Social change is a natural progression of human evolution in all societies around the world. For perspective, consider what life was like a century ago. Western countries were transitioning from horse-drawn carriages to automotive travel. Women were fighting for their right to vote, racial segregation was pervasive in the U.S., and people communicated via letters or landline phones. Today, information is shared instantaneously, women's rights have dramatically improved, and racial equality has seen significant strides. Social change drives societal progress and improved standards of living, more equitable access to resources, and the ability of society to adapt to new circumstances and challenges.
At WGU, we believe that education can be a powerful catalyst for social change. As a nonprofit, online university that’s committed to expanding access to higher education, we recognize the transformative impact that social change can have on individuals and communities. In this article, we explore the concept of social change and its importance in creating a more just and equitable society.
Social change is the transformation of culture, behavior, social institutions, and social structure over time, often influenced by factors such as population growth. Sociologists view it as the natural evolution of human interactions and relationships over time, leading to the transformation of cultural and social institutions. These changes, often occurring gradually, serve to define the course of a society's development.
In the broadest sense, social change includes any change in social relations. This covers everything from subtle shifts in individual behaviors to more significant transformations in societal norms and structures.
Three main theoretical perspectives on social change have been proposed by various theorists: evolutionary, functionalist, and conflict theories.
The evolutionary theory of social change emerged in the 19th century, a period shaped not only by Charles Darwin's theory of evolution but also by the Industrial Revolution, which brought profound changes to societal structures. Herbert Spencer, another prominent thinker of this era, also applied this evolutionary perspective to social change, suggesting that societies, like biological organisms, evolve through stages of increasing complexity.
According to Auguste Comte, recognized as the father of sociology, society is always changing from simple to more complex states. This evolution is considered to reflect a slow movement toward “higher” levels of organization. The evolutionary theory of social change says that societal change follows a linear path of development, with each stage being a more advanced version of the last.
In line with the concept of “survival of the fittest,” this theory suggests that societies that don’t adapt quickly enough risk falling behind, while societies and political systems that successfully adapt to the needs of their citizens can flourish. This theory offers a view of social change as an inevitable progression toward better social structures.
The functionalist theory compares society to a living organism, where each part or '“organ”' has a specific role and contributes to the stability and survival of the system as a whole. This perspective states that individuals in society can't thrive independently but are connected and dependent on each other. Emile Durkheim, a pioneer of sociology, was a leading spokesperson for functionalist theory.
In the context of social change, this theory states that changes occur to maintain societal balance. If one part of society undergoes a disruption, such as a global health crisis like COVID-19, other parts will adapt to restore equilibrium, much like the body's response to an injury or illness. From a functionalist standpoint, social change is seen as a process that ultimately seeks to maintain societal harmony rather than disrupting it.
Conflict theory posits that society is inherently unequal, characterized by competition and opposing interests rather than balance. From this vantage point, social change is a product of the struggle between different groups within society over resources, power, and status.
Karl Marx, a revolutionary socialist thinker, was one of the key voices of this theory. He predicted that societal changes would result primarily from class struggle, especially between the discontented working class and the bourgeoisie, or the capitalist class that owns the means of production.
Conflict theory has informed many other social theories such as feminist theory, queer theory, and critical race theory, all of which further shed light on the nature of conflict and inequity. They all suggest that most major social changes occur as a result of the struggle against systemic discrimination and inequity.
Social change is an ongoing process driven by a number of factors, which are often political in their goals and ramifications. Among the key triggers for widespread social change, three stand out in particular: conflict, demographic change, and cultural change.
- Conflict: The inequalities embedded in society based on class, race, gender, and religion naturally incite conflict. This unrest acts as a catalyst for social change as marginalized groups challenge norms and existing power structures in pursuit of a more equitable society.
- Demographic change: Shifts in a society's demographics can also stimulate social change. This could be due to fluctuations in birth rates, mortality rates, or migration patterns. For instance, an aging population might lead to alterations in healthcare policies and social services, while increased immigration could lead to cultural diversification.
- Cultural change: New inventions, scientific discoveries, and the spread of ideas can profoundly contribute to societal shifts. Innovations in technology and communication, for example, can rapidly alter societal behavior, leading to widespread change.
These factors, often operating simultaneously, shape the trajectory of social evolution, steering society toward new paths of development and progress. Despite the challenges that may come with it, social revolution is crucial for societal advancement.
Social change is often driven by social movements—by groups of people advocating for representation in a more equitable and just world. Several key social movements have left indelible marks on Western society:
- The Reformation: A 16th-century movement that reshaped Europe's religious and political structure by challenging the Catholic Church and fostering the rise of Protestant churches.
