In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Social Change

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Handbooks
  • Data Sources
  • Journals
  • Structural Trends and Modernity
  • Changing Cultural Themes
  • Countertrends and Reactions to Modernity
  • Ecology and Social Change
  • Recent Debate on Global Sustainability

Sociology Social Change
Kevin T. Leicht
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 September 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0047


Social change is the significant alteration of social structure and cultural patterns through time. Social structure refers to persistent networks of social relationships where interaction between people or groups has become routine and repetitive. Culture refers to shared ways of living and thinking that include symbols and language (verbal and nonverbal); knowledge, beliefs, and values (what is “good” and “bad”); norms (how people are expected to behave); and techniques, ranging from common folk recipes to sophisticated technologies and material objects. Sociology began in the late 19th century as an attempt to understand the emergence of the modern world. The earliest sociological thinkers—August Comte, Herbert Spencer, Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber—all tried to understand the human implications of two great transformations that produced the modern world: urbanization and industrialization. They shared a vision that the study of human societies and change could be understood in a general way, rather than as the accumulation of the accidents of history. Like other foci of study in sociology, the study of social change has macro and micro components, and they have waxed and waned in popularity over the course of the 20th century. Work prior to World War II focused almost exclusively on macro components and causes of social change, but work after World War II, in the 1950s and 1960s, focused on micro/social-psychological sources of social change. More recently, there has been considerable movement toward reconciling agency and structure in explanations of social change.

General Overviews

To a great extent the classical founders of sociology (Marx, Weber, Durkheim, and others) were students of social change. This bibliography focuses on classic 20th-century works that have shaped the study of social change and have broad influence. This is also (at best) a partial list. Ogburn 1922 represents pre–World War II American thinking on the relationship between social structure and culture in producing social change. Smelser 1962 builds on Ogburn’s observation that social change is driven by cultural and structural contradictions. Olson 1965 and Tilly 1978 address reasons why social change via collective action is difficult and unpredictable, even in the face of obvious injustice and oppression. Lenski 1966 provides a comprehensive, theoretical synthesis of the development and maintenance of social stratification. Bell 1973 and Habermas 1975 foresee the end of Fordist industrial production and the economic and cultural developments that would be labeled “post-industrial society,” and Huntington 1997 views cultural differences or “civilizations” as one key to understanding late-20th-century global conflict and change.

  • Bell, Daniel. 1973. The coming of post-industrial society: A venture in social forecasting. New York: Basic Books.

    One of the first books to address the consequences of the decline of manufacturing in most of the developed world, predicting a world of symbolic analysts who would trade information and intellectual capital with one another. The relative rosy picture has been transcended by other analyses, but the basic premise that industrial production as the primary economic engine of the developed world was ending was prophetic.

  • Habermas, Jürgen. 1975. Legitimation crisis. Translated by Thomas McCarthy. Boston: Beacon.

    A wide-ranging and widely cited discussion of the growing problem of legitimating market capitalism and the political institutions that defend it against an increasingly reflexive and skeptical public. Predates and foresees many of the crises of inequality, opportunity, and participation that would manifest themselves in the 1980s and beyond. First published in as Legitimationsprobleme im Spätkapitalismus (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag).

  • Huntington, Samuel P. 1997. The clash of civilizations and the remaking of World order. New York: Touchstone.

    The culmination of Huntington’s lifetime of scholarship, addresses directly the cultural origins of conflict and change and forecasts continued conflict between peoples from different parts of the world, or “civilizations.” The perspective has been much criticized, but it has formed the basis for contemporary work on cultural differences in societal values and public goods.

  • Lenski, Gerhard. 1966. Power and privilege: A theory of social stratification. New York: McGraw-Hill.

    One of the most cited general works on social change. Lenski lays out a social evolutionary theory of the development of the division of labor and modern social stratification systems. He attempts to develop a synthesis between “conflict” and functionalist explanations for the development and evolution of societies, and the overall theoretical perspective is still used and cited in contemporary work on social change and development.

  • Ogburn, William F. 1922. Social change with respect to culture and original nature. New York: B. W. Huebsch.

    Ogburn first introduces the concept of “cultural lag” in his analysis of social change and contemporary societies. While the idea has been much debated (especially among scholars of contemporary families) the idea that cultural practices change much more slowly than technology and organizations has become a key starting observation for students of social change.

  • Olson, Mancur. 1965. The logic of collective action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    This work provides the first introduction to the free rider problem as it applies to social movement activity and collective action generally. The free rider problem is one of several keys for understanding why protest and rebellion are not more widespread in the face of injustice and discrimination.

  • Smelser, Neil. 1962. Theory of collective behavior. New York: Free Press.

    One of the first early-1960s attempts to explain collective behavior from a primarily functionalist perspective. Describes social change as resulting from the culmination of social contradictions addressed by social movements in a value-added fashion.

  • Tilly, Charles. 1978. From mobilization to revolution. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

    One of the first postwar attempts to develop a comprehensive theory of collective action that incorporates violence and repression in the analysis. Tilly attempts to explain every type of collective action from political protests to revolutions, and the book contains an extensive data analysis of strikes in Western countries.

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