Collective behavior and social movements are just two of the forces driving social change, which is the change in society created through social movements as well as external factors like environmental shifts or technological innovations. Essentially, any disruptive shift in the status quo, be it intentional or random, human-caused or natural, can lead to social change. Below are some of the likely causes.
Causes of Social Change
Changes to technology, social institutions, population, and the environment, alone or in some combination, create change. Below, we will discuss how these act as agents of social change, and we’ll examine real-world examples. We will focus on four agents of change that social scientists recognize: technology, social institutions, population, and the environment.
Some would say that improving technology has made our lives easier. Imagine what your day would be like without the Internet, the automobile, or electricity. In The World Is Flat, Thomas Friedman (2005) argues that technology is a driving force behind globalization, while the other forces of social change (social institutions, population, environment) play comparatively minor roles. He suggests that we can view globalization as occurring in three distinct periods. First, globalization was driven by military expansion, powered by horsepower and wind power. The countries best able to take advantage of these power sources expanded the most, and exert control over the politics of the globe from the late fifteenth century to around the year 1800. The second shorter period from approximately 1800 C.E. to 2000 C.E. consisted of a globalizing economy. Steam and rail power were the guiding forces of social change and globalization in this period. Finally, Friedman brings us to the post-millennial era. In this period of globalization, change is driven by technology, particularly the Internet (Friedman 2005).
But also consider that technology can create change in the other three forces social scientists link to social change. Advances in medical technology allow otherwise infertile women to bear children, which indirectly leads to an increase in population. Advances in agricultural technology have allowed us to genetically alter and patent food products, which changes our environment in innumerable ways. From the way we educate children in the classroom to the way we grow the food we eat, technology has impacted all aspects of modern life.
Of course there are drawbacks. The increasing gap between the technological haves and have-nots––sometimes called the digital divide––occurs both locally and globally. Further, there are added security risks: the loss of privacy, the risk of total system failure (like the Y2K panic at the turn of the millennium), and the added vulnerability created by technological dependence. Think about the technology that goes into keeping nuclear power plants running safely and securely. What happens if an earthquake or other disaster, like in the case of Japan’s Fukushima plant, causes the technology to malfunction, not to mention the possibility of a systematic attack to our nation’s relatively vulnerable technological infrastructure?
The Darker Side of Technology: Electronic Aggression in the Information Age
The U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) uses the term "electronic aggression" to describe "any type of harassment or bullying that occurs through e-mail, a chat room, instant messaging, a website (including blogs), or text messaging" (CDC, n.d.) We generally think of this as cyberbullying. A 2011 study by the U.S. Department of Education found that 27.8 percent of students aged twelve through eighteen reported experiencing bullying. From the same sample 9 percent specifically reported having been a victim of cyberbullying (Robers et al. 2013).
Cyberbullying represents a powerful change in modern society. William F. Ogburn (1922) might have been describing it nearly a century ago when he defined "cultural lag," which occurs when material culture precedes nonmaterial culture. That is, society may not fully comprehend all the consequences of a new technology and so may initially reject it (such as stem cell research) or embrace it, sometimes with unintended negative consequences (such as pollution).
Cyberbullying is a special feature of the Internet. Unique to electronic aggression is that it can happen twenty-four hours a day, every day; it can reach a child (or an adult) even though she or he might otherwise feel safe in a locked house. The messages and images may be posted anonymously and to a very wide audience, and they might even be impossible to trace. Finally, once posted, the texts and images are very hard to delete. Its effects range from the use of alcohol and drugs to lower self-esteem, health problems, and even suicide (CDC, n.d.).
Each change in a single social institution leads to changes in all social institutions. For example, the industrialization of society meant that there was no longer a need for large families to produce enough manual labor to run a farm. Further, new job opportunities were in close proximity to urban centers where living space was at a premium. The result is that the average family size shrunk significantly.
This same shift toward industrial corporate entities also changed the way we view government involvement in the private sector, created the global economy, provided new political platforms, and even spurred new religions and new forms of religious worship like Scientology. It has also informed the way we educate our children: originally schools were set up to accommodate an agricultural calendar so children could be home to work the fields in the summer, and even today, teaching models are largely based on preparing students for industrial jobs, despite that being an outdated need. A shift in one area, such as industrialization, means an interconnected impact across social institutions.
