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

Evolutionism is a view that argues that social institutions can be seen to evolve just as species do.

explanatory context

Thus, evolutionism asserts that social institutions can be placed on a scale from least to most advanced.


This approach was popular in late 19th century anthropology and has been pervasive in popular attitudes ever since. Only relatively recently has it been more or less discredited as a serious thesis.


Evolutionism in one form or another has been a major plank in the intolerance of Western thought. Evolutionist theses always managed to place Western institutions on the top of the evolutionary ladder. The corrolory of this was that progress involved moving those lower down the ladder towards the top (i.e. towards Western standards and institutional structures).


Evolutionism has been a major legitimation (in tandem with various religious theses) for imperialism, despite its devastating effects. At its worst, a conveniently naive form of the survival of the fittest was used to legitimate appalling exploitation of ‘inferior’ civilizations and races.

analytical review

Raynet Sociology Glossary (undated) refers to evolution as follows:

Evolutionism (evolutionary theory): A set of theories or a theoretical school in sociology based upon the assumption that human societies tend to develop into higher and higher forms. The history of any society is seen as a series of major stages each with a more complex level of social organization, a higher ethical and moral character, and providing a greater opportunity for the full development of human potential and human happiness. (Of course, within these major stages, room is provided in evolutionary theory for minor, more transitory kinds of changes.) A particular value bias seems to be build into evolutionary theory, and that is its close association with a belief in the inevitability of progress or social progress.

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related areas



Raynet Sociology Glossary, undated, available at, no longer available 20 December 2016.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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