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Social Change

Social Change

Social change and cultural change

Changing theoretical interests

Problems of detection and measurement

The directions of change

Structural differentiation and social change

The problem of discontinuities

Forecasting the future


Social change is such a prevalent and often disturbing feature of contemporary life that both the specialist and the layman may be tempted to suppose that it is peculiarly modern. Certainly the extent and rate of change in the modern world are greater than in most past periods, but the static qualities of primitive cultures or archaic civilizations are easily and commonly overstated. Change, at some level and degree, is as characteristic of man’s life in organized systems as is orderly persistence.

Indeed, small-scale changes may be an essential component of persistence on a larger scale. For example, given man’s biological life cycle, enduring systems, such as kinship organization and government, depend upon orderly patterns of age-specific role performances. Likewise, changing patterns—on a daily, weekly, monthly, or annual cycle—provide a basic and predictable continuity to the patterns of social existence.

Paradoxically, as the rate of social change has accelerated in the real world of experience, the scientific disciplines dealing with man’s actions and products have tended to emphasize orderly interdependence and static continuity. The genuine difficulties of dealing with social dynamics are in part responsible for this state of affairs. The relationship between small-scale and large-scale change and the relationship between short-term and long-term change exemplify the many analytical and factual complexities that are involved. These considerations make a formal definition of social change highly desirable, and we shall therefore attempt one here:

Social change is the significant alteration of social structures (that is, of patterns of social action and interaction), including consequences and manifestations of such structures embodied in norms (rules of conduct), values, and cultural products and symbols.

This definition encompasses small-scale change, such as the gradual development of a leadership role in a small, task-oriented group; cyclical patterns of change, such as the succession of centralization and decentralization in administrative organizations; and revolutionary change, such as the overthrow of a government. It includes short-term changes in employment rates as well as long-term changes in occupational structures; both growth and decline in membership size of social units; continuous processes such as specialization and bureaucratization; and discontinuous processes such as particular technical or social inventions.

Social change and cultural change

The broad definition given above comprises both what is commonly identified as social change, which refers mainly to actual human behavior, and cultural change, which refers mainly to culturally meaningful symbols produced by human beings. The emphasis in this discussion will be on the interplay among the complex normative patterns of behavior that we call institutions, since it is these that provide much of the rationale for social control and human activities in general.

This emphasis cuts across conventional distinctions between the “social” and the “cultural” aspects of social systems. Cultural change, it is true, requires social actors as agents, and social change is likely to have cultural counterparts. However, changes in certain cultural subsystems—for example, language, the arts, and perhaps theological or philosophical systems—may be viewed in virtual abstraction from concrete human behavior (see, for instance, Sorokin 1937–1941). Similarly, fluctuations in the fashions of dress may be viewed as “autonomous,” although it is also proper to consider such fashions as patterns of appropriate conduct in one sphere of social behavior (Kroeber 1957).

It is true that such modes of abstraction are often mere matters of convenience. For example, the steady specialization of vocabularies in language systems may be treated as a principle of autonomous evolution; it may be related to the expansion of knowledge and to role differentiation in complex social systems. However, there is anunderlying problem that should be made explicit. The degree to which cultural subsystems, such as language, may be traced to structural sources is a question of considerable theoretical importance. Similarly important is the question of the degree to which such cultural subsystems may be translated into guides for social behavior. In human societies the extent of autonomous variability among coexistent features appears to be substantial. Therefore, a multiplicity of principles relating to structural regularities and to significant alterations is necessary for the understanding of order and change.

It follows from the possibility of autonomous variability and from the initial discussion of small-scale social changes that in order to formulate principles of social change we must first of all identify the social structure to which these principles are to be applied. It is also necessary to specify the time period over which change is to be studied and to set up standards for measuring various degrees of change. Until these conditions are fulfilled, we cannot even begin to say what it is that is changing or how much it has changed. There is no singular, sovereign cause for changes in social systems or subsystems. It is true that the scientific quest for simplification has led to the identification of individual variables, such as technological innovation or population growth, that are important enough in themselves; but the result of these inquiries has been the development of special theories of change for specific classes of structures rather than any kind of master theory that embraces all types of factors.

For small-scale social structures in general— face-to–face groups, for example, or formal organizations—we can safely assume that change will originate through such familiar mechanisms as the normative requirements attached to role performances (Moore 1963, p. 50). Large-scale systems, such as whole societies, are less easily studied; but even on present knowledge we can be confident that population growth or decline and the vicissitudes of incorporating infants into the system through socialization will introduce at least some flexibilities and adjustments, if not major structural changes in a definite direction. The probability of both technical and social innovation may be inferred from a universal feature of human societies which can be called the lack of correspondence between the “ideal” and the “actual” in the realm of social values. On the whole, these innovations are likely to be directed toward both “adaptation” to the nonhuman environment, to which adjustment is never perfect, and social control of the human population. Recognition of both of these elements can be found in the theories that we now propose to examine.

Changing theoretical interests

The nineteenth-century predecessors of modern sociology were very preoccupied with the dynamics of social change. Although some scholars, such as Frederic Le Play, attempted to establish canons for systematic description of contemporary social types, the attempt to trace the paths of history was a far more prevalent concern. Often the history attended to was not universal, but limited to the fairly clear antecedents of European civilization. Generally these authors attempted to find order in the succession of civilizations [seeHistory, article onThe philosophy of history]. The most ambitious of them was probably Auguste Comte, who invented the term “sociology” and propounded a “law of the three stages“—the theological, metaphysical, and positivist—to which all civilization was supposed to conform.

