Social Change: Definition, Features, Source, Types, and More

What is Social Change?

The alteration or transformation in the social (human) inter-actions, relationships, social structure, social institutions, social organization, and patterns of social behavior in a given society is called social change.

Change is a never-ending process and the universal law of life. Change occurs in every aspect of society from material to non-material things. No society remains completely static and therefore, it is subjected to constant changes. If we say that, society is a complex network of relationships then social change would mean changes in social relationships.

In other words, it refers to a change that occurs in the structure and functioning of the social system comprising the following areas;

  • Social structures
  • Roles performed by individuals
  • Social relationships among people
  • Patterns of social interactions
  • Values and norms, and
  • Structure and functions of different social groups and institutions.

For. e.g. inter-caste marriage, the nuclearization of family, abolition of child marriage, occupational mobility, women working outside their homes, etc. are instances of social change.


Social scientists are trying to understand the process of social change, the direction of social changes & various factors that bring it. Different sociologists have tried to explain it by defining it in different ways.

  • According to T. B. Bottmore, ‘Social change refers to change occurring in social structure or the institution or the relationship between the institutions.’
  • According to Kinsley Davis, ‘Social change is meant only such alterations as occur in social organizations, that is, structure and functions of society.’
  • According to M.E. Jones, “Social change is a term used to describe variations in, or modifications of, any aspects of social process, social patterns, social interactions, or social organizations.”

Hence, it signifies social growth, social development, social evolution, social progress, social revolution, social reform, etc.


Social change can originate from either within a society or from outside of society.

  • Internal sources of social change are those factors that originate within a specific society that singly or in combination with other factors produce alterations in social institutions and social structure. E.g. biological factors (i.e. population and heredity), religion, economy, legal factors, etc.
  • External sources of social change are events that originate outside of a society to bring about change to social institutions or structures e.g. globalization, environment, etc.

Features of Social Change

There are few identifiable characteristics of social change. Some of them are as follows:

It is social, not individual: It means a change in the system of social relationships. The social relationship is understood in terms of social process, social interactions, and social or social organizations. So, in any variation of social process, interactions and social organizations create social change.

It is a universal phenomenon: It happens everywhere. No society remains completely static. Society may be primitive or modern, rural or urban, simple or complex, agrarian or industrial, it is constantly changing but the rate of change varies from society to society from time to time.

It is a continuous process: It is a continuous process because the changes are neither stopped nor the societies are kept in museums to save them from change. It is an ongoing process without any break. In the process of change, every society finds renewal and accommodates itself to various changing conditions.

It is inevitable: It is inevitable. The human desire and wants/needs keep on changing and to satisfy those wants, social change is necessary.

It is temporal: The change in society requires time and it is the time sequence that determines social changes because change is a process, not the end product.

Degree or rate of change is not uniform: The speed of social change is not uniform and varies from society to society and even in the same society from time to time. Sometimes the degree of change is high and sometimes low depending upon the nature of society open and close, rural and urban, traditional and modern, etc. E.g. rate of change in rural societies is slower whereas it is quick in urban societies.

It may be planned or unplanned: It occurs either way; with planning (such as through plans, programs, projects, etc.) or without planning i.e. naturally. For E.g. the change resulting from natural calamities like floods, drought, famines, volcanic eruptions, etc. are unplanned changes and the changes that occurred by the Three Years Plan made by the government of Nepal are planned changes.

It is multi-causal: It is not due to a single factor (or cause) because multiple factors are responsible for change to occur. Some factors that bring social change are; physical, biological, demographical, cultural, technological, etc. It is the interaction of various factors that result in social changes because the social phenomena or parts are interrelated and interdependent.

It creates chain reactions: It not only occurs in one aspect (parts) of society, rather in all parts of the society as changes in one part bring changes in other parts. E.g. the economic independence of women has brought changes not only in their status but also in a series of changes in the home, family relationships, marriage decisions, etc.

Types of Social Change

Cultural anthropologist David F. Aberle has prescribed four types of social changes based on how much change they advocate and whether they target individuals or the entire society. The types are;

Alternative Change: Alternative social change operates at the individual level and advocates a minor change in the behavior of an individual. E.g. Campaigns against mobile phone use and driving seek a small behavior change.

Redemptive Change: It operates at the individual level but advocates a dramatic change within the individual. E.g. the spread of religious campaigns against alcoholism as they advocate dramatic personal change for a specific portion of the population.

Reformative Change: It operates on a broad scale and seeks to reform the present condition or aspects of life. E.g. the abolition of the Sati system, a movement to obtain marriage rights for same-sex couples.

Revolutionary Change: It operates on a large scale and seeks dramatic change which fundamentally restructures the society. E.g. French Political Revolution (1789-1799 AD), Maoist’s Armed Revolution in Nepal (during 1996-2006 AD.)


Factors affecting social changes are:

  • Biological factors or demographic factors
  • Social movement and social revolution
  • Physical or environmental factors
  • Psychological factors
  • Technological factors
  • Ideological factors
  • Economic factors
  • Cultural factors
  • Political factors
  • Legal factors
  • Planning

All the factors are explained here.

Resistance/Obstacles to Social Change

People and society do not accept change easily unless there is mental preparation. In this regard, various factors which hinder (resist) social change are explained below,

Attitude towards change: For social change to take place, there should be a feeling of dissatisfaction with the existing situation. But many times people are so used to that lethargic situation that they do not wish to change the situation. They have no mental capacity to fight against the situation and change it. Such an attitude is one of the obstacles to social changes.

Habituation: Normally people are habituated to the environment and situation and to break that is very difficult.

Custom and tradition: People have inculcated the tradition & custom through forefathers so much that any revolutionary idea to change the custom is always criticized. Thus change is almost difficult.

Vested interest: Resistance to the change comes from a group of people who would be threatened by that change. In such a case, suggestion for change is likely to have resistance when it appears not beneficial to the people who have long been on the advantage side due to the current conditions of the society.

Lack of proper knowledge: Although knowledge can clear misconceptions and make people accept change readily, social change is resisted by people who lack the knowledge of discoveries. Illiteracy and ignorance make understanding any technological innovation difficult. E.g. it took generations to divert the Baadi People in Nepal from their traditional profession of prostitution to other forms of economic activities. It is necessary, therefore to educate the people before introducing any change in their native, traditional setting.

The desire for stability: Sometimes, the desire for stability makes people resist or reject change. When any change disrupts the normal routine life of people, then they oppose change. Moreover, they may not be sure that the change is going to be beneficial or harmful. So, they tend to be apprehensive about it.

Suspicion: When people suspect that a given change is harmful, anti-social, or irreligious, they resist it. Those who believe that taking a vaccine against smallpox is to arouse the wrath of the goddess ‘Mata’ refuse to take inoculation. Superstitions, religious beliefs & prejudices create suspicion among illiterate, ignorant, tradition-bound people.

Suggestions to Overcome Resistance to Social Change

Although there are some stumbling blocks in the process of acceptance of social change, with education, persuasion, and deliberation it is possible to prepare the people mentally to accept the change if it is meant for their well-being and the welfare of the society at large. Attitudes of the people cannot be changed with the stroke of a pen, bypassing laws, or by any other forcible, drastic measures. When attitudes change favorably, the speed of social changes increases fairly.

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