Social Change

views updated May 17 2018

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.

Social Change

views updated May 18 2018


Social change is ubiquitous. Although earlier social scientists often treated stability as normal and significant social change as an exceptional process that required a special explanation, scholars now expect to see change at all times and in all social organizations. Much of this type of change is continuous; it occurs in small increments and reveals long-term patterns such as growth. Discontinuous changes, however, are more common than has been assumed. From the perspective of individual organizations, these changes are relatively common and often result in sharp departures from previous states such as when corporations are created, merged, or terminated. From the perspective of larger populations of such organizations, relatively few discontinuous changes result in comparably sharp departures from long-term patterns and trends. Even revolutions that result in dramatic changes of political and legal institutions generally do not transform all of society equally. Some previous patterns continue; others are restored.

Cumulative social change must be distinguished from recurrent fluctuations and the processual aspect of all social life. Both sociologists and historians study the latter by focusing on those dynamic processes through which the social lives of particular individuals and groups may change even though overall patterns remain relatively constant. Marriages and divorces are major changes in social relationships, but a society may have a roughly constant marriage or divorce rate for long periods. Similarly, markets involve a continuous flow of changes in regard to who possess money or goods, who stands in the position of creditor or debtor, who is unemployed or unemployed, and so forth. These specific changes, however, generally do not alter the nature of the markets. Researchers both study the form of particular transactions and develop models to describe the dynamics of large-scale statistical aggregations of such processes (see "Social Dynamics.")

As Bourdieu (1977, 1990) and Giddens (1986) suggest, it is necessary to see human social life as always being structured, but incompletely so. "Structuration," to use their term, is as much a process of change as a reflection of stability. Indeed, the existence of stable social patterns over long periods requires at least as much explanation as does social change. This situation has led to renewed attention to social reproduction, or the ways in which social patterns are re-created in social action. This contrasts with earlier views of continuity as a matter of inertia or simple endurance. Some continuity in the social order is achieved intentionally by actors with enough power to resist changes desired by others; rulers thus maintain their rule by force. Much social reproduction, however, works at a less consciously intentional level and is based on the ways in which people learn to think and act rather than on overt, material force. Bourdieu and Passeron (1977), for example, follow Weber in studying the ways in which ingrained, habitual ways of deciding what new action fits an individual's situation work without conscious intention to reproduce overall social patterns. A pattern of inequality in educational attainment that is understood officially as meritocratic and is genuinely intended by teachers to be so thus may be reproduced in part because students from nonelite backgrounds unconsciously lower their expectations for themselves, expecting elites to do better. Teachers may unconsciously do the same thing. When decisions are to be made, such as whether to go to university, or which university to choose, elite students and their families are more likely to have the confidence and knowledge to invest in options with a higher long-term payoff.

To understand social change, thus, it is necessary also to understand what produces social continuity. It would be a mistake to explain social change always in terms of a new factor that intervenes in an otherwise stable situation. Rather, social change commonly is produced by the same factors that produce continuity. These factors may change in quantity or quality or in relation to each other.

Sometimes, however, specific processes of social life undergo long-term transformations. These transformations in the nature, organization, or outcomes of the processes are what is usually studied under the label "social change." Social life always depends, for example, on the processes of birth and death that reproduce populations through generations. These rates (adjusted for the age of a population) may be in equilibrium for long periods, resulting in little change in the overall size of a population. Alternatively birthrates may exceed death rates most of the time, resulting in gradual population growth, but periodic disasters such as war, famine, and pestilence may cut the population back. In this case, the population may show little or no cumulative growth, but instead exhibit a dynamic equilibrium in which every period of gradual increase is offset by one of rapid decline. Approximations to these two patterns characterize most of world history. Population growth generally has been quite slow, although periodic declines have not offset all the increases. In the last three hundred years, however, a new phenomenon has been noted. As societies industrialize and generally grow richer and change the daily lives of their members, they undergo a "fertility transition." First, improvements in nutrition, sanitation, and health can allow people to live longer. This results in population growth that can be very rapid if the improvements are introduced together rather than gradually developing over a long period. After a time lag, this encourages people to have fewer children because more of the children they do have survive. As fertility rates (birthrates standardized bythe number of women of child-bearing age) also drop, a new equilibrium may be reached; population growth will slow or stop. This is a cumulative transition, because after it, the typical rates of birth and death are much lower even though the population may be much larger. A variety of other changes may follow from or be influenced by this process. For example, family life may change with declining numbers of children, parents' (especially mothers') lives are likely to change as fewer of their years are devoted to bearing and raising children, and childhood deaths may become rarities rather than common experiences.

