Social change

From New World Encyclopedia

Social change (or Social development) is a general term which refers to change in the nature, the social institutions, the social behavior or the social relations of a society, community of people, or other social structures; any event or action that affects a group of individuals that have shared values or characteristics; acts of advocacy for the cause of changing society in a normative way.

Social change is a topic in sociology and social work, but also involves political science, economics, history, anthropology, and many other social sciences. Among many forms of creating social change are direct action, protesting, advocacy, community organizing, community practice, revolution, and political activism.

The term is used in the study of history, economies, and politics, and includes topics such as the success or failure of different political systems, globalization, democratization, development and economic growth. The term can encompass concepts as broad as revolution and paradigm shift, to narrow changes such as a particular social cause within small town government. The concept of social change implies observation and measurement of some characteristics of this group of individuals. While the term is usually applied to changes that are beneficial to society, it may result in negative side-effects or consequences that undermine or eliminate existing ways of life that are considered positive. Social change overall, however, has resulted in beneficial advances in human society, indicating that humankind is progressing toward a society that will allow all people to live in peace and prosperity.


The term social development of social change refers to qualitative changes in the structure and functioning of society that help society to better realize its aims and objectives. Development can be broadly defined in a manner applicable to all societies at all historical periods as an upward ascending movement featuring greater levels of energy, efficiency, quality, productivity, complexity, comprehension, creativity, mastery, enjoyment, and accomplishment.[1] Development is a process of social change, not merely a set of policies and programs instituted for some specific results. This process has been going on since the dawn of history. During the last five centuries it has picked up in speed and intensity and since the middle of the twentieth century there has been a marked surge in acceleration.[2]

Economic development and human development need not mean the same thing. Strategies and policies aimed at greater growth may bring greater income to the country without bringing about an improvement in the living standards of the population. This is what happened in the case of oil-producing Middle Eastern countries where a surge in oil prices boosted the national income of these countries without doing much good to the poorer sections of the people living there. Conversely people-oriented programs and policies can bring about an improvement in their health, education, living standards, and other quality of life measures without any special emphasis on monetary growth.

The basic mechanism driving social change is increasing awareness leading to better organization. Life evolves by consciousness and consciousness in turn progresses by organization. When society senses new and better opportunities for progress it accordingly develops new forms of organization to exploit these new openings successfully. The new forms of organization are better able to harness the available social energies and skills and resources to use the opportunities to get the intended results.

Theories of social change

Some social change is almost always occurring, but many different theories have attempted to explain significant social changes in history. These theories include (but are not limited to):

  • the idea of decline or degeneration, or, in religious terms, the fall from an original state of grace, connected with theology;
  • the idea of cyclical change, a pattern of subsequent and recurring phases of growth and decline, and the social cycles;
  • the idea of continuous social progress;
  • Evolutionary theories (how one social form evolves into another), including social Darwinism;
  • Theories of sociobiology

Historical precedent shows that major social changes have taken place during "cusp" periods, defined by changing relations among human formations, nature, and technology. Some more specific theories of great social theorists are listed below:

Eighteenth century

Adam Smith
Smith believed that societies evolve through collections of individual preference, which take the form of an 'invisible hand' guiding society. This invisible hand is the collective preference of each individual in the society who express their preferences by purchasing the items of their choosing, which then guides production to meet the demands of the people.
Richard Cantillon
Cantillon coined the term entrepreneur. He believed that entrepreneurs were important agents of social change as they are the most efficient re-arrangers of capital and can best meet the changing preferences of all the members in a society, thereby facilitating society wide change.

Nineteenth century

Auguste Comte
Comte believed that human societies evolve along a three step evolutionary process. These stages are the theological, metaphysical, and scientific/positivistic. In the theological state, society members' places were determined by God or their religion. In the metaphysical, the state and other large organizations assume control over man's everyday affairs. In the final stage, science and reason reign supreme.
Karl Marx
Marx wrote of a historical materialism. This theory was adopted from Hegel's dialectical materialism. Marx argued that human history is seen as the clash between opposing dialectics. He changed Hegel's philosophy to be more focused on the material world than abstract drivers of society. To Marx, the greatest historical clash was the conflict between workers and owners.
Herbert Spencer
Spencer believed human society inevitably progressed because it responded to an ever-changing environment around it. The goal of this progress is happiness and prosperity. Spencer's theory was based on a central tenet of human freedom, as he argued that social evolution could not be something forced on a people.
Edward Burnett Tylor
Tylor was an anthropologist who developed the theory that societies develop along a path from savage to barbarian to civilized. Savage cultures are based on hunting and gathering, barbaric cultures are nomadic or have rudimentary agriculture, and 'civilized' cultures have writing and feature urban life.
Lewis H. Morgan
Morgan, like Edward Burnett Tylor, believed that civilization goes through three stages on the path towards 'civilized society.' Morgan's stages were "hunter-gatherer," "agriculture and metalwork," and a third stage contingent on the development of the written word. Morgan also had a theory on the evolution of sexual relationships, with monogamy being the apex of this development.

