In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Revolutions

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Texts
  • Research Methods
  • On the Concept of Revolution
  • Disciplinary Appraisals
  • First-Generation Theorists
  • Second-Generation Theorists
  • Revolution and the Dynamics of Globalization in the 21st Century

Sociology Revolutions
Jean-Pierre Reed
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 January 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0115


Social revolutions are typically conceived as transformative historical events that fundamentally change the social structures of society. Their outcomes, as such, are usually associated with the transition to modernity, the rise of capitalism, and the emergence of democracy. It is their transformative effect, despite similarities, that sets them apart from rebellions, revolts, political revolutions, and other types of social movements, making them rare events in history. Compared to political revolutions, which are typically orchestrated from above, social revolutions are mass based. Their root causes are structural in nature, and the processes associated with their mass mobilization typically involve cultural, psychological, and political factors. The systematic social scientific study of revolutions may be traced back to the 19th century. These early works accounted for the structural causes and social forces behind them. Some project a concern with the deleterious effects of revolutionary dynamics. In the context of 20th-century history, the events that followed the Russian Revolution spurred academic interest on this complex sociopolitical phenomenon. The first generation of scholarship on revolution may be identified as the “Natural History School.” Scholars writing in this vein in the 1930s identified common historical patterns through which the American, English, French, and Russian Revolutions unfolded. In this perspective, revolutions emerge as a “natural” historical outcome of old regime practices, and their outbreaks follow a sequence of historical events that culminate in the establishment of a new regime. Second-generation theorists writing in the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s focused on psychological factors, in particular expectation and frustration mechanisms. Scholars belonging to this generation also paid attention to the effects of institutional imbalance (or systemic pathology) on the potential for revolution. Third-generation scholars, primarily writing in the 1970s and 1980s, developed structural explanations of revolution, claiming that the key to making sense of the causes of revolution requires the student of revolution to consider the nature of “state breakdown” and the revolutionary potential of lower classes. Scholars belonging to this generation also paid attention to the political processes in the development of revolution. Fourth-generation scholars aimed to highlight agency in their analyses, although not at the expense of structural explanations. These scholars, writing since the 1990s, have more concretely examined the role played by culture and ideology, the structural features of gender and race, and increasingly the emotional and storytelling dimensions of revolutionary processes. Since this last generation of scholars’ focus on cultural and structural factors, more recent work has increasingly paid attention to the connections between globalization and revolution.

Introductory Texts

Unlike the broader sub-discipline of social movement studies, the sociology of revolutions does not offer many introductory texts. However, several volumes do serve this function. Among these, the works of Castro 2006, Defronzo 2011, Foran 1997, Goldstone 2003, Parker 1999, Richards 2004, Skocpol 1994, and Skocpol 1998 qualify as broad but comprehensive introductions covering various concepts and historical cases of revolution.

  • Castro, Daniel, ed. 2006. Revolution and revolutionaries: Guerrilla movements in Latin America. Lanham, MD: Scholarly Resources.

    This is a collection of twenty-one essays covering the history of revolutionary struggles in Latin America. The collection includes the work of revolutionaries, e.g., Che Guevara (Cuba), Sergio Ramirez (Nicaragua), and Camilo Torres (Columbia), and area specialists.

  • Defronzo, James. 2011. Revolutions and revolutionary movements. Boulder, CO: Westview.

    Covering seven cases of 20th-century revolutions, the author examines these from the perspective of Marxist, modernization, structural, and system theories of revolution. He makes a case for the significance of ideological motivation and a permissive world context in the evaluation of these cases.

  • Foran, John, ed. 1997. Theorizing revolutions. London: Routledge.

    Edited by a prominent scholar of revolutions, this anthology explores both the structural and cultural dimensions of revolution.

  • Goldstone, Jack A., ed. 2003. Revolutions: Theoretical, comparative and historical studies. Belmont, CA: Thompson Learning.

    Edited by Jack Goldstone, a preeminent scholar of revolutions, this volume is most likely the best introduction to the study of revolutions for both graduates and undergraduates. It exposes the reader to the classical works of Karl Marx and Max Weber, covers major conceptual issues and theories of revolution, and evaluates various historical cases associated with different kinds of revolution.

  • Parker, Noel. 1999. Revolutions and history: An essay in interpretation. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

    A concise, lucid, and authoritative introduction to the study of revolutions, this volume examines the historical impact of ideas of revolution on modernity as well as the impact of modernity on ideas of revolution.

  • Richards, Michael D. 2004. Revolutions in world history. New York: Routledge.

    The role of revolutions in world history is examined in this volume. The author covers five cases: The British, Iranian, Mexican, Russian, and Vietnamese Revolutions.

  • Skocpol, Theda, ed. 1994. Social revolutions in the modern world. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139173834

    In this collection of essays, the world-systemic, ideological and cultural, and class dimensions of modern and Third World revolutions are examined.

  • Skocpol, Theda, ed. 1998. Democracy, revolution, and history. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press.

    Inspired by Barrington Moore’s Social Origins of Democracy and Dictatorship, this anthology of essays evaluates the political and economic origins of democracy, the nature of revolutionary identities, and the relationship geopolitical structures have on (the future of) revolutions.

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