Evolutionary theories

The directionality of change, and in particular the increasing complexity and structural differentiation of society, came to be a major tenet of evolutionary theories. Following the impact of Darwin’s theories of biological evolution, Herbert Spencer, Lewis Henry Morgan, and others of lesser stature used such Darwinian notions as selective adaptation to account for both the cross-sectional diversity of societies and cultures and the supposedly sequential stages of social organization. By the end of the nineteenth century, evolutionary theory was a dominant factor in social thought, even in the work of writers who were not predominantly evolutionist in outlook. This applies to theorists as diverse as William Graham Sumner, despite his predominant concern with the relativism of all social values, and Emile Durkheim, whose life-long devotion to explaining social phenomena in terms of the balance of an interdependent system has caused him to be identified with what later became the “functionalist” approach to society.

Marxist theory

Even Marxism was a variant of evolutionism, particularly in its adherence to the notion of sequential stages of social organization. The Marxists tried to show how social change came about by laying great stress on the interaction of technology with social organization. Indeed, Marxist thought in its crudest form shared with most evolutionary theory a belief that one stage of social organization succeeded another through the operation of forces that were as impersonal as they were inevitable. Marx himself,however, took fairly full account of the purposive character of social action; he did not rely solely on his theory of revolutionary change. Moreover, his theory was a dynamic one, although it underplayed the independent role of ideas and values; thus his intellectual heirs were never caught up in the extremes of static “functionalism” that later became a dominant theme in anthropological and sociological theory.

Functionalist theory

Functionalism is the attempt to explain social phenomena by other social phenomena that are contemporary or quasi-simultaneous. In this respect, it rejects the “quest for origins.” Some of its proponents (e.g., Durkheim, Radcliffe-Brown, Malinowski), in eschewing explanation in genetic terms, also tended to suppress all queries about the actual dynamics of change. For them, the demonstration of interdependence between different elements of social structure came to mean the search for self-equilibrating mechanisms in society.

The recent revival of interest in dynamics owes something to all of these precedents. From functionalism, contemporary theory derives not only notions of systemic linkages which may be sequential, but also, through the concept of “dysfunction,” some notions of tension and incipient change. However, the renewal of concern with analysis of social change probably owes more to the undeniable facts of contemporary life and particularly to the social scientists’ resultant involvement in studies of modernization. Although functional systems models have served rather well as predictors of eventual expected changes in elements of social structure held to be related to economic development, the unconfirmed assumption that all fully modern societies have essentially the same kind of social structure can only lead to an unwarranted sociological determinism. In any event, this mode of analysis has produced a kind of “comparative statics,” offering a before-and–after view curiously discordant with older evolutionary theories; for the functionalists’ standard treatment of modernization dwells on pre-existing heterogeneity that becomes in due course a homogeneity. Nevertheless, functionalist studies of modernization have at least the merit of demonstrating a serious but fortunately remediable weakness in the analytical models employed, namely, that before-and–after comparison diverts attention from the mechanisms of change and entirely suppresses inquiries about actual sequences and timetables.

Alternative models of societies

Any theory that views society as a “functional equilibrium system” has the advantage of telling us that certain variables need to be correlated with certain other variables if the theory is to prove its worth. In any case, some such model of society, whether implicit or explicit, underlies most of the better attested propositions about social action and social structure in contemporary American sociology; indeed, these propositions are American sociology to a great extent, and their influence on other branches of social science is already profound. In spite of the objections already brought against functionalist theory, its prevalence is not necessarily to be deplored. Functionalism, in the hands of a sophisticated theorist, does not preclude attention to deviance, nor does it prejudge the issues of stability and continuity in social change theory. Indeed, to specify “the functional prerequisites of a society” (Aberle et al. 1950) is to adopt an implicitly evolutionary position, for the notion of functional prerequisites not only gives rise to high-level generalizations about the features common to all societies but also, by applying the test of survival, explains the failure of past society by their want of one or more “operating characteristics.” The sophisticated functionalist, therefore, views society as a “tension-management system,” thus making order itself problematic; he welcomes empirical study of the uncertainties and conflicts that arise in society from disparities between the ideal and the actual.

One of the few viable alternatives to functional-ism that have been offered is the “conflict model” of society (Dahrendorf 1957). However, this does not appear to be a comprehensive construction, but only a change of emphasis to discordant elements and interests as a counterpoise to models that stress social integration. Moreover, the tension-management model, as described above, already identifies structural tension points as probable sites of change.

Problems of detection and measurement

Change takes place in time, and time for observation is limited, especially for the single investigator. One method that has been devised for coping with this problem is the “panel study” [see PANEL STUDIES]. This is a method that attempts, over relatively brief periods, to record changes in individual attitude and behavior while they are in process. For longer periods, there would appear to be no substitute for historical evidence. Here the social scientist commonly turns to the professional historian; but the historian’s interests do not often coincide with those of the sociologist, and it is not surprising if data that would help to answer sociological questions are either passed over or dealtwith only briefly in works of history. Moreover, historians have rarely made use of quantitative techniques of data reporting, and the sociologist interested in constructing actual rates of change may have to do his own history. Finally, there is the undeniable fact that much of the past is irretrievably lost to human knowledge. The assembling of social statistics is very recent in man’s history and still very incompletely practiced [seeCensus; Government Statistics; Labor Force, article onDefinitions and Measurement; Vital Statistics].

The problem of magnitude. It was earlier noted that the question “What is changing?” is primary. The identification of elements or constructs for observation and analysis is a theoretical matter. Opinions may properly differ as to what constitutes a “significant” change; there is no legitimate scientific basis for denying social scientists their interest in the tiny alterations that occur in small groups or in the day-to–day developments of a political campaign. Questions of magnitude, however, cannot be avoided if we are to talk about social change in general. How much of a change is to be taken as “significant” and by what criteria of significance?

