Social cycle theory

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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 the early theory of Sima Qian and the more recent theories of long-term ("secular") political-demographic cycles[1] as well as in the Varnic theory of P.R. Sarkar an explicit accounting is made of social progress.

Historical forerunners[edit]

Interpretation of history as repeating cycles of Dark and Golden Ages was a common belief among ancient cultures.[2]

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 historiosophy (a branch of historiography) and is a concept that falls under the category of sociology. However, Polybius, Ibn Khaldun (see Asabiyyah), and Giambattista Vico can be seen as precursors of this analysis. The Saeculum was identified in Roman times. In recent times, P. R. Sarkar in his Social Cycle Theory has used this idea to elaborate his interpretation of history.

19th and 20th century theories[edit]

Among the prominent historiosophers, Russian philosopher Nikolai Danilewski (1822–1885) is important. In Rossiia i Evropa (1869) he differentiated between various smaller civilizations (Egyptian, Chinese, Persian, Greek, Roman, German, and Slav, among others). He wrote that each civilization has a life cycle, and 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) also argued that the Western civilization had entered its final phase of development and its decline was inevitable.

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.

Alexandre Deulofeu (1903–1978) developed a mathematical model of social cycles that he claimed fit historical facts. He argued that civilizations and empires go through cycles in his book Mathematics of History (in Catalan, published in 1951). He claims that each civilization passes through a minimum of three 1700-year cycles. As part of civilizations, empires have an average lifespan of 550 years. He also stated that by knowing the nature of these cycles, it could be possible to modify the cycles in such a way that change could be peaceful instead of leading to war. Deulofeu believed he had found the origin of Romanesque art, during the 9th century, in an area between Empordà and Roussillon, which he argued was the cradle of the second cycle of western European civilization.

Literary expressions[edit]

Much of Post Apocalyptic fiction depicts various kinds of cyclical history, with depictions of civilization collapsing and being slowly built up again to collapse again and so on.

An early example is Anatole France's 1908 satirical novel French: L'Île des Pingouins) (Penguin Island) which traces the history of Penguinia - a thinly disguised analogue of France - from medieval times to the modern times and into a future of a monstrous super-city - which eventually collapses. This is followed by a renewed Feudalism and agrarian society, and a gradual building up of increasingly advanced civilization - culminating with a new monstrous super-city which would eventually collapse again, and so on.

A later example is Walter M. Miller Jr.'s A Canticle for Leibowitz, which begins in the aftermath of a devastating nuclear war, with the Catholic Church seeking to preserve a remnant of old texts (as it did in the historical Early Middle Ages), and ends with a new civilization, built up over two thousand years, once again destroying itself in a nuclear war - and a new group of Catholic clergy yet again setting out to preserve a remnant of civilized knowledge.

In the future depicted in October the First Is Too Late, a 1966 science fiction novel by astrophysicist Fred Hoyle, the protagonists fly over where they expected to see the United States, but see no sign of urban civilization. At first assuming they were in the pre-1750 past, they later find it was a future time. Humanity is doomed to go through repeated cycles of industrialization, overpopulation, collapse - followed by rebuilding, and then again industrialization, overpopulation and collapse and so on, over and over again. In the far future, a civilization which is aware of this history no longer wants progress.

Contemporary theories[edit]

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,[3] and already in the 1980s more or less developed mathematical models of demographic cycles started to be produced (first of all for Chinese "dynastic cycles") (Usher 1989). At the moment we have a considerable number of such models (Chu and Lee 1994; Nefedov 1999, 2002, 2003, 2004; S. Malkov, Kovalev, and A. Malkov 2000; S. Malkov and A. Malkov 2000; Malkov and Sergeev 2002, 2004a, 2004b; Malkov et al. 2002; Malkov 2002, 2003, 2004; Turchin 2003, 2005a; Korotayev et al. 2006).

