Keith E Rice's Integrated SocioPsychology Blog & Pages

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Social Change

Updated: 25 August 2020


Social change means some aspect of society, culture or sub-culture changes.

Graphic copyright © 2012 NatCen Social Reserch

Graphic copyright © 2012 NatCen Social Reserch

The changes may be overt and dramatic and obvious to everyone or they may be more discreet and less obvious…until people come to a realisation society around them has already changed. An example of this is the attitude of the general public in the UK towards welfare and benefits. As Elizabeth Clery shows in the results of the 2012 British Social Attitudes survey (BSA)– see graphic left – there has been an increased perception that people on welfare are over-reliant on their benefits and that cutting benefits won’t harm too many people too badly. The following 2 years’ surveys  showed only the most marginal reversal (3%) of this trend (Sarah Alcock, 2015) and the election in 2015  of a Tory government determined to cut even more could be seen as voter approval of these strategies. This was actually a major attitudinal shift in a country that, for many years, had largely prided itself on a generous attitude to welfare. Yet these more subtle changes in public perception often only become news when surveys like the British Social Attitudes annual survey pick them up.

Graphic copyright © 2019 NatCen Social Reserch

How complex these things are, though, and  how quickly some attitudes can change was demonstrated in the BSA of 2019 by Nancy Kelley. She found – see graphic left – that there was a growing difference in perception of the amount of poverty in the UK between Labour and Tory voters. Kelley attributed this to the rise in influence of Jeremy Corbyn to eventually take over Labour’s leadership. Under Tony Blair’s leadership Labour had largely pursued neo-Tory economic policies, mediated by implementing a moderate number of social welfare policies. The result was that, in 10 years, the UK became the second richest country in the world, as measured by gross national product (World Bank, 2007). The vast majority of people shared in this wealth but there was a hard underbelly of deprived and desperately poor – alienated from the mainstream. (See: Underclass: the Excreta of Capitalism.) Corbyn championed these, with the aim of restraining the Capitalists and bringing about greater redistribution of wealth. Had Corbyn been a more effective leader and won the 2017 and/or 2019 elections, he might now be seen as a social hero – see below.

Of course, sometimes a slow growth in a less obvious change in attitudes can suddenly erupt into massive change. Thus, in 1979 Margaret Thatcher achieved a 5.2% swing of former Labour supporters voting Conservative, enough to give her a landslide victory and the mandate to end the so-called ‘post-war consensus’ of centrist politics, in which many of the differences between Labour and the Tories were really more of emphasis than key policy differences (Richard Toye, 2013). After the 1978-79 ‘Winter of Discontent’ when, as a result of various strike actions and union blockades, rubbish remained uncollected in the streets, many hospitals were forced to take in emergency patients only and, in Liverpool and Tameside, the dead remained unburied, it was hardly a surprise that Labour’s James Callaghan lost the election. What did take many commentators by surprise was the size of Thatcher’s victory: a 44-seat majority. Many had just not picked up how dissatisfied with the unions and a bloated and unproductive public sector the so-called ‘silent majority’ had become and how concerned they were with Britain’s economic decline.

Similarly, in December 2019, Corbyn’s Labour seemed to have little sense of just how vulnerable to Boris Johnson’s Tories the so-called ‘Red Wall’ of ‘Labour’s heartlands’ – the industrial towns of the North of England – were. By simplistic sloganising such as ‘Get Brexit Done!’ and a surreptitious appeal to the only-half-hidden racism which had been a deciding factor in the 2016 EU referendum. Johnson was able to secure a crushing landslide majority of 8o seats. Corbyn’s championing of a more equal and fairer society, despite its popularity with some Labour voters, made little impact when set against Johnson’s exploitation of increasingly-xenophobic tendencies in much of the population.  (I had first commented on this emerging tendency back in 2010 with the Blog post Is restricting Immigration discriminatory? – but after the referendum it became increasingly public and overt.)

Daniel Yankelovich (1981) says of the kind of surreptitious change discussed above: “…every now and then a new way of conceiving life and its meaning arises spontaneously from the great mass of the population.”

