Social change alters how people live.
Social change alters how people live.

Sociology is the study of all aspects of societies. Sociologists study the role of social institutions, of interpersonal relationships, and of social problems. This involves both the pressure of people on society as well as the pressure of society on people. Most sociologists view society as a purely man-made invention. As such, societies are not stagnant -- they are constantly reforming and evolving in response to the actions of people. Sociologists who study this phenomena are studying social change.

What is Social Change?

Social change, in its broadest meaning, is defined by any change to a society as a whole. It follows the idea that society is a constantly changing entity rather than stagnant. This occurs when changes in behaviors, values or social institutions occur. In order for society to experience change, there must be people or institutions that act as agents of change. These changes can be subtle, such as changing fashions, or large, such as the acceptance of open homosexuality.

Types of Social Change

There are many types of social change society can experience. Much is dependent on which aspect of society is being studied. Social change can be seen as positive if it results in favorable change to certain groups, or negative if other groups are marginalized. An example would be women entering the workforce. This provided a positive change to women, who now had more status and new independence. Conversely, the addition of barbed wire fences in the American West in the 19th century had a negative effect on small ranchers as previously communal roads and water systems were now enclosed by fences. Social change can also be categorized by whether change comes from the bottom or top rung of society.

Functionalist View of Social Change

Functionalism is a broad school of sociological thought which views society as largely harmonious, with every aspect of society working with each other as the different organs work together to preserve an organism. In this view, social change occurs only when there is some form of disharmony within society. Society then moves to correct this disharmony quickly so society can continue to function as an organism. In this way, social change always occurs to the benefit of society.

Critical View of Social Change

The critical, or conflict, view of social change and societies is quite different from the functionalist approach. This view states that societies are made up of large groups of people and institutions that have fundamentally different goals. Due to this, the foundation of society is conflict between these groups rather than societal harmony. In this view, social change is largely determined by the relative power of groups to enforce their wills on society. When a group has enough power, it will change society to suit its own needs. This means that change is not intrinsically to the benefit of society as a whole as envisioned by functionalists.