If the system constructs explicitly or implicitly employed by some functionalists were to be taken seriously, this problem could be solved simply by the strict dichotomization of change as “trivial” or “tragic” (Moore 1963, pp. 20, 70). In its extreme form, the assumption that all parts of a social system are completely interdependent results in the dilemma that change must be viewed either as constituting only variations on a theme within tolerable limits of persistent order (“trivial”) or as so altering an essential social component as to have serious repercussions throughout the entire system (“tragic”). However, the problem is not that simple. The structural looseness of social systems is not only evident but empirically verifiable; it is therefore possible that some small-scale changes alter social systems by cumulative degrees. How much change, in what, has what predictable consequences for which specifiable classes of social phenomena?

A demographic example. Some examples from demographic behavior may help to clarify the issue. Let us suppose that mortality rates are relatively low and temporally stable and relatively uniform in terms of such standard social categories as residence, ethnicity, occupation, and income. Let us also suppose that birth rates are relatively low and that the modal number of children per family is again relatively uniform across social categories. Now let us suppose a fairly rapid rise in birth rates, which in familial terms means an increase in the modal number of children from two to three. Such a change will have only minor consequences for the structure of the family, the consequences being limited to the nuances of generational and sibling relations. But the aggregative effect of this change on the economy, the density of population, the demand for schools and teachers, and so on, will be major; indeed, if we make allowances for the simplified nature of this example, it can serve as a description of the “baby boom” following World War ii. Now let us alter the assumption of the independence of family size with respect to various social categories. Let us suppose, rather, that over the course of a few decades the average size of family changes from a distribution inversely correlated with measures of socioeconomic status to a strongly positive correlation. Children would then become another symbol of affluence, but the effects of the change would be more complex. For example, with regard to mobility opportunities, it would appear that the relative smallness of poor families would favor a more equitable distribution of meager resources for current support and continuing education. Yet the advantages accruing to the children of well-to–do-families would probably persist; indeed, to the degree that inheritance of status continues to operate, the saturation of the upper ranks would preclude substantial upward mobility on the part of children of humble origin. In fact, if the fertility differentials were sharp, only a changed status distribution resembling an inverted pyramid could avoid substantial downward mobility among the well-born.

These partially hypothetical illustrations of demographic trends underscore the importance of looking for consequences of any kind, whether they are direct or indirect, small-scale or large-scale.

Problems of identification and observation

The ease with which social change can be identified or observed depends on at least four variables, all of which characterize the dynamic pattern of change. These variables are scale, brevity, repetition, and mensuration.

Scate. “Scale” is a somewhat ambiguous term, which may refer to the size or comprehensiveness of the system affected—for example, the political structure of a whole society as compared with a local custom relating to courtship—or to the degree of alteration in the system. As magnitude in the latter sense implies at least crude measurement, the “scale” variable is most appropriately reserved to refer to the comprehensiveness of the system involved. These two variables—the size of the sys-tem and the degree of alteration—are of course likely to be positively correlated. However, the correlation is not perfect; small changes can occur in inclusive systems and large changes in subsystems.

Brevity. Changes that are completed in a relatively short time are likely to be more observable than those that take place over a longer time, even if the latter eventually become substantial in magnitude. Long-term cycles which occur on a large scale may be detected retrospectively; however, they will probably go unnoticed if they are on a small scale and involve only small degrees of variation.

Repetition. Relatively brief changes, even if of small magnitude, have a greater chance of being observed if they are repeated frequently—in a cyclical pattern, for example. Repetition, in fact, greatly facilitates explanation and prediction, in that chance antecedents may be more readily distinguished from common and efficacious ones. In this respect, the repetition need not be confined to a single social unit, provided that there is enough similarity among units to allow for comparison. Thus some of the social changes related to industrialization are unique and discontinuous with respect to past trends in areas undergoing modernization, but they are sufficiently repetitive from one society to another (time for these purposes being only an incidental variable) to permit the formulation of general principles.

Mensuration. For large-scale transformations in social systems, such as political revolutions or rapid industrialization, the quest for quantities may seem unnecessarily laborious. Yet even here numerical indicators are likely to be useful for comparing cases, and they are particularly necessary if one is going to speak at all precisely about rates of change. In the case of less dramatic social transformations, the perception of change may not be uniform, and reliable measurement may therefore be the only way of settling the issue, as well as of finding at least partial explanation for clearly demonstrated changes. For example, is mental illness increasing in the United States and other modernized societies? If so, by what standardized criteria of identification and diagnosis can the increase be demonstrated? If it is demonstrable, how can cross-sectional differences in rates—for example, by age or income—be converted hypothetically into temporal trends, still using these same indicators? Failure to exercise both quantitative ingenuity and great methodological caution is likely to produce only a spurious explanation for a fictitious trend; such academic exercises unfortunately have been too common.

Demonstration of causal processes

It is very rare, in studies of social change, that we come across a classically neat demonstration of a singular cause, producing a singular effect, under finitely specifiable and repeatable conditions. This is partly because of the difficulty or impossibility of fully controlled social experimentation. A further difficulty is the inadequacy of the currently available conceptual and observational tools. Usually the analyst deals with statistical probability distributions and attempts to explain various “dependent variables” so characterized in terms of “independent variables” having the same uncertainties. Statistical techniques have been developed for dealing with these crudities, and others are likely to be invented [seeCross–Section Analysis].

Sequential analysis, however, involves additional problems, for it takes into account not only the degree to which the outcome is determined by one or another measurable antecedent but also the important question of the temporal order of critical variables. Smelser (1962, pp. 12–21) has borrowed from economics the term “value-added process” to refer to this type of logical scheme for organizing the determinant variables. This methodological principle offers the analyst some prospect of moving from the demonstration of necessary conditions to the understanding of sufficient conditions for social change, under favorable circumstances of observation and measurement. The notion of “value-added process” resembles various “stage” theories of change, although stages often represent arbitrarily imposed discontinuities in cumulative trends and thus understate the interaction of variables in the process of transformation.

