How Societies Change, by Daniel Chirot
Teaching Sociology, April 2001.
Posted here by permission of Teaching Sociology

The book, How Societies Change, by Daniel Chirot (Thousand Oaks CA: Pine Forge Press, 2000, 144 pages), is a well written account of the study of social change, how societies adapt, or fail to adapt, to changing conditions, and what sorts of major changes have occurred over the last five thousand years.  It is organized around three historical periods; early human societies, agrarian societies, the rise of the west, the modern era; and concludes with an approach to a theory of social change.

The main thesis, clearly stated in the introductory pages, is that change occurs when societies must adapt to changing conditions.  One main source of changing conditions is environmental.  For example, he speculates that the shift from collecting, hunting and fishing to agriculture may have happened because, in some fairly lush environments, “the human population grew too large to be sustained by existing resources” (p. 9).  In addition, the ending of the ice age, and resulting retreat of glaciers and desiccation may have added to population pressure, and forced people to live closer to remaining fertile areas, thus increasing population density.  In order to adapt, people had to increase production of their agricultural output, by sowing and cultivating their wild grains  This shift to agriculture and increase in population density, and resulting increase in conflict led to the “single most critical innovation in human organization, ... the invention of the state.” (p 11.)  In this description, the invention of the state might be seen as following directly from environmental change.

Chirot also indicates that environment can also be a cause of failure to change.  For example, the earliest civilizations developed in constricted river valleys.  These centers had high population densities and centralized authority.  The problem was that these centers of civilization were subject to great catastrophes.  There could be extreme droughts, or invasions by nomadic raiders who lived in surrounding dry regions.  When the droughts or invasions occurred, the civilizations fell, and it could take centuries to recover.  The necessary complex irrigation systems, the animal stock and the human population all took long times to recover from the great disasters.  Thus, because of constrictions places by geographic conditions, very long term continuous growth could not occur, since the civilizations had to spend centuries repeatedly recovering from recurring disasters.

In contrast, western Europe could continuously accumulate capital and raise productivity over a very long time period, because it did not have to deal with continuous disasters.  Western Europe had rainfall throughout the year, and thus rarely had periods of extreme drought or flooding, and did not need centralized authority required to maintain complex irrigation systems.  Western Europe also did not have adjacent dry zones with nomads, hence far fewer major invasions and disruptions than the earlier civilizations.  Western Europe, unlike earlier centers of civilizations, also was composed of many small river valleys, and thus difficult to unify, which meant more possibility of internal competition, and less bureaucratic roadblocks to innovation.

Technology is also an important part of change.  For example, Chirot mentions that, even with it’s environmental advantages, western Europe remained marginal until the development of the deep plow, which made possible the efficient use of the moist heavy soils formally covered by forest.  After the deep plow was developed, then western Europe could expand for the next four hundred years.  More recently, the railroad was an engine of change, as it lowered transportation costs, more effectively connected remote regions with more advanced areas, and “brought modernization everywhere it went” (p. 84).  Similarly, later technological innovations continued to drive change.  These later innovations included organic chemical, steel, and electrical machinery in the late 1800's, automobiles, petrochemicals, and mass produced consumer goods in the 1920s and 1930s, airplanes in the 1950s, and most recently, electronics, biomedical technologies, and computers.

There are a number of problems with How Societies Change.  The most important, for teaching purposes, is that there is never really a clear complete presentation of a theory of change.  The last chapter is “Toward a theory of social change”, but even here, the main thesis is the same as in the introduction.  “Without pressures of some kind there would be virtually no social change” (p. 123), and, referring to the present, “it may still be necessary in most cases for wars or other catastrophes, at least massive economic depressions, to take place before fundamental changes occur.”  (p. 123).  Thus, war and pressure are the causes of change.  However, Chirot does not give a theoretical picture, in this chapter, of why wars occur, for instance, sometimes and not others, or between some states but not others, or any kind of description of the major kinds of pressures that cause change.  Possibly these issues are too complex for a short book.

The second main problem is again about the theory of change.  The main cause of change, according to Chirot, is pressure, war or depressions.  However, in his description of the rise of western Europe, the process seems to be a long slow accumulation of capital and increase in productivity that is possible because these major interruptions do not occur.  Thus, major changes can and do occur without war and depression, and without the apparent pressures that, for example, led to the switch to agriculture.  Thus, changing conditions, such as major wars, depressions, famines, invasions, overpopulation, and so on, is one source of causes of change, but not the only source.  Change can occur gradually, as a consequence of slow long term growth, without apparent negative pressures.  Chirot also makes a case for technological sources of change, described above.

A final main problem, again for teaching purposes, is that the book does not discuss other theories of change, except for a brief description of Marxism.  For serious students, especially graduate students, this book should be used in conjunction with others, for example readers with selections from classic theories of change, or texts that review a variety of theories.

One strong point of this book is that Chirot presents a clear and well reasoned argument for the importance of environment and how it can cause changing situations, that the societies must then adapt to, in order to survive.  He presents a good description of historical situations, and shows how change is demanded.  Similarly, he describes the historical situations in which technology is a change agent.

Relatedly, he describes enough history to demonstrate his points, without getting bogged down in details.

Another strong point, at least from my point of view, is that it does not take a politically correct approach.  Chirot even discusses the politically correct view of change, e.g., the dismissal of accomplishments of the west.  Thus, Chirot’s book is a good addition to other works, in presenting, again in my view, a well balanced, learned, approach to change.

Finally, he spends time in also describing many of the consequences of change, as well as the causes.  His approach again is not ‘politically correct’, but for me is well balanced.

This book is appropriate for advanced undergraduates or graduate students.  It is, despite the shortness, full and rich, and not for the beginning sociology student.  As mentioned, if this book is used in a class on social change, it should be used along with books or readings that cover other approaches or theories of change.  For example, one classic is Etzioni and Etzioni (1964).  Other, somewhat more difficult but still important, works would include books by Bendix (1964, 1984) and Eisenstadt (1968, 1973).  For graduate classes there are any number of other important works.

Chirot wrote that the purpose of his book is to “get students started in the right way to understand their society” (p. xvii).  I believe it does.


Etzioni, A and E Etzioni (1964) Social change: sources, patterns, and consequences. New York: Basic Books.

Bendix, Reinhard. (1964) Nation-building and citizenship; studies of our changing social order. New York: Wiley.
- (1984) Force, fate, and freedom : on historical sociology. Berkeley : University of California Press.

Eisenstadt, S.N. (ed) (1968) Comparative Perspectives on Social Change. Boston: Little Brown and Company: Boston.
- (1973) Tradition, change, and modernity. New York: Wiley

click here to return to reports page
click here to return to main page