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K12 LibreTexts

18.1: Explaining Social Change

  • Page ID
    3472
  • Objectives

    • Summarize the theories that social scientists have offered to explain the process of social change.
    • Explain how the theories on social change have evolved.

    Universal Generalizations

    • The modern world changes rapidly.
    • Ideologies are often transmitted through social movements.
    • Social change occurs when people find new ways to manipulate their environment.
    • Societies adopt material culture and technology more freely than ideas and values.
    • Cultural diffusion is a two way process.
    • Social change rarely occurs without resistance.

    Guiding Questions

    • What are the main sources of social change?
    • What impact does the physical environment have on social change?
    • What impact did the automobile have in creating social change?
    • How do the equilibrium theory and conflict theory differ?

    Social Change

    Collective behavior and social movements are just two of the forces driving social change, which is the change in society created through social movements as well as external factors like environmental shifts or technological innovations. Essentially, any disruptive shift in the status quo, be it intentional or random, human-caused or natural, can lead to social change.

    Causes of Social Change

    Changes to technology, social institutions, population, and the environment, alone or in some combination, create change. Below, we will discuss how these act as agents of social change and we’ll examine real-world examples. We will focus on four agents of change recognized by social scientists: technology, social institutions, population, and the environment.

    Technology

    Some would say that improving technology has made our lives easier. Imagine what your day would be like without the internet, the automobile, or electricity. In The World Is Flat, Thomas Friedman (2005) argues that technology is a driving force behind globalization, while the other forces of social change (social institutions, population, environment) play comparatively minor roles. He suggests that we can view globalization as occurring in three distinct periods. First, globalization was driven by military expansion, powered by horsepower and windpower. The countries best able to take advantage of these power sources expanded the most, exerting control over the politics of the globe from the late 15th century to around the year 1800. The second shorter period, from approximately 1800 C.E. to 2000 C.E., consisted of a globalizing economy. Steam and rail power were the guiding forces of social change and globalization in this period. Finally, Friedman brings us to the post-millennial era. In this period of globalization, change is driven by technology, particularly the internet (Friedman 2005).

    But also consider that technology can create change in the other three forces social scientists link to social change. Advances in medical technology allow otherwise infertile women to bear children, indirectly leading to an increase in population. Advances in agricultural technology have allowed us to genetically alter and patent food products, changing our environment in innumerable ways. From the way we educate children in the classroom to the way we grow the food we eat, technology has impacted all aspects of modern life.

    Of course there are drawbacks. The increasing gap between the technological haves and have-nots––sometimes called the digital divide––occurs both locally and globally. Further, there are added security risks: the loss of privacy, the risk of total system failure (like the Y2K panic at the turn of the millennium), and the added vulnerability created by technological dependence. Think about the technology that goes into keeping nuclear power plants running safely and securely. What happens if an earthquake or other disaster, like in the case of Japan’s Fukushima plant, causes the technology to malfunction, not to mention the possibility of a systematic attack to our nation’s relatively vulnerable technological infrastructure?

    A Majority of Americans Envision a Future Made Better by Advancements in Technology

    When asked for their general views on technology’s long-term impact on life in the future, technological optimists outnumber pessimists by two-to-one. Six in ten Americans (59%) feel that technological advancements will lead to a future in which people’s lives are mostly better, while 30% believe that life will be mostly worse.

    Demographically, these technological optimists are more likely to be men than women, and more likely to be college graduates than to have not completed college. Indeed, men with a college degree have an especially sunny outlook: 79% of this group expects that technology will have a mostly positive impact on life in the future, while just 14% expects that impact to be mostly negative. Despite having much different rates of technology use and ownership, younger and older Americans are equally positive about the long-term impact of technological change on life in the future.

    Social Institutions

    Each change in a single social institution leads to changes in all social institutions. For example, the industrialization of society meant that there was no longer a need for large families to produce enough manual labor to run a farm. Further, new job opportunities were in close proximity to urban centers where living space was at a premium. The result is that the average family size shrunk significantly.

    This same shift towards industrial corporate entities also changed the way we view government involvement in the private sector, created the global economy, provided new political platforms, and even spurred new religions and new forms of religious worship like Scientology. It has also informed the way we educate our children: originally schools were set up to accommodate an agricultural calendar so children could be home to work the fields in the summer, and even today, teaching models are largely based on preparing students for industrial jobs, despite that being an outdated need. As this example illustrates, a shift in one area, such as industrialization, means an interconnected impact across social institutions.

