social change

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A family of Schitsu'umsh -Indianer in their automobile (1916): Visible that have become social and cultural change.

As a social change or cultural change (also: social change ) are in principle unpredictable changes referred to a company in its social and cultural experiences structure over a longer period. In this sense, one speaks synonymously of a break .

Accordingly, this term generally includes, for example, the development of work and action systems , social stratification and mobility , religion , family structures and social norms or traditions , changes in institutions , everyday and cultural techniques ( writing , printing , internet , household technology), but in detail also z. B. the changes in language , the formation of new youth subcultures and fashions or new laws that shape social life or reflect social change (e.g. copyright since the 18th century, civil law since 1800 or modern sexual criminal law ).

The phenomenon of social and cultural change is used in various scientific disciplines, B. researched in ethnology , sociology , psychology as well as in the historical sciences.


The term “social change” is mainly used in sociological literature and serves as a collective term for all observable social and economic changes. This does not mean that individuals are always aware of social change within their lifespan.

In anthropology, the term “cultural change” is sometimes preferred, which means any kind of cultural change over time, including changes that cannot be directly observed. These are, for example, people's ideas and worldviews .

In this sense, the term cultural change is on the one hand more comprehensive; on the other hand, the empirical consideration of cultural change in the form of cultural history often excludes changes in the economic and social structure as well as changes in power relations . The term “social change” is used more frequently in a synonymous meaning.

It makes a difference whether you want to describe the social change of a specific society, i.e. a unique historical case, or the driving forces of social change in general. Gerhard Lenski's multilinear theory of evolution assumes that there are many paths of social change in different societies. A distinction is also made between partial and total change, i.e. change within social sub-systems or the whole of society, furthermore between evolutionary, i.e. largely constant, and disruptive change and between ( teleological ) and undirected change aimed at a development goal. A special form of radical social change is by Ralf Dahrendorf the Revolution . Raymond Boudon distinguishes reproductive social processes (absence of change), cumulative processes of change and processes of complete transformation.

The concept of social change competes with other concepts such as “development”, “ evolution ”, “ progress ” or “ modernization ”. According to many authors, the use of these terms implies a preliminary decision for a particular theory; this is obviously the case with the term progress . William Fielding Ogburn , on the other hand, introduced the neutral, theoretically unencumbered term social change with his work Social Change .

Social Change Theories

Modern theories of social change are based on a temporal sequence of structural forms and structural principles, in contrast to older evolution and progress theories, which represent the course of history quasi-teleologically with a unilinear development.

Aspects of social change that relate to the emergence or subdivision of social positions, situations and / or lifestyles are referred to as social differentiation .

Determining the causes of social change is quite complex. Attempts to explain the change monocausally through a single factor (e.g. through technical development , economic basis , culture, religion, etc.) are now considered unsuitable. Rather, one assumes a far-reaching interdependence of the social fields of action and areas, whereby individual areas can run ahead of other areas.

Earlier theories of directed change

For Auguste Comte, social change was based primarily on the increasing use of scientific methods in all areas of life, for Karl Marx in contradictions between the productive forces of a society and its property and class relations (what he called the production relations ). Sociologists and cultural theorists of the late 19th century often used Darwin's theory of evolution to explain social change. Herbert Spencer compared the social change of societies with the development of living organisms. Émile Durkheim saw the increase in social complexity as the most important driving force and expression of social change . William Fielding Ogburn coined the term “social change” and traces it back to technical inventions. For Talcott Parsons , social change consisted primarily of changes in a normative culture. The change led to disturbances of the equilibrium between various social functional areas, which endanger the stability of the overall system and result in new changes. Overall, according to Parsons, this process can be seen as a modernization process that brings more prosperity and education for everyone.

Conflict-Oriented Theories

All of the above theories largely ignored aspects of power. Modern multi-dimensional theories of social change have in common that they focus on conflicting interests, conflicts and development deficits and the social tensions that they create.