Social history is given its shape by such cumulative social changes. Many of these changes are quite basic, such as the creation of the modern state; others are more minor, such as the invention and spread of the handshake as a form of greeting. Most, such as the development of team sports, fast-food restaurants, and the international, academic conference, lie in the broad area in between. Thus, cumulative social changes may take place on a variety of different scales, from the patterns of small group life through institutions such as the business corporation or church to overall societal arrangements. Significant changes tend to have widespread repercussions, however, and so it is rare for one part of social life to change dramatically without changing other parts.

While certain important changes, such as an increasing population, are basically linear, others are discontinuous. There are two senses of discontinuity. The first is abruptness, such as the dramatic contraction of the European population in the wake of plague and other calamities of the fourteenth century and the occurrence of the Russian Revolution after centuries of tsarist rule and failed revolts. Second, some social changes alter not just the values of variables but the relationship of variables to each other. Thus, for much of history the military power and wealth of a ruler was based directly on the number of his or her subjects; growing populations meant an increasing total product from which to extract tribute, taxes, and military service. With the transformation first of agriculture and then of industrial production in the early capitalist era or just before it, this relationship was in many cases upset. Increasingly, from the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries, for example, the heads of Scottish clans found that a small population raising sheep could produce more wealth than could a large one farming; their attempt to maximize this advantage contributed to the migration of Scots to Ireland and America. This process was of course linked also to growing demand for wool and the development of the industrial production of textiles. Those factors in turn involved new divisions of social labor and increased long-distance trade. At the same time, the development of industrial production and related weapons technologies reduced the military advantages of large population size by contrast to epochs when wars generally were won by the largest armies; indeed, population may be inversely related to power if it impedes industrialization.

This case provides an example of how shifts in the relationships of certain variables can alter not only overall social patterns but broad cultural orientations to social change. Along with industrialization (and other dimensions of modern social life) has come a continuous process of technological and social innovation. As Weber (1922) emphasized, this process is at odds with a traditional orientation to social life. Traditionalism implies an expectation of continuity and respect for the ways in which things have always been done. Constant innovation is linked to the pursuit of more efficient ways to do things and an expectation of continuous change. Leaders of China, long thought the absolute size of armies would be decisive in conflict. They were shocked when both Japan and Western powers were able to win victories in the nineteenth century mainly on the basis of superior technology rather than superior size. This helped produce not only the collapse of a specific imperial dynasty but a crisis in a whole pattern of traditionalism. Instead of assuming that the best lessons for military strategy lay in the teachings of the past, some leaders recognized that they needed to look for new ways in which to make the country strong. This produced a tension between trying to preserve cultural identity by continuing to do things the same way and trying to achieve technological and other gains by innovating. This tension is common in societies that have undergone broad patterns of social change in the modern era. In China, after the death of Mao Zedong leaders decided that strengthening the country and improving people's lives depended on technological advancement and economic development. Recognizing both that large armies would not win wars against enemies with technologically advanced weapons and that rapid population growth would make it difficult to educate the whole population and produce rapid economic growth, Deng Xiaoping and other leaders introduced policies to reduce population growth rates. They also decided that they needed to liberalize the economy and encourage private business because state-owned enterprises could not innovate rapidly enough. On the one hand, they encourage innovation in economy and technology, and on the other hand, they resist change in politics and culture. Although perhaps contradictory, these two responses have been typical of leaders in societies undergoing the process of modernization. Although it is impossible to prevent major changes in technology and the economy from having an impact on politics and culture, it is possible to shape what those impacts will be.

