How does social change happen?

The concept of social change involves a transition in society from one state to another, within a specific point in time. The level of change, and whether this change has a profound effect on a society, depends on a complex interplay of actors, actions and organisation.

People before profit. By Kate Ausburn via Flickr.
Photo by Kate Ausburn via Flickr.

In his excellent book, The Sociology of Social Change, Piotr Sztompka argues that social change occurs when several elements come together. This includes:

  • the actions taken by a large “number and variety” of individuals;
  • the collective organisation within social networks;
  • the roles undertaken by individuals;
  • the level of inclusion of a social movement: types of recruitment, gate-keeping within an organisations and so on;
  • a variety of specialised groups/ systems that come together to enact different types of change; and
  • the local context in which change happens: location, political climate and so on.

In social policy work, social science theories and measurement of social change are vital to shape service delivery, urban planning, adjusting legal regulations and more. Social theories on social change like those of Sztompka might be used to create social models – be they computer or mathematical or statistical models.

Social models of social change

In my work, it’s always been a challenge to demonstrate to decision-makers that, while social chance can be modelled, human behaviour cannot be predicted.

Statistical models can be useful to forecast some economic behaviour, but complex social movements are more difficult to predict with certainty. What can be done instead is to use social theories to do foresight planning. Social actors and their patterns can be programmed into social models along with data about historical changes and social context. This might be considering how the economy, law and other social institutions impact on patterns of group behaviour.

These variables can then be simulated using different parameters programmed into the model.

Mathematical formula might be stochastic. For example:

  • if the population looks like this 
    • that is, here are the actions, roles and social networks of individuals; and
  • the economy is like this 
    • the inclusion, specialised groups and local context are represented through mathematical rules
  • then the probability that this outcome might happen
    • for example, the probability of social change
  • is that
    • percentages of probability of social change can be calculated.

Turning social theories and concepts into mathematical rules helps to give weight to different outcomes based on a variety of pre-programmed social conditions.

Models can also be dynamic. Actors in the social model can be programmed to form groups or disband based upon the social rules built into the model. Modelling groups can be especially useful when policy-makers want to better understand the conditions under which groups form, collaborate or fracture.

I’ve used this approach in collaboration with a mathematician in our social model of political conflict. Social theories and empirical studies were “translated” into mathematical formula to show how social structures, group dynamics and relations between groups led to different types of political violence. While I had already written a report encompassing the theories and knowledge of political conflict, working with policy makers means creating different ways for them to consider social science.

Social theories are abstract to non-experts. Social models helps people who aren’t social scientists to see how the theory can be used “in the real world.”

Informed decision-making

There are various other ways to create social models of change, helping non-social scientists to consider social factors. Reading long research reports by social scientists can be difficult for non-experts. While social scientists can also provide consultancy that directly answers questions about social change, social models can be co-built by social scientists working with other experts to capture our knowledge in a new way. Some decision-makers learn better with visual representations. Social models helps to visualise social theories of change like that of Sztompka, which social scientists can then use to better guide the informed thinking of policy-makers.

We can’t make social scientists of everyone and nor should we aspire to. Social science ideas and knowledge about social change are critical, and to ensure that influential people consider this complex knowledge, different tools are needed. Social models are useful learning aids to help policy reach better conclusions and respond to change in meaningful ways.