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Collective Behavior, Social Movements, and Social Change

Social Change

Causes of Social Change

Social change is often the result of people fighting against some social inequality, but it can also occur as a result of other changes.

Social change is not always intentional or deliberate. Consider the smartphone, which has spurred the growth of social media and enabled easy communication with nearly anyone anywhere in the world. It has changed how people shop, look for jobs, share their entertainment preferences, make friends, participate in politics, start and operate businesses, and attend school—the list is almost endless. Yet the people who developed the smartphone did not intend the social changes it brought, nor did the people who have bought and used smartphones. In this case, social change was brought about by the many individuals who acted according to their private and individual interests.

On the other hand, social changes both small and monumental do often arise from the concerted efforts of people who participate in social movements with the goal of shifting social policies and norms. For instance, the Voting Rights Act is a 1965 law enforcing the 15th Amendment by prohibiting discriminatory legal barriers to voting. For 100 years following the Civil War, Southern white supremacists had used poll taxes, literacy tests, and intimidation to restrict voting by black people. Throughout this time, black people, often supported by white people, petitioned and protested. Many suffered job loss, beatings, and lynchings because of their persistence in trying to effect social change. As the Voting Rights Act demonstrates, social change can take many years and generations. The civil rights victories of the mid-20th century built upon earlier social movements. In the later decades of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st century, new social movements continued to build upon the accomplishments of earlier generations. For example, Black Lives Matter, a social movement dedicated to ending violence—particularly police violence—against black people, continues to push to end racial discrimination.

Theories of Social Change

Theories of social change describe the social conditions that foster change and how different parts of society can change.

Functionalism and Social Change

Functionalism is an approach to sociology that that views society as a system of parts working together to maintain a social equilibrium. Functionalists analyze how society functions by studying the roles and relationships of social institutions. This perspective views a society as a complex system and views social institutions as active and enduring but adaptable parts of a whole. It understands social behavior in terms of how it impacts social order and equilibrium. It looks at how social change—a change in an institution—forces other institutions to change in response so as to maintain equilibrium. For instance, if high schools fail to prepare students for college, colleges and universities might adjust by changing expectations of incoming students or by advocating for educational reform.

Conflict and Social Change

Conflict theory argues that society is characterized by conflict between social groups. Groups with unequal power and competing interests compete for scarce resources. Conflict theorists see social change as the inevitable result of social inequality and conflict between groups over power and resources. In conflict theory, large-scale conflict is at the root of society and becomes the driving force of social change. This theory is based on the work of German theorist Karl Marx (1818–83). Marx viewed society as essentially divided by class conflict. Other conflict theorists consider how various factors such as race, gender, or ability create division and conflict in society and how these conflicts serve to influence social change. A key facet of conflict theory is that social change is the goal of subordinate groups and is resisted by privileged groups.

Conflict theory also argues that significant social change takes a very long time. While subordinate groups might resist or fight against their repression, dominant groups have the upper hand and are able to maintain their dominance. Sometimes subordinate groups win small victories or concessions, but these are seen as merely preserving the overall power structure. For example, the U.S. labor movement won the federal right to an eight-hour workday in 1938. This victory was achieved in small steps. The effort began in the 1830s, so the achievement took over 100 years. Employers, as the more dominant group, are able to skirt the regulation by using temporary employees and contractors.

Symbolic Interactionism and Social Change

Symbolic interactionism is a view of social behavior that emphasizes subjective understanding and the interactions of the individual and society. It proposes that people use and interpret symbols to frame their experiences and to understand how to engage with others. Symbolic interactionists stress that action can be understood by examining the social context in which it occurs, but that individual reactions to and understandings of the social context also play a role. While people rely on society to give them cues to proper behavior, these cues must be interpreted by each individual. Thus people fulfill role expectations and are guided by norms as they understand them.

Symbolic interactionism understands social change as involving changes in the meaning of things as well as changes in patterns of behavior. Thus culture is a key aspect of a symbolic interactionist approach to understanding collective behavior, social movements, and social change. According to this theory, social change comes about when people change their understanding of particular social norms, rules, groups, and roles. One area of interest is how the social meaning of objects can change. Symbolic interactionists explore connections between how people understand and feel about particular objects and larger changes in society and culture. Likewise, patterns of behavior linked to objects change as the social meaning attached to them changes. Consider how social rules and norms around telephone use have changed alongside changes in culture and technology. The ways that people speak when on the phone, the reasons they make and answer calls, who has access to telephones, and what telephone technology means have all changed several times since this technology was first introduced. In the earliest days of the telephone, it was both a revolutionary new technology and a luxury for the upper classes. Over the course of the 20th century, the telephone became a necessary tool for everyday life. Sociologists using symbolic interactionism look at the meaning of the telephone and the ways that people use and understand it in order to analyze the changes in the surrounding society.

Evolution of the Telephone

Social change involves changing meanings of objects and practices. With each evolution of the telephone, a new social meaning of this object emerges, as well as new social practices and norms.