Monday, July 18, 2011

10. Social Change in Modern Society:

10. Social Change in Modern Society:

The International Encyclopaedia of the Social Science (IESS 1972) looks at change as the important alterations that occur in the social structure, or in the pattern of action and interaction in societies. Alterations may occur in norms, values, cultural products and symbols in a society.

Three Aspects of Social Change

i) Social change is essentially a process of alteration with no reference to the quality of change.

ii) Changes is society are related/linked to changes in culture, so that it would be sometimes useful to talk about ‘socio-cultural change.

Some sociologists, however, differentiate between social change and cultural change. Social change is defined as alterations in the social structure, (including the changes in the size of society) or in particular social institutions, or in the relationship between institutions. They feel that social change refers mainly to actual human behaviour. Cultural change, on the other hand, refers to variation in cultural phenomena such as knowledge and ideas, art, religion moral doctrines, values, beliefs, symbol systems and so on.

iii) Social change can vary in its scope and in speed. We can talk of small scale or large scale changes. Changes can take a cyclical pattern, e.g. when there is the recurrence of centralisation and decentralisation in administrative organisations. It can also be revolutionary. Revolutionary change can be seen when there is an overthrow of government in a particular nation. Change can also include short term changes (e.g. in migration rates) as well as long term changes in economic structures. We can include in social change, both

growth and decline in membership and size of social institutions. Change may include continuous processes like specialisation, and also include discontinuous processes such as a particular technical or social invention which appears at some point of time.

Sociological theories of social change.

1.The Evolutionary Perspective

The notion of social evolution was taken from the theories of biological evolution. Spencer propounded an analogy between social and organic growth and between society and an organisation. The theories of social evolution are composed of one or more of the following principles−change, order, direction, progress and perfectibility. The principle of change states that the present system is the outcome, of more or less continuous modification from its original state. Some evolutionists add to the principles of change the notion that change must have an order. Other evolutionists combine the principles of change and order with the principle of direction, thereby suggesting that there is a natural linear order of change in a social system. The evolutionary process of change implies, that every society goes through

distinctive and successive states of existence and orientation. Comte, for instance, proposed a directional theory of society. He suggested that a society evolves from a theological orientation, to a metaphysical orientation to a positivistic orientation. Durkheim classified societies into simple societies united by similarity of their members, (what he called mechanical solidarity) and complex societies based on specialisation and functional interdependence of members (what he called organic solidarity). This also suggests a directional evolutionary pattern.

It has been pointed out that it is sometimes difficult in evolutionary theory, to differentiate simple direction from progress. The common theme in much of the evolutionary literature is that societies progress over time, to a point where they industrialise and develop in the path and manner of western nations. Extreme expressions of this position are contained in the notion of perfectibility. Societies continue to move toward some ideal advanced state of industrialisation. However, Social Change the neo-evolutionary theories that have emerged in recent years, are more tentative than the evolutionary theories of the 19th century and early 20th century. These neoevolutionary theorists do not assert that change proceeds along the same path. They suggest that there is a general trend towards a more elaborate division of labour. They take on a relativistic view, in that they recognise that different cultures have different ideas of what constitutes progress. One of the greatest problems of older theories of evolution was that they too often contained untestable, sometimes

ethnocentric propositions.

Cyclical Theories

The basic premise of the cyclical theories is: cultures and civilisations pass through stages of change, starting and often ending with the same stage. This passing through stages is called a cycle. The cycle when completed, repeats itself over and over again. The ancient civilisations in Greece, China and India for instance, can be explained by the principle of cycles.

Some cyclical theorists are pessimistic in that they think that decay is inevitable. Oswald spengler (1945) believed that every society is born, matures, decays and eventually dies. The Roman Empire rose to power and then gradually collapsed. The British empire grew strong, and then deteriorated. Spengler believed that social change may take the form of progress or of decay, but that no society lives for ever.

Structural Functionalist Perspective

Structural functionalists believe that society, like the human body, is a balanced system. Each institution serves a function in maintaining society. When events outside or inside the society, disrupt the social order, social institutions make adjustments to restore stability.

They also argue that change generally occurs in a gradual, adjustive fashion and not

in a sudden violent, radical fashion. Even changes which appear to be drastic, have not been able to make a great or lasting impact on the core elements, of the social and cultural systems. Change according to them comes from basically three sources:

i) Adjustment of the system to exogenous change (e.g. war, conquests),

ii) Growth through structural and functional differentiation (e.g. changes in the size of population through births and deaths),

iii) Innovations by members of groups within society (e.g. inventions and discovery in a society).

