Sources of Social Change

Learning Objectives

  1. Describe the major sources of social change.
  2. Explain cultural lag and provide an example.

We have seen that social change stems from natural forces and also from the intentional acts of groups of people. This section further examines these sources of social change.

Population Growth and Composition

Much of the discussion so far has talked about population growth as a major source of social change as societies evolved from older to modern times. Yet even in modern societies, changes in the size and composition of the population can have important effects for other aspects of a society, as Chapter 19 “Population and Urbanization” emphasized. As just one example, the number of school-aged children reached a high point in the late 1990s as the children of the post–World War II baby boom entered their school years. This swelling of the school-aged population had at least three important consequences. First, new schools had to be built, modular classrooms and other structures had to be added to existing schools, and more teachers and other school personnel had to be hired (Leonard, 1998). Second, school boards and municipalities had to borrow dollars and/or raise taxes to pay for all of these expenses. Third, the construction industry, building supply centers, and other businesses profited from the building of new schools and related activities. The growth of this segment of our population thus had profound implications for many aspects of U.S. society even though it was unplanned and “natural.”

Culture and Technology

Culture and technology are other sources of social change. Changes in culture can change technology; changes in technology can transform culture; and changes in both can alter other aspects of society (Crowley & Heyer, 2011).

Two examples from either end of the 20th century illustrate the complex relationship among culture, technology, and society. At the beginning of the century, the car was still a new invention, and automobiles slowly but surely grew in number, diversity, speed, and power. The car altered the social and physical landscape of the United States and other industrial nations as few other inventions have. Roads and highways were built; pollution increased; families began living farther from each other and from their workplaces; tens of thousands of people started dying annually in car accidents. These are just a few of the effects the invention of the car had, but they illustrate how changes in technology can affect so many other aspects of society.

At the end of the 20th century came the personal computer, whose development has also had an enormous impact that will not be fully understood for some years to come. Anyone old enough, such as many of your oldest professors, to remember having to type long manuscripts on a manual typewriter will easily attest to the difference computers have made for many aspects of our work lives. E-mail, the Internet, and smartphones have enabled instant communication and make the world a very small place, and tens of millions of people now use Facebook and other social media. A generation ago, students studying abroad or people working in the Peace Corps overseas would send a letter back home, and it would take up to 2 weeks or more to arrive. It would take another week or 2 for them to hear back from their parents. Now even in poor parts of the world, access to computers and smartphones lets us communicate instantly with people across the planet.

As the world becomes a smaller place, it becomes possible for different cultures to have more contact with each other. This contact, too, leads to social change to the extent that one culture adopts some of the norms, values, and other aspects of another culture. Anyone visiting a poor nation and seeing Coke, Pepsi, and other popular U.S. products in vending machines and stores in various cities will have a culture shock that reminds us instantly of the influence of one culture on another. For better or worse, this impact means that the world’s diverse cultures are increasingly giving way to a more uniform global culture.

This process has been happening for more than a century. The rise of newspapers, the development of trains and railroads, and the invention of the telegraph, telephone, and, later, radio and television allowed cultures in different parts of the world to communicate with each other in ways not previously possible. Affordable jet transportation, cell phones, the Internet, and other modern technology have taken such communication a gigantic step further.

As mentioned earlier, many observers fear that the world is becoming Westernized as Coke, Pepsi, McDonald’s, and other products and companies invade other cultures. Others say that Westernization is a good thing, because these products, but especially more important ones like refrigerators and computers, do make people’s lives easier and therefore better. Still other observers say the impact of Westernization has been exaggerated. Both within the United States and across the world, these observers say, many cultures continue to thrive, and people continue to hold on to their ethnic identities.

Cultural Lag

An important aspect of social change is cultural lag, a term popularized by sociologist William F. Ogburn (1922/1966). When there is a change in one aspect of society or culture, this change often leads to and even forces a change in another aspect of society or culture. However, often some time lapses before the latter change occurs. Cultural lag refers to this delay between the initial social change and the resulting social change.

