Theories of Social Change: 5 Major Theories of Social Change (Explained)


Theories of Social Change: 5 Major Theories of Social Change (Explained)

A variety of reasons have been offered throughout history to explain why social change occurs. The problem of explaining social change was central to nineteenth century sociology.

Many theories of society that claimed to be scientific were in fact theories of change.

In this article, you will know 5 major theories of social change (explained) and criticism respectively. 

What is Social Change?

Sociologists define social change as a transformation of cultures, institutions, and functions. Most change isn’t instantaneous.

In society, change is often very slow. There are a variety of parts and forces at work, many of which resist disruptions of the status quo. All societies go through these types of changes at one point. You don’t need to be an avid student of history to know that.

Consider a modern society and reflect on what it looked like hundreds of years ago. Often, society is unrecognizable.

What are the theories on how social change functions?

What are the causes and effects?


5 Major Theories/Approaches of Social Change

There are many theories on social change developed by sociologists in order to explain the nature, direction, cause, and effects of social change.

These various theories are:

1.   Structural Functionalist approach/theory

2.   Conflict theory

3.   Cyclic theory

4.   Linear theory

5.   Modernization theory

Let us discuss about these social change theories

1. Structural-Functionalist Approach to Social Change

Functionalists emphasize what maintains society, not what changes it. The functionalist theory focuses on social order, consensus, and stability of the social system. They are of the opinion that change disrupts the orderly functioning of the system.

Later, the American sociologist Talottll Parsons (1966), presented an “equilibrium model of social change which stated that society is always in a natural state of equilibrium. Gradual change is both necessary and desirable and arises from population growth, industrialization, technological advances, and interaction with other societies that bring new ways of thinking and acting.

However, any sudden social change disrupts this equilibrium. To prevent this from happening, if one part of society sees too sudden a change, then other parts of society must make appropriate adjustments in order to bring the social system back to equilibrium and its smooth functioning.


Criticisms of functionalist theory to social change

The functionalist perspective to social change has been criticized on a few grounds as follows:

a) Critics argue to minimize the functionalists’ effects of change.

b) The functionalist theory also assumes that sudden social change is highly undesirable, when such change may in fact be needed to correct inequality and other deficiencies in the status quo.

c) Critics argue that functionalists ignore the use of force by society’s power to maintain an illusion of stability and integration.


2. Conflict Theory

The conflict theory is from one of the theories of social change, which has its root in the ‘dialectical materialism’ developed by Karl Marx, stands against structural functionalism. Conflict theory views social change as a normal and essential (beneficial) phenomenon.

The conflict theorists believed that it is the conflict between individuals, classes, groups, institutions, etc. that bring change in the society. They mention that every society has conflicting groups wherein there is an exploitation of one group by another.

For a time being, the exploited class does not realize being exploited but in course of time, they realize their position of being exploited and in turn, they unite through class consciousness and revolt against the exploiters (bourgeoisie, capitalist, owners of means of production).

Finally, a classless society is established.

Again, this new arrangement gives rise to conflicting groups/classes that again come into conflict, and this process is continuous.

Hence, conflict theorists consider class conflict as the prime mover (driver or vehicle) of social change.


Criticism of Conflict Approach to Social Change

The conflict theory to social change has been criticized on a few grounds as follows:

a) Critics of conflict theory say that it exaggerates the extent of social inequality and overemphasizes conflict rooted in economic inequality while neglecting conflict rooted in race, ethnicity, gender, religion, etc.

b) Nowhere in the world, is seen the capitalist societies turned into classless communist/ socialist societies as predicted by Marists (conflict theorists).

c) Critics blame that conflict theorists do not realize that social upheaval does not inevitably lead to positive or expected outcomes.


3. Cyclic Theory

This theory states that society undergoes a change in a circular manner. Social change takes a cyclic form, from worse to better, back again from better to worse. 

Social change is not always for the better. Societies may grow, advance, and reach the peak stage of development, and then they may stagnate and finally collapse, with the potential for rising again.


Criticism of Cyclic Approach to Social Change

Following are the main points of the criticism on cyclic theory of social change.

a) Historical facts do not very frequently support the validity of this theory.

b) It is not necessary that every society must face all the three stages with regular time interval.

c) It is an oversimplification because human society is not so simple, clear and sure that it should wait for the cyclic change.


4. Linear Theory or Evolutionary

This theory states that change takes place in a linear manner. The direction of social change is from worse to better, simple to complex, and backward to modern. 

In other words, according to linear theory, social change is evolutionary which means that it is always moving towards better results until perfection is achieved.  


Criticism of Linear Theory or Evolutionary to Social Change

Linear theories are criticized for their value bias and hence lacked objectivity, a precondition for scientific study. Their nomenclature (‘savage’, ‘primitive’ etc referring older societies) reflects their bias.

Further, the various theorists also don’t agree upon the various stages as well.


5. Modernization Theory

This theory of social change can be understood as an extension of linear, evolutionary theory. It states that the change that is being experienced by most Third World societies is by imitating or copying the values, experiences, and models already used by advanced, industrialized societies i.e. Western societies.

Social change is by adopting, assimilating, and internalizing those aspects of the industrialized societies which copied would bring about an improved social, economic, and political development to the third world society.


Criticism of Modernization Approach to Social Change

The theory has also been criticized empirically, as modernization theorists ignore external sources of change in societies. The binary between traditional and modern is unhelpful, as the two are linked and often interdependent, and "modernization" does not come as a whole.


Difference between the Functionalist and Conflict Theories of Social Change

Some of the major differences between these two theories regarding views on social change are:

a) The functional theory assumes the status quo is generally good and sudden social change is undesirable. Whereas, Conflict theory assumes the status quo is generally bad and sudden social change in the form of protest or revolution as both desirable and necessary to reduce or eliminate social inequality and other social ills.

b) The functional theory views industrialization as a positive development that helped make modern society possible. Whereas, Conflict theory views industrialization as negative development that exploited workers and thus increased social inequality. Functionalists recognize that social change is unplanned. Whereas, Conflict theorists recognize that social change is planned (intended) and often arises from efforts by social movements aimed at bringing about fundamental changes in the social, economic, and political systems.


What triggers Social Change?

No society stays the same forever, but what specific causes drive it? Social change has three main triggers:

1. Conflict

It is clear from a glance at our global history that conflict provokes social change. Inequalities based on class, race, gender, religion, and more foster dissatisfaction and anger. To address their situation, groups come together to fight for change. Governments can be overthrown or restructured. Sometimes change happens quickly, but oftentimes it develops over time in stages.

2. Demographic change

When the demographic makeup of a society changes, social change is inevitable. Society’s demographics often change when births increase and/or people start living longer. A bigger population affects the dispersal and availability of resources. An increase in immigration or emigration also affects society.

3. Cultural change

New inventions, discoveries, and the spread of ideas contribute to cultural changes. Consider the effect of the internet. It’s not only changed the culture of individual countries but the entire world. It’s transformed how we communicate, as well as the structure of countless industries. Discoveries also impact a society’s culture. Consider how much changed when the Europeans “discovered” America. This example shows how social change is not always beneficial to everyone. New ideas about gender, race, religion, work, education, and so on also change a culture.


Examples of Social Change

Social change often occurs as a result of social movements.

There are countless examples throughout history in every country on earth.

Some of the most famous (many of which are ongoing and/or evolving) include:

1.  The abolition of the transatlantic slave trade

2.  The Civil Rights movement

3.  The feminist movement

4.  The green movement

5.  The LGBTQ+ rights movement

6.  The Reformation

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