Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

21.2G: Natural Cycles

  • Page ID
    8584
  • [ "article:topic" ]

    Social cycle theories argue that historical events and the different stages of society generally go through recurring cycles.

     

    LEARNING OBJECTIVES

     

    Examine the change in social cycle theories throughout history, ranging from ideas of “life cycles” to political-demographic cycles

     

    KEY TAKEAWAYS

    Key Points

     

    • Precursors to social cycle theories can be found in the works of Polybius, Ibn Khaldun, and Giambattista Vico, who all argued that history can be defined as repeating cycles of events..
    • Classical social cycle theories include the idea that civilizations have “life cycles,” as was proposed by Nikolai Danilewski and Oswald Spengler.
    • The first true social cycle theory was introduced by Vilfredo Pareto, who divided the elite social class into cunning foxes and violent lions and claimed that power constantly passes from one group to the other.
    • Classical social cycle theorist, Petrim A. Sorokin, viewed societies as moving between three cultural mentalities: ideational, sensate and idealistic.
    • An important development in modern social cycle theories is the discovery that political-demographic cycles are a basic feature of the long-term dynamic social processes of complex agrarian systems. Theories of long-term political-demographic cycles take into account social progress.
    • Thomas Malthus proposed that limited resources will act as a check on population growth among humans. A Malthusian catastrophe (also known by other names) refers to the forced return to subsistence-level conditions when population growth has outstripped agricultural production.
    • An important development in modern social cycle theories is the discovery that political-demographic cycles are a basic feature of the long-term dynamic social processes of complex agrarian systems. Theories of long-term political-demographic cycles take into account social progress.
    • Thomas Malthus proposed that limited resources will act as a check on population growth among humans. A Malthusian catastrophe (also known by other names) refers to the forced return to subsistence-level conditions when population growth has outstripped agricultural production.
    • P.R. Sarkar also accounts for social progress in his Law of Social Cycle by considering human spiritual development. Social stasis and the subsequent collapse of regimes occurs when the ruling class treats other members of society poorly in order to advance its own selfish interests.

     

    Key Terms

     

    • Malthusian catastrophe: A Malthusian catastrophe (also known as Malthusian check) was originally foreseen to be a forced return to subsistence-level conditions once population growth had outpaced agricultural production.
    • political-demographic cycles: One of the most important recent findings in the study of the long-term dynamic social processes was the discovery of the political-demographic cycles as a basic feature of the dynamics of complex agrarian systems.
    • Polybius: Polybius was a Greek historian of the Hellenistic Period noted for his work, The Histories, which covered the period of 220–146 BC in detail. The work describes in part the rise of the Roman Republic and its gradual domination over Greece.

    Social cycle theories are among the earliest social theories in sociology. Unlike the theory of social evolutionism, which views the evolution of society and human history as progressing in some new, unique direction(s), sociological cycle theory argues that events and stages of society and history generally repeat themselves in cycles. Such a theory does not necessarily imply that there cannot be any social progress. In fact, the early theory of Sima Qian, a Chinese historiographer of the Han Dynasty and typically considered to be the father of Chinese historiography, the more recent theories of long-term (“secular”) political-demographic cycles as well as the Varnic theory of P.R. Sarkar all make an explicit accounting of social progress.

    Predecessors

    The interpretation of history as repeating cycles of Dark and Golden Ages was a common belief among ancient cultures. The more limited cyclical view of history defined as repeating cycles of events was put forward in the academic world in the 19th century in historiography (the study of the history and methodology of the discipline of history) and is a concept that falls under the category of sociology. However, the precursors to this analysis include Polybius, a Greek historian of the Hellenistic period, Ibn Khaldun, a Muslim historiographer and historian, who saw the rise and fall of Asabiyyah (the sense of community among humans) as the reason behind the emergence and decline of civilizations, and, finally, Giambattista Vico, an Italian philosopher, who argued that civilizations occur in recurring cycles consisting of three ages: the divine, the heroic and the human. The Saeculum, which refers to the period of time during which the renewal of a human population would occur, was identified in Roman times. More recently, P. R. Sarkar in his Social Cycle Theory has used this idea to elaborate his interpretation of history.

    Classical Theories

    Among the prominent historiosophers, Russian philosopher Nikolai Danilewski (1822–1885) is notable. In Rossiia i Europa (1869), he differentiated between various smaller civilizations (Egyptian, Chinese, Persian, Greek, Roman, German, and Slav, among others) and asserted that each civilization has a life cycle. To illustrate this claim, he pointed out that by the end of the 19th century the Roman-German civilization was in decline, while the Slav civilization was approaching its Golden Age. A similar theory was put forward by Oswald Spengler (1880–1936) who in his Der Untergang des Abendlandes (1918) predicted that the Western civilization was about to collapse.

    The first social cycle theory in sociology was created by Italian sociologist and economist Vilfredo Pareto (1848–1923) in his Trattato di Sociologia Generale (1916). He centered his theory on the concept of an elite social class, which he divided into cunning “foxes” and violent “lions. ” In his view of society, the power constantly passes from the “foxes” to the “lions” and vice versa.

    Sociological cycle theory was also developed by Pitirim A. Sorokin (1889–1968) in his Social and Cultural Dynamics (1937, 1943). He classified societies according to their “cultural mentality. ” which can be ideational (reality is spiritual), sensate (reality is material), or idealistic (a synthesis of the two). He interpreted the contemporary West as a sensate civilization dedicated to technological progress and prophesied its fall into decadence and the emergence of a new ideational or idealistic era.

    Modern Theories

    One of the most important recent findings in the study of the long-term dynamic social processes was the discovery of the political-demographic cycles as a basic feature of the dynamics of complex agrarian systems. The presence of political-demographic cycles in the pre-modern history of Europe and China, and in chiefdom level societies worldwide has been known for quite a long time, and already in the 1980s more or less developed mathematical models of demographic cycles started to be produced.

    Recently the most important contributions to the development of the mathematical models of long-term (“secular”) sociodemographic cycles have been made by Sergey Nefedov, Peter Turchin, Andrey Korotayev, and Sergey Malkov. What is important is that on the basis of their models Nefedov, Turchin and Malkov have managed to demonstrate that sociodemographic cycles were a basic feature of complex agrarian systems (and not a specifically Chinese or European phenomenon).

    It has become possible to model these dynamics mathematically in a rather effective way. Modern social scientists from different fields have introduced cycle theories to predict civilizational collapses in approaches that apply contemporary methods, which update the approach of Spengler, such as the work of Joseph Tainter suggesting a civilizational life-cycle.