- The Civil Rights Movement: In the mid-20th century, the U.S. Civil Rights Movement fought against racial segregation and discrimination and achieved significant legal and societal reform.
- The Feminist Movement: The feminist movement, which gained traction in the 1960s and '70s, has fought against societal norms and legislation that perpetuated gender inequality, leading to significant strides in women's rights.
- The LGBTQ+ Rights Movement: This movement advocates for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people. Its successes include the decriminalization of homosexuality, recognition of same-sex marriage, and increased visibility and acceptance of LGBTQ+ in society.
- The Green Movement: The Green Movement has influenced policy, culture, and technology, driving society towards more sustainable practices to combat climate change and other environmental issues.
Next, consider the evolution of the U.S. education sector. Historically, social change in education has been inspired by significant movements such as the desegregation of schools and the inclusion of students with disabilities, both of which led to more integrated, equitable, and resourced learning environments thanks to outspoken citizens fighting for students’ rights.
In 1997, Western Governors University was formed by a visionary group of governors who saw a new pathway to educational opportunity through technology—a new learning model that prioritized flexible, affordable, and accessible degree programs rather than measuring time spent in classrooms. Online, competency-based learning allows the university to keep costs low for its students. By following principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion, WGU empowers students of any background so that their success in turn promotes individual and social mobility. As graduates spark positive change in their communities, they change lives and stimulate economic growth. WGU is an example of how one idea can change the world; in this case, becoming one of the nation's largest universities.
Advocacy and policy change is crucial to the advancement of human societies. Even though these shifts often unfold slowly, they have a major influence on the societal landscape over time, driving progression and improvement.
Social change plays an essential role in promoting equality. It contributes to gender equity, enhances worker rights, fights against discrimination for the LGBTQ+ community, and propels the cause of racial equality. By doing so, it works towards creating a more inclusive, equitable, and fair society.
From a business standpoint, social change promotes diversity and inclusion in workplaces, which boosts employee satisfaction, drives innovation, and increases financial performance. At its core, social change also empowers citizens by fostering a sense of agency and civic participation, taking political action, and encouraging individuals to contribute to their local, national, and even global communities. Ultimately, social change is not just an occurrence but a necessity for societal progress.
Undoubtedly, social change will continue as long as humans inhabit Earth. This ongoing transformation requires effort and perseverance, especially when advocating for social equity. In the digital age, the internet allows for global connectivity and widespread diversity, nurturing the sharing of ideas and facilitating societal transformations. As societies evolve—shaped by conflict, demographic and cultural shifts, technological advancements, or social movements—social change remains a constant, driving us toward development and progress.
Enacting positive social change is a collective movement that requires the hard work of many dedicated people. If you’re interested in being an integral part of social change, first find a cause you’re passionate about and then give your time, resources, and energy toward driving change in that area. You can do this in a variety of ways, including:
- Educate Yourself: One of the first things you should do is work on gaining a deeper understanding of the issue you're interested in. Research the area and learn about the historical context, key players, systemic structures involved, and potential solutions.
- Raise Awareness: Once you are well-versed in the subject, start talking about it with your network. This could involve sharing information on social media, writing blog posts, hosting educational events, or even just having conversations with friends and family.
- Get Involved Locally: Start working on the cause where you are. Engage with local communities or groups already working on your issue of interest. You can attend meetings, volunteer your time, or offer your skills. Local impact often reverberates to a broader societal change.
- Advocate for Policy Change: As history shows, this is a powerful way to effect social change. This involves contacting representatives, marching in protests, or supporting legislative campaigns that align with your cause.
- Fundraise: Funds are often crucial for affecting change. You could set up a fundraising campaign to support a non-profit organization that’s doing important work in your area of interest, or use the funds to start projects that tackle the issue.
- Pursue a Career Aligned with Your Cause: Another impactful way to contribute to social change is by aligning your professional life with your cause. This could mean working in a non-profit organization, choosing a career in social work, education, or public health, or even incorporating social responsibility into a business role. This not only allows you to make a living but also enables you to apply your skills and resources towards driving change on a daily basis.
Enacting positive social change is often a lifelong journey, not a destination. It requires consistent effort, adaptability, and a willingness to learn. But the rewards, both for you and for society, are well worth the time and energy investment. WGU offers a variety of degree programs that can position you as a leader in social change. Learn more about our teaching, healthcare, and business degrees and take the first steps toward your career!