The theory of Karl Marx above all can be counted among the conflict theories of social change ; One of its forerunners is the work of Thomas Hobbes , who regards the pursuit of power as a source of social change. Although Marx also postulates that there is a certain direction in which social change is developing, he sees that each new stage is connected with new forms of social inequality that must be overcome through massive conflicts. Vilfredo Pareto explained social change with the circulation of the elites . Even Lewis Coser sees the conflict between the powerful and the powerless in every society a major driver of social change. For Max Weber , the informal exercise of power or institutionalized rule and social change are implicitly linked: forms of traditional rule aim more at preventing social change, legal forms of rule channel it through rules and institutional statutes, while charismatic rulers can initiate far-reaching social change. Even Margaret Mead had stressed that the first steps of social change are never initiated a democratic way. Ralf Dahrendorf saw the social change caused by the "antagonism of rights and supply", which discharges in the social conflict "between demanding and saturated groups". Lewis Mumford sees the beginning of civilization - and accelerated social change - in the early Neolithic , when the people who gained knowledge through work and had the raw materials to make technical devices discovered their power over others. In the course of time, the conditions of this minority - which were characterized by rule, control and the increase in wealth - replaced the original unregulated ( segmental ) patterns of order. The resulting class societies developed new material needs and values. This gave rise to social inequality as the “engine” of social change.

According to conflict theories, social change always sets in when social tensions arise in the course of economic development and is associated with a change of elite. As a result, ruling social classes or strata suffer a loss of status and their legitimacy suffers. Instead, new elite groups emerge showing greater innovative skills. External influences such as a lost war can also cause this withdrawal of status.

Generational conflict also plays an important role in processes of social change. With the sentence “I am because I achieve something”, Erich Fromm expressed the view of a number of researchers who see this as the real drive for any change. It is an existential, genetically anchored human need to actively effect, change, leave something behind - the primary expression of free will. In particular, adolescents strive for change in the process of solving their parents ( adolescence ) and socially disadvantaged people. In this respect, different generations are differently active carriers of social change.

Structural and culturalist theories of social change

For Margaret Mead , social change always begins with new ideas from individuals that are adopted by small groups in small worlds. Even Bronisław Malinowski did not yet make a sharp distinction between the change of a culture and that of a society that results from dissatisfaction with a current situation or unbearable forms of imbalance in a society.

With Alfred Radcliffe-Brown , a clearer distinction between the concepts of social and cultural change began in the 1950s. In the 1950s to 1970s, technological development and capitalist economic growth , which were expressed in structural change in the economic, regional and social structure (e.g. urbanization , democratization , thesis of a medium- sized society) , were considered to be decisive for social change ). The dominance of these modernization theories meant that the focus was mainly on social and economic structures and the contributions of the individual actors and their systems of meaning was neglected.

As a reaction to this, in the course of the culturalistic turn in the social sciences, the investigation of social change since the 1990s shifted to the changes in individual systems of action and meaning. Culture means the entire “practice of living”, which also shapes the physical environment and the organism. But the culturalist analysis of change also gets into difficulty in defining its own limits; thus it often fails to explain institutional change and macro-sociological phenomena such as globalization. Also, the emphasis on the effect of cultural elements often remains general and their selection within the framework of culturalist analyzes is arbitrary; it is not clear how they interact with institutional factors.

In his theory of structuring, Anthony Giddens tried to describe the connection between changes in the social system and the actions of the individual actors as an interaction process and thus the chicken and egg conundrum ( chicken and egg problem: do the actions of the actors shape the social system or vice versa?) to solve to some extent.

Today, most authors define social change in a more neutral and descriptive way as “change in the structure of a social system” without reference to concrete causes. Social change can be observed on different levels of society, on the macro level of social structure and culture, on the meso level of institutions, corporate actors and communities, on the micro level of people and their lives ”.