Twentieth century

Julian Steward
Steward was an American anthropologist known for his theory emphasizing the importance of human beings' adaptation to their physical environment
Emile Durkheim
Durkheim wrote that societies take one of two forms: mechanical or organic. In mechanical societies, members have little control over their own lives as the society's "collective conscious" dominated every facet of life. In organic societies, individual priorities emerge. He believed societies progress from mechanical to organic through adoption of a division of labor.
Max Weber
Weber saw society as progressing on an unstoppable path towards scientific determinism in which man is increasing in his technical abilities, but not in his ability to understand the world. Weber believed this progress would result in a "polar night of icy darkness."
Arnold J. Toynbee
Toynbee believed that civilizations arise through a process of challenge and response. Some challenge faces existing groups of people, a minority of which respond well to the challenge and ascend to the forefront of society as a result. When a civilization responds positively to a challenge, it grows. When the civilization responds negatively, it enters a period of decline.
Elman Rogers Service
Service developed a theory of cultural evolution in which societies develop from kinship-centric systems into law-based systems. Service's theory posits that material inequality only arises with the development of these law-based systems whereas under the kinship societies, the only conflict was for power among different families.
Immanuel Wallerstein
Wallerstein developed "world systems theory" based on the idea that rather than "first," "second," and "third" world countries, there is in fact just one interconnected world. To Wallerstein, change occurs as competing factions within this world accumulate more capital.
Shmuel Eisenstadt
Eisenstadt studied the historical experience of the great civilizations in an effort to understand the dynamics of modernization.
George Peter Murdock
Murdock was an American anthropologist who pioneered the cross-cultural analytical method. His research focused on the process of cultural change, in which new habits are learned and adopted.

Process of emergence of new activities in society

We can conceive of society as a complex fabric consisting of interrelated activities, systems, and organizations.[3] Development occurs when this complex fabric improves its own organization. That organizational improvement can take place simultaneously in several dimensions.

  • Quantitative expansion in the volume of social activities
  • Qualitative expansion in the content of all those elements that make up the social fabric.
  • Geographic extension of the social fabric to bring more of the population under the cover of that fabric.
  • Integration of existing and new organizations so that the social fabric functions more efficiently.

Such organizational innovations occur all the time as a continuous process. New organizations emerge whenever a new developmental stage is reached and old organizations are modified to suit the new developmental requirements. The impact of these new organizations may be so powerful as to lead the people to believe that these new organizations are powerful in their own right. Actually it is society that throws up the new organizations required to achieve its objectives.

The direction that the developmental process takes is very much influenced by the awareness of the population as to what are the opportunities available in the society. Increasing awareness leads to greater aspiration which in turn releases greater energy that helps bring about greater accomplishment.

Subconscious vs. conscious development

The normal tendency of human development is to proceed from experience to comprehension. As society develops it accumulates the experience of countless pioneers down the centuries and takes the essence of that experience as the formula for success and accomplishment. The fact that experience precedes knowledge can be taken to mean that development is a subconscious process that gets carried out first while the knowledge becomes conscious later on only. We use the term subconscious to refer to those activities that people do without knowing what the end results will be or where their actions will lead them. That is the acts are carried out without a knowledge of the conditions required for their success.[1]

Role of pioneering individuals

The gathering subconscious knowledge of the society matures and breaks out on the surface in the form of new ideas espoused by pioneers who also take new initiatives to give expression to those ideas. Those initiatives may call for the formation of new strategies and new organizations which may be resisted by conservative elements in society. If the initiatives of the pioneers succeed, then it encourages imitation and slow propagation among the rest of the community. Later on growing success leads to the assimilation of the new practice by the society and in the course of time it becomes regularized and institutionalized. This process can be viewed in three distinct phases of social preparedness, initiative of pioneers, and assimilation by the society.

