Social Development Theory

The term ‘”social development’” refers to qualitative changes in the structure and functioning of society that help society to better realize its aims and objectives. Development can be broadly defined in a manner applicable to all societies at all historical periods as an upward ascending movement featuring greater levels of energy, efficiency, quality, productivity, complexity, comprehension, creativity, mastery, enjoyment and accomplishment.Development is a process of social change, not merely a set of policies and programs instituted for some specific results. This process has been going on since the dawn of history. But during the last five centuries it has picked up in speed and intensity and during the last five decades has witnessed a marked surge in acceleration.

Though we confine the use of the term ‘”development’” to economic progress, in reality the same applies to political, social and technological progress as well. All these various sectors of society are so intertwined that it is difficult to separate them neatly. Development in all these sectors is governed by the same principles and laws and therefore the term can be applied uniformly to all these fields.

Economic vs. Social Development

Economic development and human development need not mean the same thing. Strategies and policies aimed at greater growth may bring greater income to the country without bringing about an improvement in the living standards of the population. This is what happened in the case of oil-producing Middle Eastern countries where a surge in oil prices boosted the national income of these countries without doing much good to the poorer sections of the people living there. Conversely people-oriented programs and policies can bring about an improvement in their health, education, living standards and other quality of life measures without any special emphasis on monetary growth.

The basic mechanism driving social change is increasing awareness leading to better organization. Life evolves by consciousness and consciousness in turn progresses by organization. When society senses new and better opportunities for progress, it accordingly develops new forms of organization to exploit these new openings successfully. The new forms of organization are better able to harness the available social energies, skills and resources to use the opportunities to get the intended results.

A distinction needs to be made between four closely related terms and phenomena that form successive steps in a graded series: survival, growth, development and evolution. Survival refers to a subsistence way of life without any marked qualitative changes in living standards. Growth refers to horizontal expansion in the existing plane characterized by quantitative expansion such as a farmer increasing the area under cultivation and a retail businessman opening more retail outlets. Development refers to a vertical shift in the level of operations that brings about a qualitative change such as a retailer turning into a manufacturer and an elementary school turning into a high school. Evolution refers to the introduction of totally new practices such as the initial introduction of credit cards or the invention of the Internet.

Development is governed by many factors that influence the results of developmental efforts. There must be a motive that drives the social change and essential preconditions for that change to occur. The motive must be powerful enough to overcome obstructions that impede that change from occurring. Development also needs resources such as capital and technology and the availability of supporting infrastructures.

Development is the result of society’s capacity to organize human energies and productive resources in order to meet the challenges and opportunities that life presents society with all the times. Society passes through well-defined stages in the course of its development. They are nomadic hunting and gathering, rural agrarian, urban, commercial, industrial and post-industrial societies. Pioneers introduce new ideas, practices and habits etc which are resisted in the beginning by the conservative element in society. At a later stage the innovations are accepted, imitated, organized and made use of by other members of the community. The organizational improvements introduced to support the innovations can take place simultaneously at four different levels - physical, social, mental and psychological. Moreover four different types of resources are involved in promoting development. Of these four, physical resources are the most visible but the least capable of expansion. The productivity of resources increases enormously as the quality of organization and level of knowledge inputs rise.

The pace and scope for development varies according to the stage that society is in during the developmental process. The three main stages are physical, vital ( the term vital refers to the dynamic and nervous social energies of humanity that propel him to accomplish) and mental and all these three have their own unique characteristics.

Human Development

Development is a human process in the sense that it is human beings and not material factors that are the driving force for development. The energy and aspiration of people who seek development forms the motive force that drives the development process. People’s awareness may decide the direction in which development will take place. Their efficiency, productivity, creativity and organizational capacities determine the level of people’s accomplishment and enjoyment. What we call development is only the outer realization of latent inner potentials. The level of people’s education, the intensity of their aspiration and energies, the quality of their attitudes and values, skills and information all decide the extent and pace of development. All these factors come into play whether it is the development of the individual, family, community or nation or even the whole world.

Process of Emergence of New Activities in Society
Subconscious vs. Conscious Development

The normal tendency of human development is to proceed from experience to comprehension. As society develops, it accumulates the experience of countless pioneers down the centuries and takes the essence of that experience as the formula for success and accomplishment. The fact that experience precedes knowledge can be taken to mean that development is a subconscious process that gets carried out first while the knowledge becomes conscious later on only. We use the term subconscious to refer to those activities that people do without knowing what the end results will be or where their actions will lead them. That is, the acts are carried out without a knowledge of the conditions required for their success.