One of the more complex forms of evolutionary change has been identified by Arnold Feldman and Wilbert E. Moore (1960) as cumulative, retroactive evolution. This term refers to the process by which later “stages” have a continuing or delayed effect on seemingly earlier ones. The mathematical conception of “stochastic processes” is a more accurate designation for this process than the concept of “stages.” However, the delineation of stages is a useful mode of characterizing sequences that exhibit fairly clear breaks in rates of change and “emergences” that fundamentally alter the properties of social systems.

The directions of change

In accordance with the position that only “special” theories of social change are appropriate to the diversity of social phenomena, the varieties of directionality in change will each be illustrated empirically. Although many of these have beenoffered in the past as master principles of social dynamics, the eclectic view here espoused has clear advantages in terms of factual confirmation, even if it thereby loses in simplicity and level of generalization.

Evolutionism and relativism

The principal mistake of the evolutionary theorists of the latter half of the nineteenth century was overgeneraliza-tion. The rectilinear theories of human evolution either took too little account of diversity or explained it improperly. Although Spencer’s concept of the “superorganic” offered promise of recognition that human societies might show some portion of the diversity of plant and animal species, he was too bound by the idea of the biological unity of mankind to exploit his fundamental idea. Later theorists went to the opposite extreme by ignoring biological factors and emphasizing sheer unexplained diversity. This extreme relativistic view was no more acceptable than the evolutionists’ idea of lining up all of the world’s cultures in rank order, with the presumably “simpler” social organization representing a kind of unexplained primitive survival.

Fluctuations and cycles

In the analysis of social dynamics, the counterpart of the recognition of simple cross-sectional diversity has been the identification of “fluctuations,” that is, variations through time which show no clearly repetitive or cumulative pattern. Fluctuations do indeed occur; for example, consider the chance variability in reproduction and the uncertainties of the intersection of hereditary and environmental factors in personality formation. In fact, the vicissitudes of matching recruits with the normative requirements of enduring positions insure some fluctuations in the exact behavioral counterparts of established structures (Sorokin 1937–1941, vol. 4; compare Moore 1963, pp. 66–68).

As compared to fluctuations, cycles involve more determinate directionality. A simple pendulum swing between extremes (e.g., prosperity and depression, liberalism and conservatism, innovation and accommodation) represents the simplest cyclical pattern. The delineation of multistage cycles is likely to rest on tenuous analogies (e.g., the “life cycles” of civilizations) or to require somewhat arbitrary breaks in variables that on inspection show rather orderly trends.

The self-equilibrating model. The notion of “self-equilibrating mechanisms” in functional systems is more readily understood in terms of trend-less cycles than it is in terms of a static continuity which is only occasionally disrupted by external disturbances. For example, there is a tendency in administrative organizations for “indulgent” departures from strict compliance with the rules to grow more extreme, until reversed by a renewed insistence on approximate compliance. This might be characterized as the “cycle of sin and penance.” Yet the notion of “self-equilibration” often implies that trends are reversed because of side effects of actions taken by the participants. This mechanistic assumption is not always warranted; the question as to whether the direction of change is deliberate is always a proper one.

A further point about cyclical change may be derived from the example of a small-scale repetitive pattern just used. Cycles may be superimposed on an underlying, cumulative trend. Thus the “return to the rules” in an administrative organization is unlikely to be complete, and through successive repetitions of the sequence there is likely to result a long-term modification of the norms themselves. On a larger scale, the alternation of relatively high and relatively depressed economic indicators in complex economies may represent essentially short-term variations that are consistent with long-term growth as indicated by per capita income or similar measures of economic development.

Progress as an aspect of growth

The evolutionary theorists of the nineteenth century were also naive in that they exaggerated the cumulative nature of change and comfortably equated change with “progress.” However, to some extent the cumulation of which they spoke was real—a point missed by all their relativistic detractors. For various sectors of any social system, and even for entire systems, there is evidence of steady or even accelerating growth over long periods of time. For instance, the growth in the number of rules in continuing organizations is certainly not at a steady rate if very frequent temporal comparisons are made; however, it is probably very steady over somewhat longer intervals. Likewise, the growth in total human population has been variable over considerably longer periods, and yet cumulative over the entire span of man’s earthly tenure. Rates of technical innovation are variable according to time and place, although commonly on a cumulative base. If the invention rate is the unit of observation, its trends may appear nearly cyclical over extensive periods of human history. On the other hand, if the sum total of useful knowledge is taken as the basis of observation, the short-term variations in the rate of addition to stock are likely to appear as very minor fluctuations in the long-term accumulation of reliable knowledge. This is because the growth of knowledge takes place at anexponential rate: the more there is, the faster itincreases.

Measurement of trends

Conclusions about both the rate and the direction of social change are much affected by the choice of time intervals of observation, including the span between the initial and terminal observations. Constant surveillance of ongoing processes is rare outside the laboratory and nearly impossible for long-range changes. Frequent recording of observations tends to pick up cyclical patterns and essentially meaningless fluctuations. Infrequent recording loses such information and points instead to more enduring trends. This is not to argue for less information, as infrequent observations are subject to grave risks of sampling error in the peculiarities of the observational situation. Skilled analysis can distinguish mere fluctuations, short-term trends, and long-term trends from a “continuous” series. The fact is, however, that in the retrospective analysis of long-term changes the analyst is more likely to detect a “fundamental” trend; thus the finer processes of transformation may be lost to view.

