Social change is defined by sociologists as alterations in the basic structures of society or a social group.
Social changes can occur through hard work of activists or simple generational change. Examples of important social changes include the fight for gender equality, religion, free expression, or demographic and cultural changes.
Social Change Definition
Sociologists define social change as modifications of a society’s culture, institutions, and values.
There are two main theories about social change: structural functionalism and conflict theory.
1. Structural functionalism
From a structural-functionalist perspective, social change tends to occur slowly, if at all. Change occurs when it serves the best interests of society, with the goal of maintaining equilibrium and balance within the social system.
Functionalism in sociology believes that the institutions, rules, and values of a society serve a purpose and are crucial to maintaining social order.
From this perspective, social change occurs when society needs to maintain stability and continue to function efficiently.
It resists the idea that conflict or revolution should be used to bring about change. Fundamentally, changes in social institutions will only occur in order to ensure those institutions continue to fulfill their purposes.
2. Conflict Theory
Conflict theory considers social problems within a society to be a conflict between groups – the haves and have-nots.
Hence, sudden change is considered positive as it challenges inequalities that are entrenched by institutions designed to keep the oppressed from taking over.
The concepts within conflict theory are based upon the ideas of Karl Marx, who argues that there will be a revolution against capitalism. To Marx, this revolution is inevitable due to injustices in the class system, where “a successful class conflict results in a radically different social structure: (Savur, 1975).
Social Change Examples
- The Reformation – The Reformation was a religious revolution that occurred in the Western church during the 16th century. It is also called the Protestant Reformation and led to a decline in the power of a centralized church authority. It had far-reaching political, economic, and social effects on society.
- The Industrial Revolution – The Industrial Revolution was a period of significant social and economic change marked by the widespread development of new technologies, transportation and communication systems, and the growth of factories and mass production, which led to a shift from an agrarian-based economy to an industrialized one. Urbanization, labor rights, and women’s rights were some of the issues that society had to tackle during this period in history.
- The abolition of the transatlantic slave trade – Slavery ended in 1865 when the 13th Amendment was adopted as part of the United States Constitution. This change in history led to a world transformed for African Americans, granting rights that previously did not exist.
- The Civil Rights movement – This movement (1954–68) originated in the American South and used nonviolent direct action to confront Jim Crow laws and to force the federal government to demolish the system of racial segregation and inequality. (Vardaman & James, 2015)
- The feminist movement – Feminism promotes the idea that women, men, boys, and girls are equal regarding culture, politics, and economics. This movement has achieved improvements in women’s rights over the past 60 years.
- The LGBTQ+ rights movement – The movement for equal rights for all human beings despite sexual orientation and gender identity achieved massive change in social perceptions in the 2000s.
- The green movement – The contemporary green movement focuses on environmental remediation and protection, with concerns about pollution, global warming, renewable energy, recycling and more. It has acheived great changes in social attitudes toward littering, effects of consumption, and even economic policy.
- The Universal Declaration of Human Rights – The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is a milestone document for protecting human rights. The UDHR paved the way for the adoption of over seventy human rights treaties, applied today at global, national, and regional levels. One example is the declaration that people have the right to apply for refugee status and children shall not work.
- The prohibition of physical punishment of children – In 1979, Sweden became the first country in the world to prohibit all physical punishment of children. Today, many countries such as the UK have banned smacking and most nations increasingly see physical punishment of children as wrong.
- The Bologna process in Europe – The Bologna Process achieved change in higher education systems across Europe. It enables student and staff mobility across Europe, and it has made higher education more inclusive, accessible, and competitive (European Commission, 2018). This has helped underpin faster globalization, knowledge sharing, deplomacy, and intellectual development.
- The increasing acceptance of body positivity and diverse body types
- The growth of the sharing economy
- The shift to online education
- The increase of women’s representation in leadership roles
- The increasing use of virtual reality technology in various fields
- The rise of Artificial intelligence in marketing
- The Me Too movement
- The rise of the internet and technology
- The fall of communism in Eastern Europe
- The end of apartheid in South Africa
- The decline of traditional gender roles
- The legalization of same-sex marriage
- The increasing acceptance of interracial relationships
- The increasing acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community
- The spread of multiculturalism
- The growth of the internet and social media
- The increasing acceptance of mental health as a valid concern
- The rise of the #blacklivesmatter movement
- The increased acceptance of veganism and plant-based diet
- The increasing use of electric vehicles
- The rise of remote work
1. The Reformation
The Reformation took place in the 16th century. It involved changes in religious practices that had far-reaching political, economic, and social effects on society.
The Reformation meant various social changes that shifted basic structures and cultural values.
Its key feature was the decline of the secular power of the Catholic Church in Europe. However, it many other social changes took place due to the Reformation. One of these was the increased emphasis on literacy. The protestants wanted people to be able to read the Bible for themselves rather than have a priest teach its content.
As a result, education – from childhood literacy through to liberalized higher education practices – came about due to the Reformation. Educating both boys and girls in the doctrines of their faith and encouraging them to read the religious documents directly was one of the main tenants of Protestant education.
Moreover, the Catholic Church no longer exerted nearly as strong control over the universities, which led to new forms of intellectual freedom.
2. The Industrial Revolution
The Industrial Revolution changed people’s living and working conditions worldwide. It meant various social changes regarding women’s and workers’ rights.
The Industrial Revolution took place around 1760 to 1840 when technological advancements led to the growth of factories and an economic boom.
