Social cycle theories are among the earliest social theories in sociology. Unlike the theory of social evolutionism, which views the evolution of society and human history as progressing in some new, unique direction(s), sociological cycle theory argues that events and stages of society and history generally repeat themselves in cycles. Such a theory does not necessarily imply that there cannot be any social progress. In fact, the early theory of Sima Qian, a Chinese historiographer of the Han Dynasty and typically considered to be the father of Chinese historiography, the more recent theories of long-term ("secular") political-demographic cycles as well as the Varnic theory of P.R. Sarkar all make an explicit accounting of social progress.
The interpretation of history as repeating cycles of Dark and Golden Ages was a common belief among ancient cultures. The more limited cyclical view of history defined as repeating cycles of events was put forward in the academic world in the 19th century in historiography (the study of the history and methodology of the discipline of history) and is a concept that falls under the category of sociology. However, the precursors to this analysis include Polybius, a Greek historian of the Hellenistic period, Ibn Khaldun, a Muslim historiographer and historian, who saw the rise and fall of Asabiyyah (the sense of community among humans) as the reason behind the emergence and decline of civilizations, and, finally, Giambattista Vico, an Italian philosopher, who argued that civilizations occur in recurring cycles consisting of three ages: the divine, the heroic and the human. The Saeculum, which refers to the period of time during which the renewal of a human population would occur, was identified in Roman times. More recently, P. R. Sarkar in his Social Cycle Theory has used this idea to elaborate his interpretation of history.
Among the prominent historiosophers, Russian philosopher Nikolai Danilewski (1822–1885) is notable. In Rossiia i Europa (1869), he differentiated between various smaller civilizations (Egyptian, Chinese, Persian, Greek, Roman, German, and Slav, among others) and asserted that each civilization has a life cycle. To illustrate this claim, he pointed out that by the end of the 19th century the Roman-German civilization was in decline, while the Slav civilization was approaching its Golden Age . A similar theory was put forward by Oswald Spengler (1880–1936) who in his Der Untergang des Abendlandes (1918) predicted that the Western civilization was about to collapse.
The first social cycle theory in sociology was created by Italian sociologist and economist Vilfredo Pareto (1848–1923) in his Trattato di Sociologia Generale (1916). He centered his theory on the concept of an elite social class, which he divided into cunning "foxes" and violent "lions. " In his view of society, the power constantly passes from the "foxes" to the "lions" and vice versa.
Sociological cycle theory was also developed by Pitirim A. Sorokin (1889–1968) in his Social and Cultural Dynamics (1937, 1943). He classified societies according to their "cultural mentality. " which can be ideational (reality is spiritual), sensate (reality is material), or idealistic (a synthesis of the two). He interpreted the contemporary West as a sensate civilization dedicated to technological progress and prophesied its fall into decadence and the emergence of a new ideational or idealistic era.
One of the most important recent findings in the study of the long-term dynamic social processes was the discovery of the political-demographic cycles as a basic feature of the dynamics of complex agrarian systems. The presence of political-demographic cycles in the pre-modern history of Europe and China , and in chiefdom level societies worldwide has been known for quite a long time, and already in the 1980s more or less developed mathematical models of demographic cycles started to be produced.
Recently the most important contributions to the development of the mathematical models of long-term ("secular") sociodemographic cycles have been made by Sergey Nefedov, Peter Turchin, Andrey Korotayev, and Sergey Malkov. What is important is that on the basis of their models Nefedov, Turchin and Malkov have managed to demonstrate that sociodemographic cycles were a basic feature of complex agrarian systems (and not a specifically Chinese or European phenomenon).
It has become possible to model these dynamics mathematically in a rather effective way. Modern social scientists from different fields have introduced cycle theories to predict civilizational collapses in approaches that apply contemporary methods, which update the approach of Spengler, such as the work of Joseph Tainter suggesting a civilizational life-cycle.