Social change has many causes. Also in a world linked by sophisticated communication and transportation technology, change in one place often begets change elsewhere. Some of the causes of social change are being discussed here.

Culture and Change

There are three important sources of cultural change: invention, discovery, and diffusion.

Invention is the combination of existing elements of culture into something new. Inventions produce new objects, ideas, and social patterns. Invention of ideas, objects and social patterns bring social change.

Discovery occurs when people take note of existing elements of the world. Medical advances, for example, offer a growing understanding of the human body. Human body has been there but perhaps in the olden times humans did not know much about its functioning and dis- functioning. Discoveries about the functioning of human body have added to the scientific knowledge. Beyond the direct effects on human health, medical discoveries have stretched life expectancy. Increase in life expectancy is change in society.

Diffusion is the transference of cultural traits from place and/or group to another. Diffusion creates change as products, people, and information spread from one culture to another. Many of the familiar elements of culture may have come from other cultures. For purposes of diffusion to take place, it is necessary to have contact between two cultures. In the past contact used to be physical contact through whatever means i.e. exchange of visits of people belonging to different cultures; one way visit of travelers, traders; conquerors who may invade, plunder, and leave with booty; other invaders who conquer and stay as rulers; colonizers who rule their colonies. All these situations demonstrate diffusion situations where the establishment of contact leads to borrowing of cultural traits from each other. The invaders and colonizers may bring their own culture and impose it on the local people. Nevertheless, these very rulers may have picked up some elements from the local culture. In the present times, for purposes of diffusion, the two different societies don't have to have a physical contact with each other.

Presently mass media of communication has demolished the physical boundaries for contacting other cultures. Now perhaps you have to have a control over the “mouse” and reach anywhere in the world, know about its culture, understand it, and if like may borrow its cultural traits. Look at borrowing of fashions from outside, mixing of cultures, and exchange of communication across the cultures.

World is becoming a global village where information spreads instantaneously and becomes a source of change. Diffusion is the most important factor of bringing change in the culture of society.

Inventions, discoveries, and diffusion, all bring change in culture which in turn bring change in the social structure and the relationships of people.

Conflict and Change

Tension and conflict in a society also produce change. Karl Marx saw class conflict as the engine that drives societies from one historical era to another. Social class has been considered by Marx as a means to social change. The two classes identified were the capitalists and the workers. Both these classes are based on inequality (We have already discussed it under “social stratification”). Social classes are located in the different relationships of people to the means of production. The relationships become important if a group becomes conscious and organized for action. Out of these two groups capitalists oppose social change, whereas the workers want to change the society. According to Marx the conflict between the two classes is a means to social change. The two classes cannot remain in conflict for all the time. The conflicting situation has to be resolved, and whatever the ‘give and take' for resolving the conflict, the new situation will be different from the previous one a social change new relationships.

In more than a century since Marx' death this model has proven simplistic. Yet Marx correctly foresaw that social conflict arising from inequality (involving not just class but also race and gender) would force changes in every society.

Ideas and Change

For Karl Marx the most important aspect of human beings social life is the material basis of that life. In this approach society where private property is the source of material production there exists a basis of social conflict -- which in turn will lead to social change.

Max Weber considered Marx's view just one perspective. There could be other explanations of social change. So instead of economic determinism, according to Weber, ideas could also determine economic structure. Weber traced the roots of social change to ideas. For example, people with charisma can carry a message that sometimes changes the world. Look at the prophets who have changed the societies with new ideas. The religious ideas turned into movements which changed the societies. Changes brought by Islam and its ideas brought drastic changes in the structure of society and relationships among the people.

Weber also highlighted the importance of ideas by showing how the religious beliefs of early Protestants set the stage for the spread of industrial capitalism. The fact that industrial capitalism developed primarily in areas of Western Europe where Protestant work ethic was strong proved to Weber the power of ideas to bring about change.

Ideas also generate social movements. For example we come across movements for bringing change in the ideas of people like social movements against “big dams” as part of environmentalism. There are movements for improving the lives of poor. There are movements for the rights of women.

Demographic Change

Population patterns also play a part in social change. There could be change in the structure of population with respect of age, education, occupation, etc. Kenyan population is experiencing all these changes.

Migration within and among societies is a demographic factor that promotes change. In Kenya there is a lot of migration from rural to urban areas. The urban population has increased from 20 percent in 1947 to 33 percent in 1998. The size of the urban settlements has increased putting pressure on the local resources, and other relationships. With the change in education of women, female participation in the labor force is on the increase which has implications for the institution of family.

Environmental Changes

Environmental change can bring changes in the structure of societies and relationship of people. Degradation of the environment may force people to migrate to new places. Water logging and salinity of agricultural land makes people to migrate simply because they have lost their means of livelihood. Similarly people leave their settlements due to drought.

Environmental changes brought about by “development projects” can also be a factor for social change. For the construction of water reservoirs, motor ways, and industrial zones may necessitate the displacement of populations. The same populations may get training for new jobs and follow new occupations. It may change the life styles of the whole communities. Similarly the natural calamities can destroy the human settlements as well as their means of livelihood, and thereby could be a factor of social change. People may change their occupations, develop new settlements, migrate to new areas; all these situations are situations of social changes.


Modernization is process of social change initiated by industrialization in the mid 18th century. As a result of modernization:

  • There is decline of small and traditional communities. In the traditional societies there is lot of cohesiveness, strong sense of belongingness, strong neighborhood relations but all these undergo change as the communities become complex in an industrial society. The structure and relations in the families also undergo change in the modern society.
  • There is an expansion of personal choice in the modern society. Personal choices increase for getting education, for choosing an occupation, for a place to live, for choosing a spouse, and even for adopting a lifestyle. There are series of options provided by the modern society and one could choose. Such options were not available in the traditional society.
  • There is an increasing diversity in the society. In the urban areas one could see the diversity of people, diversity of occupations, diversity of religions, diversity of races, diversity of ethnic groups, diversity of lifestyles, diversity of economic systems, diversity of political lines, and so on. Such diversities provide rich resources for interactions and changes in society.
  • There is future orientation and growing awareness of time. People in the modern societies think more about the future. Being optimistic they try to improve their lives by adopting innovations rather than having emotional attachment with traditions. These people are time conscious and organize their daily routines down to the very minute.

All the causes of social change have interconnections and overlap each other.

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