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What is Social Change & Why is it Important?

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Social change is best analyzed through the lens of history. If you look at your own lifetime, you can probably recognize prominent moments of social change just by thinking about how different the world is today from 10, 20, or even 50 years ago.

What sparks this social change?

It could be caused by scientists gaining a deeper understanding of the environment and our effect on it. It could be caused by judicial transformations within the government. Or they could be caused by the people themselves—people who want to see ways of life change for the better.

Our perspectives and worldviews expand with time, and even if laws don’t reflect certain shifts of mindsets immediately, the world around us changes, offering a new lens to view established social and cultural norms. When we challenge preconceived notions we reshape our interpersonal relationships and interactions—and that’s what defines social change. 

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What Is Social Change: A Definition

Sociologists describe social change as the shift in human interactions that transform the existing cultural and social institutions. These shifts usually occur gradually, developing over time. People are stronger when they come together, not when they’re divided, so the collective energy that builds to propel societal changes is incredibly powerful.

8 Examples of Social Change

Social change exists in many different forms. Some changes are mental, while others are reflected in the legal system. Some alter individual lifestyle choices and others have life-changing impact on a large group of people. Modern society would not be where it is today in terms of human rights but for the community members who challenged inequality and led the social change movements of our past. 

Here are 8 examples of noteworthy social changes that have occurred over the last 50 years, as reported by the global analytics firm Gallup.

#1 Decreasing Religiosity

During the 1950s and 60s, Americans’ attachment to religion was high. But during the Woodstock era, where involvement in the Vietnam War was highly controversial, and a counterculture movement of peace, love, and understanding was thriving, people began to question their belief systems—especially younger generations.

As people questioned established institutions like the government, other things that were widely accepted as part of life were also being reconsidered. Between 1965 and 1978, religious importance fell from 70% to 52%. The generation of young adults who distanced themselves from religion then raised their kids in a similar way, keeping religion important to only around half of the American population.

#2 Growing Support for Marijuana Legalization

Beginning in the 1970s, legalization of marijuana began to gain support, skyrocketing drastically in the late 2000s. In particular, medical marijuana bridged the gap between previously less supportive groups on the matter, according to studies from organizations like Third Way.

Groups that were historically less supportive of legalization, like Republicans, women, and people of color, saw the ways medical marijuana proved to be beneficial to those with serious illnesses and allowed themselves to form new opinions. Even among those in active opposition to recreational marijuana, a majority support its medical use, proving that thinking beyond yourself and your individual needs serves as a catalyst for massive social change.

#3 Normalizing Interracial Marriage

When interracial marriage became legal in all US states in the late 1960s, a mere 20% of Americans approved. As more couples married outside of their race, widespread acceptance began to grow, with the first majority approval was recorded in 1997. Since then, approval has continued to grow, with the last recorded figures nearly a decade ago coming in at 87%.

#4 Expanding Mindsets on LGBTQ+ Issues

For decades, the American opinion on same-sex marriage shifted regularly. After years of opinions rising and falling, there has been a steady rise since 2006, when approval ratings passed the majority and never fell again, paving the way for the legalization of gay marriage and support for future LGBTQ+ rights movements.

#5 Allowing Women the Freedom of Choice

In the landmark Roe v. Wade case in 1973, the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution protects a women’s right to have an abortion—a polarizing issue that is still widely debated today. While the road to women’s reproductive rights has ongoing turbulence, the majority of Americans continue to believe that women should have the right to make their own decisions when it comes to having a child.

Another development in women’s personal freedoms is the gradual normalization of women in the workforce. As a level playing field developed for women and job opportunities became available, more women started to realize that they would prefer a job outside the home as opposed to working full-time as a homemaker. 

In the 21st-century, a slight majority of women continue to prefer to have a job beyond taking care of their home and family.