Sociologists generally have taken three approaches to studying cumulative social changes. The first is to look for generalizable patterns in how all sorts of changes occur, the second is to seek an explanation for the whole overall pattern of history, and the third is to analyze historically specific processes of change.

Following the first of these approaches, sociologists have looked for characteristic phases through which any social innovation must pass, such as skepticism, experimentation, early diffusion among leaders, and later general acceptance. Ogburn ([1922] 1950) was a pioneer in this sort of research, examining topics such as the characteristic "lag" between cultural innovations and widespread adjustments to them or exploitation of their potential. In regard to the fertility transition, when improved health care and nutrition make it possible for nearly all children to survive to adulthood, it takes a generation or two before parents stop having large families as "insurance policies" to provide for support in their old age. Earlier researchers often hoped to find general laws that would explain the duration of such lags and account for other features of all processes of social change. Contemporary sociologists tend to place much more emphasis on differences among various kinds of social change and their settings; accordingly, their generalizations are more specific. Researchers may limit their studies to the patterns of innovation among business organizations, for example, recognizing that those organizations may act quite differently from others. They also may ask questions such as, Why do innovations gain acceptance more rapidly in formal organizations (e.g., businesses) than in informal, primary groups (e.g., families), or what sorts of organizations are more likely to innovate? The changes may be very specific, such as the introduction of new technologies of production, or very general, such as the Industrial Revolution as a whole (Smelser 1958). The key distinguishing feature of these sorts of studies is that they regard changes as individual units of roughly similar sorts and aim to produce generalizations about them.

The second major sociological approach to cumulative change—seeking an explanation for the whole pattern of cumulation—was long the province of philosophies of history that culminated in the sweeping syntheses of the nineteenth century. Sociology was born partly out of the attempt to understand the rise of science, industry, and urban society. These and related transitions were conceptualized in frameworks that emphasized shifts from tradition to modernity, feudalism to capitalism, and monarchy to republicanism or democracy. As Sztompka (1993) points out, three basic visions were developed, each of which has left a mark on sociology and continues to be influential in research: cycles, evolutionary progress, and historical materialism. The roots of the cyclical vision stretch back to antiquity. The image of the human life cycle, from birth and infancy to old age and death, for example, was used to conceptualize the rise and fall of whole societies and of imperial dynasties that were thought to be vigorous in youth and feeble in old age. Few scientific sociologists have regarded such images as more than metaphors, but they have been influential among writers attempting to generalize about the course of history (e.g., Spengler [1918] 1939; Toynbee 1934–1961). A number of sociologists, however, have studied more specific cyclical patterns. Pareto ([1916] 1980) analyzed what he called the circulation of elites, a pattern in which specific groups rose into and then fell from social dominance. Sorokin (1937) analyzed cultural cycles, especially the oscillating dominance of ideational (spiritual, intellectual) and sensate (sensual, materialist) orientations. More recently, sociologists have identified cycles in social movements and collective action (Tilly 1989; Tarrow 1998; Traugott, 1995).

Both historical materialism and evolutionism are indebted to another ancient idea, that of progress. Here the idea is that social change tends to produce a pattern of improvements in human life as measured in relationship to a standard of evaluation. In this regard, sociological evolutionism has commonly differed from evolutionary theory in biology, which has been less focused on the overall direction of change and normative evaluation. The great nineteenth-century evolutionary thinkers Comte([1830–1842, 1851–1854] 1975) and Spencer (1893) conceptualized history as progress through a series of stages. Comte based his analysis on what he saw as improvements in social knowledge through theological, metaphysical, and positive stages. Spencer, who was also an originator of evolutionary theory in biology, had a much more complex and sophisticated theory, focusing on the way structures developed to meet functional imperatives and gaining direction from the idea that "incoherent homogeneity" progressively gives way to "coherent heterogeneity" through the process of structural differentiation. Spencer (1893) addressed particularly the transition from military to industrial societies, which he saw as basic to modernity. Durkheim (1893) developed a similar analysis in his description of the movement from mechanical to organic solidarity.