    Population

    Population composition is changing at every level of society. Births increase in one nation and decrease in another. Some families delay childbirth while others start bringing children into their fold early. Population changes can be due to random external forces, like an epidemic, or shifts in other social institutions, as described above. But regardless of why and how it happens, population trends have a tremendous interrelated impact on all other aspects of society.

    In the United States, we are experiencing an increase in our senior population as baby boomers begin to retire, which will in turn change the way many of our social institutions are organized. For example, there is an increased demand for housing in warmer climates, a massive shift in the need for elder care and assisted living facilities, and growing awareness of elder abuse. There is concern about labor shortages as boomers retire, not to mention the knowledge gap as the most senior and accomplished leaders in different sectors start to leave. Further, as this large generation leaves the workforce, the loss of tax income and pressure on pension and retirement plans means that the financial stability of the country is threatened.

    Globally, often the countries with the highest fertility rates are least able to absorb and attend to the needs of a growing population. Family planning is a large step in ensuring that families are not burdened with more children than they can care for. On a macro level, the increased population, particularly in the poorest parts of the globe, also leads to increased stress on the planet’s resources.

    The Environment

    Turning to human ecology, we know that individuals and the environment affect each other. As human populations move into more vulnerable areas, we see an increase in the number of people affected by natural disasters, and we see that human interaction with the environment increases the impact of those disasters. Part of this is simply the numbers: the more people there are on the planet, the more likely it is that people will be impacted by a natural disaster.

    But it goes beyond that. We face a combination of too many people and the increased demands these numbers make on the earth. As a population, we have brought water tables to dangerously low levels, built up fragile shorelines to increase development, and irrigated massive crop fields with water brought in from several states away. How can we be surprised when homes along coastlines are battered and droughts threaten whole towns? The year 2011 holds the unwelcome distinction of being a record year for billion-dollar weather disasters, with about a dozen falling into that category. From twisters and floods to snowstorms and droughts, the planet is making our problems abundantly clear (CBS News 2011). These events have birthed social movements and are bringing about social change as the public becomes educated about these issues.

    Two of the books in Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy are shown here.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Is the glass half-empty or half-full when it comes to social change? Fiction writers explore both sides of the issue through fantasy futuristic novels like the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. (Photo courtesy of Carissa Rogers/flickr)

    Humans have long been interested in science fiction and space travel, and many of us are eager to see the invention of jet packs and flying cars. But part of this futuristic fiction trend is much darker and less optimistic. In 1932, when Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World was published, there was a cultural trend towards seeing the future as golden and full of opportunity. In his novel set in 2540, there is a more frightening future. Since then, there has been an ongoing stream of dystopian novels, or books set in the future after some kind of apocalypse has occurred and when a totalitarian and restrictive government has taken over. These books have been gaining in popularity recently, especially among young adult readers. And while the adult versions of these books often have a grim or dismal ending, the youth-geared versions usually end with some promise of hope.

    So what is it about our modern times that makes looking forward so fearsome? Take the example of author Suzanne Collins’s hugely popular Hunger Games trilogy for young adults. The futuristic setting isn’t given a date, and the locale is Panem, a transformed version of North America with 12 districts ruled by a cruel and dictatorial capitol. The capitol punishes the districts for their long-ago attempt at rebellion by forcing an annual Hunger Game, where two children from each district are thrown into a created world where they must fight to the death. Connotations of gladiator games and video games come together in this world, where the government can kill people for their amusement, and the technological wonders never cease. From meals that appear at the touch of a button to mutated government-built creatures that track and kill, the future world of Hunger Games is a mix of modernization fantasy and nightmare.

    When thinking about modernization theory and how it is viewed today by both functionalists and conflict theorists, it is interesting to look at this world of fiction that is so popular. When you think of the future, do you view it as a wonderful place, full of opportunity? Or as a horrifying dictatorship sublimating the individual to the good of the state? Do you view modernization as something to look forward to or something to avoid? And which media has influenced your view?

    Resistance to Social Change

    Regardless of its source, social change hardly ever occurs without some kind of opposition. Social change often emerges out of a series of compromises between opposing view points. Among the reasons that people oppose change are ethnocentrism, cultural lag, and vested interest.