Mortality and fertility trends. A further example of great substantive importance may serve to underscore the problems of sorting out short-term and long-term trends. Contemporary evidence and all reasonable inferences from available historical materials indicate fairly wide short-term fluctuations in death and birth rates. But they also indicate two clear longer-term patterns. Over the very long term, human population growth has followed the cumulative, accelerating (exponential) pattern. Examined in somewhat more detail, the shorter-term patterns exhibit greater variability in mortality than in fertility in “nonmodern” societies and greater variability in fertility in modern industrialized societies.

Furthermore, the steady decline in mortality, followed, after an interval, by a steady decline in fertility, are trends uniformly accompanying economic development. The trends represent a dynamic pattern that is repetitive, although the pattern seems to operate only once in each economic unit.

This example can be pushed still further with respect to the direction of change. The variation in mortality in “premodern” societies appears to be rather irregular, as it is determined by such “chance” factors as climate and harvests, political vicissitudes, and infectious diseases. On the other hand, the variation of fertility rates in “modernized” countries seems to approximate a cyclical pattern. In societies where contraception is practiced, birth rates are likely to be correlated with current economic indicators [seeFertility Control]. However, there is more than a slight suggestion that fertility functions not only as a dependent variable but also as an independent variable. Prosperous conditions result in exceptionally high fertility. As these birth cohorts reach maturity they tend to oversupply the prevailing labor demand, which serves to increase unemployment and other unfavorable economic indicators. These deteriorating economic conditions in turn result in small birth cohorts. Note that if this reasoning has further empirical validation ( and it fits rather well the fertility behavior of Western countries for several decades following the 1930s) we shall have an example of a “self-disequilibrating” system. The cycles remain “off-phase” because of the intrinsic lag entailed in bringing infants to the age of labor-force participation.

Cumulative trends

The ways in which cumulative trends display themselves are numerous. To simple, additive (rectilinear) change and accelerating (exponential) growth should be added one form or another of “logistic” trend. A slow increase accelerates because of an increasing base for combinations to take place, but then it “dampens off” as severely limiting conditions are encountered. The size of organizations and even of entire populations often display this pattern. However, it must be remembered that the parameters or restrictive boundaries are themselves subject to change—for example, by technological or organizational innovation. Moreover, the lower limits, as well as the upper, may serve as restrictive boundaries. For example, the decline of mortality is commonly described as a “reverse J-curve,” meaning that early and easy improvements in health conditions are followed by more and more difficult life-saving measures until the limits of biological survival are approached.

Structural differentiation and social change

The directionality of change can be represented in terms of measures of size, incidence, or occurrence. Moreover, certain processes of change may be found to have a reliable and enduring direction. Most notable of these in the theoretical literature is the presumably universal tendency toward specialization or structural differentiation. But the question of why this should be so is commonly left unanswered, the process being taken as given. Durk-heim (1893) and others sought a demographic explanation: growing numbers lead to more complex social arrangements, including positional and role differentiation. Extensive evidence does point to a high, but by no means perfect, correlation between size and specialization; however, the reasonsfor this correlation are left for the most part unexplained.

In Darwinian evolutionary theory, structural differentiation derives from selective adaptation of organisms to their environment. Since environments differ both cross-sectionally and temporally, the idea of selective adaptation provides a way of accounting both for the observed diversity in-structural forms and for continuing change. It is surprising that so little use has been made of this conceptual scheme in the theory of social systems, where it appears equally applicable. In this scheme, population or membership size would serve as a basis for increased potential variability, and differentiation internal to the system would be one mode of adaptation of the entire system to its environmental setting. Criteria of efficiency in optimizing goal achievement—criteria which may be overt and purposive in complex social systems—would then be particular forms of adaptation.

Specialization is not, of course, an absolutely sovereign and irreversible dynamic process. Occasionally, its dangers to systemic cohesion may lead to renewed emphasis on unity and commonality of participating units. However, the probability of continuing specialization in enduring social systems is high. The cumulative growth of reliable knowledge and technique abets the requirement of differentiated competence.

Structural differentiation does imperil systemic cohesion, as just indicated. Mere interdependence, as Durkheim (1893) demonstrated, does not insure “solidarity.” Solidarity, or systemic cohesion, also requires an effective system of norms, which in turn will be justified or rationalized by common values. The mechanisms of effecting coordination are chiefly two: exchange, whether through relatively impersonal monetary markets or other forms of complementary reciprocities; and administrative authority, a mode of allocating duties and insuring compliance by the exercise of institutionalized power. These mechanisms are not of course mutually exclusive; for example, subordination to authority may be contractual.

A supplementary note on directionality is appropriate. Any of the forms of change we have identified may be associated with ideas of “progress,” which is simply change in an evaluatively approved direction. It is of course not itself a scientific principle, but as an item of belief it is possibly a relevant social datum. Progress may be viewed by social participants as the continuation of cumulative growth, as the dampening of cyclical oscillations and return to a steady state, or even the return to a past state which is evaluated as superior (the concept of “primitivism”). But since social action is partly purposive, the direction of change may well reflect the desired direction of change. Thus ideas of progress may be important elements in accounting for observed dynamics.

The problem of discontinuities

Change is most readily perceived as “orderly” when measured trends display a uniform direction or rate or when cycles are repeated often enough to confirm their character. Even lawful acceleration (Moore 1964) such as the exponential curve, which makes the rate of growth proportional to the extent of the relevant universe at any time, displays an underlying order. From a theoretical point of view, such orderly change clearly requires persistence or repetition in the ambient conditions. From a practical or procedural point of view, orderly change provides sufficient time for the identification of causes and the refinement of observation and measurement.