Discussions of examples of cultural lag often feature a technological change as the initial change. Ogburn (1922/1966) cited one such example from the decades after the American Civil War: the rise of the machine age. The development of factories during the Industrial Revolution meant that work became much more dangerous than before. More industrial accidents occurred, but injured workers were unable to receive adequate financial compensation because the existing law of negligence allowed them to sue only the person—a fellow worker—whose negligence caused the injury. However, negligent workers were typically very poor themselves and thus unable to provide meaningful compensation if they were sued. This meant that injured workers in effect could receive no money for their injuries.

Over time, the sheer number of industrial accidents and rising labor protest movement pressured lawmakers to help injured workers receive financial assistance. Some states began to allow workers to sue the companies whose dangerous workplaces were responsible for their injuries, and juries awarded these workers huge sums of money. Fearing these jury awards, in the early 1900s the manufacturing industry finally developed the process now called workers’ compensation, which involves fairly automatic payments for workplace injuries without the necessity of lawsuits (Barkan, 2009). The delay of several decades between the rise of factories and industrial accidents and the eventual establishment of workers’ compensation is a fine example of cultural lag.

A more recent example of cultural lag involves changes in child custody law brought about by changes in reproductive technology. Developments in reproductive technology have allowed same-sex couples to have children conceived from a donated egg and/or donated sperm. If a same-sex couple later breaks up, it is not yet clear who should win custody of the couple’s child or children because traditional custody law is based on the premise of a divorce of a married heterosexual couple who are both the biological parents of their children. Yet custody law is slowly evolving to recognize the parental rights of same-sex couples. Some cases from California are illustrative.

In 2005, the California Supreme Court issued rulings in several cases involving lesbian parents who ended their relationship. In determining custody and visitation rights and child support obligations, the court decided that the couples should be treated under the law as if they had been heterosexual parents, and it decided on behalf of the partners who were seeking custody/visitation rights and child support. More generally, the court granted same-sex parents all the legal rights and responsibilities of heterosexual parents. The change in marital law that is slowly occurring because of changes in reproductive technology is another example of cultural lag. As the legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights said of the California cases, “Same-sex couples are now able to procreate and have children, and the law has to catch up with that reality” (Paulson & Wood, 2005, p. 1).

The Natural Environment

Changes in the natural environment can also lead to changes in a society itself. We see the clearest evidence of this when a major hurricane, an earthquake, or another natural disaster strikes. Three recent disasters illustrate this phenomenon. In April 2010, an oil rig operated by BP, an international oil and energy company, exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, creating what many observers called the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history; its effects on the ocean, marine animals, and the economies of states and cities affected by the oil spill will be felt for decades to come. In January 2010, a devastating earthquake struck Haiti and killed more than 250,000 people, or about 2.5% of that nation’s population. A month later, an even stronger earthquake hit Chile. Although this earthquake killed only hundreds (it was relatively far from Chile’s large cities and the Chilean buildings were sturdily built), it still caused massive damage to the nation’s infrastructure. The effects of these natural disasters on the economy and society of each of these two countries will certainly also be felt for many years to come.

The aftermath of the Haiti Earthquake

As is evident in this photo taken in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti, changes in the natural environment can lead to profound changes in a society. Environmental changes are one of the many sources of social change.

Slower changes in the environment can also have a large social impact. As noted earlier, one of the negative effects of industrialization has been the increase in pollution of our air, water, and ground. With estimates of the number of U.S. deaths from air pollution ranging from a low of 10,000 to a high of 60,000 (Reiman & Leighton, 2010), pollution certainly has an important impact on our society. Climate change, a larger environmental problem, has also been relatively slow in arriving but threatens the whole planet in ways that climate change researchers have already documented and will no doubt be examining for the rest of our lifetimes and beyond (Schneider, Rosencranz, Mastrandrea, & Kuntz-Duriseti, 2010). Chapter 20 “Social Change and the Environment”, Section 20.3 “Society and the Environment” and Section 20.4 “Understanding the Environment” examine the environment at greater length.