Long cycle theory[edit]

George Modelski, who presented his ideas in the book, Long Cycles in World Politics (1987), is the chief architect of long cycle theory. In a nutshell, long cycle theory describes the connection between war cycles, economic supremacy, and the political aspects of world leadership.

Long cycles, or long waves, offer interesting perspectives on global politics by permitting "the careful exploration of the ways in which world wars have recurred, and lead states such as Britain and the United States have succeeded each other in an orderly manner." Not to be confused with Simon Kuznets' idea of long-cycles, or long-swings, long cycles of global politics are patterns of past world politics.[4]

The long cycle, according to Dr. Dan Cox, is a period of time lasting approximately 70 to 100 years. At the end of that period, "the title of most powerful nation in the world switches hands.".[5] Modelski divides the long cycle into four phases. When periods of global war, which could last as much as one-fourth of the total long cycle, are factored in, the cycle can last from 87 to 122 years.[6]

Many traditional theories of international relations, including the other approaches to hegemony, believe that the baseline nature of the international system is anarchy.[7] Modelski's long cycle theory, however, states that war and other destabilizing events are a natural product of the long cycle and larger global system cycle. They are part of the living processes of the global polity and social order. Wars are "systemic decisions" that "punctuate the movement of the system at regular intervals." Because "world politics is not a random process of hit or miss, win or lose, depending on the luck of the draw or the brute strength of the contestants," anarchy simply doesn't play a role. After all, long cycles have provided, for the last five centuries, a means for the successive selection and operation of numerous world leaders.[8]

Modeslki used to believe that long cycles were a product of the modern period. He suggests that the five long cycles, which have taken place since about 1500, are each a part of a larger global system cycle, or the modern world system.

Under the terms of long cycle theory, five hegemonic long cycles have taken place, each strongly correlating to economic Kondratieff Waves (or K-Waves). The first hegemon would have been Portugal during the 16th century, then the Netherlands during the 17th century. Next, Great Britain served twice, first during the 18th century, then during the 19th century. The United States has been serving as hegemon since the end of World War II.

In 1988, Joshua S Goldstein advanced the concept of the political midlife crisis in his book on "long cycle theory", Long Cycles: Prosperity and War in the Modern Age,[9][page needed] which offers four examples of the process:

  • The British Empire and the Crimean War (1853–1856): A century after Britain's successful launch of the Industrial Revolution, and following the subsequent British railway boom of 1815–1853, Britain, in the Crimean War, attacked the Russian Empire, which was perceived as a threat to British India and to eastern Mediterranean trade routes to India. The Crimean War highlighted the poor state of the British Army, which were then addressed, and Britain concentrated on colonial expansion and took no further part in European wars until the outbreak of World War I in 1914.
  • The German Empire (Second Reich) and World War I (1914–1918): Under Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, Germany had been unified between 1864 and 1871, and then had seen 40 years' rapid industrial, military, and colonial expansion. In 1914 the Schlieffen Plan for conquering France in eight weeks was to have been followed by the subjugation of the Russian Empire, leaving Germany the master of Mitteleuropa (Central Europe). In the event, France, Britain, Russia, and the United States fought Germany to a standstill, to defeat, and to a humiliating peace settlement at Versailles (1919) and the establishment of Germany's unstable Weimar Republic (1919–33), in a prelude to World War II.
  • The Soviet Union and the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962): The Soviet Union had industrialised rapidly under Joseph Stalin and, following World War II, had become a rival nuclear superpower to the United States. In 1962 Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, intent on securing strategic parity with the United States, covertly, with the support of Fidel Castro, shipped nuclear missiles to Castro's Cuba, 70 miles from the US state of Florida. US President John F. Kennedy blockaded (the term "quarantined" being used because a blockade is an act of war), the island of Cuba and negotiated the Soviet missiles' removal from Cuba (in exchange for the subsequent removal of US missiles from Turkey).[vague]
  • The United States and the Vietnam War (1955–1975): During World War II and the ensuing postwar period, the United States had greatly expanded its military capacities and industries. After France, supported financially by the US, had been defeated in Vietnam in 1954 and that country had been temporarily split into North and South Vietnam under the 1954 Geneva Accords; and when war had broken out between the North and South following South Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem's refusal to permit all-Vietnam elections in 1956 as stipulated in the Geneva Accords, the ideologically anti-communist United States supported South Vietnam with materiel in a Cold War proxy war and by degrees allowed itself to be drawn into South Vietnam's losing struggle against communist North Vietnam and the Viet Cong acting in South Vietnam. Ultimately, following the defeat of South Vietnam and the United States, the US's governing belief that South Vietnam's defeat would result in all of remaining Mainland Southeast Asia "going communist" (as proclaimed by the US's "domino theory"), proved erroneous.[9][page needed]