Analytical difficulties multiply when change is in a significant sense and degree “discontinuous.” For example, extremely rapid change, even if its antecedents are clear, may in turn alter the fundamental structure of the underlying change-producing conditions. The “successor system” which emerges can be described as “qualitatively” different. This does not mean that measurement is no longer possible or appropriate; it does mean that new variables and parameters must be taken into account.

Two illustrations from the contemporary world are relevant here. In retrospect, the discovery of nuclear fission and fusion may be viewed simply as an evolutionary step in the pattern of multiplying power utilization (White 1949). But the implications of that power for international politics, space travel, and economic production have introduced new dimensions into the potentialities for further change. At the more strictly social level, the extremely rapid spread of the doctrine of economic development has substantially reduced the cultural insularity of tribal societies and archaic agrarian civilizations and thus has increased the theoretical and practical utility of viewing the entire world as a single system.

Closely related to such “emergent” phenomena as the social and political effects of atomic power is another class of events that we propose to call “threshold” phenomena. By this we mean that the cumulative and interactive effect of changes that are analytically separable may result in unprecedented transformation. Thus, although there is no precedent for a rapid decline of birth rates in thecourse of economic development, several antecedent conditions for a sharp break with the past may be noted. They include the potentiality and actuality of mortality reductions at a much more rapid rate than in the oldest industrial countries; a nearly universal political adherence to rapid economic development, coupled with growing recognition that economic programs are imperiled by extremely fast population growth; and a steadily changing “technology of contraception” that may greatly increase its economic and aesthetic (and perhaps even religious) acceptability.

The concept of the threshold emphasizes sequential rather than factorial analysis of causation. Like Smelser’s use of the “value added” concept (Smelser 1962), it represents an attempt to move from necessary to sufficient conditions in the prediction of change, including alterations in direction, rate, or subsequent characteristics of the social system which merit the designation “discontinuous.”

Reversal of trends

Trends may reverse as well as cumulate to new levels. The upswing in birth rates among industrially advanced countries following World War n illustrates completion of a process of change, after which the number of children per family began to be determined by previously unimportant factors. The historic decline in fertility owed something to marriage rates and ages, but chiefly reflected an extending pattern of contraception. As indicated by the then standard inverse relationship between fertility and socio-economic status, the leading practitioners of contraception were those families which could best afford children. But in the course of time the attitudes and techniques favorable to family limitation became less and less the exclusive possession of upper-class and middle-class families. Apparently, it was chiefly education, among the various criteria of status, that had the greatest influence on family limitation, and it is also noteworthy that it is education that has exhibited the greatest equality of distribution. When a third or fourth child was no longer putative evidence of ignorance and error, but rather might be interpreted as a choice of family size, birth rates began to take on the characteristic trends and distributions of the markets for “consumer durables.”

Persistence of traditional structures

Similarly, economic modernization is never “complete.” Its initial, discontinuous impact on traditionally organized societies may be followed by partial restoration of structures and forms which were never completely destroyed. For example, the weakening of extended kinship systems as a consequence of geographic and social mobility may be followed by partially restored, though discretionary, communication and reciprocities among kinsmen. Likewise, stable exchange or employment relations are likely to lose some of their nominal austerity and impersonality. Note that this is not to say that the status quo ante is fully restored or that nothing significant has changed, but only that the conception of an unusually disruptive “transitional period” has some merit.

Revolution as discontinuous change

Fundamental “social revolutions” represent an extreme form of discontinuous change. Although social scientists have been at some pains to emphasize the partial restoration that occurs even after major revolutions, by definition revolutions involve fundamental changes in institutional structure and distribution of power. Polarization (for instance, of social classes of interest groups) is of course one antecedent of revolutionary change; however, polarization in turn requires explanation. Under the conditions of political centralization, substantial urban agglomeration, and fairly effective communication, polarization is likely to occur when there is an absolute or relative decline in economic well-being or political rights among those already largely excluded from positions of affluence and power. The decline, of course, must be fairly severe, sharply differential in its impact, and numerically extensive. Although this form of change is implicitly quantifiable, very little quantitative analysis of the antecedents of revolution has been attempted. Polarization, for example, is typical in the modernized sector of societies which are in early stages of industrialization. Yet in the majority of historical cases that sector has been too small to provide a clear revolutionary potential, and as it has expanded it has also reduced its polarity. How extensive and rapid must “early” modernization be in order for it to produce social revolution? The apparently faster change in aspirations than in the means for their fulfillment in contemporary developing areas invites the speculation that the incidence of revolutions may increase in the future. Refinement of that speculation into a responsible probability distribution awaits the collection of comparative data, both cross-sectional and temporal.

Forecasting the future

Theories of social change have little claim to scientific merit unless they are formulated as verifiable predictive propositions concerning the relations among variables. However, in the “real world“the interaction of factors is very complex, and it may be difficult to replicate or control the conditions under which the causal variables are sequentially related. Thus, generally speaking, small-scale and short-term changes are easier to predict than their opposites. Science cannot predict the unique event with absolute reliability; it can only assign probabilities to individual occurrences in a class of events. In this respect, the task of the historian, whose data are in principle “all in,” is substantially easier than that of the sociological prophet, who may not foresee crucial intervening events or even be able to assign correct values to available information.

Although the precise shape of the future is hidden by a haze, there are several bases for at least rough and partial prediction. The first of these is the simple persistence of past and present conditions. Fortunately, for much of social conduct we can make this assumption; otherwise we would not know how to act or what to expect from day to day. Customs, organizations, and values may be expected to survive the pressures of other changes over long periods of time. For example, we may predict with fair confidence that the United States will continue to have a constitutional government; although it may experience some shifts in political influence and even in the relative powers of the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary, it is not likely to become a one-party regime or adopt a strictly executive mode of government. Moreover, the expansion of the size and functions of government does not lead us to expect the end of pluralism or any substantial reduction in the large measures of individual and private-group choice, decision, and competition which are characteristic of the “open society.” Some American traits, such as pragmatism in attacking problems and a kind of rational, secular view of most social institutions, look like hardy survivors from the past which will continue into the future.

