Sociological theory of Herbert Spencer

Brief biography: Spencer (1,820 – 1,903) belonged to a middle class family, he did not attend regular school, he received private classes at home, his preparation was only good in mathematics, he did not study history, biology, or literature.

He was a businessman in the railway business, he practiced journalism, becoming director of The Economist, he was not a rich man, nor did he get rich from his books, he lived well.

Published works: In 1842 he wrote a series of articles in The Noncomformist, the first of which was: The proper sphere of government. In 1850 he wrote and published Social Statics, in which he offered a preview of his sociological theory. According to Spencer, the original name of the work was Demostatic.

In 1859 Charles Darwin published his work On the Origin of Species. Spencer realized that Darwin’s ideas were very similar to his own, even in 1852, seven years before Darwin’s publication, Spencer wrote in an article in Westminster magazine the following: “A certain part of the species will become slightly more heterogeneous. In the absence of successive changes in circumstances, natural selection will act relatively little.

In 1860 he began to write what would be the System of Synthetic Philosophy, in which he would unify all the sciences of his time. Part of this work appeared in 1862 and the following titles in subsequent years; The works that are part of Synthetic Philosophy are the following:

  • In 1862 the first volume entitled The First Principles appeared.
  • Between 1864 and 1867, Principles of Psychology appeared.
  • Between 1876 and 1896, Principles of Sociology appeared.
  • Between 1879 and 1893 Principles of Ethics appeared.

Before the Principles of Sociology appeared, Studies in Sociology (1873) came out, the most readable of Spencer’s sociological treatises.

Fundamental premises: Spencer has two (2) premises on which his entire sociological theory rests. The first is the theory of evolution and the second is the organic analogy between society and biological organism.

The theory of evolution: Which at the same time has three (3) fundamental laws and four (4) secondary propositions, all of which can be reduced to a single fundamental law.

It was the fashion of the time to reduce several general laws to a great particular law, evolutionary theory was synthetic in nature, wanting to unify all the sciences.

As a secondary but no less important premise, is that of the organic analogy, that is, the identification for certain purposes of society with a biological organism; proposed five (5) analogies between society and biological organisms.

Theoretical model: His sociological theory is based on organic synthetic evolutionism.

Synthetic evolution: His evolutionary theory is based, like Comte, on the concept of progress. For Spencer, progress is the engine that drives social change and it has three (3) fundamental laws that are the following:

  • The law of the persistence of force, that ultimate cause that transcends all human knowledge.
  • Law of the indestructibility of matter (currently invalidated, new discovery at its time).
  • Law of continuity of movement, which means the passage of energy from one form to another, but which always lasts.

To these fundamental laws, four (4) secondary propositions are added that in sum make up the first column on which his sociological theory rests:

  • The persistence of the relationship between forces or the uniformity of the law.
  • The transformation and equivalence of forces.
  • The tendency of all things to move along the line of least resistance and greatest attraction.
  • The principle of alternation or rhythm of movement.

Due to the trend of his time, Spencer formulated, based on the general laws and secondary premises, a general law of evolution called: Law of evolution; which in the author’s opinion was the supreme law of all future.

Spencer defined his fundamental law as follows: “It is an integration of matter and a concomitant dissipation of motion, during which matter passes from an indefinite and incoherent homogeneity to a definite and coherent heterogeneity, and the motion that subsists undergoes a parallel transformation“.

In his definition of the passage from homogeneity to heterogeneity, we find the point at which Spencer can be pointed out as believing that man was predestined by his nature to progress.

The organic analogy: Spencer used the organic analogy to compare society with living beings; For him there were analogies that make them somewhat similar, and therefore society must be considered as a biological organ, with the implications that making this statement meant; To reinforce his argument, he found five (5) analogies between biological organisms and society:

  • Society, like organisms, are characterized by growth during most of their lives, which prepares them to face higher stages of existence. In this case he compared the development of a child until he becomes a man, with that of a community until it reaches an empire.
    When societies, as well as organisms, grow in size, their structural complexity increases. Primitive organisms are simple, while higher organisms are complex. Greater division of labor, creation of different institutions, moral, legal, economic, political order, etc., in complex societies, unlike the primitive community in which there is not so much complexity.
    Societies and organisms, the more complex their structures, are accompanied by a progressive differentiation of functions; in short, what Spencer expressed is a tautology. Composite society composite structure, simple society simple structure.
    Evolution is what produces in organisms and societies different structures and functions that make each other possible.
    Spencer considers that an organism or society can be like a nation of individually living units. “In organisms and in society the life of the aggregate or set may be destroyed, but the units will continue to live for at least some time.”
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