[1 Schrecker (1991) has analyzed a pattern in which something similar to Spencer's two stages alternated cyclically in Chinese society rather than forming the basis for a single evolutionary trend. Periods of increasing industrialization and commercialization (fengjian) were followed by eras in which agriculture and military prowess figured more prominently (junxian). Schrecker (1991) suggests that this intriguing combination of evolutionary and cyclical theories initially was developed by classical Chinese scholars, although it was recast after the importation of Spencerian evolutionary theory.]

Historical materialists, starting with Marx (1863), also analyzed stages in historical development (such as feudalism and capitalism), but with three crucial differences from other evolutionary theories. First, Marx and his followers argued that material factors, especially the mode of production, shape the rest of society and that change is driven largely by improvements in the capacity for material production. Second, following a dialectical logic, Marxists emphasized the internal contradictions within each stage of development. Capitalism, for example, generated tremendous increases in productivity but distributed the resulting wealth so unequally that it was prone to economic crises and social revolutions. Rather than a simple, incremental progress, thus, Marxists saw evolution as taking place in discontinuous breaks marked by clashes and struggles. Third, most versions of Marxist theory gave greater emphasis to human agency or ability consciously to shape the direction of social change than was typical of evolutionary theory. The question of the extent to which evolution can be directed consciously has, however, recently come to the fore of non-Marxist evolutionary theory as well, as in in the work of the sociobiologist Wilson (Wilson and Wilson 1999).

The most important contemporary theories of social evolution attempt to generate not only overall descriptions of stages but causal explanations for social change. Lenski, for example, has argued that increases in technological capacity (including information processing as well as material production and distribution) account for most of the major changes in human social organization (Lenski et al. 1994). In his synthesis, Lenski arranges the major forms of human societies in a hierarchy based on their technological capacity and shows how other features, such as their typical patterns of religion, law, government, class inequality, and relations between the sexes, are rooted in those technological differences. In support of the idea that there is an overall evolutionary pattern, Lenski et al. (1994) point to the tendency of social change to move only in one direction. Thus, there are many cases of agricultural states being transformed into industrial societies but very few (if any) examples of the reverse. Of course, Lenski acknowledges that human evolution is not completely irreversible; he notes, however, not only that cases of reversal are relatively few but that they commonly result from an external cataclysm. Similarly, Lenski indicates that the direction of human social evolution is not strictly dictated from the start but only channeled in certain directions. There is room for human ingenuity to determine the shape of the future through a wide range of potential differences in invention and innovation. There are a number of other important versions of the evolutionary approach to cumulative social change. Some stress different material factors, such as humanadaptation to ecological constraints (Harris 1979; White 1949); others stress culture and other patterns of thought more than material conditions (Parsons 1968; Habermas 1978).

Adherents to the third major approach to cumulative social change argue that there can be no single evolutionary explanation for all the important transitions in human history. They also stress differences as well as analogies among particular instances of specific sorts of change (Stinchcombe 1978). These historians and historical sociologists emphasize the importance of dealing adequately with particular changes by locating them in their historical and cultural contexts and distinguishing them through comparison (Abrams 1982; Skocpol 1984; Calhoun 1995, 1998). Weber was an important pioneer of this approach. A prominent variety of Marxism has stressed the view that Marx's mature analysis of capitalism emphasizes historical specificity rather than the use of the same categories to explain all of history (Postone 1993). Historical sociologists have argued that a particular sort of transformation, such as the development of the capacity for industrial production, may result from different causes and have different implications on different occasions. The original Industrial Revolution in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain thus developed with no advance model and without competition from established industrial powers. Countries that are industrializing today are influenced by both models and competition from existing industrial countries, along with influences from multinational corporations. The development of the modern world system thus fundamentally altered the conditions of future social changes, making it misleading to lump together cases of early and late industrialization for the purpose of generalization. Similarly, prerequisites for industrial production may be supplied by different institutional formations; one should compare not just institutions but different responses to similar problems.

