One way of explaining social change is to show causal connections between two or more processes.
This may take the form of determinism or reductionism, both of which tend to explain social change by reducing it to one supposed autonomous and all-determining causal process. A more cautious assumption is that one process has relative causal priority, without implying that this process is completely autonomous and all-determining. What follows are some of the processes thought to contribute to social change.Natural environmentChanges in the natural environment may result from climatic variations, natural disasters, or the spread of disease. For example, both worsening of climatic conditions and the Black Death epidemics are thought to have contributed to the crisis of feudalism in 14th-century Europe. Changes in the natural environment may be either independent of human social activities or caused by them.
Deforestation, erosion, and air pollution belong to the latter category, and they in turn may have far-reaching social consequences.Demographic processesPopulation growth and increasing population density represent demographic forms of social change. Population growth may lead to geographic expansion of a society, military conflicts, and the intermingling of cultures. Increasing population density may stimulate technological innovations, which in turn may increase the division of labor, social differentiation, commercialization, and urbanization. This sort of process occurred in Western Europe from the 11th to the 13th century and in England in the 18th century, where population growth spurred the Industrial Revolution.
On the other hand, population growth may contribute to economic stagnation and increasing poverty, as may be witnessed in several Third World countries today.Economic processesTechnological changes are often considered in conjunction with economic processes. These include the formation and extension of markets, modifications of property relations (such as the change from feudal lord-peasant relations to contractual proprietor-tenant relations), and changes in the organization of labor (such as the change from independent craftsmen to factories).
Historical materialism, as developed by Marx and Engels, is one of the more prominent theories that give priority to economic processes, but it is not the only one. Indeed, materialist theories have even been developed in opposition to Marxism. One of these theories, the “logic of industrialization” thesis by American scholar Clark Kerr and his colleagues, states that industrialization everywhere has similar consequences, whether the property relations are called capitalist or communist.IdeasOther theories have stressed the significance of ideas as causes of social change. Comte’s law of three stages is such a theory. Weber regarded religious ideas as important contributors to economic development or stagnation; according to his controversial thesis, the individualistic ethic of Christianity, and in particular Calvinism, partially explains the rise of the capitalist spirit, which led to economic dynamism in the West.
Social movementsA change in collective ideas is not merely an intellectual process; it is often connected to the formation of new social movements. This in itself might be regarded as a potential cause of social change. Weber called attention to this factor in conjunction with his concept of “charismatic leadership.” The charismatic leader, by virtue of the extraordinary personal qualities attributed to him, is able to create a group of followers who are willing to break established rules. Examples include Jesus, Napoleon, and Hitler. Recently, however, the concept of charisma has been trivialized to refer to almost any popular figure.
Political processesChanges in the regulation of violence, in the organization of the state, and in international relations may also contribute to social change. For example, German sociologist Norbert Elias interpreted the formation of states in western Europe as a relatively autonomous process that led to increasing control of violence and, ultimately, to rising standards of self-control. According to other theories of political revolution, such as those proposed by American historical sociologist Charles Tilly, the functioning of the state apparatus itself and the nature of interstate relations are of decisive importance in the outbreak of a revolution: it is only when the state is not able to fulfill its basic functions of maintaining law and order and defending territorial integrity that revolutionary groups have any chance of success.
Each of these processes may contribute to others; none is the sole determinant of social change. One reason why deterministic or reductionist theories are often disproved is that the method for explaining the processes is not autonomous but must itself be explained. Moreover, social processes are often so intertwined that it would be misleading to consider them separately. For example, there are no fixed borders between economic and political processes, nor are there fixed boundaries between economic and technological processes. Technological change may in itself be regarded as a specific type of organizational or conceptual change.
The causal connections between distinguishable social processes are a matter of degree and vary over time.Mechanisms of social changeCausal explanations of social change are limited in scope, especially when the subject of study involves initial conditions or basic processes. A more general and theoretical way of explaining social change is to construct a model of recurring mechanisms of social change. Such mechanisms, incorporated in different theoretical models, include the following.Mechanisms of one-directional change: accumulation, selection, and differentiationSome evolutionary theories stress the essentially cumulative nature of human knowledge. Because human beings are innovative, they add to existing knowledge, replacing less adequate ideas and practices with better ones. As they learn from mistakes, they select new ideas and practices through a trial-and-error process (sometimes compared to the process of natural selection). According to this theory, the expansion of collective knowledge and capabilities beyond a certain limit is possible only by specialization and differentiation.
Growth of technical knowledge stimulates capital accumulation, which leads to rising production levels. Population growth also may be incorporated in this model of cumulative evolution: it is by the accumulation of collective technical knowledge and means of production that human beings can increase their numbers; this growth then leads to new problems, which are solved by succeeding innovation.Mechanisms of social changeMechanisms of curvilinear and cyclic change: saturation and exhaustionModels of one-directional change assume that change in a certain direction induces further change in the same direction; models of curvilinear or cyclic change, on the other hand, assume that change in a certain direction creates the conditions for change in another (perhaps even the opposite) direction.
More specifically, it is often assumed that growth has its limits and that in approaching these limits the change curves will inevitably be bent. Ecological conditions such as the availability of natural resources, for instance, can limit population, economic, and organizational growth.Shorter-term cyclic changes are explained by comparable mechanisms. Some theories of the business cycle, for example, assume that the economy is saturated periodically with capital goods; investments become less necessary and less profitable, the rate of investments diminishes, and this downward trend results in a recession. After a period of time, however, essential capital goods will have to be replaced; investments are pushed up again, and a phase of economic expansion begins.