Cultural change

Induced change through cultural contact: The photo shows three men from the Yavapai tribe from Arizona. The one on the left is traditionally dressed, the one in the middle mixes styles and the one on the right wears the typical clothes of an American from the end of the 19th century

Since every society inevitably has to adapt to changes in its natural environment, this often results in a need for cultural change - even if only on a slow temporal scale. As Claude Lévi-Strauss recognized, by far the most common endeavor of people, valid for thousands of years, was to "slow down" or prevent any change as far as possible. A clearly accelerated cultural change occurs when the ideological attitude of a society towards progress and change is predominantly positive, as has been the case above all in European high culture since antiquity. see also: Cold and hot cultures or options

In modern industrial society, an obviously decisive driver for accelerated cultural change is technological progress . Erich Fromm put this very tellingly: “Something has to be done because it is technically possible ”, regardless of whether the new technology serves the “good or bad” of people or the environment.

“I don't know if it will be better if it is different. I just know that it has to be different if it is to get better. "

Cultural change that can be traced back to such events within the culture is referred to as "endogenous" change.

Environmental adaptation

An important driving force for cultural change are external pressures due to environmental changes that require adaptation. If one originally assumed that this led to conscious, intentional reactions, today we know that no culture is optimally adapted to its environment. This is justified as follows:

  1. No human decision is based solely on reasons of reason, but always contains emotional and cultural aspects
  2. Any assessment of a problem, the solutions and risks depends on the zeitgeist and the respective situation
  3. It is not possible to know all possible solutions and to predict their course with certainty
  4. No problem stands on its own, so solving one problem can add to or create other problems

Induced change

If a process of change arises through encounters with other cultures, from which parts are taken over and changed to a new form, one speaks of “induced” cultural change. This would include the compulsory transfer of the structures of the imperialist states to the conquered peoples during the colonial period, but also the voluntary takeover of foreign cultural goods through trade and communication. This process is historically documented, for example, for the Celts , who were based on Roman culture. In the present, induced change is mainly taking place through economic globalization , although sociological studies cannot always clearly show whether this is voluntary or rather due to practical constraints.

In order to reduce negatively initiated change through tourism, journalism, ethnological field work, health care, development policy or other intercultural areas, some ethnologists propose the development of framework conditions for “culturally compatible action” in the sense of the UNESCO Convention for the Protection of Cultural Diversity .

Forms of cultural change

With the so-called "nomad schools", in which Sami children were granted a minimal education, attempts were made in Sweden to prevent the cultural change among the indigenous people of Lapland until the 1940s. There are numerous examples of such attempts at guidance among indigenous peoples, but mostly with the aim of acculturation.

"Assimilation", "acculturation", "enculturation", "integration", "indigenity" and many other terms are some terms in connection with cultural change that are used very inconsistently: sometimes differentiated, sometimes synonymous, sometimes unspecific. For each term, there are many (sometimes significantly) different definitions depending on the subject, author and perspective. The following short scheme, which was essentially derived from the dtv atlas ethnology by Dieter Haller , therefore makes no claim to general validity or completeness.