Role of Pioneering individuals

The gathering subconscious knowledge of the society matures and breaks out on the surface in the form of new ideas espoused by pioneers who also take new initiatives to give expression to those ideas. Those initiatives may call for the formation of new strategies and new organizations which may be resisted by conservative elements in society. If the initiatives of the pioneers succeed, then it encourages imitation and slow propagation among the rest of the community. Later on growing success leads to the assimilation of the new practice by the society and in the course of time it becomes regularized and institutionalized. This process can be viewed in three distinct phases of social preparedness, initiative of pioneers and assimilation by the society.

The pioneer as such plays an important role in the development process since it is through him that the subconscious knowledge becomes conscious. The awakening comes to the lone receptive individual first and it becomes his responsibility to spread the awakening to the rest of the society. Though the pioneer appears as a lone individual in reality he acts as the conscious representative of the society as a whole and therefore his role should be viewed in that light.

Imitation of the pioneer

Though a pioneer comes up with innovative ideas very often the initial response to a pioneer is one of indifference, ridicule or even one of outright hostility. If he persists with his efforts and succeeds in his initiative, his acts may eventually get the endorsement of the public. That endorsement tempts some others to imitate the pioneer. If they also taste success, then news spreads and brings about a wider acceptance. Conscious efforts to lend organizational support to the new initiative help in institutionalizing the new innovation.

Organization of new activities

Organization is the human capacity to harness all available information, knowledge, resources, technology, infrastructure and human skills to exploit new opportunities and to face challenges and hurdles that come in the way of progress. Development comes through improvements in the human capacity for organization. In other words, development comes through emergence of better organizations that enhance society’s capacity to make use of opportunities and face challenges.

The development of organizations may come through the formulation of new laws and regulations or through new systems. Each new progress that society achieves comes with a corresponding new organization that emerges on the scene. The increasing international trade that European countries undertook in the 16th and 17th centuries demanded corresponding development of the banking industry, as well as commercial laws and civil arbitration facilities. New types of business ventures were needed to attract the tremendous amounts of capital needed to finance the expanding trade. As a result a new business entity came into use—the joint-stock company, which limited the liability of investors to the extent of their personal investment without endangering their other properties.

Each new developmental advance that society makes is accompanied by new or more suitable organizations that facilitate that advance. On many occasions the existing inadequate organization is forced to change itself to be in tune with the new development. We see many countries introducing scores of new reforms and procedures such as the release of business directories, franchising, lease purchase, courier service, credit rating, collection agencies, industrial estates, free trade zones and credit cards, etc. On top of all these a diverse range of Internet services have also been added. Each of these new facilities vastly improves the effective usage of available social energies for productive purposes. The importance of these facilities for speeding up development is clearly illustrated when they are absent. When Eastern European countries wanted to make the transition to market-type economies, they were seriously hampered in their efforts to make that transition due to the absence of these supportive systems and facilities.

Organization matures into institution

At a particular stage the organization matures into an institution that becomes part and parcel of the society. Beyond this point it does not need laws and agencies to foster its growth or ensure its continued presence. The transformation of an organization into an institution signifies the total acceptance by the society of that new organization. The Income tax office is an example of an organization that is actively maintained by the enactment of laws and the formation of an office for procuring taxes. Without the active support of the government this organization will simply disappear in the course of a few years as it does not enjoy active public support. On the other hand, the institution of marriage enjoys universal acceptance and would persist in society even if government regulations demanding registration of marriage and age restrictions were withdrawn. The institution of marriage is sustained by the weight of tradition and not by government agencies and legal enactments.

Cultural Transmission by the family

Families play a major role in the propagation of new activities once they win the support of the society. A family is a miniature version of the larger society and as such the acceptance by the larger entity will find its reflection in the smaller entity also. It is the family that educates the younger generation and transmits to them such social values as self-restraint, responsibility and the skills and occupational training of the fathers. Though children do not follow their fathers’ footsteps as much as they did in the past, parents do in a big way mould their children’s attitudes and thoughts regarding their careers and future occupations. If we find families taking up the propagation of a new activity, it is a sure sign that the new activity has become an integral part of the society.


One of the most powerful means of propagating and sustaining new developments is the system of education available in a society. Education is the means for organized transmission of society’s collective knowledge to each next generation by the previous generation. It equips each new generation to face the opportunities and challenges of the future with the knowledge gathered from the past. It shows the young generation the opportunities that lie ahead for them and thereby raises their aspiration to achieve more. The information imparted by education raises youth’s level of expectations as well as their aspirations for higher income. It also equips them with the mental capacity to devise ways and means to improve productivity and enhance living standards.

