Home > Free Essays > Sociology > Sociological Issues > How Sociologists Understood Social/ Cultural Change
Cite this

How Sociologists Understood Social/ Cultural Change Explicatory Essay


Social change is a noteworthy modification in behavior patterns and cultural beliefs and practices. Noteworthy modification in behavior patterns and practices refers to changes that yield profound social results. Social change is a process in which beliefs, attitudes and institutions of a society become altered. Numerous theories have been developed to explain the causes, process and results of social change.

These theories have been used to develop strategies used in social work, product promotion and business. In addition, theorists have noted that individuals must have certain features for social change to take place. People must believe that they are at risk for a challenge that can result into serious outcomes.

A belief that a certain way of behavior can reduce or eliminate the outcomes of the challenge results into social change. The traits that necessitate the alteration in behavior are among the core elements of social change theories.

Social change characterizes the shifts in societal norms. It indicates that a whole society has acquired a new behavior pattern. Theorists of the phenomenon describe human societies as results of continuous progress. Social change theories are models used to explain actions that take place within a society.

Emile Durkheim, Bronislaw Malinowski, Brown Radcliffe and Evans-Pritchard developed some of the well-known theories of social change. This paper discusses how Emile Durkheim, Malinowski, Brown Radcliffe and Evans-Pritchard understood social change. It explains their conceptualization of the social phenomenon based on the theories that they developed.

Bronislaw Malinowski

Functionalists described various components of the society through organic comparison. The approach involved the comparison of the various components of a society to appendages of an organism. An organism can live and function because of a planned organization of all body appendages and limbs. In the same way, a culture can preserve vital processes due to relations of various parts.

Institutions like kinship and religion are some of the examples of organs in the social organism. Bronislaw Malinowski is one of the theorists who developed the functionalist approach to social change. Functionalism was developed to react to the excesses of evolutionary and diffusion approaches. Malinowski developed the bio-cultural functionalism approach to social change.

Malinowski noted that people have psychological needs. These needs include food, shelter and reproduction. Social institutions are present to assist people accomplish these wants. Additionally, there are cultural and instrumental needs in any society. Some of these needs include education, economy, and political organization. These needs also require the existence of institutional devices.

All institutions have workers, policies, devices and purposes. Malinowski argued that homogeneous responses to the environment are correlates of societal needs (McLeish 1969, pp. 16). He reasoned that the fulfillment of the wants resulted into alteration of cultural influential actions. The cultural instrumental activities are transformed into acquired behaviors through psychological changes.

The premise of Malinowski’s theory included the conceptualization of behavior in terms of individuals’ motivation. It also included recognition of the relationship between different parts that formed traditions and conceptualization of the functions of diverse pieces of culture. Malinowski considered culture as everything that relates to human life and activities.

Essentially, he regarded culture as a direct expression of organically intrinsic patterns of behavior. Culture is part of activities acquired and adopted by individuals. Hence, according to Malinowski, culture involves the transmission of behavior and physical objects related with acquired patterns to other people (Malinowski, Thornton & Skalník 2006, pp. 43).

Malinowski argued that culture is basically a mechanism through which man copes with tangible challenges that he faces in his environs as he seeks to satisfy needs. Additionally, it is a system of actions, thoughts and devices, which assist man to meet certain goals. Thus, all components in the society are mutually dependent.

Furthermore, Malinowski noted that all the activities, attitudes and objects revolved around key institutions in the society. Some of the key institutions include the family, religion, kinship and economy among others. Finally, Malinowski noted that the kinds of actions make society be examined into various facets like edification, integrity and economics among others.

Malinowski believed societal establishments are models of remote planned behaviors. Organized behaviors involved many people. Hence, societal institutions like religion are social systems. They are subsystems in the society. The fundamental characteristic of the organizations in the society is the scheme of principles required for the pursuit needs.