term Suggested definition Examples and / or explanations
Causes and basic mechanisms of change
Adaptation existentially necessary adaptations to environmental changes Change of the pre-human from vegetarian to omnivore due to climatic, changed food supply
Invention Introducing new principles, tools, or customs that society considers beneficial Neolithic revolution , technical inventions of all kinds
Social progress necessary or wanted adaptation to the momentum of cultural development Democratization , urbanization , globalization
ideological differentiation Change through different interpretations and interpretations of the world Ideological reasons for preservation or change: cold and hot cultures or options, manipulation
diffusion voluntary or compulsory takeover of a cultural element from foreign cultures Guns and snowmobiles in arctic hunter cultures, adoption of foreign languages, technologies, crops, etc. - regardless of the acceptance of the foreign
Acculturation extensive adaptation processes when two different cultures come into contact Upbringing and unplanned learning , interest in the foreign - without evaluation or direction of change
The pace and intensity of change
Transmission very slow but complex integration of a change over many generations Welcoming rituals , manners , traditional costumes , food culture
modernization faster, consciously motivated change with the aim of improving situations Mechanization , automation and industrialization , progress, science
Concrete processes and direction of change
Devolution processes: Complete task of a cultural element:
  • substitution
in favor of a new element Instead of the Germanic festival at the winter solstice, the Christian Lucia festival is celebrated in Scandinavia today
  • Deculturation
without innovation the industrialization of forestry has the task of rafting out
Reinterpretation Reinterpretation of cultural elements Tabu / Tapu , meaning change from "geil" - often in languages
Transculturation Consciously or unconsciously influencing one dominant culture on another Russification in Siberia, Christianization of indigenous peoples, deliberate erasure of cultural elements ( ethnocide )
assimilation Process of adjustment of minorities to majorities with increasing devolution of cultural elements Ruhr Poland , German-Brazilian , Russification, indigenous peoples of Taiwan
Indigenization Adoption and recognition of foreign cultural elements: Accepted addition and integration into traditional culture Horse and prairie Indians , Sámi reindeer farming , reinterpretation of traditional worldviews as a reaction to Western ideologies - counter-movement to assimilation
Syncretism Fusion of alien cultural elements into new forms Tibetan Buddhism and Bon , Creole languages and Pidgin languages - mostly related to religions
Revitalization processes: Reviving certain traditions and / or values
  • Ritual revitalization
Return to the ritual practices and beliefs of the ancestors Cargo cults , crisis cults , sun dance , modern shamanism Tuvan
  • Retraditionalization
Reactivation of certain elements of a traditional way of life Return to traditional farming practices , Restocking of folklore or folklorization
  • Re-indigenization
Organized revival and reinterpretation of traditional elements Wild rice marketing by Anishinabe Indians , re‛indigenization of the Colombian Paez , cultural renaissance among the Māori of New Zealand - re- strengthening of ethnic identity

Assessment and "measurement" of change

The acculturation of Mexican immigrants was the first to be shown in a scale
The cockfight as a typical passion of Latin American machos - there is also a scale of cultural change for the machismo phenomenon
According to Native Planet, isolated ethnic groups belong to the untouched category (aerial photo from Brazil)

The influence of social change processes plays an important role in many different sociological and anthropological studies. Science has therefore developed a large number of different scales for the degree of acculturation, assimilation or indigenousness in order to be able to make appropriate assessments. Such scales are used in the context of questions that are suspected of being significantly related to the length of time in which the analyzed groups or people are under the influence of a foreign culture. This applies, for example, to the citizenship identity of minorities, to cultural knowledge and social skills, the changes in the use of the mother tongue or to certain behavior and attitudes.

An early scale of this type is the Acculturation Rating Scale for Mexican Americans (ARSMA-I), which was developed in 1980 by Cuellar, Harris and Jasso. It was about the acculturation of Mexicans living in the United States. The scale is divided into the five grades “very Mexican”, “Mexican-oriented bicultural”, “exactly bicultural”, “Anglo-oriented bicultural” and “very anglicised”. Since then, other simple scales through to complicated models have been developed that have made far-reaching knowledge possible. For example, Peña's Racial Identity Attitude Scale (RIAS) showed that the degree of cultural identity has an important influence on the treatment of cocaine-dependent black Americans. There are also scales to assess, for example, the macho behavior of Latin American men, the “familismo phenomenon” of Italy (absolute family loyalty , see also Mafia ) , the differences in behavior between rural and urban dwellers or the ways of thinking and acting between traditionalism and modernism.

