Models of Social Change Research Paper

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There is an amazing multiplicity of social forms: rites, tools, languages, and rules. How has this variety come about and why is it forever changing? Yet most of the time humans behave like those around them. How has this conformity developed? And why is it maintained?



Models of social change address these questions: What generates change, and is it differentiating or uniforming? What maintains established structures, whether they are simple or complex?

Classics, such as Durkheim, Marx, Sundt and Weber, provided models of the transformation as well as the preservation of social forms, and analyzed diversification as well as homogenization. This they did not so much by general theoretical statements as by laying bare the social logic driving specific historical passages. They can be used to highlight models of social change and provide paragons that present-day studies can be appraised against.

1. Individual Actions And Social Facts

Durkheim, in Suicide ([1897] 1951) sought to explain both constancy and variety. He asked: why are suicide rates so stable—indeed, more stable than ordinary death rates—and yet vary systematically between groups? Why do they take on a new stubborn stability after marked shifts? Durkheim held stable, but differing suicide rates to be social facts. They exist relatively independent of the individuals who compose the group on which they are measured. Social facts—e.g., the language we speak, rites we share, or streets we walk—endure, Durkheim argued, sui generis.

Social facts have an existence of their own, like a swarm of moths which can change its shape or shift its position—yet, of course, there are no social phenomena without individuals being part of them: no swarm without the ephemeral movements of moths. Put paradoxically: social facts—both change and constancy—are relatively independent of those on whom they depend. Individuals are held in place by their fellows and take their cues from each other. This is important in study of social change: it is always mediated through individuals who are shaped by their physical and social environment before they can act on it, and who change it by reacting to circumstances they have brought forth or are transmitted from the past. Social change is at the core of sociological analysis. Yet, few studies cover the whole cycle of analyzing ‘how men react to conditions of their own making and in so doing change these conditions’ (Hernes 1976, p. 513). Rather they present snapshots of a condition, such as a poll of opinions or their causal determinants. The reasons are many: collecting data as a process unfolds may be too costly or time-consuming. Data from other sources do not easily lend themselves to analysis over time. Survey techniques often result in a kind of aggregate social psychology rather than in studies of structural change, and when it restricts itself to ‘enumerating individual characteristics, [it] treats the individual as if he were detached from his environment and hence as an abstraction’ (Boudon 1971, p. 48). Indeed, the methodological successes of survey analysis can lead to conceptual failures. So most social scientists do not go into deep analysis of social change even if it is at the core of social analysis.

2. Requirements Of Theories Of Social Change

From the above observations, three logical requirements of theories of social change can be identified (Hernes 1976). First, it should be possible to use the same basic approach in studying both constancy and change. This implies that a stable structure should be seen as a process in (temporary) equilibrium and that the theory must include an explanation of why the forces or parameters governing a process themselves are regenerated. Structural change must be described in terms of the processes that generate the change. Structural stability must be explained in terms of the processes that not only maintain the stability, but also maintain the processes that maintain the stability.

Some accounts are static, e.g., ‘percentage unemployed.’ Yet, from a model point of view, it not only makes better sense, but also for more interesting analysis to conceptualize even ‘static’ phenomena in terms of processes. For example, if the number unemployed remains stable, this does not imply that the same individuals remain out of work—only that the flows of individuals in and out of employment cancel out. Hence stability can be viewed as a process in equilibrium (Coleman 1964).

Second, models of social change should incorporate intrinsic sources of change. Changes in social systems may be induced from the outside, but all changes cannot be thus induced (Elster 1971). Even when the impetus for change is imported, the mechanisms transmitting external impacts should be identified. Indeed, when an item is taken from the outside, it should be possible to employ the same kinds of explanations for its adoption as if it had been invented at home. Moreover, the sources of change should also be intrinsic to the theory in the sense that effects of previous actions provide or change premises for further choices of action.

Lauriston Sharp (1952) gives an example in ‘Steel axes for Stone Age Australians.’ He describes how the aboriginal Yir Yoront group as late as the 1930s lived an essentially isolated and independent economic existence based on Stone Age techniques. However, ‘their polished stone axes were disappearing fast and being replaced by steel axes which came to them in considerable numbers, directly or indirectly, from various European sources to the south’ (Sharp 1951, p. 17). Sharp then discusses what changes in the lives of the group resulted from the replacement of stone axes around which their culture was built. For example, stone axes were an item of trade hence important in intertribal relations, belief systems, celebrations, and totemic ceremonies. Men crafted the stone axes, which were a symbol of their masculinity, yet they were lent to women who used them in their heavy chores. Furthermore, ‘The shift from stone to steel provided no major technological difficulties’ (Sharp 1952, p. 20). Sharp then analyzes how this change of tools changed trade relations, gender interactions, and authority structures.

