what is social change

What is social change

The theory of change is a specific methodology applied in the social field to plan and evaluate projects that promote social growth through participation and involvement. Therefore, long-term objectives are defined and backward. The causal links are logically reconstructed to reach those objectives. It is possible to establish goals and intermediate phases that can and must always be verifiable.

Therefore, we have developed a working approach inspired by the Theory of Change’s methodological process that allows us to achieve the maximum impact and sustainability of childhood projects.

Working in partnership is at the heart of Save the Children’s Theory of Change. We know we have very ambitious goals for the children of the world, and we are aware that they can only be achieved through a joint effort. The involvement of “organized” civil society improves our work’s quality, relevance, and effectiveness. To provide adequate responses to the needs of children and their communities, amplify results and promote structural and lasting changes, everyone needs to contribute: other organizations, institutions (local, national, and international), supporters (private donors, companies, foundations), media (TV, radio, print media, agencies, web, and social media), employees, volunteers, consultants, and suppliers.

The classical approach to social change

Sociology was born as a study of social and cultural change. The founders of sociology –Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, Karl Marx, Max Weber, Émile Durkheim- sought to understand modernity’s rise and triumph. European society and culture’s epochal transformation occurred with the transition from traditional rural type to an urban and industrial capitalist order. To this end, these authors had developed two powerful images: the idea of ​​societies as systems similar to organisms. The idea of ​​a continuous evolution of such systems, modeled on the process of organic growth (see Nisbet, 1969). Both images were closely related to the axiological assumption that change leads to improvement. Faith in human society’s progress constituted the third pillar of what would become the dominant paradigm in studying social dynamics.

The twentieth century witnessed a series of changes in the socio-cultural sphere unprecedented in scope and speed. These changes rarely followed the pattern predicted by the dominant theories. The idea of ​​evolution was contradicted by the experience of sudden trend reversals, violent reactions, unexpected side effects, and predictable limits to growth. By phenomena of disintegration and disintegration, which often created deep rifts in society. The three pillars of the paradigm based on system notions,

The concept of social change: analytical starting point

The concepts used in the study of social change are derived from both paradigms described. Most of them have their roots in the traditional evolutionary paradigm; some acquire a different meaning in the new paradigm. Taken together, they provide us with the conceptual apparatus—the language in which to formulate a sociological reflection on social change.

Social change in the systemic model

The basic concept is obviously that of social change, developed in classical authors’ systemic-organic analogy characteristics. An organic system denotes a complex totality, which comprises a multiplicity of elements united by various interrelationships and separated from the external environment by a boundary. Organisms are obvious examples of systems, but such are also molecules, planets, galaxies.

Even qualitatively distinct society segments, such as economics, politics, and culture, can be described in systemic terms. The very idea of ​​change implies temporality, duration in time.

Social change in the field model

In an alternative model to the systemic one, society (the group, the organization, etc.) is no longer seen as a rigid system but rather as a ‘fluid’ field of relations. Social reality is an inter-individual (interpersonal) reality. That is what exists between individuals: a network of bonds, ties, exchanges, relationships of dependence, and fidelity. In other words, it is a specific social fabric or structure that unites individuals. This inter-individual field is constantly in motion: it expands and contracts (for example, when individuals unite or separate). It strengthens and weakens (when the quality of relationships changes and one passes, for example, from simple knowledge to friendship, from love to hate), amalgamates and disintegrates (for example, appearance or dissolution of a leadership), mixes or separates from other segments of the field (for example when coalitions or federations appear, or secessions occur).

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There are particular bundles or nodes of social relations that we have learned to distinguish as crucial importance for our lives. We consequently tend to reify, speaking of groups, communities, organizations, institutions, nation-states as if it were a matter of objective entities. However, this is an illusion: what really exists – in the strong ontological sense – are constant processes of grouping and re-grouping, rather than stable structures called groups; processes of organization and reorganization rather than stable organizations; processes of ‘structuring’ (see Giddens, 1984) rather than structures; formation processes rather than forms; fluctuating ‘figurations’ (see Elias, 1939) rather than rigid schemes. In other words, social change is the difference between temporally distinct events occurring within the same socio-cultural field.

The four dimensions of the sociocultural field

The notion of the socio-cultural field can be further specified. We will propose here the following quadripartite typology (also known with the acrostic’ INIO scheme’: see Sztompka, 1991, pp. 124-126) to distinguish four dimensions or aspects of the field: the ideal dimension, the normative one. The interactional one and the dimension of opportunities. So far, simplifying, we have stated that social relations bind individuals together. It is now a question of specifying what these relationships actually unite, and in what way. Objects of these bonds are the ideas, thoughts, beliefs of single individuals, which can be similar or different; or the rules that guide their conduct.

Which can agree or contradict each other; or their concrete actions, which can be friendly or hostile, based on cooperation or competition, or their interests, which can coincide or conflict, according to the kind of entities connected by the networks of relationships. We can distinguish four types of social fabric or structure that make society a cohesive whole: the fabric of ideas and rules—the structure of actions and interests. The interconnected networks of ideas (beliefs, convictions, definitions) constitute the ideal dimension of the field of social consciousness. The interconnected networks of norms (rules, values, precepts, ideals) constitute the field’s normative dimension, social institutions.

