Sunday, August 25, 2013


by Cynthia Lieberman

Social change is the transformation of social institutions and political and economic systems over a period of time. There are many reasons for social transformations to occur, and while some of these changes are swift, many of them are a slow, evolutionary process. There are many variable consequences to social change, and it is often divisive. Some changes in social patterns are intentional, but many are unplanned and usually the rate of social change will vary.

David Reisman developed the term social character to mean personality patterns common to members of a particular society. He views pre-industrial societies as promoting tradition-directedness, or rigid conformity to time-honored ways of living. This coincides with Max Weber’s theory that the “truth” is always the same to “what always has been” to traditional people, and social change occurs when the unquestioned truths of an earlier time are challenged. Tying in with this notion, W. Ogbum’s (1964) “culture lag theory,” claims that material (technological or aka “modern”) societies adjust more swiftly than non-material cultures that value ideas, norms and ideologies. In other words, there is a “lag time” after a new idea or invention is introduced during which the non-material culture is still adapting to new material conditions.

A good example of this notion is the invention of the automobile, which has made a significant impact on society and the world. When this modern device was introduced, non-material culture felt that it caused people to “move too fast” and that it transitioned society away from the cultivation of smaller, safer, private communities. This was initially perceived as a detriment to the moral fabric of society, but eventually, convenience and speed prevailed. As the influence of this invention grew (along with other devices of modernity), industrialization and urbanization increased and the non-material culture of rural areas began to erode. Over the past five decades, the automobile has continued to have positive influences on society such as providing mobility for the physically impaired, emergency healthcare assistance and protection of communities during disaster with emergency vehicles. It has also created negative impacts on society, including political and economic greed (oil crisis, war, recessions), the environment (global warming, smog), and our health and welfare (cancer, car accidents, etc.).

There are other countless ways that modernization has significantly impacted social change, and as a result, a great number of people in modern societies today have the privacy and freedom to express their individuality. New technologies such as the internet and social networking, for example, create new opportunities and increase options available to society. Interactions between people become more global, and the exchange of ideas change the structures of human groups and behavioral problems. However, the introduction of these technologies also introduce new social behaviors that are rapidly creating a monumental shift in society and the way we communicate, invent, emote, discover and even conduct business. It also creates new conflicts, problems with identity, social deviance and other hidden factors.

My particular interest in social change and what it means to me relates to the effects of post-modernity in society, or rather the social characteristics of a postindustrial society. While urbanization and industrialization has allowed for progressive thinking, the idea of “progress” has not necessarily always been effective. Higher crime, poverty, and suicide rates have resulted from the modernization of society as well as the formation of a entirely new set of class systems. Wherever modernization has occurred, there are always tradeoffs, such as cures for some diseases yet an increase in others that formed as a direct result of new technologies (heart attacks, cancer). Media influence has contributed to a rise in importance of other-directedness (the practice of imitating others) and places an importance on the mimicking of current trends and fashions. This often causes people to conform to their peers and diffuses original thinking. This “other-directedness” in society can have a positive impact (going “green” for example) but it can also be detrimental (rehab brat behaviors by celebrities). Naturally, in a pop-driven culture society like the United States, teenagers who are still forming their own identities are particularly influenced by this.

In many ways, I agree with Ferdinand Tonnies that much of modernity has caused an erosion of the human community, and that the Industrial Revolution weakened the social fabric of family by introducing a business-like efficiency. However, the unique “privatization” that new media provides also creates a unique social bond that has never existed before. I am concerned that the diminished use of physical human contact is biologically unhealthy for the body and spirit, yet there is a unique communal socialization that can also have many positive effects through the use of technology. For example, people now have a group--and a personal--voice in society and their opinions are often shaped through blogging, social networks, chat rooms and websites. If society does not agree with a social behavior, they now can unite and be heard almost instantaneously. I am perplexed and in awe of this powerful social influence and am fascinated by the postmodern impact of this change. After all, this new sense of community can be used to help poor countries grow economically. However, there is a price for everything, and although theoretically their health and well-being would improve ,who is to say that helping a poor country economically is good for them from a cultural standpoint? Money does not necessarily buy happiness, as the familiar cliché goes. Many a “poor” village has more peace and longevity than a city of thousands, and there is something to be said for that.

Regardless, in “the end,” I still believe in the pursuit of a healthy and harmonious society, and I believe that by gaining a better understanding of different cultures and how they adapt to new ideas and how they process their beliefs and these ideas, we can help transform social, political and economic systems in a constructive way to create positive social change.

~ ~ ~

Infograph Source: Interactive, H., & University, W. (n.d.). 2012 Social Change Impact Report | Social Change | Walden University.Accredited Online University Degree Programs | Online College | Online School | Walden University. Retrieved August 25, 2013, from

[This was one of my first posts in the UCLA/Fielding University Media Psychology and Social Change (MPSC) graduate classes in February 2008; to access more of my MPSC papers, please go to:]