The most disturbing effects of the steel axe, operating in conjunction with other elements also being introduced from the white man’s several sub-cultures, developed in the realms of traditional ideas, sentiments, and values. These were undermined at a rapidly mounting rate, with no new conceptions being defined to replace them. The result was the erection of a mental and moral void which foreshadowed the collapse and destruction of all Yir Yoront cultures, if not, indeed, the extinction of the biological group itself. (Sharp 1952, p. 21)

Here the new technology came from the outside— the impetus for change was exogenous. But its adoption is explained in terms of simple principles at the level of actors: steel axes were nearly free good tools, simple to use, and requiring less effort—the same types of explanation we would use if they had been invented locally. The effects of this deus ex machina changed premises for further choices of action—in this case with devastating aggregate effects: it reduced women’s dependence on men, it undermined belief systems, it wrecked havoc with traditional trade relations and their social embellishments.

Finally, as just seen, social change is mediated through individual actors. Hence the third requirement of theories of social change: they must show how macrovariables or structural characteristics affect individual motives, capacities, and choices and how the choices of actors in turn change the macrovariables. For the Yir Yoront, adopting a new tool changed their social structure in ways that was no part of their intention.

3. Elements Of Models Of Social Change

Next we can identify the locuses of change. Basically they can be of two kinds: (a) the actors can change, and (b) the structure within which they operate can change. Models must be constructed from these two sets of abstract elements—actors and structures—to mirror what drives the changes in them (Hernes 1989, 1999).

Hence, the first element to specify in a model of social change is the types of actors assumed to operate. In the language of the theater, specifying the actors corresponds to the casting of a play. For example, in microeconomic theory two types of actors are distinguished: consumers maximizing utility by spending their resources to obtain goods, and producers maximizing profit by the quantities they market.

The second element to specify is the structure the actors are lodged in—the staging of a play. For example, in microeconomic theory three main market structures are distinguished: perfect competition where the actors are so many and small that none of them can affect the price; oligopoly, where the producers are so few that they react to each others’ decisions; and monopoly, where a single producer can set the price.

One reason for combining actors and the structure within which they operate, is to construct a model so that one can logically work out the systemic effects of actors’ choices within the structure—the plotting of the play. The point is to answer questions about what happens to the actors or to the structure as a consequence of the actors reacting to the initial conditions—i.e., the logical sequence of consequences that flow from the assumptions made. In other words, we construct models of actors within a structure in order to understand what the actors are doing and why, and to explain what results from their actions and why, whether the results are intended or not. In other words, a model of change is a logical narrative. A logical narrative may have logical flaws and hence be theoretically unsound. And one such logical narrative may exclude others: it simultaneously empowers our reasoning and limits our comprehension—both our understanding of the actors and the explanation of the results of their interaction.

A second purpose is to compare the logical outcomes of the model to a real life sequence of events. A compelling argument may be empirically false—the logical narrative may not match the historical record. Hence, if the model is to provide a valid understanding or a tenable explanation, there must be a rough goodness of fit between what the model logically leads us to expect about what will transpire and what actually takes place in the real world. The model cannot just be plausible in theory—it must at the end of the day be admissible by the facts: the observed must agree with the inferred. If the model is ruled out by the facts, it must be discarded and another constructed from different assumptions that provide a more realistic understanding and credible explanation.

For example, the simple model of perfect competition implies that profits will tend towards zero. If we observe that profits in fact are high, we may modify the model to better account for this fact by changing the assumptions, e.g., by allowing producers to change consumers’ attitudes (advertising) or by allowing for monopolization—i.e., discarding the model of perfect competition.

4. Specifying Actor Assumptions And Structure Assumptions

To give a logical portrait of the types of actors involved in a social process, the following kinds of questions must be answered:

(a) What do they want—what are their preferences or purposes?

(b) What do they know—what are their beliefs, their potential for changing them or for learning?

(c) What can they do—what are their capacities or skills?

Sometimes answers are only rudimentarily specified, e.g., in models of contagion where contracting a disease clearly is not something sought but something caught.

Actor assumptions allow us to understand what actors can do, what they actually do and why, or how others react to them and why.

A similar set of questions must be answered to specify assumptions about the structure:

(a) What alternatives or constraints do the actors face? These may span from opportunity for migration to household budgets. They include collective properties such as laws and norms and physical barriers such as roads or rivers.

(b) What social positions can the actors hold—e.g., organizational roles? What are the correlates of positions—e.g., their status or the hierarchy of wages linked to a given division of labor? Rewards, rights, and burdens are structural correlates of positions— they also define, fix, or freeze the alternatives actors face.

(c) What are the distributional characteristics of actors, as distinct from their individual manifestations? For example, the number of other actors may affect options as in perfect competition, the age distribution may affect outlooks for marriage. The sex ratio and the population pyramid are structural characteristics.