The pioneer as such plays an important role in the development process since it is through him that the subconscious knowledge becomes conscious. The awakening comes to the lone receptive individual first and it becomes his responsibility to spread the awakening to the rest of the society. Though the pioneer appears as a lone individual in reality he acts as the conscious representative of the society as a whole and therefore his role should be viewed in that light.[4]

Imitation of the pioneer

A pioneer may come up with innovative ideas, yet very often the initial response by society is one of indifference, ridicule, or even one of outright hostility. If they persist with their efforts and succeed in their initiative, their acts may eventually be endorsed by the public. That endorsement tempts some others to imitate the pioneer. If they also taste success, then news spreads and brings about a wider acceptance. Conscious efforts to lend organizational support to the new initiative help in institutionalizing the new innovation.

Organization of new activities

Organization is the human capacity to harness all available information, knowledge, resources, technology, infrastructure, and human skills to exploit new opportunities and to face challenges and hurdles that come in the way of progress. Development comes through improvements in the human capacity for organization. In other words, development comes through emergence of better organizations that enhance society’s capacity to make use of opportunities and face challenges.

The development of organizations may come through the formulation of new laws and regulations or through new systems. Each new progress that society achieves comes with a corresponding new organization that emerges on the scene. The increasing international trade that European countries undertook in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries demanded corresponding development of the banking industry, as well as commercial laws and civil arbitration facilities. New types of business ventures were needed to attract the tremendous amounts of capital needed to finance the expanding trade. As a result a new business entity came into use—the joint-stock company, which limited the liability of investors to the extent of their personal investment without endangering their other properties.

Each new developmental advance that society makes is accompanied by new or more suitable organizations that facilitate that advance. On many occasions the existing inadequate organization is forced to change itself to be in tune with the new development. We see many countries introducing scores of new reforms and procedures such as the release of business directories, franchising, lease purchase, courier service, credit rating, collection agencies, industrial estates, free trade zones, and credit cards. On top of all these a diverse range of Internet services have also been added. Each of these new facilities vastly improves the effective usage of available social energies for productive purposes. The importance of these facilities for speeding up development is clearly illustrated when they are absent. When Eastern European countries wanted to make the transition to market-type economies, they were seriously hampered in their efforts to make that transition due to the absence of these supportive systems and facilities.

Organization matures into institution

At a particular stage the organization matures into an institution that becomes part and parcel of the society. Beyond this point it does not need laws and agencies to foster its growth or ensure its continued presence. The transformation of an organization into an institution signifies the total acceptance by the society of that new organization. The Income tax office is an example of an organization that is actively maintained by the enactment of laws and the formation of an office for procuring taxes. Without the active support of the government this organization will simply disappear in the course of a few years as it does not enjoy active public support. On the other hand, the institution of marriage enjoys universal acceptance and would persist in society even if government regulations demanding registration of marriage and age restrictions were withdrawn. The institution of marriage is sustained by the weight of tradition and not by government agencies and legal enactments.

Cultural transmission by the family

Families play a major role in the propagation of new activities. A family is a miniature version of the larger society and as such the acceptance by the larger entity will find its reflection in the smaller entity also. It is the family that educates the younger generation and transmits to them such social values as self-restraint, responsibility, and the skills and occupational training of the fathers. Though children do not necessarily follow their fathers’ footsteps as much as they did in the past, parents do in a big way mold their children’s attitudes and expectations regarding their careers and future occupations. When we find families taking up the propagation of a new activity, it is a sure sign that the new activity has become an integral part of the society.


One of the most powerful means of propagating and sustaining new developments in is the system of education available in a society. Education is the means for organized transmission of society’s collective knowledge to each next generation by the previous generation. It equips each new generation to face the opportunities and challenges of the future with the knowledge gathered from the past. It shows the young generation the opportunities that lie ahead for them and thereby raises their aspiration to achieve more. The information imparted by education raises youth’s level of expectations as well as their aspirations for higher income. It also equips them with the mental capacity to devise ways and means to improve productivity and enhance living standards.

Limits to development

The concept of inherent limits to development arose mainly because development in the past was determined largely by the availability of physical resources. Humanity itself relied more on muscle-power than thought-power to accomplish work. That is no longer the case. Today mental resources are the primary determinant of development. Those who drove a simple bullock cart have now designed ships and aircraft that carry huge loads across immense distances. Human beings have tamed rivers, cleared jungles, and even turned arid desert lands into cultivable lands through irrigation. Worthless sand has been transformed into powerful silicon chips that carry huge amounts of information and form the basis of computers. Since there is no inherent limit to the expansion of man’s mental resources, the notion of limits to growth cannot be ultimately binding.[5]


Since the time of the English economist Thomas Malthus, it has been thought that the capacity for development is severely limited due to the inherent limitation in the availability of natural resources. Resources can be divided into four major categories: physical, social, mental, and human resources. Land, water, mineral, oil, and so forth constitute physical resources. Social resources consist of society’s capacity to manage and direct complex systems and activities. Knowledge, information, and technology are mental resources. The energy, skill, and capacities of people constitute human resources.

