Social change

Social change

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Social change as a sociological term is defined as, alterations in basic structures of a social group or society. Social change is an ever present phenomenon in social life, but has become especially intense in the modern era.



[edit] Social Change and Sociology

The origins of modern sociology can be traced to attempts to understand the dramatic changes shattering the modern world and promoting new forms of social order [1]. An example of this is globalization. For examples throughout human history the vast majority of people produced their own food and shelter and lived in tiny groups or small villages. Even at the height of the most developed civilizations- such as ancient Rome or China- fewer than 10% of the population lived in urban areas. In present day United States only 2%-3% of people work in agriculture and 90% of people now live in urban areas. Urbanization in the rest of the world is also changing at a rapid pace due to economic activity. By 2030, about 60% of the world population is expected to live in urban areas and in more developed regions as high as 81% of people are expected to be urbanized. [2]

- Other examples of social change include:

  • Technology influx in recent years such as email, cell phone, online social networks. In the past communicating with other was held to certain constraints such as mail or face to face interact [3]
  • Increased voting rights in the United States for women and people of other ethnicity
  • Everyone is required to go be educated to an elementary standard education "Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory."

According to sociologist, Ann Swidler, culture is like a "tool kit" from which people select different understandings and behaviors [4]. Because people participate in so many different, and often conflicting, cultures this "tool kit" can be quite large and the contents vary. Social changes come about when individuals or groups choose to go against social norms. Social change in this manner does not necessarily mean, however, that a change in morals or values has occurred.


  • A change in social structure: the nature, the social institutions, the social behaviour or the social relations of a society, community of people and so on.
  • When behaviour patterns change in large numbers, and this change is visible and sustained: once there is deviance from culturally-inherited values, rebellion against the established system may result, resulting in a change in the social order.
  • Any event or action that affects a group of individuals who have shared values or characteristics.
  • Acts of advocacy for the cause of changing society in a way subjectively perceived as normatively desirable.

One of the most popular and succinct definitions of social change is supplied by Charles L. Harper in his Exploring social change (1993), where it is characterised as the "significant alteration of social structure and cultural patterns through time."[5] He goes on to explain that this social structure is made up of "a persistent network of social relationships"[6] in which interaction between people or groups has become repetitive. The resultant changes can effect everything from population to the economy, which, as it so happens, alongside such others as industrialisation and shifting cultural norms and values, are also established agents of social change.[7]

The term is used in the study of history, sociology, economies and politics, and includes such topics as the success or failure of different political systems, globalisation, democratisation, development and economic growth. The term can encompass concepts as broad as revolution and paradigm shift, right down to narrow changes such as a particular cause within small-town government.

The concept of social change implies measurement of some of the characteristics of a group of individuals. While the term is usually applied to changes that are beneficial to society, it may also result in negative side-effects and consequences that undermine or eliminate existing ways of life that are considered positive.

Social change is a topic in sociology and social work, but also involves political science, economics, history, anthropology and many other social sciences. Among the many means of creating social change are direct action, protest, advocacy, community organisation, community practice, revolution, and political activism. According to Anthony Giddens,

Sociology was born of the transformations that wrenched the industrializing social order of the West away from the ways of life characteristic of preceding societies. The world that was created by these changes is the primary object of concern of sociological analysis. The pace of social change has continued to accelerate, and it is possible that we stand on the threshold of transitions as significant as those that occurred in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.[8]

[edit] Modeled of people

Generally there are two sources or dimensions of changed (Shackman, Liu, Wang, 2002). One source is non-systematic change, such as climate change, some kind of technological innovation from the outside, or changes forced by foreign countries.

The other source is a systems change: Eisenstadt (1973) argued that modernization required a basic level of free resources and the development of standardised and predictable institutions, such as a stable but flexible market system and political process. An additional requirement was that governing institutions be flexible enough to adapt to the changes that come up. Most of the time, changes to society come about through some combination of both systematic and non-systematic processes (Shackman, Liu and Wang, 2002, op cit).

  • Hegelian: The classic Hegelian dialectic model of change is based on the interaction of opposing forces. Starting from a point of momentary stasis, Thesis countered by Antithesis first yields conflict, then it subsequently results in a new Synthesis.
  • Kuhnian: Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions argued with respect to the Copernican Revolution that people are unlikey to jettison an unworkable paradigm, despite many indications that the paradigm is not functioning properly, until a better paradigm can be presented.
  • Heraclitan: The Greek philosopher Heraclitus used the metaphor of a river to speak of change thus, "On those stepping into rivers staying the same other and other waters flow" (DK22B12). What Heraclitus seems to be suggesting here, later interpretations notwithstanding, is that, in order for the river to remain the river, change must constantly be taking place. Thus one may think of the Heraclitan model as parallel to that of a living organism, which, in order to remain alive, must constantly be changing.
  • Daoist: The Chinese philosophical work Dao De Jing, I.8 and II.78 uses the metaphor of water as the ideal agent of change. Water, although soft and yielding, will eventually wear away stone. Change in this model is to be natural, harmonious and steady, albeit imperceptible.