Differentiation of institutions within a culture enables the existence of the concept of functionality. Malinowski argued that institutions worked to ensure continuity and normality of an organism. Hence, he developed the theory of biological needs. He noted that any theory that explained social change had to begin with an explanation of the organic needs of man.

Culture is influential in the fulfillment of man’s natural needs. Consequently, a theory has to connect cultural needs and actions. Malinowski’s theoretical approach derived the characteristics of the society and its systems from pre-cultural requirements of a community (Cunningham 1999, pp. 28). Therefore, Malinowski classified the needs that man seeks to satisfy. He identified two groups of needs.

These are basic needs and derived needs. Basic needs are classified based on cultural responses that are related to key institutions. Derived needs are inserted between the basic needs and the institutions that bring about collective behaviors. The satisfaction of these needs result into social change.

Radcliffe Brown

Brown Radcliffe also developed a functionalist approach to social change. He developed structural functionalism approach while Malinowski constructed the bio-cultural theory. Radcliffe focused on the social structure of a society instead of biological needs of man. He argued that a society is a system that maintains itself through cybernetic response method.

On the other hand, institutions function to control the society as an organized system. His theory differed from the approach developed by Malinowski. He reasoned that the social consisted of a point of reality that differed from organic forms.

He noted that rationalization or conceptualization of social events had to be at a social point. Hence, people are replaceable temporary residents of social roles. In contrast to Malinowski’s stress on people, Radcliffe considered individuals inappropriate (Upadhyay & Pandey 1993, pp. 234).

Radcliffe stress on social function was based on the influence of French sociological school of thought. Emile Durkheim developed this perspective. In this perspective, one phenomenon has to be used to explain other social incidences.

However, references to psychological needs and factors that drive individuals’ behaviors must not be used to explain social phenomenon. Thus, his perspective to social change differed from that developed by Malinowski since social needs theory depended on psychological requirements of man.

Radcliffe used a comparison of social and natural life to clarify functionalism as a model in social change. He explained the input of a social phenomenon like change in maintenance of order in a society. His disregard to the input of individuals in maintenance of social order is obvious in his theory. He explained that the life of a living organism conserved the stability of its structure.

However, the life of the organism does not ensure the unity of its individual parts. Therefore, after a long period, the structure of the organism may remain the same. However, the arrangement of the individual parts that constitutes the whole structure change. This explained how social change occurred. Radcliffe further explained that individuals, as vital units in a society, are interrelated to form an integrated whole.

He explained that just like in a living organism, the changes that occur to individual parts of a society do not result into destruction of continuity of the social structure (Ferraro & Andreatta 2011, pp. 78). Even though some people leave a community because of death, other persons enter the society.

Hence, the processes of social life maintained continuity of society’s structure. Social life consists of relations and actions of individuals and of ordered groups that unite them. The social existence of a community explains functionalism concept of the social structure.

The work of any persistent activity is the component it performs in the social life. The work of any persistent activity is the contribution that part in question performs to ensure structural continuity (Barrett 2009, pp. 67).

Radcliffe and Malinowski developed different versions of functionalism approaches to social phenomena. However, the stress on the disparities that exist between them makes their fundamental similarities and complementarily nature ambiguous. Both the biological and structural functionalism view the society as structured into an entire unit that works as a whole.

Both perceive society as constructed with parts that contain each other and that work mutually to preserve the entire culture. Hence, the work of a belief or custom is the input that it provides to ensure preservation of the whole arrangement of society. Wholly, socio-cultural systems work to provide individuals with ways through which they can adjust to environmental changes.

In addition, socio-cultural systems connect people in a set of connections of steady social relations. However, alterations in the roles performed results into social changes.

Functionalists recognized the roles that social conflict and other kinds of disequilibrium played in the conceptualization of a social phenomenon. Nevertheless, they considered that cultures normally tend to ensure the existence of permanence and internal consistency.

