Disclosure: Human Rights Careers may be compensated by course providers.

What is Social Change?

Sociologists define social change as a transformation of cultures, institutions, and functions. Most change isn’t instantaneous. In society, change is often very slow. There are a variety of parts and forces at work, many of which resist disruptions of the status quo.  All societies go through these types of changes at one point. You don’t need to be an avid student of history to know that. Consider a modern society and reflect on what it looked like hundreds of years ago. Often, society is unrecognizable.

What are the theories on how social change functions? What are the causes and effects?

Theories of social change

While it’s inevitable for all societies to go through some changes, why that happens isn’t obvious. Throughout history, sociologists have wrestled with different ideas and models. There are three main theories of social change: evolutionary, functionalist, and conflict.


The evolutionary theory of social change gained prominence in the 19th century. Sociologists latched on to Darwin’s theory of evolution, applying it to society. Auguste Comte, known as the “father of sociology,” believed in the evolutionary model. According to this theory, society always evolves into “higher levels.” Like organisms evolve from simple to more complex, so do societies. Societies that don’t adapt fast enough will fall behind. This led many sociologists to conclude that Western societies must be “superior” because of their “advanced” state.

At first, social evolutionists asserted that all societies must go through the same sequence of progress. Modern theorists believe that change is multilinear. Societies can evolve in different ways and different directions.

Functionalist theory

The functionalist theory of social change teaches that society is like a human body. Each part is like an organ. Individual parts can’t survive on their own. Emile Durkheim, a major leader in the social sciences, believed that all parts of a society must be harmonious. If they aren’t unified, society is “no more than a pile of sand” that’s vulnerable to collapse. When one part suffers, all the other parts must adjust. Why? The functionalist theory believes that society always works toward stabilization. When problems occur, they’re temporary, but they do need attention from the other parts. This means social change.

Functionalism isn’t without its critics. Many point out that this theory tends to ignore that society’s elite often creates a mirage of harmony and stability. The theory also fails to factor in race, class, and gender. Functionalism reached its peak in the 1940s and ’50s, only to decline in the 1960s.

Conflict theory

The conflict theory states that society is by nature unequal and competitive. Karl Marx spearheaded this theory. While he did believe in the evolutionary model to a point, Marx didn’t think each phase resulted in something better than before. More often than not, the rich and powerful control the rest of society by exploiting vulnerable groups. This sows conflict, provoking people to action. Social change occurs as a result. The conflict model evolved over the years. It’s found in other theories such as feminist theory, queer theory, and critical race theory.

What triggers social change?

No society stays the same forever, but what specific causes drive it? Social change has three main triggers:


It is clear from a glance at our global history that conflict provokes social change. Inequalities based on class, race, gender, religion, and more foster dissatisfaction and anger. To address their situation, groups come together to fight for change. Governments can be overthrown or restructured. Sometimes change happens quickly, but oftentimes it develops over time in stages.

Demographic change

When the demographic makeup of a society changes, social change is inevitable. Society’s demographics often change when births increase and/or people start living longer. A bigger population affects the dispersal and availability of resources. An increase in immigration or emigration also affects society.

Cultural change

New inventions, discoveries, and the spread of ideas contribute to cultural changes. Consider the effect of the internet. It’s not only changed the culture of individual countries but the entire world. It’s transformed how we communicate, as well as the structure of countless industries. Discoveries also impact a society’s culture. Consider how much changed when the Europeans “discovered” America. This example shows how social change is not always beneficial to everyone. New ideas about gender, race, religion, work, education, and so on also change a culture.

Take a free online course on Social Change (UNICEF)

Examples of social change

Social change often occurs as a result of social movements. There are countless examples throughout history in every country on earth. Some of the most famous (many of which are ongoing and/or evolving) include:

  • The Reformation
  • The abolition of the transatlantic slave trade
  • The Civil Rights movement
  • The feminist movement
  • The LGBTQ+ rights movement
  • The green movement

Why is Social Change important?

Social change occurs when societal institutions, structures, and cultures undergo a significant shift. Famous examples include the Reformation in 16th-century Europe and the American civil rights movement. More often than not, social change is slow. This is especially true of a global society. Why does social change matter? Here are 10 reasons:

#1. Social change gets the world closer to gender equality

Looking at the state of gender equality can be overwhelming, even discouraging. It’s important to remember that social change starts small. It becomes impactful as more individuals, groups, and institutions get on board. These actors propel the world forward culture by culture, country by country. Actions like closing the gender pay gap; increasing education access; and improving women’s healthcare contribute to lasting social change on a large scale.

#2. Social change improves worker rights

Throughout the course of history, greed exploits and endangers employees in every industry. The United States is an example of how social change affects labor and worker rights. Over two centuries, the US experienced the birth of unions, child labor laws, the minimum wage, and laws for family and medical leave. This area of social change is ongoing as workers continue to fight for their rights. They strike for higher wages and push for better legal protections. Consumers also play a part when they boycott businesses with unethical practices.

#3. Social change protects the LGBTQ+ community

The LGBTQ+ community is one of the world’s most vulnerable populations. People in this community face higher rates of suicide, violence, and discrimination. Many past and current social movements around the world center on LGBTQ+ rights. The legalization of same-sex marriage; legal protections against discrimination; and shifts in cultural perspectives represent social change. It protects individuals and gives them equality within society.

#4. Social change improves racial equality

Most societies deal with racial inequalities. Based on their race, groups and individuals face discrimination and disenfranchisement. Social movements (like the civil rights movement in the United States) focus on protesting current conditions and changing laws. Social change is also significant when it addresses society’s perception of race. Education and awareness can be as important as legislative measures.

#5. Social change is good for business

Studies show that when workplaces are more diverse, they’re more productive. If every workplace prioritized better inclusion and equality, it would improve business and society’s economy as a whole. Social changes include closing the gender pay gap, establishing legal protections for workers, and following non-discriminatory practices. These contribute to a workplace’s diversity and success.

#6. Social change helps the environment

No other living thing has affected the environment as much as humanity. Research shows that we’re damaging the air, water, and land at unprecedented rates. This affects the wellbeing and safety of everything on earth, including humans. Green social movements have pushed back with earth-friendly initiatives such as supporting endangered species. They also encourage individual responsibility and spread awareness about issues like climate change.

#7. Social change keeps governments accountable

History proves that power can corrupt. Governments often commit human rights violations against their own people. Social change can draw attention to these injustices, dismantle destructive structures, and help societies transition into better systems. These changes can occur quickly and violently through civil war or conflict. Through elections and legislature, the change can be more gradual.

#8. Social change addresses problems at the root

Lasting impact is one of the markers of social change. It isn’t enough to treat the symptoms and not the wound. The most effective social movements tackle issues at the root instead of only looking at the effects. As an example, to address homelessness, we must examine why people are homeless in the first place. Only providing short-term solutions won’t deal with underlying causes.  Long-term measures are also needed. Looking at the roots allows for permanent changes to develop, saving a society’s time, energy, and resources.

#9. Social change empowers citizens

Social change often occurs when individuals decide to work towards a common goal. They take note of what’s destructive or inefficient in society and take the steps necessary to change it. Most activists can point to a specific movement or person from the past that inspires them. Social change empowers citizens, proving that passion and hard work pays off even when there’s significant resistance.

#10. Social change makes life better for future generations

Many social movements lean on the understanding that social change is slow. Those fighting for change now know they might not reap the benefits, but coming generations will. Climate change activists are keenly aware of this fact. They understand that healing the planet takes time. Fighting battles now on behalf of those not even born yet is a selfless act. It sets up a society for future success.

Take a free online course on Social Change (UNICEF)

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.