A second basis for prediction is to be found in the continuation of orderly trends. In addition to our earlier discussion, some other probable trends may be noted. In the United States, the rate of urbanization and suburbanization has been increasing, but changes in the rate have been fairly orderly over three decades. The average age of marriage has been decreasing, but at a slowing rate. The proportion of secondary school graduates has been increasing, as has the proportion going on to college. Women are entering the labor force at a gradually rising rate, particularly at ages over 45 and under 60. The amount of private saving increases as the economy grows and income increases, but the proportion of money saved remains remarkably constant. Some of these trends have a decade or two of history behind them and some much longer periods. With the extension and improvement of social accounting, the examination of trends may become an increasingly important basis for forecasting.

Some destinations are known because the route has been traveled before. In addition to small-scale repetitive patterns, the contemporary world offers examples of large-scale recapitulated experience. In the course of economic modernization, precise replication of “Western” rates and sequences of change will not occur often. However, on the basis of what is known about “Western” experience we can go rather far in predicting the course of social change in major parts of the social organization and value systems of societies which are now seeking to become part of the modern world.

Another component of forecasting is the great and growing importance of planning, which is of special significance in industrial countries and those attempting to become industrialized. A remarkable amount of energy and other scarce resources is spent on forecasting autonomous trends and calculating intermediate adaptations and on deliberately implementing future goals. Although accidental and “mindless” change still occurs, social change is increasingly both organized and institutionalized. The future is partially predictable because it will resemble in part what it is now intended to be.

Wilbert E. Moore

[Directly related are the entriesCreativity, article onSocial Aspects; Culture, article onCulture CHANGE; Evolution, articles onCULTURAL EVOLUTION and SOCIAL EVOLUTION; Functional analysis; INDUSTRIALIZATION; MODERNIZATION; REVOLUTION; SYSTEMS ANALYSIS, article onSOCIAL SYSTEMS. Other relevant material may be found inAutomation; City; Conflict; Cooperation; Economy and society; Fashion; Fertility; Food, article OnWORLD PROBLEMS; Innovation; Mortality; Planning, ECONOMIC; Planning, SOCIAL; Population, articles onPOPULATION THEORIESandPOPULATION GROWTH; Prediction and forecasting, ECONOMIC; Science, article onTHE SOCIOLOGY OF SCIENCE; Transportation; and in the biographies ofDarwin; Durkheim; Le Play; Marx; Morgan, Lewis Henry; Ogburn; Sorokin; Spencer; Sumner; Weber, Max.]


Aberle, David F. et al. 1950 The Functional Prerequi– sites of a Society. Ethics 60:100–111.

Dahrendorf, Ralf (1957) 1959 Class and Class Con– flict in Industrial Society. Rev. & enl. ed. StanfordUniv. Press. → First published as Soziale Klassen and Klassenkonflikt in der industriellen Gesellschaft.

Durkheim, Emile (1893) 1960 The Division of Laborin Society. 2d ed. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press. → Firstpublished as De la division du travail social.

Economic Development and Cultural Change. → A quar– terly journal, with occasional monographic supple– ments, published since 1952 by the University ofChicago Press. Especially valuable for theoretical andempirical studies of modernization.

Etzioni, Amitai; and Etzioni, Eva (editors) 1964 Social Change: Sources, Patterns, and Consequences. New York: Basic Books.

Feldman, Arnold S.; and Moore, Wilbert E. 1960 Moot Points in the Theory. Pages 360–368 in Wilbert E. Moore and Arnold S. Feldman (editors), Labor Commitment and Social Change in Developing Areas. New York: Social Science Research Council.

Hagen, Everett E. 1962 On the Theory of Social Change. Homewood, 111.: Dorsey.

Kroeber, A. L. 1957 Style and Civilizations. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press.

Maciver, Robert M.; and Page, Charles H. (1949)1961 Society. New York: Holt. → Book 3 containsan extensive treatment of social change.

Moore, Wilbert E. 1963 Social Change. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Moore, Wilbert E. 1964 Predicting Discontinuities in Social Change. American Sociological Review 29: 331–338.

Ogburn, William F. (1922) 1950 Social Change With Respect to Culture and Original Nature. New enl. ed. New York: Viking.

Sahlins, Marshall D.; and Service, E. R. (editors)1960 Evolution and Culture. Ann Arbor: Univ. ofMichigan Press.SMELSER, NEIL J. (1962) 1963 Theory of Collective Behavior. New York: Free Press.

Sorokin, Pitirim A. (1937–1941)1962 Social and Cultural Dynamics. 4 vols. Totowa, N.J.: Bedminster Press. → Volume 1: Fluctuation of Forms of Art. Volume 2: Fluctuation of Systems of Truth, Ethics, and Law. Volume 3: Fluctuation of Social Relationships, War, and Revolution. Volume 4: Basic Problems, Principles, and Methods.

Spencer, Herbert (1862) 1958 First Principles. New York: DeWitt Revolving Fund. → A general, classic formulation of evolutionary theory from the inorganic, through the organic, to the “superorganic” (so-ciocultural).

Vries, Egbert de 1961 Man in Rapid Social Change. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

White, Leslie 1949 The Science of Culture: A Study of Man and Civilization. New York: Farrar, Straus. → A paperback edition was published in 1958 by Grove Press.

Zollschan, George K.; and Hirsch, Walter (editors) 1964 Explorations in Social Change. Boston: Hough-ton Mifflin.