Kondratiev waves[edit]

In pseudoeconomics, Kondratiev waves (also called supercycles, great surges, long waves, K-waves or the long economic cycle) are hypothesized cycle-like phenomena in the modern world economy.[10] It is stated that the period of a wave ranges from forty to sixty years, the cycles consist of alternating intervals of high sectoral growth and intervals of relatively slow growth.[11]

Such theories are dismissed by most economists on the basis of econometric analysis which has found that recessions are essentially random events, and the probability of a recession does not show any kind of pattern across time.[12] Despite frequent use of the term business cycles to refer to changes in an economy around its trend line, the phrase is considered a misnomer. It is widely agreed that fluctuations in economic activity do not exhibit any kind of predictable repetition over time, and the appearance of cycles is a result of pareidolia.[13][14][15]

Secular cycles theory[edit]

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.[16] 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).

The basic logic of these models is as follows:

  • After the population reaches the ceiling of the carrying capacity of land, its growth rate declines toward near-zero values.
  • The system experiences significant stress with decline in the living standards of the common population, increasing the severity of famines, growing rebellions etc.
  • As has been shown by Nefedov, most complex agrarian systems had considerable reserves for stability, however, within 50–150 years these reserves were usually exhausted and the system experienced a demographic collapse (a Malthusian catastrophe), when increasingly severe famines, epidemics, increasing internal warfare and other disasters led to a considerable decline of population.
  • As a result of this collapse, free resources became available, per capita production and consumption considerably increased, the population growth resumed and a new sociodemographic cycle started.

It has become possible to model these dynamics mathematically in a rather effective way. Note that the modern theories of political-demographic cycles do not deny the presence of trend dynamics and attempt at the study of the interaction between cyclical and trend components of historical dynamics.

The models have two main phases, each with two subphases.[17]

  • Integrative phase
    • Expansion (growth)
    • Stagflation (compression)
  • Disintegrative phase
    • Crisis phase (state breakdown)
    • Depression / intercycle

An intercycle is where a functioning state collapses and takes some time to rebuild.

Characteristic features of structural-demographic phases
Feature Integrative phase Disintegrative phase
Expansion phase (growth) Stagflation phase (compression) Crisis phase (state breakdown) Depression / Intercycle
Population Increases Slow increase Decreases Slow decrease
Elites Low population and consumption Increasing population and competition and consumption High population, conflicts, high inequality Reduction of population, downward mobility, reduced consumption
State strength and collective solidarity Increasing High but decreasing Collapse Attempts at rebuilding
Sociopolitical instability Low Increasing High Decreasing

Disintegrative phases typically do not have continuous disorder, but instead periods of strife alternating with relatively peaceful periods. This alternation typically has a period of about two human generation times (40 - 60 years), and Turchin calls it a "fathers and sons" cycle.

Fourth Turning theory[edit]

The Strauss–Howe generational theory, also known as the Fourth Turning theory or simply the Fourth Turning, which was created by authors William Strauss and Neil Howe, describes a theorized recurring generation cycle in American history. According to the theory, historical events are associated with recurring generational personas (archetypes). Each generational persona unleashes a new era (called a turning) in which a new social, political, and economic climate exists. Turnings tend to last around 20–22 years. They are part of a larger cyclical "saeculum" (a long human life, which usually spans between 80 and 90 years, although some saecula have lasted longer). The theory states that after every saeculum, a crisis recurs in American history, which is followed by a recovery (high). During this recovery, institutions and communitarian values are strong. Ultimately, succeeding generational archetypes attack and weaken institutions in the name of autonomy and individualism, which ultimately creates a tumultuous political environment that ripens conditions for another crisis.

