What is social change and how does it happen?

What is social change and how does it happen?

The causes of social change are confidently set out in the new edition of a rather good textbook on Ways of Social Change by Garth Massey (2016) as being five in number. They are: technology, science and innovation; social movements and social contention; war, revolution and political violence; corporations and the commercial transformation of material life; and the state and its use of public resources. On one level these are uncontentious, in that under some circumstances and in some contexts all of them could indeed propel changes of different kinds, and it is helpful to have them spelled out in the detailed way that Massey does. On another, some important questions are begged. In particular, the million dollar question of exactly what is meant by ‘social change’ needs to be thought through (is it change of any kind? change to any degree? Or is there more to it than this?), while in Massey’s discussion it remains largely unexamined. Also of considerable importance is whether change has to occur in all or a number of these spheres, or whether one of them might be sufficiently crucial for transformation in it to have a domino effect on the others and achieve ‘social change’ generally. And there is a further question concerning the ‘how’ of change occurring, that is, how does change in technology, politics, war and so on come about at a more micro-level, with why they matter and their impact considered by Massey but not why they happen in the first place.

These interrelated questions are of considerable import because having a programmatic response to them is essential to a workable theory of social change. They can be summarised as, what is social change and how should this be measured, to what extent does it have to occur to be seen as ‘change’, how and why does it happen at the micro-level, and in what particular context or circumstances? These are key questions that WWW is concerned to explore through the prism of the representational order of letter-writing over the longue durée of the white presence in South Africa. In one of the forthcoming essays on ‘Thinking with Elias’ (see the tab on Elias on the homepage), they will be considered in detail in relation to theoretical enquiries concerning them produced by Fernand Braudel and William Sewell as well as by Elias himself.

Garth Massey (2016 2nd edition) Ways of Social Change: Making Sense of Modern Times Los Angeles: Sage Publications
Last updated: 4 November 2016


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