Change can be slow or it can be rapid. In North America and Western Europe, the 1950s are generally accepted as a decade of deep conservatism. Change was slow, often isolated and not always above the surface. There was no great momentum for change. By contrast, the 1960s were a decade of immense change; changes in everything from the arts to politics to sexual mores – even to some extent the structures of society. Change followed change, slowly at first, then fast and furious – and well into the early 1970s. The zeitgeist – ‘the spirit of the times’ – clearly was different in the 1960s to what it had been in the 1950s.

At the time of writing, the world is in the midst of a war with the Covid-19 Coronavirus. The United States and the United Kingdom have 2 of the highest death rates in the world and their respective leaders, Donald Trump and Boris Johnson respectively, are widely perceived to have handled the pandemic disastrously – even by elements of the right-wing media. With infection rates still dangerously high, the economic impacts of the lockdowns are only just starting to be felt…and down the road the enormous loans these governments borrowed to finance the lockdowns will need to be repaid. The UK is also faced with a likely ‘no-deal Brexit’ (Keith Johnson, Foreign Policy) at the end of December 2020 and a leaked government document purports to predict food shortages, price rises, civil disorder and troops on the streets to contain it if the ‘perfect storm’ of no deal Brexit and a second wave of the coronavirus co-occur (Harry Cole, The Sun).

Cataclysmic events often precede significant social change – eg: female electoral emancipation and greater unionisation in the West after World War I and the Spanish Flu and the creation of the Welfare State in the UK after World War II. So, from a behavioural science perspective, it will be interesting to see what changes emerge from the pandemic and its economic wreckage.

2 Approaches to social change
Talcott Parsons (1966), the leading 20th-century figure in Functionalism, presented an equilibrium model of social change. His view was that society is always in a natural state of equilibrium, defined as a state of equal balance among opposing forces. Extending Émile Durkheim’s (1893) argument that some degree of deviance is necessary to facilitate change in a society – see: Crime and Deviance – the Difference – Parsons held that gradual change is both necessary and desirable and typically stems from such things as population growth, technological advances and interaction with other societies which exposes people to new ways of thinking and acting. However, any sudden social change disrupts this equilibrium. To prevent this from happening, other parts of society must make appropriate adjustments if one part of society undergoes too sudden a change.

Conflict theorists, such as Alan Sears (2008), view the opposing forces in society not as balanced but defined by inequality that produces conflict rather than order and consensus. This conflict based on inequality can only be overcome through a fundamental transformation of the existing social relations in the society to produce new social relations. Those who are disadvantaged in what the Functionalists see as equilibrium, have interests in removing the status quo and changing the structure of society.

As Functionalists view social change as the result of certain natural forces, social change is unplanned and tends to just happen, with society then making adjustments to cope with the change. However, Conflict theorists, recognise that social change often stems from efforts by social movements to bring about fundamental changes in the social, economic, and political systems. In this sense social change is more planned, or at least intended, than Functionalist theory acknowledges. Of course, in the ‘real world’ social change takes place sometimes because certain people – often a minority acting as a pressure group – want it to change in some way and sometimes elements of society almost unconsciously simply start to change. And sometimes the pressure group catches the beginnings of change in society at large and accelerates that process of change dramatically. Feminist activists, capturing the zeitgeist of change in the Western world during the late 1960s and early 1970s, used it to accelerate societal acceptance of women’s rights in such things as equal pay for the same job, freedom from sexual harassment, protection from marital rape, etc, etc.

One problem for those who intend to bring about change is Intersectionality. Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989) is credited with first identifying this phenomenon: that different areas of life intersect to produce an effect. Eg: sexuality, race and gender may intersect to produce a very different set of life experiences for a lesbian black woman than a heterosexual white man. bell hooks (2004) illustrates the problem of only tackling one area of an intersection when she considers a black woman campaigning for women to have equality with men: does she mean black men or white men? The likelihood is that, if she means black men, she will still be socially disadvantaged because black men usually have lower status than white men (and white women) in Western society. Thus, to maximise the effectiveness of designed change, the designer(s) must consider what other areas will intersect with the one being focussed on. Effectively, this is a MeshWORK approach.