Accident and disorder also have played crucial roles in the development of the modern world system. Wallerstein (1974–1988) shows the centrality of historical conjunctures and contingencies: the partially random relationships between different sorts of events (on historical accidents, see also Simmel 1977; Boudon 1986). For example, the outcome of military battles between Spain (an old-fashioned empire) and Britain (the key industrial-capitalist pioneer) were not foregone conclusions. There was room for bravery, weather, strategy, and a variety of other factors to play a role. However, certain key British victories, notably in the sixteenth century, helped make not only British history but world history different by creating the conditions for the modern world system to take the shape it did. Against evolutionary explanation, historical sociologists also argue that different factors explain different transformations. Thus, no amount of study of the factors that brought about the rise of capitalism and industrial production can provide the necessary insight into the decline of the Roman Empire and the eventual development of feudalism in Europe or the consolidation of China's very different regions into the world's most enduring empire and most populous state. These different kinds of events have their own different sorts of causes.

Predictably, some sociologists seek ways to combine some of the benefits of each type of approach to explaining cumulative social change. Historical sociologists who emphasize the singularity of specific transformations can learn from comparisons among such changes and achieve at least partial generalizations about them. Thus, different factors are involved in every social revolution, yet certain key elements seem to be present, such as crises (financial as well as political) in a government's capacity to rule (Skocpol 1979; Goldstone 1991). This recognition encourages one to focus on structural factors that may help create potentially revolutionary situations as well as the ideologies and actions of specific revolutionaries. Similarly, even though a variety of specific factors may determine the transition to capitalism or industrialization in every instance, some version of a fertility transition seems to play a role in nearly all cases. Although evolutionary theory is widely rejected by historical sociologists, some look to evolutionary arguments for suggestions about what factors might be important. Thus, Lenski's emphasis on technology and Marx's focus on the relationship of production and class struggle can provide foci for research, and that research can help determine whether those factors are equally important in all societal transformations and whether they work the same way in each one. More radically, evolutionary socioglogy might follow biology in focusing less on the selection of whole populations (societies) for success or failure and look instead at the selection of specific social practices (e.g., the bearing of large numbers of children) for reproduction or disappearance. Such an evolutionary theory might provide insight into how practices become more or less common, following biology in looking for mechanisms of reproduction and inheritance, the initiation of new practices (mutation), and the clustering of practices in interacting groups (speciation) as well as selection. It would, however, necessarily give up the capacity to offer a single explanation for all the major transitions in human social history, which is one of the attractions of evolutionary theory to its adherents.

Certain basic challenges are particularly important in the study of cumulative social change today. In addition to working out a satisfactory relationship among the three main approaches, perhaps the most important challenge is to distinguish social changes that are basic from those which are ephemeral or less momentous. Sociologists, like historians and other scholars, need to be able to characterize broad patterns of social arrangements. This is what sociologists do when they speak of "modernity" or "industrial society." Such characterizations involve at least implicit theoretical claims about the crucial factors that distinguish these eras or forms. In the case of complex, large-scale societal processes, these factors are hard to pin down. How much industrial capacity does a society need to have before one can call it industrial? How low must employment in its increasingly automated industries become before one can call it postindustrial? Is current social and economic globalization the continuation of a longstanding trend or part of a fundamental transformation? Although settling such questions is difficult, debating them is crucial, for sociologists cannot grasp the historical contexts of the phenomena they study if they limit themselves to studying particulars or seeking generalizations from them without attempting to understand the differences among historical epochs (however hard to define sharply) and cultures (however much they may shade into each other with contact). Particularly because of the many current contentions that humanity stands on the edge of a new age—postmodern, postindustrial, or something else—researchers and theorists need togive strong answers to the question of what it means to claim that one epoch ends and another begins (Calhoun 1999).