Social Conflict: War and Protest

Change also results from social conflict, including wars, ethnic conflict, efforts by social movements to change society, and efforts by their opponents to maintain the status quo. The immediate impact that wars have on societies is obvious, as the deaths of countless numbers of soldiers and civilians over the ages have affected not only the lives of their loved ones but also the course of whole nations. To take just one of many examples, the defeat of Germany in World War I led to a worsening economy during the next decade that in turn helped fuel the rise of Hitler.

One of the many sad truisms of war is that its impact on a society is greatest when the war takes place within the society’s boundaries. For example, the Iraq war that began in 2003 involved two countries more than any others, the United States and Iraq. Because it took place in Iraq, many more Iraqis than Americans died or were wounded, and the war certainly affected Iraqi society—its infrastructure, economy, natural resources, and so forth—far more than it affected American society. Most Americans continued to live their normal lives, whereas most Iraqis had to struggle to survive the many ravages of war.

Historians and political scientists have studied the effect of war on politics and the economy. War can change a nation’s political and economic structures in obvious ways, as when the winning nation forces a new political system and leadership on the losing nation. Other political and economic changes brought by war are subtler. World War I provides an interesting example of such changes. Before the war, violent labor strikes were common in Britain and other European nations. When the war began, a sort of truce developed between management and labor, as workers wanted to appear patriotic by supporting the war effort and hoped that they would win important labor rights for doing so. However, the truce soon dissolved after prices began to rise and wages did not. Labor-management conflict resumed and became very intense by the end of the war.

This conflict in turn forced European political and business leaders to grant several concessions to labor, which thus achieved gains, however limited, in political and economic power. Labor’s participation in the war effort helped it win these concessions. As a historian summarized this connection,

By the end of the war, labor’s wartime mobilization and participation had increased its relative power within European societies. As a result, and despite the fact that endeavors to reward labor for its wartime cooperation were, in general, provisional, partial, and half-hearted, it was nonetheless the case that labor achieved some real gains. (Halperin, 2004, p. 155)

Other types of nonobvious social changes have resulted from various wars. For example, the deaths of so many soldiers during the American Civil War left many wives and mothers without their family’s major breadwinner. Their poverty forced many of these women to turn to prostitution to earn an income, resulting in a rise in prostitution after the war (Marks, 1990). Some 80 years later, the involvement of many African Americans in the U.S. armed forces during World War II helped begin the racial desegregation of the military. This change is widely credited with helping spur the hopes of African Americans in the South that racial desegregation would someday occur in their hometowns (McKeeby, 2008).

Social movements have also been major forces for social change. Despite African American involvement in World War II, racial segregation in the South ended only after thousands of African Americans, often putting their lives on the line for their cause, engaged in sit-ins, marches, and massive demonstrations during the 1950s and 1960s. The Southern civil rights movement is just one of the many social movements that have changed American history, and we return to these movements in Chapter 21 “Collective Behavior and Social Movements”.

Key Takeaways

  • Major sources of social change include population growth and composition, culture and technology, the natural environment, and social conflict.
  • Cultural lag refers to a delayed change in one sector of society in response to a change in another sector of society.

Self Check


Barkan, S. E. (2009). Law and society: An introduction. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Crowley, D., & Heyer, P. (2011). Communication in history: Technology, culture, society (6th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Halperin, S. (2004). War and social change in modern Europe: The great transformation revisited. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Leonard, J. (1998, September 25). Crowding puts crunch on classrooms. The Los Angeles Times, p. B1.

Marks, P. (1990). Bicycles, bangs, and bloomers: The new woman in the popular press. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

McKeeby, D. (2008, February 25). End of U.S. military segregation set stage for rights movement. Retrieved from

Ogburn, W. F. (1966). Social change with respect to cultural and original nature. New York, NY: Dell. (Original work published1922).

Paulson, A., & Wood, D. B. (2005, August 25). California court affirms gay parenting. The Christian Science Monitor, p. 1.

Reiman, J., & Leighton, P. (2010). The rich get richer and the poor get prison: Ideology, class, and criminal justice (9th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Schneider, S. H., Rosencranz, A., Mastrandrea, M. D., & Kuntz-Duriseti, K. (Eds.). (2010). Climate change science and policy. Washington, DC: Island Press.


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