Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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core definition

Evolution is the process of developing from one state to another.

explanatory context

Introduction and general definition

Evolution in its modern sense is related to development. To evolve means to develop from one state to a (usually more ‘advanced’) state. Ideas, social systems, geological formations and species evolve.


Evolution has become a term in biology (and borrowed by other sciences) to refer to the very process of development of organic life. There are two ways of conceptualising such evolution. First, the idea of the unfurling of an inherent design (found in Lamarckian evolution). Second, the idea of natural selection (as in Darwinian evolution).


In the social world, evolution has been contrasted with revolution. Evolution implies a gradual development of social systems, while revolution implies sudden violent change. Thus evolution became associated with conservative, laizssez faire approaches to the social world.


Such a correlation between evolution and conservativism has nothing to do with the nature of the development of social systems whether precipitated by revolution or evolution. The link between conservativism and evolution is essentally a political link. Evolution, although often assumed to be gradual and non-violent, has, geologically speaking at least, involved major convolutions (as Social Darwinists acknowledge).


Lamarckian evolution

Lamarck was a biologist who proposed an evolutionary model. Lamarck’s concept of evolution was the doctrine of emergent evolution. Lamarck proposed that beings when created and living in the environment acquire characteristics that enable them to adapt to their environment. These characteristics are inherited by beings in successive generations. This theory of acquired characteristics has had a long life - it was the basis, for example, of Lysenko’s advice to the Agricultural Ministry of the USSR to plant the steppe lands in Central Asia - a notably unsuccessful proposal. However, this view of evolution was directly challenged by what has become called Darwinian evolution.


Darwinian evolution

Darwin and Wallace, independently, arrived at broadly similar conclusions regarding the process of biological change.


Biological organisms they argue, experience random and unpredictable changes in form, function, and characteristics. Assuming that the environment remains stable, or changes at a much slower rate than the pace at which biological organisms change, this random process of ‘mutation’ confers on some individuals a advantage with regard to the possibility of surviving in the environment. At the same time the process of ‘mutation’ confers on some individuals a distinct disadvantage with regard to survival. On the other individuals the change will be minimal or non-existent. For those individuals who have disadvantages the chance of survival is reduced; for those individuals who are advantaged the chance of survival will be enhanced.


The outcome of this process of natural selection is that favoured individuals will survive, less favoured ones will tend to die and if the advantage is a characteristic which is inherited then this characteristic will tend to occur in later generations thus conferring an overall advantage.


The problem for both Darwin and Wallace was the absence of a mechanism of change but this was solved with Mendel’s discovery of the process of genetic mutation. Namely, natural selection operates as a process by mutation operating on the genetic characteristics of the individual.


Natural selection operates through infinitesimal adaptive changes over many generations. The ‘successful’ adaptation gives its owners a long term reproductive advantage.

analytical review

The McGraw-Hill (2004) Sociological Theory site Glossary defines 'evolutionary theory' as:

A theory of society that sees social change as predictable and progressive. It should be noted that Spencer's evolutionary theory predates Darwin's use of the word and does not incorporate biology's idea that evolution is based on random variation.


Elwell's Glossary of Sociology (undated) defines evolution as:

The change of biological organisms by means of the adaptation to the demands of the physical environment. Organisms that successfully adapt pass on their genes to future generations thereby changing the species itself.


Richard Schaefer (2017):

Evolutionary theory: A theory of social change that holds that society is moving in a definite direction


associated issues


related areas

See also



Elwell's Glossary of Sociology, undated, available at, page not available 20 December 2016.

McGraw-Hill, 2004, Sociological Theory: Glossary , available at, accessed 14 May 2013, page not available 12 December 2016.

Schaefer, R. T., 2017, 'Glossary' in Sociology: A brief introduction, Fourth Edition, originally c. 2000, McGraw-Hill. Available at, site dated 2017, accessed 11 June 2017.'not found' 3 June 2019.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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