Emile Durkheim

Emile Durkheim is another theorist who used functionalism to explain social phenomena. Social change can be explained through the functionalism approach that he developed to explain social phenomena. Durkheim developed his approach as a response to conflict theories proposed by Karl Marx and Max Weber. Weber and Marx believed that any social phenomenon involved the control of interests that opposed each other.

Hence, they argued that conflict between people and groups is a vital part of all societies. Therefore, conflict between groups and people in a society produces social change. However, Durkheim’s views differed from the beliefs of conflict theorists. He used functionalism to explain reasons for occurrence of social phenomena like social change.

The approach developed by Durkheim centers on the functions played by social players and items. He argued that harmony defined the society. Hence, he examined social phenomena like change through investigation of the function that the event played in facilitation of harmony and cohesion (Strasser, Gabriel & Randall 1981, pp. 154). Durkheim examined the partition of work, suicide and religious conviction to develop this approach.

While other functionalists like Radcliffe and Malinowski explained social phenomena through explanation of the functions of parts, Durkheim examined what held individuals together in institutions. He noted that harmony was the typical situation of a society. On the other hand, he considered conflict as anomalous or pathological.

He identified two kinds of harmony namely organic and mechanical solidarity. Mechanical solidarity is the integration founded on common ideas and values while organic harmony is, that which resulted from specialism and mutual reliance. These two forms of solidarity provide ways through which societies organize themselves.

He argued that harmony founded on shared beliefs is found in societies where differentiation in work and duties is limited. Conversely, solidarity based on mutual dependence is found in societies in which there is high differentiation in work and duties (Strasser, Gabriel & Randall 1981, pp. 156). Durkheim used this idea to explain the difference between modern and early societies.

According to Durkheim’s explanations, societies that have mechanical harmony are small and founded on kinship systems. In these societies, social relations are controlled by common beliefs. Consequently, control in these societies is punitive. Division in labor increases as societies grow. Intricate organization of labor is vital in large societies.

Collective conscience reduces as people begin to specialize in activities that they perform. In other words, social change occurs as societies grow in size. As societies become bigger, harmony that is based on shared beliefs ceases to exist. Durkheim argued that the complexity associated with growth in size does not result into disintegration.

Instead, interdependence in complex societies leads into solidarity. In large societies, people do not produce everything that they need (Noble 2000, pp. 155). Conversely, they interact with each other. The interaction of people in complex societies leads into recognition of the needs of each person. Hence, complex societies are organized about opinionated and financial systems. The legal systems in such societies control behavior.

Thus, according to Durkheim, the division of labor in the society resulted into social changes. He used the concepts of anomie and suicide to explain the consequences of division of labor as results of social changes. Durkheim tried to explain the role of division of labor and argued that it created social harmony. Tension and turmoil accompanied the industrial revolution.

Durkheim attempted to explain the existence of tension and turmoil through anomie. Anomie refers to lack of normality or inadequate normative directive (Carls 2012, pp. 1). The industrial revolution produced speedy development, and this resulted into isolation of individuals from shared beliefs and values.

Alienation of individuals made people lack interest in the common values. This resulted into social changes. Division of labor is associated with growth in moral density. Growth in moral density results into individualism and this leads to changes.

Durkheim believed that contemporary societies have to establish original ways to strengthen social standards and common beliefs. In addition, he noted that occupational groups in complex societies normally replaced normative functions performed by institutions like religion.

Moreover, relationships between the occupational groups are economically and politically informed. Generally, his conceptualization of social change was based on the growth of societies from primitive to modern.

Edward Evans-Pritchard

Evans-Pritchard is also a functionalist theorist who was influenced by Malinowski. He followed Radcliffe’s form of functionalism to explain social phenomena. However, he later criticized Radcliffe’s functionalism approach for being stationary and not based on historical facts. His approach can be used to explain the existence of social change as a social phenomenon.

However, he did not develop a theory to explain the phenomenon. However, he collected complete information on a culture that he examined to provide an explanation for social change (Erickson & Murphy 2008, pp. 128).

