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Social development redirects here. For the aspect of human development, see psychosocial development

Social change is a general term which refers to:

  • change in social structure: the nature, the social institutions, the social behaviour or the social relations of a society, community of people, and so on.
  • When behaviour pattern changes in large numbers, and is visible and sustained, it results in a social change. Once there is a deviance from culturally-inherited values, rebellion against the established system may result, causing a change in the social order.
  • any event or action that affects a group of individuals who have shared values or characteristics.
  • acts of advocacy for the cause of changing society in a way subjectively perceived as normatively desirable.

The term is used in the study of history, sociology, economics 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 cause within small-town government. The concept of social change implies measurement of some characteristics of a group of individuals. While the term is usually applied to changes that are beneficial to society, it may also result in negative side-effects and consequences that undermine or eliminate existing ways of life that are considered positive.

Among the many forms of creating social change are the direct action, protesting, advocacy, community organizing, community practice, revolution, and political activism.

Models of Change

Generally there are two sources or dimensions of change (Shackman, Liu, Wang, 2002). One source is non-systematic change, such as climate change, some kind of technological innovation from the outside, or changes forced by foreign countries.

The other source is a systems change: Eisenstadt (1973) argued that modernisation required a basic level of free resources and the development of standardised and predictable institutions, such as a stable but flexible market system and political process. An additional requirement was that governing institutions be flexible enough to adapt to the changes that come up. Most of the time, changes to society come about through some combination of both systematic and non-systematic processes (Shackman, Liu and Wang, 2002, op cit).

  • Hegelian: The classic Hegelian dialectic model of change is based on the interaction of opposing forces. Starting from a point of momentary stasis, Thesis countered by Antithesis first yields conflict but subsequently results in a new Synthesis.
  • Kuhnian: Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions argued with respect to the Copernican Revolution that people are unlikey to jettison an unworkable paradigm, despite many indications that the paradigm is not functioning properly, until a better paradigm can be presented.
  • Heraclitan: The Greek philosopher Heraclitus used the metaphor of a river to speak of change thus, "On those stepping into rivers staying the same other and other waters flow" (DK22B12). What Heraclitus seems to be suggesting here, later interpretations notwithstanding, is that, in order for the river to remain the river, change must constantly be taking place. Thus one may think of the Heraclitan model as parallel to that of a living organism, which, in order to remain alive, must constantly be changing.
  • Daoist: The Chinese philosophical work Dao De Jing, I.8 and II.78 uses the metaphor of water as the ideal agent of change. Water, although soft and yielding, will eventually wear away stone. Change in this model is to be natural, harmonious and steady, albeit imperceptible.

See also


  • Eisenstadt, SN (1973) Tradition, Change, and Modernity. Krieger Publishing Company
  • Gene Shackman, Ya-Lin Liu and George (Xun) Wang. Why does a society develop the way it does? 2002. The Global Social Change Research Project. Available at
  • Gene Shackman, Ya-Lin Liu and Xun Wang. Measuring quality of life using free and public domain data. Social Research Update, Issue 47, Autumn, 2005. Available at

External links

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