Specifications of the actors’ attributes are needed to understand what they do and why. Specifications of the structure—options and payoffs—within which they choose and act are needed to explain what happens and why. The two sets of assumptions are needed to construct the logical narrative of systemic effects.

5. Intentions vs. Effects

A key point in analyzing social change is the nexus between intentions and effects. Purposive action may have unanticipated consequences (Merton [1936] 1976). That is why understanding the actors is not sufficient—explaining the interworkings of their actions beyond their intentions is necessary. The net outcome of rational choices may be counterintuitive. The way to hell may be paved with good intentions and simultaneous choices based on the best of motives may be counterproductive by some hidden hex. Private vices may give public benefits (Mandeville [1714] 1989), self-serving interest may yield benefits as if guided by an invisible hand. Sometimes actors are caught by what they have wrought; sometimes they do not master the world they have made. Such unintended effects, counterproductive actions and counterintuitive results which flow from the actors’ choices, not their intentions, often produce engaging logical narratives.

6. Expected vs. Desired Consequences

The distinction between actors and structure is useful also when what happens deviates from what was anticipated.

In 1936 Robert K. Merton wrote a famous article on ‘The unanticipated consequences of purposive social action’ (Merton [1936] 1976). A key point is that the effects of actors’ choices may interact to produce effects that are no part of the intentions. This notion is very useful for describing models or mechanisms of social change.

The simplest models of change are of course when purposive actors produce intended results. What appears is what was planned, what materializes is what was sought. However, sometimes what turns up is not what the actors had in mind. Sometimes their best intentions interact to produce self-defeating results, as when a stampede to get out blocks the exit. Sometimes selfish motives produce positive overall effects over and beyond their expectations, with improved welfare coming as a by-product, as if an invisible hand guides self-interest to efficient use of resources. As the argument runs in Adam Smith’s classic text:

He [every individual] generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it. (Smith [1776] 1937, Book 4, Chap. 2)

A key point for the analysis of social change is that what results, whether it appears as the compelling influence from a hidden hex or an invisible hand, flows from the actors’ choices, not from their motives. That is why understanding the actors is not sufficient—explanation of interworkings of their actions beyond their intention, expectation, or belief is necessary. Simultaneous choices based on the best of motives may be counterproductive. The net outcome of rational choices may be counterintuitive. Silly choices may prove lucky strikes, bad motives may result in good fortunes. The way to hell may be paved with good intentions just as private vices may give public benefits (Mandeville [1714] 1989).

Models of Social Change Research Paper Figure 1

In fact, we can classify types of explanations from the answers to two questions: were the consequences expected or not, and were they desired or not? If the results coincide with what was desired, the actors have produced the intended results.

If the results were not expected, but when they appear are desired, we have what could be called ‘invisible hand’ explanations, since they are of the kind illustrated by the quote from Adam Smith above.

The case where the consequences are expected, but actors do not like them when they turn up, can be termed suboptimality (cf. Elster 1978): the actors know that when they act in their own interest, they nevertheless collectively end up in an undesired state—the joint outcome of their choices make them worse off. ‘The Tragedy of the commons’ illustrates the logic. A ‘commons’ is any resource that can be used as though it belongs to all. However, when rational agents use it, such a shared resource is doomed, though this is no part of the users’ intent. Everyone gains from using it, none gains anything from not taking out what they can when others do. When utilized near carrying capacity, additional use will degrade its value to all. ‘Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons’ (Hardin 1968). The inexorable working out of the resource’s ruin is Hardin’s tragedy of the commons. Social change is the consequence of the sum of self-interested actions. And all could be better off by restraints on their own action. If such collective restraints are imposed by the actors themselves, this represents a change of political strutcture. This latter logic and model of structural change was first suggested by Thomas Hobbes ([1651] 1982) who called the commons ‘the state of nature’ and ‘war of all against all,’ whereas the joint establishment of an authority to keep all from self-defeating actions he called Leviathan (cf. Hernes 1999).

The fourth case is where the actors misjudge what others will do. Intentions that could be realized under constant conditions are rendered impossible when everyone seeks to realize them and change the conditions. Hog cycles is an economic example: producers act on the same assumptions and overinvest or underinvest in concert—the results of their decisions appear too late to become premises for their decisions. Erosion is another example—the irreversible destruction of alternatives. With a term Elster (1978) borrows from Sartre, this could be called counterfinality.

The four kinds of models are summarized in Fig. 1. Sometimes the actors get caught by what they have wrought; sometimes they do not master the world they have made. But independent actions can also turn out to be blessings in disguise.

7. Models vs. Types Of Social Changes

Some key aspects of models of social change have been identified. A question of equal import is whether it is possible to identify basic types of social change. To answer this question requires a separate analysis.


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