Types of social change

Sometimes the changes are partial, limited in scope, and without significant repercussions on other aspects of the system. In these cases, the system as a whole remains intact. There is no global change of its state despite the fragmentary changes that occur within it. For example, the political system democratic resides in its ability to face new demands and mitigate discontent reasons. To disperse conflicts through fragmentary reforms without endangering the stability and continuity of the state as a whole.

This type of adaptive modification is an example of changes in the system. In other cases, however, the change can affect all the aspects (or at least essential aspects) of the latter. Producing a global transformation leads us to consider the new system as substantially different from the previous one. This is what happens, for example, in all great social revolutions. The boundary between these types of change is sometimes uncertain. Changes in the system often accumulate to the point of investing the latter’s very essence, thus imperceptibly transforming into changes in the system, quite often in social systems. Thresholds are directly observed beyond which the extent, intensity, and speed of fragmentary and isolated changes transform the system’s global identity and lead to innovation that is not only ‘quantitative’ but authentically ‘qualitative.’

In terms of the field model, the same distinction is expressed by the two opposing concepts of functioning and transformation. The functioning of the field leaves the structures of interrelationships intact on a qualitative level. Conversely, transformation alters the very structures of ideas, norms, interactions, and opportunities.

Aggregates of social changes: more complex dynamic concepts

The concept of social change captures the ultimate and irreducible elements. The ‘atoms’ of social dynamics, single changes in the state of the social system, or the social field’s constitution. However, individual changes rarely occur in isolation. They are usually related to others, and sociology has elaborated more complex concepts to describe these connections’ typical forms.

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The most important of these concepts is the social process, which describes the sequence of causally interrelated changes in the same system. In the same field. More precisely, the concept denotes the set of multiple changes which:

a) refer to the same system or field (occur within it or transform it globally);

b) they are causally related to each other (in the sense that a change is a causal condition, or at least a partial causal condition of the other, and not simply a concomitant or antecedent factor);

c) they happen to each other in a temporal sequence (they follow one another in the dimension of time). Examples of processes – going from the macro to the micro-level – are industrialization, urbanization, globalization, secularization, democratization, and the war’s escalation. The mobilization of a social movement, the liquidation of a company. So, the dissolution of a voluntary association. The crystallization of a circle of friendships, the crisis of the family.


Sociologists have highlighted two specific forms among social processes, which have been at the center of their attention for many decades. One is social development, that is, the unfolding of certain intrinsic potentialities of the system. More precisely. b) the state of the system at any subsequent time represents a higher level of a given property (e.g., increasing structural differentiation, greater economic productivity, technological advancement, or a demographic increase).

At any subsequent time, the state of the system is approaching a certain global state (e.g., society is approaching the condition of social equality, or universal prosperity, or democratic representation)—the solution of internal contradictions through establishing qualitative forms of social life new. The channeling of man’s innate creativity towards significant organizational innovations). It easily degenerates into a mechanistic conception of change.


Another form of social process is the social cycle. It has two characteristics: a) it follows a circular pattern, in the sense that every state of the system at a given moment tends to reappear at some future moment, and is itself a replica of what has already happened at some moment in the past; b) this repetition is determined by some tendency inherent in the system, which by its very nature follows this particular wave or oscillatory trend. Consequently, there are changes in the short term, but everything remains unchanged as the system returns to its initial state in the long run. Ideational’ and’ materialistic ‘- elaborated by Sorokin (see, 1937-1941). According to Sorokin. The exhaustion and excesses of modernity marked by materialism will mark a return of idealism in social life.

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Another concept, perhaps highly debatable but has had considerable importance in the history of human thought (and not only in the history of sociology), is social progress (see Nisbet, 1980). It adds an axiological, evaluative dimension to the more objective and neutral category of social development. Thus involves a passage from strictly scientific and neutral explanations to the normative, prescriptive sphere.

In principle, by the progress, we mean a directional process that constantly brings the system closer to the preferential, optimal state (or, in other words, to the realization of certain values ​​selected based on ethical reasons. Such as happiness, freedom, prosperity, well-being, justice, dignity, knowledge, etc.), or to the achievement of an ideal society defined globally, in its overall configuration, through some social utopia (the New Harmony, the Millennium. The Communist Society, etc.). Very often, the idea of ​​progress indicates. How society should be according to a particular author or the Weltanschauung of which he is the spokesperson. This clearly goes beyond the domain of science, which is concerned only with what is, not what should be. Progress is always related to the values ​​taken into consideration from time to time.

These differ considerably among individuals, groups, classes, nations. We must always ask ourselves: progress for whom, and progress concerning what?



We have tried to outline the main concepts developed by the sociological tradition to understand and interpret socio-cultural change. These concepts originated in different theoretical schools, followed different evolutionary paths. Eventually broke away from ‘parochial’ orthodoxies to become part of the universal canon of sociological thought. The hope is that this conceptual apparatus can help us understand one of the essential characteristics of the world we live in: its incessant and ever-accelerating dynamic. (See also Progress; Sociology; Underdevelopment; Economic Development ).

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