social change


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social change

The difference between the current and antecedent condition of any selected aspect of social organization or structure.

The study of social change involves as a logical minimum the identification of the phenomenon to be studied, and the use of a historical perspective in order to identify the changes which it has undergone. In practice, this descriptive task is usually linked to the more difficult one of explanation, i.e. an attempt to specify the factor(s) which produced or caused the identified changes in the phenomenon studied. More simply, the objective is to show why change occurred in one way rather than another.

Social change is central to much sociological study and research, since neither societies nor their constituent parts are ever static. The whole range of theoretical perspectives and research methods available within sociology can be used in the study of social change. Clearly, a study of the SOCIALIZATION of, say, new recruits to the armed forces or police would require a different research strategy (participant or nonparticipant observation, for example) to one which examined changing patterns of social mobility within the class structures of contemporary industrial societies (sampling and questionnaire). A study of changing conditions of land tenure among 14th-century European peasants would, in turn, necessitate an approach based on the evidence of historical documents.

If it is true that sociology is always, in one way or another, examining social change, it is also true to say that sociology itself was a child of social change. It is no coincidence that sociology emerged as a discipline when theorists attempted to understand the nature of the dramatic social, economic and political upheavals associated with the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries in European societies. The seminal work of the three most important figures in early sociological thought – MARX, WEBER and DURKHEIM – can only really be understood in these terms.

Whilst these three theorists were interested in studying the nature and origins of industrial capitalist societies, they were by no means the only early sociological figures interested in social change. Indeed, a characteristic feature of late 18th- and 19th-century writing was its preoccupation with the topic. COMTE, drawing on the work of SAINT-SIMON, proposed a ‘LAW OF THREE STAGES’ in the intellectual and social development of societies. This law was, in effect, an EVOLUTIONARY THEORY of human society, and this grandiose concern to see history in terms of progress, direction and stages of development (see ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT) was shared by many other theorists, e.g. CONDORCET, Herbert SPENCER, Lewis MORGAN, Sir Edward TYLOR, and Leonard T HOBHOUSE.

Though these early models were problematic at a number of levels, interest in evolutionary approaches to social change has not been entirely abandoned by more recent thinkers. Talcott PARSONS (1966), the economist W. W. ROSTOW (1960) and the anthropologists M. D. Sahlins and R. E. Service (1960) have produced new work, more or less successful in remedying the deficiencies of earlier theorists. Fundamental problems remain, however. Karl POPPER (1957), for example, has argued from a philosophical perspective that social development is inherently unpredictable (because it is affected by the growth of knowledge, which in itself is unpredictable) and, moreover, that development is a unique historical process, and though it may be possible to describe this in various ways, it cannot be explained in terms of any universal law (because a law explains the recurrence of identical events and cannot therefore be tested against, or explain, those which are unique (see also HISTORICISM)). E. GELLNER (1968) has also argued that the temporal ordering of stages of social development given by evolutionary theory is either redundant (if the mechanisms, sources or causes of change are identified) or insufficient (placing anything in a sequence does not, by itself, explain it).

Both Parsons and Rostow meant their work to have specific implications for development policy in the THIRD WORLD. Their insufficiency in this respect is highlighted by Popper's arguments. In particular, it is clear that the development of any society alters the context in which any other society can develop. No society can therefore repeat the developmental process of any other. This point has been trenchantly made by Gunder FRANK (1969), who argued that the development of the advanced industrial societies involved the underdevelopment of others.

At a less ambitious level, sociologists have also attempted to hypothesize about the general causes of social change within societies, rather than to bring their historical development under an evolutionary law. Here social change has been variously connected to:

  1. technological development;
  2. social CONFLICT (between races, religions, classes, for example);
  3. malintegration (see INTEGRATION) (of the parts of social structure or culture of a society, such as in Hinduism, caste and capitalism);
  4. the need for ADAPTATION within social systems (so that, for example, the development of efficient bureaucracies is an adaptive response of firms to a competitive economic environment);
  5. the impact of ideas (see IDEALISM) and belief systems on social action (most obviously, Weber's hypothesis of a connection between ‘The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’);
  6. Marx's idea (see CLASS, HISTORICAL MATERIALISM) of class conflict generated by contradictions between the forces and relations of production in societies.

Such approaches are less ambitious than evolutionary theory. After all, they attempt (with the partial exception of Marx) to say what it is that produces social change, rather than to make predictions about the course of human history At best, they provide more or less useful suggestions as to where the cause of change may lie when any particular social process is examined. Clearly, however, to argue that all social change in human groups, communities, institutions, organizations or societies in general is a result of conflict, or ideas, or adaptation, or whatever, is to overstate the case. Inevitably, the more ambitious the theoretical project, the more vulnerable it becomes. In one sense this hardly matters, for theories can remain heuristically useful, and a perfected general theory of social change is not a necessary preliminary to the normal business of sociological research. See also INDUSTRIALIZATION, MODERNIZATION, UNDERDEVELOPMENT, DEPENDENT INDUSTRIALIZATION, CONVERGENCE, POSTINDUSTRIAL SOCIETY, IMPERIALISM, WORLD SYSTEM, NEW INTERNATIONAL DIVISION OF LABOUR.