Population composition is changing at every level of society. Births increase in one nation and decrease in another. Some families delay childbirth while others start bringing children into their folds early. Population changes can be due to random external forces, like an epidemic, or shifts in other social institutions, as described above. But regardless of why and how it happens, population trends have a tremendous interrelated impact on all other aspects of society.
In the United States, we are experiencing an increase in our senior population as baby boomers begin to retire, which will in turn change the way many of our social institutions are organized. For example, there is an increased demand for housing in warmer climates, a massive shift in the need for elder care and assisted living facilities, and growing awareness of elder abuse. There is concern about labor shortages as boomers retire, not to mention the knowledge gap as the most senior and accomplished leaders in different sectors start to leave. Further, as this large generation leaves the workforce, the loss of tax income and pressure on pension and retirement plans means that the financial stability of the country is threatened.
Globally, often the countries with the highest fertility rates are least able to absorb and attend to the needs of a growing population. Family planning is a large step in ensuring that families are not burdened with more children than they can care for. On a macro level, the increased population, particularly in the poorest parts of the globe, also leads to increased stress on the planet’s resources.
Turning to human ecology, we know that individuals and the environment affect each other. As human populations move into more vulnerable areas, we see an increase in the number of people affected by natural disasters, and we see that human interaction with the environment increases the impact of those disasters. Part of this is simply the numbers: the more people there are on the planet, the more likely it is that some will be affected by a natural disaster.
But it goes beyond that. Movements like 350.org describe how we have already seen five extinctions of massive amounts of life on the planet, and the crisis of global change has put us on the verge of yet another. According to their website, "The number 350 means climate safety: to preserve a livable planet, scientists tell us we must reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere from its current level of 400 parts per million to below 350 ppm" (350.org).
The environment is best described as an ecosystem, one that exists as the interplay of multiple parts including 8.7 million species of life. However dozens of species are going extinct every day, a number 1,000 times to 10,000 times the normal "background rate" and the highest rate since the dinosaurs disappeared 65 million years ago. The Center for Biological Diversity states that this extinction crisis, unlike previous ones caused by natural disasters, is "caused almost entirely by us” (Center for Biological Diversity, n.d.). The growth of the human population, currently over seven billion and expected to rise to nine or ten billion by 2050, perfectly correlates with the rising extinction rate of life on earth.
Modernization describes the processes that increase the amount of specialization and differentiation of structure in societies resulting in the move from an undeveloped society to developed, technologically driven society (Irwin 1975). By this definition, the level of modernity within a society is judged by the sophistication of its technology, particularly as it relates to infrastructure, industry, and the like. However, it is important to note the inherent ethnocentric bias of such assessment. Why do we assume that those living in semi-peripheral and peripheral nations would find it so wonderful to become more like the core nations? Is modernization always positive?
One contradiction of all kinds of technology is that they often promise time-saving benefits, but somehow fail to deliver. How many times have you ground your teeth in frustration at an Internet site that refused to load or at a dropped call on your cell phone? Despite time-saving devices such as dishwashers, washing machines, and, now, remote control vacuum cleaners, the average amount of time spent on housework is the same today as it was fifty years ago. And the dubious benefits of 24/7 e-mail and immediate information have simply increased the amount of time employees are expected to be responsive and available. While once businesses had to travel at the speed of the U.S. postal system, sending something off and waiting until it was received before the next stage, today the immediacy of information transfer means there are no such breaks.
Further, the Internet bought us information, but at a cost. The morass of information means that there is as much poor information available as trustworthy sources. There is a delicate line to walk when core nations seek to bring the assumed benefits of modernization to more traditional cultures. For one, there are obvious procapitalist biases that go into such attempts, and it is short-sighted for western governments and social scientists to assume all other countries aspire to follow in their footsteps. Additionally, there can be a kind of neo-liberal defense of rural cultures, ignoring the often crushing poverty and diseases that exist in peripheral nations and focusing only on a nostalgic mythology of the happy peasant. It takes a very careful hand to understand both the need for cultural identity and preservation as well as the hopes for future growth.