#6 Decreasing Family Size

Sociopolitical movements in the 1960s and 70s, such as gender equality, destigmatizing sex before marriage, and prioritizing reproductive rights started the trend towards smaller family size. Global concerns about population growth, global warming, and increased cost of living were also influencing Americans’ opinions on whether or not a large family was even feasible.

In recent years, most Americans thought the ideal family size was two children—a number many people settled on because it’s the replacement rate, meaning you and your partner would not be contributing to population growth.

#7 Supporting a Black Man as President

If someone were to ask themselves “what is social change?” in 2009, it would likely be the success of electing President Barack Obama. While the election of Obama was certainly not an indication that racism no longer existed and equality had been achieved, it was still a feat that would’ve been impossible 50 years earlier prior to the civil rights movement.

#8 Advocating for a Woman as President

In a similar vein, Americans were less likely to vote for a woman for president. It wasn’t until the 70s that a significant majority of Americans said they would consider a candidate who was a woman. In the 2016 election, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, proving that Americans have faith in women’s leadership.

What Is Positive Social Change?

While positive social change seems inherently different than typical social change—even implying the existence of negative social change—adding the word “positive” simply means that people’s lives are being improved as a result.

The organization Africa Education & Leadership Initiative (ELI) brings up three important factors that they use to define positive social change:

  1. Positive social change results in the betterment of society, improving human and social conditions.
  2. These changes can occur at many levels, including for individuals, families and friends, communities, organizations, and local, state, or federal government.
  3. The driving forces behind positive social change are ideas and actions with real-world implications.

What Causes Positive Social Change?

Positive social change can stem from a number of things, such as:

  • Dissatisfaction with current institutions – One example of this is the Black Lives Matter movement, which was born out of America’s longstanding police brutality problem, and the bias and corruption in our legal system that prevents perpetrators of violence from being held accountable.
  • Technological innovation – Since we’ve entered the Information Age, questions of privacy, surveillance, and artificial intelligence have come into the forefront of our society.
  • Economic changes – People protest for economic support, whether that’s about the wealth inequality between the richest percentage and the poorest, minimum wage that doesn’t provide a livable income, or demand for economic assistance in tumultuous times.

However, when it comes to vehicles of positive social change, as in obtaining the tools to better the world around you, new experiences and education are largely responsible—and can even be interconnected. Social scientists believe that support for social change movements is higher in populations that are more educated and exposed to new experiences. 

How Do Experience and Education Aid Social Change?

While lived experiences may not be formal education, it’s a form of hands-on learning that teaches us the tools to care about one another, cultivating a more curious and compassionate community through:

  • Gaining knowledge of other cultures
  • Participating in intercultural exchange
  • Seeing new ways of life
  • Learning how to communicate with different personalities
  • Considering other belief systems and ways of life
  • Self-reflecting on your own beliefs and where they come from

Formal education works in a similar way, providing social lessons and teaching skills that encourage the following:

  • Relating to different people and building friendships
  • Identifying problems and coming up with your own solutions
  • Exercising self-control, both verbally and physically
  • Accepting that actions have consequences
  • Gaining a sense of responsibility and civic duty
  • Practicing thoughtful leadership
  • Asking questions about things you don’t understand
  • Thinking about the best ways to speak and listen

Learning to be caring and inquisitive builds the desire to be an agent of change, and in turn, positively impacts the world around you.

Becoming an Agent of Social Change

Education systems around the world, whether it’s a public elementary school or a private university, inherently ask you to think outside of yourself. These institutions question how you can serve your community, and how your community fits into society—and if your society needs to change to serve your community, what tools you’ll need to make that dream a reality.

At Alliant International University, you can learn new skills that will help you become an agent of social change, by gaining unique experiences and participating in award-winning academic programs. 

Alliant offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees, doctorates, and specialized certificates, credentials, and continuing education programs. With online and in-person schooling options, you can study what you want when you want. Equip yourself with the tools you need to shape your world by starting at Alliant.

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