There are also different scales for the very far-reaching and complex acculturation and / or assimilation trauma of traditional indigenous societies , some of which have arisen through centuries of oppression, genocide , racism , slavery and missionary activity . For example, the Rosebud Personal Opinion Survey, which was developed in 1985 by Hoffmann, Dana and Bolton for North American Indians, contains the use of language, values ​​and morals, social networks, religious beliefs and practices, lifestyle and ethnic identification . The NGO Native Planet uses an even more extensive, ambitious assignment for the status of indigenous peoples from all parts of the world .

Native Planet and the "Level of Assimilation"

The US human rights organization Native Planet is dedicated to protecting endangered indigenous cultures around the world. According to the organization, ethnic groups that have traditionally lived close to nature are role models for sustainable use of the earth, so that they should be helped to address their messages to the global audience.

One focus of the work is the creation of a comprehensive database of peoples a. makes cultural change visible on the basis of the specially developed scale “ level of assimilation ” shown below in order to promote awareness of traditional cultures and their endangerment.

Unfortunately the indigenous people of North America, Oceania and the Middle East and the traditional peoples of most of Africa are missing; and the database has apparently not been updated since 2008.

category Translation (analogous) Examples
So far, no or very little contact with the modern world. Hence unchanged traditional way of life and worldview. Very few such communities remain today. some Yanomami ,
Shompen ,
Minor contact with outsiders (e.g. by exchanging goods), but without lasting influence on all aspects of the traditional way of life; including traditional clothing, beliefs and ritual beings. No mission influences yet and no regular spending of money. some Penan ,
Jarawa ,
Limited relationships with outsiders. Some contacts with foreign religions, but without lasting influence or adherence to one's own faith despite official "conversion". The traditional modes of subsistence ensure the main part of the supply of goods and food. Some group members use modern clothing, items, and occasionally money. Derung ,
Tagbanuwa ,
fairly traditional
(rather traditional)
Tradition-conscious way of life, preservation of many cultural peculiarities despite permanent contact with the modern world. Money is already being used every day. Aché ,
Urak Lawoi ,
(largely assimilated)
Only little identification through ethnicity. Increasing use of a foreign language by the younger generations. Traditional clothing or rituals only on special occasions. Most people no longer practice the original religion. Ainu ,
Murut ,
completely assimilated
(completely assimilated)
Full identification with modern culture and hardly distinguishable from other citizens of the country, whose language and lifestyle were adopted. The mother tongue and traditional rituals are only preserved by the ancients. Mapoyo ,

Debate and criticism

Symbol of a universal world culture with similar values ​​or rather the “ standard of the conquerors”?

"No sane person can doubt that our western civilization is a system that is out of whack."

While the various socially critical currents of our time generally criticize certain aspects of change , various criticisms are directed against change itself .


Where can the path into the global future lead? Shuar girl on a road in the Ecuadorian rainforest

In the globalization debate , the fear arose that the worldwide spread of market-economy structures and the associated transport of Eurocentric values ​​would endanger cultural diversity because the same type of cultural change would occur everywhere. George Ritzer coined the term “ McDonaldization ” for this . Such a view, however, underestimates the free will of those "affected" by change and the momentum of development, as some scientists emphasize.

There is no doubt that great cultural diversity is not only desirable for the tourism industry for romantic reasons or as a travel incentive. It represents an important store of alternative ideas and life concepts and is therefore viewed as particularly worthy of protection. This realization led to the 2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Cultural Diversity. Cultural diversity is seen as one of the roots of change, as a path to a more fulfilling intellectual, emotional, moral and spiritual existence.

Despite the honorable approach, there is a major problem here: Just as development policy harbors the risk of preparing foreign cultures for a path that is incompatible with their own structures, so can the "freezing or directing" of change, as the UNESCO directive does implied also have adverse effects. There are a few examples that show that the implementation of the directive in the context of tourism prevented a dynamic change. In the case of the Akha women from Laos, the state determined which behavior would be " authentic " and which would not. However, this blocked a change towards more self-determination for women, which would have occurred due to the already westernized framework conditions.