The science of economics is very much concerned with scarcity of resources. Though physical resources are limited in their availability, the same cannot be said about social, mental, and human resources which are not subject to any inherent limits. Even if these appear to be limited at present, there is no fixity about the limitation and these resources can and will continue to expand over time and that expansion can be accelerated by be expanded if appropriate strategies. In recent decades the rate of growth of has accelerated dramatically.[6]

The role of physical resources tends to diminish as society moves to higher levels in the scale of development. Correspondingly the role of non-material resources keeps increasing as development advances. One of the most important non-material resources is information, which has become a key input in modern times. Information is a non-material resource that does not get exhausted by distribution or sharing. Greater access to information helps increase the pace of its development. Ready access to information about economic factors helps investors to immediately transfer capital to those sectors and areas where it will fetch a higher return. The greater input of non-material resources helps explain the rising productivity of societies in spite of a limited physical resource base.

The application of higher non-material inputs also raises the productivity of physical inputs. Modern technology has helped increase the proven sources of oil by 50 percent in recent years and at the same time reduced the cost of search operations by 75 percent. Moreover, technology has shown that it is possible to reduce the amount of physical inputs in a wide range of activities. Scientific agricultural methods demonstrated that soil productivity could be raised by application of synthetic fertilizers. Dutch farm scientists have demonstrated that a minimal water consumption of 1.4 liters is enough to raise a kilogram of vegetables compared to the thousand liters that traditional irrigation methods normally require. Henry Ford’s assembly line techniques brought down the man-hours of labor required to deliver a car from 783 minutes to 93 minutes. These examples show that the greater input of higher non-material resources can raise the productivity of physical resources and thereby extend their limits.[7]


When the mind engages in pure creative thinking it comes up with new thoughts and ideas. When it applies itself to society it can come up with new organizations. When it turns its attention to the study of nature it discovers the laws and mechanisms by which nature operates. When it applies itself to technology it comes up with new discoveries and practical inventions that boost productivity. Technical creativity has had an erratic course through history, with some intense periods of creative output followed by some dull and inactive periods. However the period since 1700 has been marked by an intense burst of technological creativity that is multiplying human capacities exponentially.

Though many reasons can be cited for the accelerating pace of technological inventions, one major cause is the role played by mental creativity in an increasing atmosphere of freedom. Political freedom and liberation from religious dogma had a powerful impact on creative thinking during the period of Enlightenment. Dogmas and superstitions had an incredibly restrictive effect on the scope for mental creativity. For example, when the astronomer Copernicus proposed a heliocentric view of the world, it was rejected because it did not conform to established religious doctrine.[8] When Galileo perfected a telescope for viewing the planets, his invention was condemned by churchmen as an instrument of the devil as it seemed to be so unusual and hence fit to be deemed heretic. Such obscurantist fetters on freedom of thought were shattered only with the coming of the Enlightenment. From then on the spirit of experimentation began to thrive.

Though technological inventions have markedly increased the pace of development, the tendency to view developmental accomplishments as mainly powered by technology is a partial view that misses the bigger picture. Technological innovation was spurred by the general advance in the social organization of knowledge. In the Middle Ages efforts at scientific creativity were few and relatively and isolated for one another, mainly because there were no effective arrangements for the preservation and dissemination of knowledge. Since there was no organized protection for patent rights, scientists and inventors were very secretive about their activities and operations. The establishment of scientific associations and the publication of scientific journals spurred the exchange of knowledge among scientists and created a written record that could be examined by posterity.

The development of technology is dependent on the presence of other types of social organizations. Nobel laureate economist Arthur Lewis observed that the mechanization of factory production in England which became known as The Industrial Revolution was a direct result of the reorganization of English agriculture. The enclosure of common lands in England generated surplus income for the farmers. That extra income generated additional raw materials for industrial processing along with greater demand for industrial products which was difficult to meet by traditional manufacturing processes. The opening of sea trade gave an added boost in demand for industrial production for export. Factory production increased many times when production was reorganized using steam energy combined with moving assembly lines, specialization and division of labor. Thus, technological development was both a result of and a contributing factor to the overall development of society.

