Spencer, this is how society move from simple to compound, doubly compound and trebly compound societies.

2nd Perspective of Spencer’s theory is evolution from militant to industrial society. In this regard, he was the first person to introduce this type of polar, dichotomous typology of societies that is militant and industrial. These opposite ideal types are treated as marking the starting and end points of society. That means as we move through time, society in past shows more military characteristics whereas present society shows more industrial characteristics. For example, compared to past society, our present society is focused more on peaceful production and exchange of goods and services, more country has adopted democracy and because of global trade our economy is more interdependent with each other. But if we move through history and go back in time, we can see more military characteristics in societies, frequency of war between global or regional power increases and there were more autocratic government.

Here is the data from Our World in Data. Org. As we move from 1500 AD to 2015 AD, the War between global power has declined. Even though there have been some proxy wars, but the direct war involving global power has comparatively declined. Similarly, if we move from 1900 AD to 2018 AD, number of Autocracy has declined whereas Democratic Government is on the rise. We can see similar trend in trade, from 1827 to 2014, the volume of trade between countries is on rise. These all facts shows, we are moving towards more industrial society and away from society with military characteristics. Even Spencer himself saw a general evolution towards industrial society.

Overall what we can say is, characteristics of Industrial Society is on the rise and Military Society is on the decline as we move with time. This is the idea of Spencer on the Evolution of Society.


Essential Reading

George Ritzer: Sociological Theory (PP 34 – 39)

Jonathan H. Turner: The Structure of Sociological Theory (PP. 41 – 44)

George Ritzer: Sociological Theory (PP. 233 – 234)

Piotr Sztompka: Sociology of Social Change (PP 102 – 104)