Schlesinger liberal-conservative cycles of United States history[edit]

The Cyclical theory (United States history)[18][19][20][21] is a theory of US history developed by Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.. It states that US history alternates between two kinds of phases:

  • Liberal, increasing democracy, public purpose, human rights, concern with the wrongs of the many
  • Conservative, containing democracy, private interest, property rights, concern with the rights of the few

Each kind of phase generates the other. Liberal phases generate conservative phases from activism burnout, and conservative phases generate liberal phases from accumulation of unsolved problems.

Huntington's creedal-passion episodes of United States history[edit]

Historian Samuel P. Huntington has proposed that American history has had several bursts of "creedal passion" roughly every 60 years.[22][23][24] These are efforts to bring American government closer to the "American creed" of being "egalitarian, participatory, open, noncoercive, and responsive to the demands of individuals and groups."

United States Party Systems[edit]

The United States has had six party systems over its history. Each one is a characteristic platform and set of constituencies of each of the two major parties. A new party system emerges from a burst of reform, and in some cases, the disintegration of a party in the previous system (1st: Federalist, 2nd: Whig).

Skowronek United States Regimes and Presidency Types[edit]

Political scientist Stephen Skowronek has proposed that American history has gone through several regimes, with four main types of presidencies.[22][25][26][27][28][29][30][31] Each regime has a dominant party and an opposition party. The President involved in starting it is a "reconstructive" one, and that President's successors in the dominant party are "articulating" ones. However, opposition-party Presidents are often elected, "preemptive" ones. A regime ends with having a President or two from its dominant party, a "disjunctive" President.

Klingberg cycles of United States foreign policy[edit]