We can conceive of society as a complex fabric consisting of interrelated activities, systems and organizations.Development occurs when this complex fabric improves its own organization. That organizational improvement can take place simultaneously in several dimensions.

  • Quantitative expansion in the volume of social activities.
  • Qualitative expansion in the content of all those elements that make up the social fabric.
  • Geographic extension of the social fabric to bring more of the population under the cover of that fabric.
  • Integration of existing and new organizations so that the social fabric functions more efficiently.

Such organizational innovations occur all the time as a continuous process. New organizations emerge whenever a new developmental stage is reached and old organizations get modified to suit the new developmental requirements. The impact of these new organizations may be so powerful as to lead the people to believe that these new organizations are powerful in their own right. Actually it is society that throws up the new organizations required to achieve its objectives.

The direction that the developmental process takes is very much influenced by the awareness of the population as to what are the opportunities available in the society. Increasing awareness leads to greater aspiration which in turn releases greater energy that helps bring about greater accomplishment.


Since the time of the English economist Thomas Malthus, it has been thought that the capacity for development is severely limited due to the inherent limitation in the availability of natural resources. Resources can be divided into four major categories: physical, social, mental and human resources. Land, water, mineral and oil, etc. constitute physical resources. Social resources consist of society’s capacity to manage and direct complex systems and activities. Knowledge, information and technology are mental resources. The energy, skill and capacities of people constitute human resources.

The science of economics is very much concerned with scarcity of resources. Though physical resources are limited in their availability, the same cannot be said about social, mental and human resources which are not subject to any inherent limits. Even if these appear to be limited at present, there is no fixity about the limitation and these resources can and will continue to expand over time and that expansion can be accelerated and expanded with appropriate strategies. In recent decades the rate of growth has accelerated dramatically.

The role of physical resources tend to diminish as society moves to higher levels in the scale of development. Correspondingly the role of non-material resources keeps increasing as development advances. One of the most important non-material resources is information, which has become a key in-put in modern times. Information is a non-material resource that does not get exhausted by distribution or sharing. Greater access to information helps increase the pace of its development. Ready access to information about economic factors helps investors to immediately transfer capital to those sectors and areas where it will fetch a higher return. The greater input of non-material resources helps explain the rising productivity of societies in spite of a limited physical resource base.

The application of higher non-material inputs also raises the productivity of physical inputs. Modern technology has helped increase the proven sources of oil by 50% in recent years and at the same time reduced the cost of search operations by 75%. Moreover, technology has shown that it is possible to reduce the amount of physical inputs in a wide range of activities. Scientific agricultural methods demonstrated that soil productivity could be raised by application of synthetic fertilizers. Dutch farm scientists have demonstrated that a minimal water consumption of 1.4 litres is enough to raise a kilogram of vegetables compared to the thousand litres that traditional irrigation methods normally require. Henry Ford’s assembly line techniques brought down the man-hours of labor required to deliver a car from 783 minutes to 93 minutes. These examples show that the greater input of higher non-material resources can raise the productivity of physical resources and thereby extend their limits.

Role of technological development

When the mind engages in pure creative thinking it comes up with new thoughts and ideas. When it applies itself to society it can come up with new organizations. When it turns its attention to the study of nature it discovers the laws and mechanisms by which nature operates. When it applies itself to technology it comes up with new discoveries and practical inventions that boost productivity. Technical creativity has had an erratic course through history, with some intense periods of creative output followed by some dull and inactive periods. However the period since 1700 has been marked by an intense burst of technological creativity that is multiplying human capacities exponentially.

Though many reasons can be cited for the accelerating pace of technological inventions, one major cause is the role played by mental creativity in an increasing atmosphere of freedom. Political freedom and liberation from religious dogma had a powerful impact on creative thinking during the period of Enlightenment. Dogmas and superstitions had an incredibly restrictive effect on the scope for mental creativity. For example, when the Polish astronomer Copernicus proposed a heliocentric view of the world, it was rejected because it did not conform to established religious doctrine. When Galileo perfected a telescope for viewing the planets, his invention was condemned by churchmen as an instrument of the devil as it seemed to be so unusual and hence fit to be deemed heretic. Such obscurantist fetters on freedom of thought were shattered only with the coming of the Enlightenment. From then on the spirit of experimentation began to thrive afterwards.