The most important and basic factor making for social integration and stability, according to this school of thought, is value consensus.

The term ‘cultural lag’ is often used to describe the state of disequilibrium between material and non-material aspects of a culture. Ogburn (1886-1959) who coined this word, explained that ‘cultural lag’ occurs when parts of a culture that were once in adjustment with each other change at different rates, and become incompatible with each other. Ogburn (1922) pointed out how the non-material culture (values, beliefs, norms, family, religion) often lags behind material culture (technology, means of production output of the economic system). For example, family planning technologies (i.e. material culture) have advanced, but people take their time to accept them. Some sections of the population may reject the very idea of ‘family planning’ and believe in having a large family. Again, when an event such as increase

in population or a depletion in natural resources cause a strain in society, it takes some time for the society to understand and absorb the strain and alter its values and institutions to adapt to the change. But in order to function smoothly, societies adjust to maintain and restore themselves.

Critics have pointed out that the amount and kind of changes that can be explained, with the help of the structural functionalist perspective is limited. This view neglects revolutionary changes which are profound and sudden. It also overlooks the possibility of a society going through long periods of malintegration, as during times of economic recession (Eshleman and Cashion: 1983 : 533)

Conflict Perspective

The conflict theory takes the principle of dialectic (opposites) as central to social life. Conflict theory also has its origins in early sociology, especially in the works of Marx. Conflict theorists do not assume that societies smoothly evolve to higher or complex levels. According to this school every pattern of action, belief and interaction tends to generate an opposing reaction. Modern life is full of examples. The legalisation of abortion has provoked the anti-abortion movement. The feminist movement has stimulated a reaction from men and women. The liberalisation of sexual mores has led to open denunciation. The basic premise is that one of the outcomes of conflict among groups is social change. The greatest limitation of this approach is that it lays too much emphasis on conflict, as the most important factor of change.

The development perspective grew from three main sources:

i) From the study of economic growth. Economists and to a great extent other social scientists, view quantitative growth in the economic sphere of life, as an important indicator of a country’s progress. For example, they point out that a country’s prosperity can be measured in terms of GNP (Gross National Product) or per capita income.

ii) From the categorisation of all societies into technologically advanced, and less technologically advanced. Sometimes, the emphasis is on industrialisation and consequently societies that are highly industrialised, are seen to be more developed than societies which are basically agricultural.

iii) From the comparison of the capitalist countries with the socialist or communist countries.

Many social scientists have compared the socialist economy and social organisation with Western capitalist economy and organisation. At this juncture we will not elaborate on this perspective, as you are going to look at it in the next unit. The development approach to social change, brought into sharp focus, the need for formulating a broad comparative perspective, which would take into account the complex and diverse relationships between developing countries, between technologically advanced countries, and between technologically advanced countries and developing nations. It can be said from the above discussion of the various perspective, that no single theory can account for the complexity of social change.

Factors of social change.

i) Discovery

A shared human perception of an aspect of reality which already exists e.g. discovery of blood circulation in biology. It is an addition to the world’s store of verified knowledge. However, it becomes a factor in social change only when it is put to use, not when it is merely known.

ii) Inventions

A new combination or a new use of existing knowledge e.g. the assembling of the automobile from an already existing idea. The idea of combining them was new. Inventions can be material (technology) and social (alphabet, trade union). Each invention may be new in form (i.e. in shape or action) in function (what it does) or in meaning (its long range consequences) or in principle (the theory or law on which it is based).

iii) Diffusion

Diffusion refers to the spread of cultural traits from one group to another. It operates both within and between societies. It takes place whenever societies come into contact with each other. Diffusion is a two way process. The British gave us their language and made tea an important ritual for us Indians; but they adopted several terms in English from us, for example, Pacca Sahib, Chchota haziri, Jaggernaut, etc. Diffusion is also a selective process. Majority of the Indians may adopt the English language, but not their beef-eating habits. Diffusion generally involves some modification of the borrowed elements of culture either in form, function or meaning

Science, technology and social change.

The modern factory, means of transportation, medicine, surgery, mass media of communications, space and computers technology etc. have affected the attitudes, values and behaviour of people across societies. To take a simple example, automobiles and other means of modern transportation have spread culture, by increasing interaction among people who live far away from each other. The technological feats in the area of transport and communication have altered leisure activities, helped in maintaining social networks,

and stimulated the formation of new social relationships.


  1. Very simple and precise explanation.
    Examples are awesome.

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