Speed ​​and flexibility of social change

If there is a dispute within sociology as to whether and to what extent social change can be shaped, the notion of “shaping” itself is subject to historical change. In addition to the old idea of ​​the evolutionary development of societies, which Auguste Comte already represented, although he did allow sociologists to play an active role, in the second half of the 20th century the idea of ​​planning change emerged, which sociology also largely accepted until it was replaced by the demand for more market since the 1980s. Today we speak of “design”, whereby the question of their subject (s) and the origin of the leading ideas or visions in this process remains largely unresolved (or the design relates to very narrow areas).

Today, supposedly definable epochs and social cuts are given concise labels (e.g. “ risk society ”), but a theory of change is largely dispensed with.

It was an important finding from Karl Polanyi that the pace of social change induced by the market can be prevented by institutional, especially political interventions in order to avoid or mitigate the destructive social consequences of change. Even “reactionary” political forces can successfully dampen the effects of disruptive social change. Polanyi sees the resistance of the English crown against the privatization of the commons in England up to the 1640s as a successful attempt to preserve the social order that was violated by the landlords and thus to prevent the depopulation of the country and the devastation of the villages . Such resistance, however, no longer existed against the emigration of the rural population in the early industrialization, which resulted in the well-known mass misery of the early capitalist cities. But while z. For example, the introduction of protectionist measures such as protective tariffs in the wake of the founder crisis of 1873-1896 dampened the negative consequences of growth previously unleashed by economic liberalism , which was followed by an extreme decline in property values ​​and prices , became one of the protective tariffs in the global economic crisis of 1920/30 Awarded an aggravating effect.

Today the question arises whether and how negative consequences of globalization z. B. can be mitigated by slowing down the process or whether this process is even partially reversible. On the one hand, technical development makes the process of globalization unique and dynamic through the compression of space and time. On the other hand, there are tendencies towards slowing down or even self-destruction of the process: This results for example from the exponentially increasing volume of financial transactions around the globe, which stands in contrast to the protectionist shielded, slowly growing markets of food production (which is also threatened by climate crises ) . Further signs are the decrease in saving with an increase in credit-financed consumption, the increasing international social inequality , the discrepancy between internationally agreed framework conditions for trade and diverging national economic policy goals. Finally, the transformation of efficiency gains and resource savings into new expansion opportunities and thus into increasing resource consumption overall.

"Morbid" change

Is Human Civilization an Earth Disease?

The laws for self-sustaining, changing (so-called autopoietic ) systems (including ecosystems , living beings ) also apply to human societies , as Niklas Luhmann has postulated. However, this also results in instability that is not immediately visible, the greater the more complex the system and the faster the change in its elements.

Even the functionalist theory Bronisław Malinowski or Talcott Parsons implicitly considered equilibrium states to be “healthy”. Even today, some authors have developed culturally pessimistic reviews who regard the current rapid social development, which is accompanied by many instabilities, as "pathological".

Edward Goldsmith , winner of the alternative Nobel Prize , proves in his "Ecological Manifesto" that there can be no lasting economic and technical progress without impairing the critical order of natural systems.

According to the philosopher Erich Fromm, social change favors the negative character traits of people: greed , materialism, superficiality, destructiveness and an increasing turn to the lifeless - to technology, bureaucracy and finance, which he described as " necrophilia ".

A popular critique of consumerism was presented by John de Graaf, David Wann and Thomas Naylor. They describe the abundance of our time as a pathological condition of society, which they call " affluenza ". The authors cite debt, overproduction of goods, loads of garbage as well as anxiety, feelings of alienation and despair as symptoms of this disease . The disease is caused by greed.

The indigenous American historian Jack Forbes viewed the entire process of civilization since the emergence of the first advanced civilizations as a disease of mankind. The symptoms of this cancer-like epidemic - the "Wétiko psychosis" - are glorification of violence, greed, perversion and arrogance, which lead to increasing rape of humans and nature.

See also


Individual evidence

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