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Social Change 101: Meaning, Examples, Learning Opportunities

Societies change all the time. If you talk to someone born just a few decades before you, they most likely remember very different trends, cultural norms, ideas and so on. Some social changes take centuries to settle in, and while many offer clear benefits to the world, others are more complicated. In this article, we’ll define social change, provide four key examples of social changes, and offer learning opportunities for those interested in digging deeper.

Social change refers to how institutions, cultural norms, behaviors, ideas and values transform over time. Some changes appear suddenly, while others take years to fully manifest. Social movements – like the abolitionist movement and women’s suffrage – often drive social change, but advances in medicine and technology create change, too.

What does “social change” mean?

There are a few definitions of social change, but for our purposes, we like the definition given by The University of the People, a tuition-free, nonprofit university based in the US. According to their blog, social change is “the way in which human interactions, relationships, behavior patterns, and cultural norms change over time.” Every part of society – including the economy, culture, technology, environment and political sphere – experiences social change. Philosophers, politicians, scientists and others have developed theories of social change since ancient times. In ancient Greece and Rome, three main ideas about social change emerged: decline or degeneration, cyclic change, and continuous progress. The continuous-progress conception of social change has arguably been the most influential. It teaches that humans and society are naturally moving toward a better, more improved state, but this idea has since fallen out of favor.

What about the other theories? The theories of decline and cyclic change claim society is bound to periods of regression or predictable cycles. While regression and cyclical patterns are present in every society, they’re not identical everywhere and they’re not always predictable. We can try to explain social change using different theories, but it’s a complex phenomenon. This is due to the causes of social change, which include technological advances, demographic shifts, changes in the natural environment, political conflict, new ideas and social movements.

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What are examples of social change?

There have been many social changes throughout history and the world. Here are four the biggest examples:

The abolitionist movement

The transatlantic slave trade lasted for 366 years. Many people believed it would never end, but there was always opposition to slavery. In the late 18th century, anti-slavery campaigners sent around petitions, held meetings and pushed the government to end the unjust practice. Meanwhile, enslaved people in places like Jamaica and Haiti rebelled against the system. In 1804, the revolution in Haiti was successful, and the first independent Black state outside of Africa was established. Three years later, the UK abolished the transatlantic slave trade. However, while it was illegal to sell slaves, people could still own enslaved people. The British abolitionist movement continued to work, founding the first Anti-Slavery Society in 1823. The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 finally freed all slaves throughout the British Empire, with a few exceptions.

In the United States, it took a war to end slavery. Tensions reached their climax under President Abraham Lincoln, and in 1861, the Civil War began. In 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, calling for the freeing of all enslaved people. In 1865, the 13th Amendment abolished all forms of slavery in the US. There was one important caveat. The 13th Amendment reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction [emphasis added].” Modern-day abolitionists call for more social changes, such as an end to slavery as a punishment for crimes.

Learn more about ending racism and discrimination.

Women’s suffrage

The women’s suffrage movement was a global movement dedicated to equal voting rights for women. New Zealand was the first country to give women the vote in 1893, followed closely by South Australia a year later. The most famous suffrage movements were based in the United Kingdom and the United States. In the UK, campaigners used tools like educational pamphlets, petitions and public meetings to explain why women deserved equal voting rights. Opposition could be fierce, but many suffragettes adopted radical tactics such as breaking windows, setting fires, destroying post office boxes and even planting bombs. Finally, in 1918, about ⅔ of women in the UK got the right to vote. In 1928, the right to vote was finally extended to all women over 21, giving them the same voting rights as men.

Suffrage also progressed slowly in the United States, proving how social change often operates in starts and stops. Beginning in the mid-19th century, the American suffrage movement focused on recruiting middle and upper-class white women who were also interested in abolition, better education and prohibition. Women of color also worked in the suffrage movement, but after Black men got the right to vote before white women, the movement split due to racism from white suffrage leaders. The 19th Amendment, passed in 1920, finally gave all women the right to vote. The right to vote wasn’t fully secured, however, until racial discrimination in voting was outlawed in 1965.

Check out our article on why gender equality is important.

The eradication of smallpox

Smallpox, which is an extremely contagious airborne virus, tormented humanity for thousands of years. Around 3 in 10 people infected die, leading to the deaths of hundreds of millions of people. Many places developed unique ways to deal with the disease. In China and India, people would practice inoculation, which transfers ground-up scabs or materials from the pustules to healthy people in an attempt to trigger immunity. The Western world experimented with inoculation, as well, and in 1796, Edward Jenner developed the first successful vaccine.

Despite the creation of the vaccine, smallpox continued to kill millions. Around 300-500 million people died in the 20th century alone. In 1967, the World Health Organization launched a global campaign to eradicate smallpox. For 10 years, the organization increased vaccinations and monitoring. By 1980, smallpox was eradicated. Smallpox is one of just two infectious diseases humans have eliminated, making the WHO’s campaign the most significant public health success in history. Advances in medicine, technology, public health and education made this major social change possible.

Vaccine access is a big part of health equity, which we explore in this article.

The rise of the internet

The story of the internet goes back to the 1960s. According to the Computer History Museum, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), which was part of the U.S. Department of Defense, began building an early version of what would become the internet. Advances in technology and knowledge helped experts create a network that let interconnected devices (like computers) pass around data and media. Other groups began experimenting with the technology, while companies created better computer chips and hardware. On January 1, 1983, the internet as we know was officially born. The Transfer Control Protocol/Internetwork Protocol (TCP/IP) lets different types of computers on different networks communicate with each other, creating a “universal language.”

According to the Data Report Portal, around 5.30 billion people use the internet. The technology has had a profound impact on global communication, information access, the economy, politics, culture, entertainment and much more. Because of how the internet connects the world, it has played a big role in globalization, which refers to the interdependence of the world’s economics and the flow of goods, information, jobs and so on. While it’s challenging to summarize the full impact of the internet, it’s undeniable that the technology has created massive social changes in less than a hundred years.

How does technology impact social change and human rights? Check out our article on the topic.

Where can you learn more about social change?

There are many places to learn more about what social change is, why it matters and how you as an individual can contribute to the changes you want to see in the world. Here are three learning opportunities:


Taking a class is a great way to study social change in a more participatory, in-depth way. Platforms like edx, Coursera and FutureLearn offer classes from great universities around the world, while you may also be able to find local classes and workshops taught at NGOs, libraries and schools.

Social Justice Social Change
Social Issues Racial Justice
Inequality Child Protection
Gender Equality LGBTQ+ Rights


Books are a great place to learn more about social change. You can find books on theoretical aspects of social change, specific social movements and individual social change activists.

Angela Garbes Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change
Cynthia Ranyer, Francois Bonnici The Systems Work of Social Change: How to Harness Connection, Context, and Power to Cultivate Deep and Enduring Change
Lesley-Ann Noel Design Social Change: Take Action, Work Toward Equity, and Challenge the Status Quo
Kate Masur Until Justice Be Done: America’s First Civil Rights Movement, from Revolution to Reconstruction

Websites and online platforms

Thanks to the internet, it’s easier than ever to learn more about social change through websites, blogs and other online platforms. You can find more information about the history of social change and social movements, as well as opportunities for volunteering and careers at social change NGOs.

About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.