[edit] The functionalist perspective

Functionalists perceive society to be a system comprising various functions that operate collectively to maintain order and stability.[9] According to Talcott Parsons, one of the leaders of this school, change stems from other social systems (through, for instance, cultural influence, as in the case of English education in the former colonies of the British Empire) and tensions and strains within the system itself, especially those related to economic activities. Functionalism, writes Michael Haralambos, holds that the economy is solely responsible for resolving societal problems, with industrialism playing an especially crucial role.[10] He explains how, through production and various other economic activities, social change is accelerated such that society has to adapt as a whole: a change in one part effects all the others.[11] These activities include improvements in technology, whereby new innovations come to the fore, and trade with other countries. Social change in the functionalist view can also occur at different levels, be it on a micro scale (involving the groups and people within one's immediate environment) or at a macro level (economic, political and educational systems, for instance).[12] Functionalists also believe that cultural norms and values unite society, which is largely resistant to change, and thus ensure that change in social structure is likely to be slow if it conflicts with entrenched cultural, religious or political principles. The time frame of change also plays a significant role, and the distinction between long-term and short-term change is important. According to Harper, short-term changes, as in family developmental stages, may be obvious and easy to comprehend, but they may not actually constitute changes at all in the long run.[13]

[edit] Shortcomings

There are two main criticisms of the functionalist perspective to which most sociologists subscribe:

  1. The theory places too much emphasis on external sources of social change, being based largely on the premise that society operates in a state of equilibrium, and that the various changes that take place can be accounted for uniformly by the various political, religious and especially the economic activities that are dominant at the time.
  2. Society does not meet the needs of all its members. Emphasis is laid in this regard on the fact that ethnic and gender segregation that occurs politically and economically is created by these structures.

[edit] See also

[edit] Notes

  1. ^ Giddens, Anthony, Mitchell Duneier, Richard P. Appelbaum, and Deborah Carr. Introduction To Sociology. 7th ed. New York/ London: W.W. Norton & Company,, 2009. Print.
  2. ^ United Nations 2006
  3. ^ D. Hakkem Annual Review of Anthropology Vol. 22: 107-132 (Volume publication date October 1993)
  4. ^ Ann Swidler 1982
  5. ^ Harper 1993: 4.
  6. ^ Harper 1993: 5.
  7. ^ Popenoe, 1995:134.
  8. ^ Giddens 2006: xxiii.
  9. ^ Popenoe 1995: 137.
  10. ^ Haralambos and Holborn 2004: 96.
  11. ^ Haralambos and Holborn 2004: 101.
  12. ^ Irwin 2005: 15. At the micro level, for instance in the family, drastic changes and differences in attitudes and perceptions may be detected among the generations. Whereas, for instance, in many modern societies, older generations grew up in environments characterised by intolerant, often racist, legislation and ideology, much of the modern world (so goes the widely-held view) reaps the fruits of equality and diversity. The relationship between the micro and the macro levels ought here to be clear.
  13. ^ Harper 1993: 7. In this regard, one might think of the starting of a family, followed by the children growing up, then having children of their own, and the family being "cut down" again. These changes, although they occur over a long term, do not amount to long-term change because the family is still there, and little or no change in the established cycle has taken place. Hence, while functionalists believe it is legitimate to focus on short-term change, one must also be aware of how this often embedded in the long-term variety (Popenoe, 2005: 145).

[edit] References

  • Eisenstadt, SN (1973). Tradition, Change, and Modernity. Krieger Publishing Company.
  • Giddens, A (2006). Sociology. Cambridge: Polity Press.
  • Haralambos, M and Holborn, M (2004). Sociology: themes and perspectives. London: Harper Collins Publishers Ltd.
  • Harper, CL (1993). Exploring social change. Engelwood Cliffs: New Jersey.
  • Irwin, S (2005). Reshaping social life. Oxon: Routledge.
  • Popenoe, D (1995). Sociology. Engelwood Cliffs: New Jersey.
  • Gene Shackman, Ya-Lin Liu and George (Xun) Wang. Why does a society develop the way it does? 2002. The Global Social Change Research Project. Available at
  • Gene Shackman, Ya-Lin Liu and Xun Wang. Measuring quality of life using free and public domain data. Social Research Update, Issue 47, Autumn, 2005. Available at

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