This feature looks at some of the key factors in change, using the 4Q/8L model Don Beck (2000b, 2002b) developed from the All Quadrants/All Levels work of Ken Wilber (1996). Although we will look at each quadrant in turn, the quadrants are not truly discrete. Change in one quadrant inevitably correlates with change in at least one other, often to lead to change across the whole. The relationship may even be causal in some circumstances. Anthony Giddens’ (1984) work on Structuration Theory is particularly helpful  in considering the relationship between culture (Lower Left Quadrant) and structure (Lower Right). There is a 2-way connectedness between the 2 lower quadrants: change in the structure can lead to changes in the way people think but changes in attitude can lead to alterations in the structure.

Upper Right Quadrant: a physiology for change…?
Societal change doesn’t just happen independent of people – though, as Yankelovich comments, it certainly can seem to in that people suddenly realise change has happened. Society is composed of people. Therefore, societal change involves people changing in some way.

For significant change to take place in a society, culture or sub-culture, individuals, who are either going to make the change happen or be transformed in some way by the change, have to have the capacity to do that. In the Upper Right Quadrant, we consider the physiological well-being of the individual and, in particular, the effect their physiology at any time has on the development of mental states (Upper Left). The human brain is much more ‘plastic’ than thought until very recently. From a review of recent research, Daniel J Siegel (2012) posits that neural plasticity is so great that the brain and central nervous system can be ‘shaped’ to some considerable extent by what the organism is experiencing in any context. This ‘shaping’ may well involve epigenetic modification.

As Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs shows us only too clearly, people who are starving (Survival level need for food) have little interest in how their government is planning, for example, to reduce the balance of trade deficit (Cognitive need to know and understand). Their BEIGE vMEME needs them to have food NOW. The selfplex is simply not capable of holding abstract intellectual concepts when the body is in such dire need.

This is one difficulty Modernisation Theory has run into in its attempts to kickstart traditional societies on their journey to becoming Western-style consumer societies. Unsurprisingly, as Parsons himself acknowledged in 1964, the values of people trying to scrape a subsistence living off the land, are simply not appropriate for development of an industrial economy. Their mindset tends to be a BEIGE/PURPLE vMEME harmonic of survival via attachment to the land. People in that mindset struggle to visualise a future existence beyond the present – in some ways, it is incomprehensible to them. They have no ‘feel’ for it; so it has no appeal to them.

Bernard Gesch et al’s (2003) groundbreaking study into the effects of a daily multi-vitamin supplement in reducing violence amongst hardened prisoners is just one piece of research which demonstrates how ingestants can transform mindsets and bring about vMEMETIC shift.

By the 1960s much of the population of the United States was enjoying previously undreamed-of affluence. Few went hungry that were prepared to work. Perhaps the physiological well-being of so many Americans contributed to that decade being such a decade of societal change (lower quadrants). Also, of course, it was a time of experimentation with mind-altering drugs such as cannabis, LSD-25 and natural psychedelics such as psilocybin. Could it be that the effects many users experienced led them to think about things in a different way – change in the Upper Right leading to change in the Upper Left?

Using the liberalisation of attitudes towards homosexuality as an illustrative example, the United States – like the UK (also experiencing previously undreamed-of prosperity) – inched its way towards decriminalisation under the influence of the strongly-emergent GREEN vMEME in the late 1960s/early 1970s.

By comparison, even today, some 40 years later, in many countries in the ‘developing world’, where much of the population ekes a meagre living in deeply conservative traditional societies, never far off from food shortages and sometimes outright famine, homosexuality is a ‘sin’ and a crime that may even be punished by death.

Thus, people’s physiology will impact upon their ability to think differently, as required by change – particularly if the change requires more complex thinking than their physiology is geared to.

There is no clear evidence for a direct causal relationship between physiological well-being and the capacity for social change; but clearly there is some kind of correlation.

Nelson Mandela in the prison courtyard on Robben Island, with fellow African National Congress leader, Walter Sisulu

Nelson Mandela in the prison courtyard on Robben Island, with fellow African National Congress leader, Walter Sisulu

Upper Left Quadrant and the ‘social hero’
In the Upper Left Quadrant, we consider how thinking in the individual shifts and changes and how that impact upon societal change.