Individual scientific inventions do not simply spring out of the blue. They build on past accomplishments in an incremental manner and give a conscious form to the subconscious knowledge that society gathers over time. As the pioneer is more conscious than the surrounding community. his inventions normally meet with initial resistance which receded over time as his inventions gain wider acceptance. If the opposition is stronger than the pioneer, then the introduction of his invention gets delayed. In medieval times when guilds exercised tight control over their members, progress in medical invention was slow mainly because physicians were secretive about their remedies. When Denis Papin demonstrated his invention of a steam engine, German naval authorities refused to accept it fearing it would lead to increased unemployment. John Kay, who developed a flying shuttle textile loom, was subject to physical intimidation by English weavers who feared the loss of their jobs. He had to flee to France where his invention was more favorably received. The widespread use of computers and application of bio-technology raises similar resistance among the public today. Whether the public receive an invention readily or resist depends on their awareness and willingness to entertain rapid change. Regardless of the response, technological inventions occurs as part of overall social development and not as an isolated field of activity.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Garry Jacobs and N. Asokan, "Towards a Comprehensive Theory of Social Development" in Human Choice (World Academy of Art & Science, 1999), 152.
  2. International Commission on Peace and Food, Uncommon Opportunities: An Agenda for Peace and Equitable Development (London: Zed Books, 1994, ISBN 978-1856493055), 163.
  3. International Commission on Peace and Food, 1994, 168.
  4. Harlan Cleveland and Garry Jacobs, ”The Genetic Code for Social Development” in Human Choice (World Academy of Art & Science, 1999), 7. Retrieved October 23, 2013.
  5. International Commission on Peace and Food, 1994, 158.
  6. International Commission on Peace and Food, 1994, 162.
  7. Robert Macfarlane and Robert Van Harten, "Engines of Development" in Human Choice (World Academy of Art & Science, 1999), 47. Retrieved October 23, 2013.
  8. Barbara Somervill, Nicolaus Copernicus: Father of Modern Astronomy (Compass Point Books, 2005, ISBN 0756510589).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bornstein, David. How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas. Oxford University Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0195334760
  • Cleveland, Harlan, and Garry Jacobs. ”The Genetic Code for Social Development” in: Human Choice. World Academy of Art & Science, 1999, 7.
  • Eisenstadt, S.N. The Political Systems of Empires. Transaction Publishers, 1993. ISBN 978-1560006411
  • Eisenstadt, S.N. Cultural Tradition, Historical Experience, and Social Change: The Limits of Convergence The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, The University of California, Berkeley, May 1-3, 1989. Retrieved October 22, 2013.
  • Haferkamp, Hans, and Neil J. Smelser (eds.). Social Change and Modernity. Retrieved December 17, 2007. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1992. ISBN 978-0520068285
  • International Commission on Peace and Food. Uncommon Opportunities: An Agenda for Peace and Equitable Development. Zed Books, 1994. ISBN 978-1856493055
  • Jacobs, Garry, et al. Kamadhenu: The Prosperity Movement. India: Southern Publications, 1988. ASIN B00CWMZU5Y
  • Macfarlane, Robert, and Robert Van Harten, "Engines of Development" in Human Choice. World Academy of Art & Science, 1999, 47.
  • Murdock, George P. Social Structure. New York: Free Press, 1965. ISBN 978-0029222904
  • Noble, Trevor. Social Theory and Social Change. Palgrave Macmillan, 2000. ISBN 978-0312233297
  • Shackman, Gene, Ya-Lin Liu, and George (Xun) Wang. Why does a society develop the way it does? 2002. Retrieved October 4, 2013.
  • Somervill, Barbara. Nicolaus Copernicus: Father of Modern Astronomy. Compass Point Books, 2005. ISBN 0756510589
  • Vago, Steven. Social Change, Fifth Edition. Prentice Hall, 2003. ISBN 978-0131115569


New World Encyclopedia writers and editors rewrote and completed the Wikipedia article in accordance with New World Encyclopedia standards. This article abides by terms of the Creative Commons CC-by-sa 3.0 License (CC-by-sa), which may be used and disseminated with proper attribution. Credit is due under the terms of this license that can reference both the New World Encyclopedia contributors and the selfless volunteer contributors of the Wikimedia Foundation. To cite this article click here for a list of acceptable citing formats.The history of earlier contributions by wikipedians is accessible to researchers here:

The history of this article since it was imported to New World Encyclopedia:

Note: Some restrictions may apply to use of individual images which are separately licensed.