TheoriesEven though years have passed since the theories of Marx, Weber, Durkheim and Parsons were first developed, their ideas and views are still being utilized in today’s society. Their ideas have brought about a change that has trickled down into today’s society and have influenced today’s researchers. Theorist such as Noel Sturgeon, Herbert Mead, and Albert Bandura are a few influenced by the past theorist. Sturgeon (2003, as cited in Seager) stressed the feminist social movement theory. She believed that social change can be activated as the decision-making process of thinking and acting of groups joined in a strong action. Mead believed that behavior is not the result of things that have happened in the environment, such as pressure, attitudes, and stimuli (as cited in Perdue, 1986). Rather, humans are the reason for the actions they display to others.Bandura (1997) researched self-efficacy theory.
Self-efficacy theory highlights the idea that people have an effect on the environment. How a person sees himself or herself determines the success in his or her life. The environment is affected by people who make modifications to it and by the skills people develop.
People choose the environments in which they live. Marx believed people did not have this choice. For example, if a person feels knowledge is lacking, the person will not try to get a better job.The theory of Marx is about progress (Etzioni ; Etzioni, 1964).
It describes how the wealthy dominate and control people and economic wealth. He revealed that, without conflict, progress would not occur (Vago, 1999).Marx (1999) believed class decided the part of society a person belonged and that people could not change their class. This is true today in some cases. However, Marx did not know about strike-it-rich programs, such as the lottery, which can move a person from a lower class and place him or her in the wealthy class. In today’s society, not only is the lottery a way for someone to advance, but, people also use long hours of hard work, education, loans, grants, and scholarships as a ways to advance. Marx’s theory would not apply in such a case.
Tension, Conflict and AdaptationIn structural functionalism, social change is regarded as an adaptive response to some tension within the social system. When some part of an integrated social system changes, a tension between this and other parts of the system is created, which will be resolved by the adaptive change of the other parts? An example is what the American sociologist William Fielding Ogburn has called cultural lag, which refers in particular to a gap that develops between fast-changing technology and other slower-paced socio-cultural traits.Diffusion of innovationsSome social changes result from the innovations that are adopted in a society. These can include technological inventions, new scientific knowledge, new beliefs, or a new fashion in the sphere of leisure. Diffusion is not automatic but selective; an innovation is adopted only by people who are motivated to do so. Furthermore, the innovation must be compatible with important aspects of the culture. One reason for the adoption of innovations by larger groups is the example set by higher-status groups, which act as reference groups for other people.
Many innovations tend to follow a pattern of diffusion from higher- to lower-status groups. More specifically, most early adopters of innovations in modern Western societies, according to several studies, are young, urban, affluent, and highly educated, with a high occupational status. Often they are motivated by the wish to distinguish themselves from the crowd. After diffusion has taken place, however, the innovation is no longer a symbol of distinction. This motivates the same group to look for something new again. This mechanism may explain the succession of fads, fashions, and social movements.Planning and institutionalization of changeSocial change may result from goal-directed large-scale social planning. The possibilities for planning by government bureaucracies and other large organizations have increased in modern societies.
Most social planning is short-term, however; the goals of planning are often not reached, and, even if the planning is successful in terms of the stated goals, it often has unforeseen consequences. The wider the scope and the longer the time span of planning, the more difficult it is to attain the goals and avoid unforeseen or undesired consequences. This has most often been the case in communist and totalitarian societies, where the most serious efforts toward integrated and long-term planning were put into practice. Most large-scale and long-term social developments in any society are still largely unplanned, yet large-scale changes resulting from laws to establish large governmental agencies, such as for unemployment insurance, old-age pensions, or guaranteed medical care, have produced significant institutional changes in most industrial societies.
Planning implies institutionalization of change, but institutionalization does not imply planning. Many unplanned social changes in modern societies are institutionalized; they originate in organizations permanently oriented to innovation, such as universities and the research departments of governments and private firms, but their social repercussions are not controlled. In the fields of science and technology, change is especially institutionalized, which produces social change that is partly intended and partly unintended.ConclusionMarx, Weber, Durkheim, and Parsons views about conflict and social change are still being implemented in today’s society. Communities, the workplace, individuals, and the government have encountered conflict that has unveiled change. Conflict has occurred in different places and under different circumstances.
Although society has had to battle conflict, a positive change was the outcome. Leadership can be discovered within the reams of social change. It has played a vital role in change. Leadership has organized and guided different classes of people through social changes in today’s society.Just as Marx, Weber, Durkheim, and Parsons believed that conflict brings change, so it is with theorist such as Sturgeon, Mead, and Bandura.
These modern theorists have, also, studied conflict that has brought about change. Their studies have incorporated the views of Marx, Weber, Durkheim, and Parsons. Change can be seen in the present society. Evidence can be seen in communities, workplaces and government. It is the main ingredient in improving society.
The causes of social change are diverse, and the processes of change can be identified as either short-term trends or long-term developments. Change can be either cyclic or one-directional.The mechanisms of social change can be varied and interconnected.
Several mechanisms may be combined in one explanatory model of social change. For example, innovation by business might be stimulated by competition and by government regulation.To the degree that change processes are regular and interconnected, social change itself is structured. Since about 1965 there has been a shift in emphasis from “structure” to “change” in social theory. Change on different levels—social dynamics in everyday life and short-term transformations and long-term developments in society at large—has become the focus of much attention in the study of society.A youngster, for example, may want to go to a dance to feel that he belongs to a group and does what his friends do.
For an adolescent in Western culture, that is a strong motive. But the youth may be a clumsy dancer and sensitive to the real or imagined ridicule of his fellows. Therefore, he also has a motive to avoid the dance to escape humiliation. He is in a dilemma; whether he goes or stays he will experience distress.
This type of situation is termed an approach-avoidance conflict. Psychologically, a conflict exists when the reduction of one motivating stimulus involves an increase in another, so that a new adjustment is demanded.