Social Change Essay

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Social change can occur throughout an entire society or within parts of a society like groups, communities, or regions. It can have a variety of causes, including the efforts of individuals and groups to address social problems.

For analytic purposes, social change may be considered as any fundamental alteration in (a) the structure of existing relationships of a society or parts of a society, (b) the processes or common practices used in everyday life, (c) population composition (for instance, the size of a society or ethnic groups within a community), and (d) the basic values, ideas, and ways of thinking that prevail in a society or its parts. In actuality, when significant alteration takes place in one of these aspects, it is accompanied by change in one or more other aspects. For example, structural changes in U.S. race relationships during the 20th century were accompanied by alterations in discriminatory practices and in the idea of race itself. In Japan during the late 19th century, as new ideas and policies affecting national unification and relationships with world powers emerged, alterations in occupations and urbanization of the Japanese population also took place.

Types of Social Change

Social change may be categorized into three types: radical, reformist, and transient change. Radical (or foundational) change is made up of extensive transformations in the basic character or nature of a society, community, or group. Successful revolutions, for instance, sometimes bring widespread and profound transformations of many social institutions. The Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Chinese Revolution of 1949 brought such transformations in government, religion, education, and economic life. Later in the 20th century, in many societies the affordability of personal computers and sophisticated software contributed to profound alterations in modes of communication, entertainment, storage of information, research procedures, types of occupations available, and the curriculums of schools and universities. Sometimes, radical or foundational change occurs when people seek resolutions of what they consider important social problems. The elimination of the apartheid system in South Africa during the early 1990s encompassed foundational change resulting from initiatives to eliminate existing problems. In other cases, radical changes may follow as unanticipated consequences of natural events or new governmental programs.

Reformist social changes are modifications to a society, community, or group that are less extensive and less transformative. Reformist social change typically results from focused efforts to address specific social issues or problems. For example, individuals and groups in the women’s movement that gained momentum in the United States during the 1960s found the situation of women unsatisfactory and through efforts achieved some reforms in gender relationships, the types of education and occupations available to women, and beliefs about women’s abilities and rights. Persons seeking social justice goals frequently pursue social reforms. The efforts on behalf of better housing and health care for poor people in U.S. cities early in the 20th century by individuals like Jane Addams, Mary Kingsbury Simkovitch, and Lillian Wald were concerned with bringing about reforms, and these produced lasting changes.

Currently, individuals may become “change agents” who are trained and sponsored by private or governmental organizations to create reforms in groups or communities. In the United States, for example, agencies like the Peace Corps and the Agency for International Development have provided field representatives with training for introducing changes in education and farming practices in developing societies. In other cases, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) may place trained “community organizers” in localities to build or strengthen public support for social reforms. When many people become concerned with addressing complex social problems, individuals and groups committed to radical foundational changes and those seeking reforms may share some goals and cooperate in some actions. However, because the types and extent of changes sought by each are different, cooperation is necessarily limited.

Unlike radical and reformist change, transient social change is change that may be expected to occur periodically and refers to variations that have a minor or temporary effect on the character of a society or its components. For instance, in societies where new production procedures are welcomed, the nature of work may be understood as changeable and people may expect retraining cycles during their careers. Societies can also experience variations as fashion changes and fads, which are passing enthusiasms that have little lasting effect on social arrangements and actions.

Sources and Causes of Change

The emergence of significant changes within a society is a complex process. In identifying sources behind a past change, or that might produce a future reform, it helps to be aware that multiple causes are usually involved. For example, social movements (collections of groups and individuals combining to produce change) have been behind many reforms. But understanding causes involved in these reform changes may require examination of specific variables within social movements—for instance, how movements coalesced, produced leaders, identified specific objectives, organized resources, and responded to resistance. Understanding may also require examination of conditions inside or outside a society that allow change to occur. Analysis of change often calls for identification of primary and secondary causes; it may also call for determining that factor or variable that operates as the immediate precipitant of change.

There are many possible sources of social change. As suggested earlier, new technologies (tools and procedures) may contribute to change. Historians and social scientists have written about the social effects of technologies including (to name a few) the printing press, steam engines, trains, assembly lines, light bulbs, movies, forestry techniques, automobiles, televisions, and programmable chips. Change can also result from new policies introduced by national governments (for instance, the immigration policy changes developed in the United States during the 1960s) or by actions of foreign governments or groups that threaten or actually invade a society. Environmental variables have also been important in bringing about social change; prolonged droughts, floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions have contributed to social transformations in societies around the world. By the last decades of the 20th century, globalization (the establishment of elaborate transnational networks for finance, production, and marketing) became a powerful source of change in many societies.

Understanding Social Change

Social change has long received attention in a diversity of fields. Aristotle, writing in the fourth century BCE, inquired into the best form of social organization in which humans might live (the city-state, he concluded) and how this best form develops from changes in simpler forms of association. During the 19th and 20th centuries, social conditions in many societies inspired novelists, dramatists, and other writers to bring questions of change before the public. In various societies, such individuals (Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw, Jacob Riis, Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, Upton Sinclair, Alan Paton, Yukio Mishima, Michael Harrington, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Chinua Achebe, and Edna O’Brien) made issues of social change explicit or implicit parts of their work.

However, it was early 19th-century philosophers and social scientists like Henri de Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte who, influenced by major upheavals during their lifetimes and ideas of their Enlightenment predecessors, are credited with beginning modern efforts to understand social change. They saw change as progress and assumed that developmental dynamics governed change in all societies. Later in the 1800s, many social scientists and philosophers such as Karl Marx, Herbert Spencer, William Graham Sumner, and Lester Frank Ward made the phenomenon of social change a focus of attention and followed the same developmental assumption. By the opening of the 20th century, Spencer and his American followers had pushed Social Darwinism (including the ideas of societal evolution and the superiority of “more civilized” societies) into prominence, while anthropologist Franz Boaz and others were beginning to produce studies and articles countering evolutionary notions. Around the same time, the ideas of Marx about class conflict as the key source of change gained in influence; a few years later, the analysis of sociologist Max Weber concerning the causal importance of beliefs and values began gaining scholarly recognition. Around midcentury many social scientists were influenced by sociologists Talcott Parsons, Lewis Coser, and other “structural functionalists” who explained social change as resulting from strains or inconsistencies within social systems. Soon after, other sociologists like Ralf Dahrendorf, William Domhoff, and Pierre Bourdieu brought attention back to the importance of conflict and power differences as sources of change. By the later years of the century, the assumption that social change was governed by developmental dynamics had been largely discarded, and the focus was on describing and understanding change in specific societies and situations.


  1. Diamond, Jared. 2004. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Viking.
  2. Greenwood, Davydd J. and Morten Levin. 2006. Introduction to Action Research: Social Research for Social Change. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  3. Harper, Charles L. and Kevin T. Leicht. 2006. Exploring Social Change: America and the World. 5th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  4. McMichael, Philip. 2007. Development and Social Change: A Global Perspective. 4th ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.

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