In the information he collected, he provided complete documentary of the history of the culture under study. He examined the changes that influenced the culture up to its present state. Nevertheless, it is possible to develop a theory based on the writings that he provided.

Evans-Pritchard wondered whether anthropology was a science or a subsection of humanities. Scientifically, culture is a purposive body. He noted that the bearers of a culture might not know some of the laws that they uphold. Hence, it is possible for an anthropologist to understand a culture better than individuals who uphold it. Alternatively, Evans-Pritchard noted that culture might be what the inhabitants of a place perceive it to be.

This explains why some theorists argued that there could be as many cultures as there are people in a given place. Hence, culture can also be subjective. This means that it is possible to talk, identify and compare cultures (Carter 2002, pp. 189).

Evans-Pritchard’s conceptualization of social change can be examined through analysis of his studies. He attempted to close the space that exists by investigating how individuals encountered calamity in their respective cultures. The study of misfortunes in cultures is a personal experience that is distinct.

However, experiences are related to social institutions. The key questions that he aimed to examine are what constituted misfortune, who was to be blamed and how they were to be solved. Thus, his approach can be termed as the theory of accountability.

The most notable study that Evans-Pritchard conducted was the examination of witchcraft among the Azande community. Witchcraft provides an explanation for many things in a society. However, the views that people have about witchcraft, whether positive or negative are planned in methodical manner. This provides three principles of Evans-Pritchard’s conceptualization of knowledge.

The first principle is that rational thought is applied discriminatively. Hence, the views applied on Azande’s witchcraft practices contradicted each other. In some areas, the views provided logical explanations for existence of witchcraft behaviors in the community.

Social demand for accountability structures allowed the existence of rational explanation for witchcraft. Hence, blame was appropriately placed. Additionally, the structures for accountability determined a culture’s reality.

Evans-Pritchard’s work was originally directed by Radcliffe’s functionalism approach. However, he realized that Radcliffe’s work was not founded on history. Evans-Pritchard was moved by the study he did on the Azande community. He noted that exclusion of the historical dimension in explanation of a phenomenon deprived humans the knowledge necessary to understand social organization.

Hence, to understand social change, it is necessary to examine the history of the community under study. He also examined the role of Europeans’ influence on the Azande community. He argued that it is essential to analyze the influence of foreigners on a community (Erickson & Murphy 2010, pp. 114). Thus, he argued that social change must be studied through examination of outside influence on a community.

He explained that social history is a framework for anthropology. He noted that social history and anthropology both employed culture’s standards in the investigation of social phenomena. In addition, they both make their subjects intelligible.

This makes the subjects discover the structure that exists in their societies. In modeling his approach on history and not on science, Evans-Pritchard observed anthropology through humanistic point of view. Hence, it was vital to include history to understand social change.

Criticism of Their Approaches

Numerous theorists have criticized functionalism. Interaction theorists noted that functionalists did not address the complications of the players and progressions involved in societies. Marxists observed that functionalism was stationary and only highlighted the role of a social fact on preservation of harmony. Furthermore, some theorists criticized it for exclusion of history.

Only Evans-Pritchard considered the importance of history in investigation of social phenomena like change. Logical problems have also provided a basis for criticism. The existence of a body is not essential than the reason for its being. In other words, development of a society’s institution does not anticipate a rise of its functions.

Additionally, the approaches to social change developed by the four theorists have been criticized for circularity. Needs are proposed because of institutions that exist. The institutions then explain the reasons for their existence. Their existence is then used to explain social change and other phenomena. However, their anti-historic approach makes it difficult for them to counter this criticism.

It is difficult to examine social processes since they do not include historical information in their analyses of social change. Finally, functionalists do not provide an explanation of how the institutions developed. They simply state that the institutions satisfy social needs. Hence, they simply provide the reasons for the existence of the institutions.