There are numerous and varied causes of social change. Four common causes, as recognized by social scientists, are technology, social institutions, population, and the environment. All four of these areas can impact when and how society changes. And they are all interrelated: a change in one area can lead to changes throughout. Modernization is a typical result of social change. Modernization refers to the process of increased differentiation and specialization within a society, particularly around its industry and infrastructure. While this assumes that more modern societies are better, there has been significant pushback on this western-centric view that all peripheral and semi-peripheral countries should aspire to be like North America and Western Europe.
Children in peripheral nations have little to no daily access to computers and the Internet, while children in core nations are constantly exposed to this technology. This is an example of:
- the digital divide
- human ecology
- modernization theory
- dependency theory
When sociologists think about technology as an agent of social change, which of the following is not an example?
- Population growth
- Medical advances
- The Internet
- Genetically engineered food
China is undergoing a shift in industry, increasing labor specialization and the amount of differentiation present in the social structure. This exemplifies:
- human ecology
- dependency theory
- conflict perspective
Core nations that work to propel peripheral nations toward modernization need to be aware of:
- preserving peripheral nation cultural identity
- preparing for pitfalls that come with modernization
- avoiding hegemonistic assumptions about modernization
- all of the above
In addition to social movements, social change is also caused by technology, social institutions, population and ______.
- the environment
- social structure
- new social movements
Consider one of the major social movements of the twentieth century, from civil rights in the United States to Gandhi’s nonviolent protests in India. How would technology have changed it? Would change have come more quickly or more slowly? Defend your opinion.
Discuss the digital divide in the context of modernization. Is there a real concern that poorer communities are lacking in technology? Why, or why not?
Which theory do you think better explains the global economy: dependency theory (global inequity is due to the exploitation of peripheral and semi-peripheral nations by core nations) or modernization theory? Remember to justify your answer and provide specific examples.
Do you think that modernization is good or bad? Explain, using examples.
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ABC News. 2007. "Parents: Cyber Bullying Led to Teen's Suicide." Retrieved December 18, 2014 (http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/story?id=3882520).
CBS News. 2011. “Record Year for Billion Dollar Disasters.” CBS News, Dec 11. Retrieved December 26, 2011 (http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-201_162-57339130/record-year-for-billion-dollar-disasters).
Center for Biological Diversity. 2014. "The Extinction Crisis. Retrieved December 18, 2014 (http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/programs/biodiversity/elements_of_biodiversity/extinction_crisis/).
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Irwin, Patrick. 1975. “An Operational Definition of Societal Modernization.” Economic Development and Cultural Change 23:595–613.
Klein, Naomi. 2008. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York: Picador.
Kolbert, Elizabeth. 2014. The Sixth Extinction. New York: Henry Holt and Co.
Megan Meier Foundation. 2014a. "Megan Meier Foundation." Retrieved December 18, 2014 (http://www.meganmeierfoundation.org/).
Megan Meier Foundation. 2014b. "Megan's Story." Retrieved December 18, 2014 (http://www.meganmeierfoundation.org/megans-story.html).
Miller, Laura. 2010. “Fresh Hell: What’s Behind the Boom in Dystopian Fiction for Young Readers?” The New Yorker, June 14. Retrieved December 26, 2011 (http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2010/06/14/100614crat_atlarge_miller).
Mullins, Dexter. 2014. "New Orleans to Be Home to Nation's First All-Charter School District." Al Jazeera America. Retrieved December 18, 2014 (http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/4/4/new-orleans-charterschoolseducationreformracesegregation.html).
Robers, Simone, Jana Kemp, Jennifer, Truman, and Thomas D. Snyder. 2013. Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2012. National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, and Bureau of Justice Statistics, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice: Washington, DC. Retrieved December 17, 2014 (http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2013/2013036.pdf).
Sullivan, Melissa. 2005. "How New Orleans' Evacuation Plan Fell Apart." NPR. Retrieved December 18, 2014 (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4860776).
Wikia. 2014. "List of Environmental Organizations." Retrieved December 18, 2014 (http://green.wikia.com/wiki/List_of_Environmental_organizations).
- the process of obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people
- the process that increases the amount of specialization and differentiation of structure in societies
- social change
- the change in a society created through social movements as well as through external factors like environmental shifts or technological innovations