Thursday, 5 April 2012

Social Cycle Theory

In 1982 I bought a SciFi book, Friday, by Robert Heinlein. Having recently re-read that book, I was struck anew by Heinlein's proposition in the book that there was a causal relationship between men’s beards, the length of women’s dresses and the price of gold, which you could as a measure of societal health at any given time.

I was saddened by how much this book - a once 'old friend' - had dated in the intervening 30 years (!), and I don't imagine that I will read it again. But with this reading, instead of leaving the proposed relationship between beards, dresses and gold as an allegorical tool to engage the reader, I googled these three factors to see if I could find any links. Not surprisingly, I found it unlikely that there was any link - no causation that I could see, nor even any apparent correlation between the factors. But my research did lead me to look at social cycle theory.

So I did some reading on this. I quickly realised that social cycle theory was something I had run across many times before - but I just didn't know that was what it was called. There were a lot of proponents who expand social cycle theory into the rise of an elite class, or apply it to a particular ethnicity or religion (Pareto, Sorokin & Sarkar), but the aspect of this theory that I find particularly interesting is the secular mathematical model development of long-term socio-demographic cycles, largely by Nefedov, Turchin, Korotayev, and Malkov.

These guys collectively focus on socio-demographic cycles in complex agrarian systems. What happens is, after our population reaches the land's carrying capacity (ie, once humans are at maximum stock units), our growth rate declines. Our population is under stress, our living standards decline, we have famines, rebellions and unrest. While our systems have reserves, within 50-150 years we have chopped through those; then we have a "Malthusian catastrophe". This is a huge demographic collapse; severe famines, epidemics, increasing internal warfare and other disasters, resulting in a big chunk of deaths. Lots of dead people result in more resources being available, we start breeding again, and we start a new cycle.

Nefedov, Turchin, Korotayev, and Malkov set up mathematical models to predict the likelihood of Malthusian catastrophes. That old saw about history repeating itself appears to hold true: there appear to be recognisable and repeating patterns to agrarian societal rises and collapses.

Birth - growth - starvation/fighting - death - birth - growth...

But what about technological societies? What happens to our societies when only 1% of the planet's US population and 10% of the New Zealand population work the land? I might have to start researching whether social cycle theory applied to agrarian systems will follow the same rules of engagement with a technological society...

However, one of the things that all of this really brought home to me was that all of this pondering was REALLY possible - and easy - because two PhD students from Stamford created a little search engine. Called Google :-)


  • Bridges, T A, PhD (8 March 2012). Sociology & Social Theory: Classical Social Theory. Retrieved 4 April 2012 from
  • Heinlein, R A (1982). Friday. UK: New English Library
  • Korotayev, A, Malkov, A & Khaltourina, D (2006). Introduction to Social Macrodynamics: Secular Cycles and Millennial Trends, Chapter 4 - Secular Cycles & Millennial Trends. Russia: Editorial URSS, 2006 (pp. 95-133)
  • Prout (1998). The Social Cycle. USA: Proutist International Inc. Retrieved 4 April 2012 from
  • Wikipedia (n.d.). Social Cycle Theory. Retrieved 4 April 2012 from

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