Other anthropologists have tried to provide other forms of functionalism due to the criticism against the approaches developed by Malinowski, Durkheim, Radcliffe and Evans-Pritchard. Clyde Kluckhohn’s account of witchcraft among Navaho community evaded tautology. On the other hand, comparative functionalism attempted to address the lack of relative analysis of institutions in different cultures.

It determined that functions of institutions are universally the same. Neo-functionalism responded to the ineffectiveness of structural functionalism approach proposed by Radcliffe. Neo-functionalism analyzed social change in terms of exact functional requirements.

Neo-functionalists also focused on differentiation, integration and evolution in their explanation of social change. Neo-functionalists also examined the influence of techno-environmental, ecological and demographical drivers to social change.


Social change is a remarkable alteration in behavior patterns and cultural beliefs and practices. Remarkable alteration in behavior patterns and practices refers to changes that yield intense social results. Social change characterizes the shifts in societal norms. It shows that an entire society has acquired a new behavior pattern. Social change theories are models used to explain actions that take place within a society.

Emile Durkheim, Bronislaw Malinowski, Brown Radcliff and Evans-Pritchard developed some of the well-known theories of social change. This paper discussed how they understood social change. It examined the relationships between the theories and the premises upon which they are founded.

Finally, it provided a brief explanation of some of the criticism put forward against their theories. Generally, the paper has managed to compare their ideas, relationships and weaknesses.

List of References

Barrett, R 2009, Anthropology: a student’s guide to theory and method, University of Toronto Press, Toronto.

Carls, P 2012, Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), <>

Carter, J 2002, Understanding religious sacrifice: A reader, Continuum, New York.

Cunningham, G 1999, Religion and magic: approaches and theories, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh.

Erickson, A & Murphy, D 2008, A history of anthropological theory, University of Toronto Press, Toronto.

Erickson, A & Murphy, D 2010, Readings for A history of anthropological theory, University of Toronto Press, Toronto.

Ferraro, P & Andreatta, S 2011, Cultural anthropology: an applied perspective, Wadsworth, Belmont.

Malinowski, B, Thornton, J & Skalník, P 2006, The early writings of Bronislaw Malinowski, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

McLeish, J 1969, The theory of social change, Routlegde and Paul limited, London.

Noble, T 2000, Social theory and social change, McMillan, Basingstoke.

Strasser, H, Gabriel, K & Randall, C 1981, An introduction to theories of social change, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.

Upadhyay, S & Pandey, G 1993, History of anthropological thought, Concept Publishing Company, New Delhi.

This explicatory essay on How Sociologists Understood Social/ Cultural Change was written and submitted by your fellow student. You are free to use it for research and reference purposes in order to write your own paper; however, you must cite it accordingly.

Need a custom Explicatory Essay sample written from scratch by
professional specifically for you?

Writer online avatar
Writer online avatar
Writer online avatar
Writer online avatar
Writer online avatar
Writer online avatar
Writer online avatar
Writer online avatar
Writer online avatar
Writer online avatar
Writer online avatar
Writer online avatar

301 certified writers online

Cite This paper

Select a url citation style:


IvyPanda. (2020, January 15). How Sociologists Understood Social/ Cultural Change. Retrieved from https://ivypanda.com/essays/how-sociologists-understood-social-cultural-change/

Work Cited

"How Sociologists Understood Social/ Cultural Change." IvyPanda, 15 Jan. 2020, ivypanda.com/essays/how-sociologists-understood-social-cultural-change/.

1. IvyPanda. "How Sociologists Understood Social/ Cultural Change." January 15, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/how-sociologists-understood-social-cultural-change/.


IvyPanda. "How Sociologists Understood Social/ Cultural Change." January 15, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/how-sociologists-understood-social-cultural-change/.


IvyPanda. 2020. "How Sociologists Understood Social/ Cultural Change." January 15, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/how-sociologists-understood-social-cultural-change/.


IvyPanda. (2020) 'How Sociologists Understood Social/ Cultural Change'. 15 January.

Related papers