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Social Change

Social Change


The concept of social change is central to the social sciences and, in particular, to sociology. The work of many of the pioneers of sociology, including the central triumvirate (Émile Durkheim [1858-1917], Max Weber [1864-1920], and Karl Marx [1818-1883]), involves a sustained reflection upon the changes they believed that they were witnessing in their societies and the new social forms they saw emerging (e.g., organic solidarity, modernity, bureaucracy, and industrial capitalism).

In certain respects change is an inherent feature of societies rather than a periodic event that they undergo or something extraneous that acts upon or happens to them. At whatever level one pitches the concept, a society is not a thing but a process. It comprises a vast web of interactions that unfold through time and, as such, is in a perpetual state of becoming. Any society is constantly in motion and, like the proverbial river, is therefore never quite the same from one moment to the next. The key question, from this point of view, is not why things change but why many social forms persist for as long as they do: that is, why and how they are reproduced. Nevertheless, forms do change, sometimes on a grand scale, and much social science is focused on the question of why this is so.

A key distinction can be found in classical and early modern social theories between revolutionary and evolutionary theories of change. This distinction hinges on the question of whether change happens in short dramatic bursts (revolutions) or more gradually, over the long termthe most likely answer being both ways, as the two modes are not mutually exclusive. Political revolutions, such as the French Revolution of 1789, are obvious exemplars for the revolutionary model, but we also refer to the industrial revolution, to scientific revolutions, and to such cultural revolutions as the Reformation or Enlightenment. Evolutionary change is more difficult to pinpoint because, by definition, it is gradual and occurs over long stretches of time, but it is easily revealed through comparisons of historically distant snapshots of social life.

Evolutionary theories often refer to interaction between the social form said to be evolving and its wider (social and/or natural) environment. Changing environments are said to select the forms that proliferate within them. This position can entail teleology; that is to say, it may rest upon an assumption, generally deemed erroneous by contemporary social theorists, that social forms serve a purpose within the wider systems to which they belong and, more problematically, come into being because they serve that purpose. Functionalist accounts, when not criticized on the grounds that they cannot explain change, are often criticized for making such assumptions. Evolutionary accounts are not necessarily teleological, however, even when they work with the notion of environmental fit. Darwins theory of evolution by natural selection, for example, is non-teleological. Biological adaptations do not emerge because they fit with the environment, in Darwins view. Their emergence is purely contingentthough they die out if they do not fit with their environment or lose out to better-fitting adaptations in the struggle for survival. Moreover, insofar as evolutionary accounts do rest upon teleological assumptions, this does not serve to distinguish them from revolutionary accounts, which can be equally prone to teleology. Not only, for example, do some variants of (revolutionary) Marxism adopt functionalist explanations, some also adhere to the teleological notion that history is propelled in the direction of a pre-given endpoint and thus revolution is inevitable. Furthermore, the laws of social change, which are said to propel society in a particular direction and which one finds in some Marxist accounts, while not necessarily teleological, are problematic on account of what Karl Popper calls their historicism. Poppers critique of historicism (1969) defies brief summation. Suffice it to say, however, that he is critical of the claims of some Marxists to have discovered iron laws of historical necessity and change because, he argues, our knowledge of these laws inevitably changes our behavior and thereby changes the course of history itself, such that the laws could not have been laws in the first place. In part this is a claim about the role of knowledge and ideas in steering the course of change and a critique of materialist theories that ignore or deny their role. More profoundly, however, it is a claim about the role of reflexivity in history. We are not condemned to follow a particular historical trajectory, according to Popper, because we have the capacity to reflect upon the flow of history and this affords us the opportunity to act differently than we would otherwise have done.

Both revolutionary and evolutionary accounts of social change have come under attack in recent social science, particularly in the context of postmodern and poststructuralist theories. In addition to challenging grand narratives of history (i.e., accounts that purport to tell the story of human history in toto and in the singular), these theories have challenged the notion of progress that, they argue, underpins such narratives. In part this critique has been informed by a dissatisfaction with the ethnocentric assumptions built into many accounts of progress; that is, the tendency for writers to treat their own society and standpoint as the furthest point hitherto achieved by any society along a continuum that all societies can be measured against. At a deeper level it is informed by a suspicion of all forms of evaluative discourse, centered ultimately on claims regarding the impossibility of arriving at an unprejudiced or rational basis by which to establish criteria of evaluation.

The more extreme claims of postmodernists can be challenged by reference to the pragmatic possibility of deriving local and specific criteria by which to evaluate change: For example, if we are prepared to agree that reducing infant mortality is a good thing, then we can argue that Western societies, insofar as their rates have reduced, have progressed in this respect. We do not need to establish a universal standard against which all societies should be measured or, conversely, to eliminate the value judgment that something is a good thing in order to make meaningful claims about progress, as long as we can derive mutually agreeable criteria upon which to base our assessment. However, much contemporary debate on change is framed in postmodern terms. Whereas classical social theory was centered on the emergence of modern society, contemporary social theory is centered on the transition to postmodern society. Paradoxically, postmodernism has become something of a grand narrative of history, and a dominant one at that.

SEE ALSO Marx, Karl; Marxism; Postmodernism; Revolution; Social Movements


Boudon, Raymond. 1986. Theories of Social Change: A Critical Appraisal. Trans. J. C. Whitehouse. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity.

Giddens, Anthony. 1971. Capitalism and Modern Social Theory: An Analysis of the Writings of Marx, Durkheim, and Max Weber. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Harvey, David. 1989. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Oxford: Blackwell.

Lyotard, Jean-François. [1979] 1984. The Postmodern Condition. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press.

Popper, Karl. 1969. The Poverty of Historicism. 2nd ed. London: Routledge.

Nick Crossley

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social change

social change See CHANGE.

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