Urban living became the new normal and implied poor housing conditions and poor working conditions.
While wealthy industrialists and the emerging middle class often lived in nice houses and could afford new factory products, most of the workers who made the products struggled to make ends meet.
They lived in crowded houses, apartment buildings with tiny rooms, with no ventilation and poor sanitation (Hill, 2014).
In response to this, labor movements grew and organized alliances, also known as unions, that pushed for reforms.
The reforms focused-in on labor rights, social welfare, health conditions, women’s rights, and working to end slavery and child labor (Hill, 2014).
3. The abolition of the transatlantic slave trade
The abolition of the transatlantic slave trade marks a social change in history for black people. New rights were granted and access to society’s institutions and healthcare systems.
On the 1st of January 1808, a new Federal law in the United States made it illegal to import captive people from Africa into the United States. This date marks the end of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
However, this new law only prohibited new slaves from entering the country. Enslaved people already in the USA continued to be bought and sold for many more decades (Charlestown County Public Library, 2018).
It wasn’t until 1865 when the 13th Amendment was adopted as part of the United States Constitution that slavery was completely abolished.
This change in history led to a world transformed for African Americans, granting rights that previously did not exist.
Although slavery was over, the brutalities of white race prejudice persisted, leading to the oppressive Jim Crow era.
4. The Civil Rights Movement
The Civil Rights Movement took place between 1954 and 1968, starting in the American South. The movement used nonviolent methods to force the federal government to demolish the system of racial segregation and inequality (Vardaman, 2015).
The Civil Rights Movement has affected US politics and cultural values in fundamental ways.
The oppressed black community demonstrated the effectiveness of collaborative efforts and made social protest respectable. This led to a boom in protests that forced political change and a change in people’s perceptions of race relations.
Prior to the movement, many social groups – including women, Hispanics, Native Americans, and the LGBTQ+ community – were oppressed but unaware of how to resist and mobilize. The Civil Rights Movement provided successful social protest model that has been re-used by other movements very successfully (Vardaman, 2015).
5. The feminist movement
Feminism is based on the idea that women and men, boys and girls are equal regarding culture, politics, and economics. Feminism traces its roots all the way back to ancient Greece.
There have so far been four waves of feminism:
- First-wave feminism took place 19th and early 20th centuries. This wave of feminism focused on women’s legal rights, such as the right to vote.
- Second-wave feminism took place in the 1960’s and 70’s and focused on equal rights between women and men and greater personal freedoms for women. This movement touched on every area of women’s daily life—including politics, economics, work, family, and sexuality (Burkett, 2022).
- Third-wave feminism took place between the mid-1990s to around 2010. Unlike the first two waves that saw sexualization of women as a sign of oppression, third wave feminists embraced feminine sexual symbols (Rampton, 2015).
- Fourth-wave feminists are influenced by intersectionality, which draws attention to the intersections of race, sexual orientation, class and other identities with gender (Rampton, 2015).
The feminist movement has made a shift in the culture, institutions, and values of society. Social change that has led to a societal evolution regarding women’s right to participate in all institutions of society.
Related Terms in Sociology
Social movement – A loosely organized group campaigning or supporting a social goal, typically for the implementation or the prevention of a change in society’s structure or values.
Social reform – Social reform describes movements organized by members of a society who aim to create social change.
Societal evolution – The change of cultures and societies over time, explained by evolutionary theories.
Cultural change – Cultural change as a term is used by sociologists to describe the way society changes. Society takes on new cultural traits, behavior patterns, customs, and social norms, and develops new social structures as a result of changing cultural norms.
Social progress – A society’s capacity to meet the basic needs of its citizens. Social progress is the foundation of a society that allows its citizens to enhance and sustain a decent quality of life and reach their full potential.
Social change is when a society’s culture, institutions, rules, and values shift. This may happen gradually or more rapid due to protest, manifestations and grievances.
Theories about how social change occurs depend on which theoretical approach makes more sense to you. A functionalist may find the slow, gradual social process to be more aligned with their understanding of social forces. Conflict theorists, on the other hand, tend to believe sudden change will occur at moments of peak conflict.
Examples of social change include civil rights movements, urbanization, religious shifts, LGBTQ+ rights, feminism, and environmentalism.
Harper, D. (2011) Structural functionalism. University of Leicester: School of Management. Management Journal, 25(6), 101-115.
Savur, M. (1975) Sociology of conflict theory. Social scientist, p. 29-42.
Encyclopaedia Britannica, (2022) Reformation – Christianity, retrieved from: https://www.britannica.com/event/Reformation
Vardaman, James M. (2015) Civil Rights Movements. International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences (Second Edition), Elsevier, 2015, p. 691-694.
European Commission, (2018) The Bologna Process and the European Higher Education Area, retrieved from: https://education.ec.europa.eu/education-levels/higher-education/inclusive-and-connected-higher-education/bologna-process
Hill, R. (2014) Responses to Industrialization, Khan Academy, Retrieved from: https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/whp-origins/era-6-the-long-nineteenth-century-1750-ce-to-1914-ce/64-transformation-of-labor-betaa/a/read-responses-to-industrialization-beta
Charlestown County Public Library, (2018) The End of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, Retrieved from: https://www.ccpl.org/charleston-time-machine/end-trans-atlantic-slave-trade
Burkett, E., (2022) Women’s rights movement – political and social movement, Encyclopaedia Britannica.