Many prominent social theorists have treated all of modernity as a continuous era and stressed its distinction from previous (or anticipated future) forms of social organization. Durkheim (1893) argued that a new, more complex division of labor is central to a dichotomous distinction of modern (organically solidary) from premodern (mechanically solidary) society. Weber (1922) saw Western rationalization of action and relationships as basic and as continuing without rupture through the whole modern era. Marx (1863) saw the transition from feudalism to capitalism as basic but held that no change in modernity could be considered fundamental unless it overthrew the processes of private capital accumulation and the commodification of labor. Recent Marxists thus argue that the social and economic changes of the last several decades mark a new phase within capitalism but not a break with it (Mandel 1974; Wallerstein 1974– 1988; Harvey 1989). Many sociologists would add a claim about the centrality of increasing state power as a basic, continuous process of modernity (e.g., Tilly 1990; Mann 1986–1993). More generally, Habermas (1984–1988) has stressed the split between a life world in which everyday interactions are organized on the basis of mutual agreement and an increasingly prominent systemic integration through the impersonal relationships of money and power outside the reach of linguistically mediated cooperative understanding. Common to all these positions is the notion that there is a general process (not just a static set of attributes) common to all forms of modernity. Some claim to discern a causal explanation; others only point to the trends, suggesting that those trends may have several causes but that there is no single "prime mover" that can explain an overall pattern of evolution. All would agree that no really basic social change can be said to have occurred until the fundamental processes they identify have ended, been reversed, or changed their relationship to other variables. Obviously, a great deal depends on what processes are considered fundamental.

Rather than stressing the common processes that organize all forms of modernity, some scholars have followed Marx (and recent structuralist theory) in pointing to the disjunctures between relatively stable periods. Foucault (1973), for example, emphasized basic transformations in the way knowledge is constituted and an order is ascribed to the world of things, people, and ideas. Renaissance culture was characterized by an emphasis on resemblances among the manifold different elements of God's single, unified creation. Knowledge of fields as diverse to modern eyes as biology, aesthetics, theology, and astronomy was thought to be unified by the matching of similar characteristics, with those in each field serving as visible signs of counterparts in the others. The "classical" modernity of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries marked a radical break by treating the sign as fundamentally distinct from the thing it signified, noting, for example, that words have only arbitrary relationships to the objects they name. The study of representation thus replaced that of resemblances. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, another rupture came with the development of the modern ideas of classification according to hidden, underlying causes rather than superficial resemblances and an examination of human beings as the basic source of systems of representation. Only this last period could give rise to the "human sciences"—psychology, sociology, and so forth—as they are known today. Similarly, Foucault (1977) argued that the modern individual is a distinctive form of person or self, produced by an intensification of disciplining power and surveillance. Where most theories of social change emphasize processes, Foucault's "archaeology of knowledge" emphasizes the internal coherence of relatively stable cultural configurations and the ruptures between them.

Foucault's work has been taken as support for the claim (which was not his own) that the modern era has ended. Theories of "postmodernity" commonly argue that at some point the modern era gave way to a successor, though some scholars (e.g., Lyotard 1977) have indicated, against the implications of the label "postmodern," that they mean not a simple historical succession but a recurrent internal challenge to the dominant "modernist" patterns (see Lash 1990; Seidman 1995; Harvey 1989; Calhoun 1995). Generally, they hold that where modernity was rigid, linear, and focused on universality, postmodernity is flexible, fluidly multidirectional, and focused on difference. Some postmodernist theories emphasize the impact of new production technologies (especially computer-assisted flexible automation), while others are more exclusively cultural. The label "postmodernity" often is applied rather casually to point to interesting features of the present period without clearly indicating why they should be taken as revealing a basic discontinuous shift between eras.

At stake in debates over the periodization of social change is not just the labeling of eras but the analysis of what factors are most fundamentally constitutive of social organization. Should ecology and politics be seen as determinative over, equal to, or derivative of the economy? Is demography or technological capacity prior to the other? What gives capitalism, feudalism, a kinship system, or any other social order its temporary and relative stability? Such questions must be approached not just in terms of manifest influence at any single point in time or during specific events but also in terms of the way particular factors figure in long-term processes of cumulative social change.


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Craig Calhoun

Social Change

views updated May 29 2018

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

social change

views updated May 14 2018

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