Philip Zimbardo (2007) introduced the concept of the ‘social hero’, the individual who makes a stand against the prevailing order because they believe it is unjust. Willing to make sacrifices for the good of others in society or in pursuit of an important principle, social heroism can be costly in terms of lowered social status and loss of credibility. Often arrest accompanies social heroism when it directly challenges the authorities. In some countries, opposing the authorities or other elite groups – eg: the drug cartels of Latin America – can result in torture and even death.

Nelson Mandela is often hailed as one of the greatest social heroes of modern times – eg: Ivana Kottasová & Stephanie Busari (2012). Mandela suffered imprisonment for 27 years for campaigning against Apartheid in South Africa. He then, with help from the likes of Spiral Dynamics co-developer Don Beck – see Don Beck & South Africa – not only forgave those who had persecuted him but led the country into a new era of racial equality and reconciliation.

Mandela at his inaugutation,with outgoing South African president F W De Klerk, 10 May 1994

Mandela at his inaugutation,with outgoing South African president F W De Klerk, 10 May 1994

Mandela is usually considered by commentators – eg: Elleke Boehmer (2008) – to have been the greatest statesman of the latter half of the 20th Century. Clearly, from being a young man onwards, he was increasingly a political visionary. However, not all social heroes are high profile political visionaries.

Rosa Parks is sometimes cited as the perfect example of the ‘ordinary’, nondescript person – “quiet, unassuming”, according to Leonard Pitts (2013) – who almost unwittingly becomes a social hero.  The 42-year-old black seamstress’s refusal to give up her bus seat, reclassified by the driver from ‘coloured to ’white’ for the benefit of a white passenger, was a violation of the state of Alabama’s laws on racial segregation. However, that action and Parks’ consequent arrest, trial and appeal of her conviction all became a mighty catalyst to accelerate the growth of the American Civil Rights movement.

Rosa Parks’ police ‘mugshot’, 1 December 1955

Rosa Parks’ police ‘mugshot’, 1 December 1955

However, as Paul Loeb (2010) points out: “Parks’ decision didn’t come out of nowhere.” She was secretary to the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People and, thus, a Civil Rights activist.

This brings us to a key characteristic of the social hero which Zimbardo identifies: imagination. Zimbardo posits that people who imagine facing potentially risky situations and rehearsing mentally how they would deal with them, are much more likely to become social heroes when the context predicates it.

Tying in with this, people who tend to have more of an internal locus of control are more likely to become social heroes because they will listen to their own internal moral compass rather than respond to the external expectations of others. As discussed in Attribution Theory, having an internal locus comes from greater dominance over the selfplex of the ‘warm’, self-expressive vMEMES. A social hero needs at least RED in their vMEME stack to give them that express-self energy to defy whatever it is they perceive to be unjust and take a stand. There may, however, also be a touch of RED/blue zealotry in the social hero’s selfplex if they subscribe to a particular ideology and wish to convert others to their cause – ie: be a leader with followers.

Such zealous social heroes may come across as ‘firebrands’ and are likely to drive for radical change as Sears and other Conflict theorists perceive it to be needed. A social hero leader dominated by the ORANGE vMEME is likely to be both more visionary (in the long-term sense) and more pragmatic. More willing to compromise in the immediate as a step towards long-term goals. This approach fits more with the Functionalist view that incremental change is better, allowing society to incorporate and adapt to the change without becoming disrupted and/or dysfunctional. It also fits with Serge Moscovici’s (1976) assertion that being flexible and not-too-radical is a necessary condition of any successful minority influence campaign.

The Assimilation-Contrast Effect (ACE) shows how the more RED dominates in the  social hero’s selfplex, as per Conflict theories, the more they will contrast and push away/denounce any views which don’t fit with their’s, even those which might be said to be broadly on their side. An example of this during the post-2001 occupation of Afghanistan has been that the Taliban generally treated moderate (‘apostate’) Afghan Muslims far worse than they did Westerners who fell into their hands.

On the other hand ACE shows that ORANGE and GREEN-oriented social heroes are more likely to look for opportunities to assimilate in a Functionalist way that favours change being incremental and manageable without completely disturbing the status quo.

People with more of an external locus of control are more likely to be driven by the ‘cool’ vMEMES to conform and obey. Thus, they are unlikely to become social heroes in the way Zimbardo means.