Though technological inventions have markedly increased the pace of development, the tendency to view developmental accomplishments as mainly powered by technology is a partial view that misses the bigger picture. Technological innovation was spurred by the general advance in the social organization of knowledge. In the Middle Ages, efforts at scientific creativity were few and relatively isolated from one another, mainly because there were no effective arrangements for the preservation and dissemination of knowledge. Since there was no organized protection for patent rights, scientists and inventors were very secretive about their activities and operations. The establishment of scientific associations and the publication of scientific journals spurred the exchange of knowledge among scientists and created a written record that could be examined by posterity.

The development of technology is dependent on the presence of other types of social organizations. Nobel laureate economist Arthur Lewis observed that the mechanization of factory production in England which became known as The Industrial Revolution was a direct result of the reorganization of English agriculture. The enclosure of common lands in England generated surplus income for the farmers. That extra income generated additional raw materials for industrial processing along with greater demand for industrial products which was difficult to meet by traditional manufacturing processes. The opening of sea trade gave an added boost in demand for industrial production for export. Factory production increased many times when production was reorganized using steam energy combined with moving assembly lines, specialization and division of labor. Thus, technological development was both a result of and a contributing factor to the overall development of society.

Individual scientific inventions do not simply spring out of the blue. They build on past accomplishments in an incremental manner and give a conscious form to the subconscious knowledge that society gathers over time. As the pioneer is more conscious than the surrounding community, his inventions normally meet with initial resistance which receded over time as his inventions gain wider acceptance. If the opposition is stronger than the pioneer, then the introduction of his invention gets delayed. In medieval times when guilds exercised tight control over their members, progress in medical invention was slow mainly because physicians were secretive about their remedies. When Denis Papin demonstrated his invention of a steam engine, German naval authorities refused to accept it fearing it would lead to increased unemployment. John Kay, who developed a flying shuttle textile loom, was subject to physical intimidation by English weavers who feared the loss of their jobs. He had to flee to France where his invention was more favorably received. The widespread use of computers and application of bio-technology raises similar resistance among the public today. Whether the public receive an invention readily or resist depends on their awareness and willingness to entertain rapid change. Regardless of the response, technological inventions occur as part of overall social development and not as an isolated field of activity.

Limits to Development

The concept of inherent limits to development arose mainly because development in the past was determined largely by the availability of physical resources. Humanity itself relied more on muscle-power than thought-power to accomplish work. That is no longer the case. Today mental resources are the primary determinant of development. He who drove a simple bullock cart has now designed ships and aircraft that carry huge loads across immense distances. He has tamed rivers, cleared jungles and even turned arid desert lands into cultivable lands through irrigation. By using his brains he has turned worthless sand into powerful silicon chips that carry huge amounts of information and form the basis of computers. Since there is no inherent limit to the expansion of man’s mental resources, the notion of limits to growth cannot be ultimately binding.

Three stages of Development

Society’s developmental journey is marked by three stages which can be called physical, vital and mental. These are not clear-cut stages but overlapping ones. All the three elements will be present in any society at any time. One of them will be predominant while the other two play subordinate roles. The term ’vital’ denotes the emotional and nervous energies that empower man’s drive towards accomplishment and express most directly in the interactions between human beings. Before the full development of mind, it is these vital energies that predominate in man’s personality and gradually yield the ground as the mental element in man becomes stronger. The speed and circumstances of social transition from one stage to another varies.

Physical stage

The physical stage is characterized by the domination of the physical element of the human personality. During this phase, society is preoccupied with bare survival and subsistence. People follow tradition strictly and there is little innovation and change. Land is the main asset and productive resource during the physical stage and wealth is measured by the size of land holdings. This is the agrarian and feudal phase of society. Inherited wealth and position rule the roost and there is very little upward mobility. Feudal lords and military chiefs function as the leaders of the society. Commerce and money play a relatively minor role. As innovative thinking and experimental approaches are discouraged, people follow tradition blindly and show little inclination to think outside of established guidelines. Occupational skills are passed down from father to son by a long process of apprenticeship. Guilds restrict the dissemination of trade secrets and technical knowledge. The church controls the spread of new knowledge and tries to smother new ideas that does not agree with established dogmas. The physical stage comes to an end when the reorganization of agriculture gives scope for commerce and industry to expand. This happened in Europe during the 18th century when political revolutions abolished feudalism and the Industrial Revolution gave a boost to factory production. The shift to the vital and mental stages helps to break the bonds of tradition and inject new dynamism in social life.

