Social Change Research Paper Example

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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 (Emile 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 term—the 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. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, for example, is non-teleological. Biological “adaptations” do not emerge because they fit with the environment, in Darwin’s view. Their emergence is purely contingent—though 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 “histori-cism.” Popper’s 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.


  1. Boudon, Raymond. 1986. Theories of Social Change: A Critical Appraisal. Trans. J. C. Whitehouse. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity.
  2. 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.
  3. Harvey, David. 1989. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Oxford: Blackwell.
  4. Lyotard, Jean-François. [1979] 1984. The Postmodern Condition. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press.
  5. Popper, Karl. 1969. The Poverty of Historicism. 2nd ed. London: Routledge.

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