    Ethnocentrism

    The term ethnocentrism then refers to the tendency for each society to place its own culture patterns at the centre of things. Ethnocentrism is the practice of comparing other cultural practices with those of one's own and automatically finding those other cultural practices to be inferior. It is the habit of each group taking for granted the superiority of its culture. It makes our culture into a yardstick with which to measure all other cultures as good or bad, high or low, right or queer in proportion as they resemble ours.

    Ethnocentrism is a universal human reaction found in all known societies, in all groups and in practically all individuals. Much of the learning of ethnocentrism is indirect and unintended, but some of it is deliberate. History for example, is often taught to glorify the achievements of one's own nation, and religious, civic and other groups disparage their competitors openly. Among adults, ethnocentrism is simply a fact of life.

    The functions of ethnocentrism in maintaining order are more apparent than those which promote social change. First, ethnocentrism encourages the solidarity of the group. Believing that one's own ways are the best, encourages a "we" feeling with associates and strengthens the idea that loyalty to comrades and preservation of the basis for superiority are important values. Positively, ethnocentrism promotes continuance of the status quo negatively, it discourages change.

    Second, ethnocentrism hinders the under standing of the cooperation with other groups. If the ways of one's own group are best, there is little incentive to interact with inferior groups. In fact, attitudes of suspicion, disdain and hostility are likely to be engendered. Extreme ethnocentrism is likely to promote conflict, as the records of past wars, and religious and racial conflicts reveal.

    Cultural Lag

    The role played by material inventions, that is, by technology, in social change probably received most emphasis in the work of William F. Ogburn. It was Ogburn, also, who was chiefly responsible for the idea that the rate of invention within society is a function of the size of the existing culture base. He saw the rate of material invention as increasing with the passage of time.Ogburn believed that material and non-material cultures change in different ways.

    Certainly one of the imperative aspects of modern American life is the tremendous development of technology. Within this century, life has been transformed by invention of the radio, TV, automobiles, airplanes, rockets, transistors, and computers and so on. While this has been happening in material culture, change in government, economic system, family life, education, and religion seems to have been much slower. This difference in rates of cultural change led Ogburn to formulate the concept of culture lag. Material inventions, he believed bring changes that require adjustments in various areas of non-material culture.Invention of the automobile, for instance, freed young people from direct parental observation, made it possible for them to work at distances from their homes, and, among other things, facilitated crime by making escape easier. Half a century earlier, families still were structured as they were in the era of the family farm when young people were under continuous observation and worked right on the homestead.

    Culture lag is defined as the time between the appearance of a new material invention and the making of appropriate adjustments in corresponding area of non-material culture. This time is often long. It was over fifty years, for example, after the typewriter was invented before it was used systematically in offices. Even today, we may have a family system better adapted to a farm economy than to an urban industrial one, and nuclear weapons exist in a diplomatic atmosphere attuned to the nineteenth century. As the discussion implies, the concept of culture lag is associated with the definition of social problems. Scholars envision some balance or adjustment existing between material and non-material cultures. That balance is upset by the appearance of raw material objects. The resulting imbalance is defined as a social problem until non-material culture changes in adjustment to the new technology.

    Vested Interest

    If a person is happy with the way things are now, they will be less likely to resist change. People most often do not embrace change because they are fearful of losing their security or way of life. People have a vested interest to protect. For example, many factory workers are apprehensive about new machinery because they fear it is only a matter of time before they get replaced.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    Sociological Perspectives on Social Change

    Sociological perspectives on social change fall into the functionalist and conflict approaches. Both views together offer a more complete understanding of social change than either view by itself (Vago, 2004). "Theory Snapshot" summarizes their major assumptions.

    Theory Snapshot

    Theoretical perspective Major assumptions
    Functionalism Society is in a natural state of equilibrium. Gradual change is necessary and desirable and typically stems from such things as population growth, technological advances, and interaction with other societies that brings new ways of thinking and acting. However, sudden social change is undesirable because it disrupts this equilibrium. To prevent this from happening, other parts of society must make appropriate adjustments if one part of society sees too sudden a change.
    Conflict theory Because the status quo is characterized by social inequality and other problems, sudden social change in the form of protest or revolution is both desirable and necessary to reduce or eliminate social inequality and to address other social ills.
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