Vital Stage

The vital stage of society is infused with dynamism and change. The vital activities of society expand markedly. Society becomes curious, innovative and adventurous. During the vital stage emphasis shifts from interactions with the physical environment to social interactions between people. Trade supplants agriculture as the principle source of wealth.

The dawning of this phase in Europe led to exploratory voyages across the seas leading to the discovery of new lands and an expansion of sea trade. Equally important, society at this time began to more effectively harness the power of money. Commerce took over from agriculture and money replaced land as the most productive resource. The center of life shifted from the countryside to the towns where opportunities for trade and business were in greater abundance. The center of power shifted from the aristocracy to the business class, which employed the growing power of money to gain political influence. During the vital stage, the rule of law becomes more formal and binding, providing a secure and safe environment for business to flourish. Banks, shipping companies and joint-stock companies increase in numbers to make use of the opportunities. Fresh innovative thinking leads to new ways of life which are accepted as they prove to be beneficial. Science and experimental approaches begin to make an headway as the hold of tradition and dogma weakens. Demand for education rises.

As the vital stage matures through the expansion of the commercial and industrial complex, surplus income arises which prompts people to spend more on items so far considered out of reach. People begin to aspire for luxury and leisure which were not possible when life was at a subsistence level.

Mental Stage

This stage has three essential characteristics which can be described as the practical, social and political application of mind. The practical application of mind leads to the generation of a great number of inventions. The social application of mind leads to the invention of new and more effective types of social organization. The political application leads to changes in the political systems, empowering the common man to exercise political and human rights in a free and democratic manner. These changes had their beginning in the Renaissance and Enlightenment and gained a powerful impetus through the Reformation which proclaimed the right of the individual to relate directly to God without the mediation of the priest. The political application of mind led to the American and French Revolutions which first gave written recognition to the rights of the common man and gradually led to the actual enjoyment of these rights.

Organization is a mental invention. Therefore it is not surprising that the mental stage of development is responsible for the formulation of a great number of organizational innovations. Huge business corporations have emerged that make more money than even the total earnings of some small countries. Global networks for transportation and communication now connect the nations of the world within a common unified social fabric for sea and air travel, telecommunications, weather reporting and information exchange.

In addition to spurring technological and organizational innovation, the mental phase is also marked by the increasing power of ideas to change social life. Ethical ideals have been with humanity since the dawn of civilization. But their practical application in daily social life had to wait for the mental stage of development to emerge. The proclamation of human rights and the recognition of the value of the individual have become effective only after the development of mind and the spread of education. The 20th century truly emerged as the century of the common man. Political, social, economic and many other rights were extended to more and more sections of humanity with each succeeding decade.

The relative duration of these three stages and the speed of transition from one to another varies from one society to another. However broadly speaking, the essential features of the physical, vital and mental stages of development are strikingly similar and therefore quite recognizable even in societies separated by great distance and having little direct contact with one another. Moreover, societies also learn from the experience of those which have gone through these transitions before and, therefore, may be able to make the transitions faster and in a better manner. When the Netherlands introduced primary education in 1618 it was a pioneering initiative. When Japan did the same thing late in the 19th century, it had the advantage of learning from the experience of the USA and other countries that had already done so. When many Asian countries initiated primary education in the 1950s after winning independence, they could draw on the vast experience of more developed nations. This is one major reason for the quickening pace of progress as the decades advance.

Natural versus Planned Development

A distinction needs to be made between natural development and the development brought about by the planned initiatives of government. Natural development is the spontaneous and subconscious process of development that normally occurs. Planned development is the result of deliberate conscious initiatives by the government to speed up development through special programs and policies. Natural development is a subconscious process since it occurs as the result of the behavior of countless individuals acting on their own, rather than being not driven by a conscious intention of the community. It is also subconscious in the sense that society achieves the results without being fully conscious of how it did so. The natural development of democracy in Europe over the past few centuries can be contrasted with the conscious effort to introduce democratic forms of government in former colonial nations after the second world war. Planned development is also largely subconscious: the goals may be conscious, but the most effective means for achieving them may remain poorly understood. Planned development can become fully conscious only when the process of development itself is fully understood. While in planned development the government is the initiator but in the natural version it is the private individuals or groups that are responsible for the initiative. Whoever initiates, the principles and policies are the same and success is assured only when the conditions and right principles are followed.

See Green Revolution in India for a comprehensive example of planned development.

Source: This core article was prepared by The Mother's Service Society, Pondicherry, India (Social Development Theory).

The author of the article is Ashok Natarajan, Secretary and Senior Research Associate of The Mother's Service Society.