Frank Klingberg has proposed a cyclic theory of US foreign policy.[19][32][33][34][35] It states that the US alternates between extroverted phases, phases involving military adventures, challenging other nations, and annexing territory, and introverted phases, phases with the absence of these activities.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ E.g. Korotayev, A., Malkov, A., & Khaltourina, D. (2006) Introduction to Social Macrodynamics: Secular Cycles and Millennial Trends. Moscow: URSS. ISBN 5-484-00559-0. Chapter 4.
  2. ^ Social Theory: Its Origins, History, and Contemporary Relevance By Daniel W. Rossides. Pg. 69
  3. ^ E.g., Postan 1950, 1973; Sahlins 1963; Abel 1974, 1980; Ladurie 1974; Hodder 1978; Braudel 1973; Chao 1986; H. T. Wright 1984; Cameron 1989; Goldstone 1991; Kul'pin 1990; Anderson 1994; Mugruzin 1986, 1994, etc.
  4. ^ George Modelski. Long Cycles in World Politics. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1987.
  5. ^ Jimmy Myers. "Missouri Western Faculty Discuss Iraq War." St. Joseph News-Press. 2 Mar 2007.
  6. ^ George Modelski. Long Cycles in World Politics. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1987, 102
  7. ^ Mark Rupert. "Hegemonic Stability Theory. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2002-12-14. Retrieved 2010-01-11.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  8. ^ George Modelski. Long Cycles in World Politics. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1987, 100, 135 and 227.
  9. ^ a b Goldstein, Joshua (1988), Long Cycles: Prosperity and War in the Modern Age, Yale University Press
  10. ^ The term long wave originated from a poor early translation of long cycle from Russian to German. Freeman, Chris; Louçã, Francisco (2001) pp 70
  11. ^ See, e.g. Korotayev, Andrey V.; Tsirel, Sergey V. (2010). "A Spectral Analysis of World GDP Dynamics: Kondratiev Waves, Kuznets Swings, Juglar and Kitchin Cycles in Global Economic Development, and the 2008–2009 Economic Crisis". Structure and Dynamics. 4 (1): 3–57.
  12. ^ Rudebusch, Glenn D. "Will the Economic Recovery Die of Old Age?". FRBSF Economic Letter. Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.
  13. ^ Drautzburg, Thorsten. "Why Are Recessions So Hard to Predict? Random Shocks and Business Cycles." Economic Insights 4, no. 1 (2019): 1-8.
  14. ^ Slutzky, Eugen. "The summation of random causes as the source of cyclic processes." Econometrica: Journal of the Econometric Society (1937): 105-146.
  15. ^ Chatterjee, Satyajit. "From cycles to shocks: Progress in business cycle theory." Business Review 3 (2000): 27-37.
  16. ^ E.g., Turchin, P. (2003) Historical Dynamics: Why States Rise and Fall. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press; Turchin P., Korotayev A. Population Dynamics and Internal Warfare: A Reconsideration. Social Evolution & History 5/2 (2006): 112–147; Korotayev, A., Malkov, A., & Khaltourina, D. (2006) Introduction to Social Macrodynamics: Secular Cycles and Millennial Trends. Moscow: URSS. ISBN 5-484-00559-0. Chapter 4.
  17. ^ Turchin, Peter; Nefedov, Sergei (2009). Secular Cycles. Princeton University Press. ISBN 9781400830688. table adapted from First Chapter Table 1.1
  18. ^ Schlesinger, Arthur Sr. (1949). Paths to the Present. Macmillan.
  19. ^ a b Schlesinger, Arthur Jr. (1999). The Cycles of American History. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
  21. ^ Brown, Jerald B. (June 1992). "The Wave Theory of American Social Movements". City & Society. 6 (1): 26–45. doi:10.1525/city.1992.6.1.26.
  22. ^ a b Resnick, David; Thomas, Norman C. (Autumn 1990). "Cycling through American Politics". Polity. 23 (1): 1–21. doi:10.2307/3235140. JSTOR 3235140.
  23. ^ Huntington, Samuel P. (1981). American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony. Belknap Press.
  24. ^ This 1981 book eerily predicted today's distrustful and angry political mood - Vox
  25. ^ The Presidency in the Political Order
  26. ^ What Time Is It? Here's What the 2016 Election Tells Us About Obama, Trump, and What Comes Next | The Nation
  27. ^ Opinion | The Fight Over How Trump Fits in With the Other 44 Presidents - The New York Times
  28. ^ Is Trump the last gasp of Reagan's Republican Party? - The Washington Post
  29. ^ Review of "The Politics Presidents Make: Leadership from John Adams to George Bush" by Stephen Skowronek, reviewed by Richard J. Ellis, Journal of the Early Republic, Vol. 15, No. 1 (Spring, 1995), pp. 128-130
  30. ^ The Politics of Politics: Skowronek and Presidential Research on JSTOR
  31. ^ Donald Trump will follow a failed political transformation, just like Benjamin Harrison - Vox
  32. ^ Klingberg, Frank J. (January 1952). "The Historical Alternation of Moods in American Foreign Policy". World Politics. 4 (2): 239–273. doi:10.2307/2009047. JSTOR 2009047.
  33. ^ Holmes, Jack E. (1985). The Mood/Interest Theory of American Foreign Policy. The University Press of Kentucky.
  34. ^ Pollins, Brian M.; Schweller, Randall L. (April 1999). "Linking the Levels: The Long Wave and Shifts in U.S. Foreign Policy, 1790-1993". American Journal of Political Science. 43 (2): 431–464. doi:10.2307/2991801. JSTOR 2991801.
  35. ^ (Page 7 of 56) - Long-Term US Foreign Policy Moods and Involvement in System Wars: Is There Any Way to Reduce the Odds? authored by Lawrence, Colin., Holmes, Jack., Johnson, Lauren. and Aardema, Sara.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]