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Chapter Overview


  1. What is Social Change?
  2. Causes of Social Change
    1. Culture and Change
    2. Conflict and Change
    3. Ideas and Change
    4. The Natural Environment and Change
    5. Demographic Change
  3. Modernity
    1. Key Dimensions of Modernization
    2. Ferdinand Toennies: The Loss of Community
    3. Emile Durkheim: The Division of Labour
    4. Max Weber: Rationalization
    5. Karl Marx: Capitalism
  4. Theoretical Analysis of Modernity
    1. Structural-Functional Theory: Modernity As Mass Society
      1. The Mass Scale of Modern Life
      2. The Ever-Expanding State
    2. Social Conflict Theory: Modernity As Class Society
      1. Capitalism
      2. Persistent Inequality
    3. Modernity and the Individual
      1. Mass Society: Problems of Identity
      2. Class Society: Problems of Powerlessness
    4. Modernity and Progress
    5. Modernity: Global Variation
  5. Postmodernity
  6. Looking Ahead: Modernization and Our Global Future
  7. Summary
  8. Critical Thinking Questions
  9. Applications and Exercises
  10. Sites to See
  11. Cyber.Scope



The transformation of the Kaiapo culture in Brazil's Amazon and the Inuit in the Northwest Territories is discussed with reference to the impact of external culture through the medium of television. The Inuit people now have their own network which can be seen by many non-Aboriginal Canadians. How, one might ask, is culture changed, and are the consequences positive or negative?


Social change is the transformation of culture and social institutions over time. Four general characteristics represent the process of social change:

  1. Social change is inevitable but the rate of change varies between societies;
  2. Social change is both intentional and often unplanned;
  3. Social change is often controversial; and,
  4. Social change has important and unimportant consequences.


It can be argued that the causes of social change are found both inside and outside of a given society.

Culture and Change

Cultural change results from three basic processes: invention, discovery, and diffusion.

Conflict and Change

Tension and conflict within a society can be a source of social change. Marx saw that inequality would cause conflict and lead to change.

Ideas and Change

Max Weber's thesis concerning the influence of the Protestant work ethic on industrialization in Europe reflects the influence of ideas on social change.

The Natural Environment and Change

European settlers in North America set about controlling the natural environment in an adversarial way. We continue the same path today, gobbling scarce resources while inflicting the environment with solid waste and water and air pollution.

Demographic Change

Demographic factors are related to how societies change. Changing fertility and mortality rates along with migration can dramatically affect the nature of life in a society or globally. By 2031, for example, almost one quarter of the Canadian population will be seniors.


Key Dimensions of Modernization

Modernity refers to patterns of social life linked to industrialization. Modernization is therefore the process of social change initiated by industrialization. Peter Berger has identified four general characteristics of modernization:

  1. The decline of small, traditional communities;
  2. The expansion of personal choice;
  3. Increasing social diversity; and,
  4. Future orientation and growing awareness of time.

Sociology itself began as an effort to comprehend the process of modernization.

Ferdinand Toennies: The Loss of Community

Ferdinand Toennies’ classic book Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft focuses on the process of modernization. Essentially, the Industrial Revolution weakened the fabric of community tradition and led people to associate mostly on the basis of self-interest.

One feature of gesellschaft is geographical mobility of a society's population. Table 24-1, (p. 602) shows that the rate of moving in Canada is high up to the 25-34 year category and drops thereafter.

While synthesizing various dimensions of social change, Toennies's work did not clarify cause and effect relationships between the variables he studied, and he ignored the persistence of close relationships in urban areas.

Emile Durkheim: The Division of Labour

Central to Durkheim's analysis of modernity is his view of the increasing division of labour in society. Durkheim did not see modernization as the loss of community, but rather as a change in the basis of community from mechanical solidarity, or shared sentiments and likeness, to organic solidarity, or community based on specialization and interdependence. These two types of solidarity are similar in meaning to Toennies' concepts of gemeinschaft and gesellschaft.

Durkheim was more optimistic than Toennies about the effects of modernity, yet he still feared anomie (little moral guidance) could result given the increasing internal diversity of society. The increasing rates of suicide in Canada fits with Durkheim's expectations.

Max Weber: Rationalization

For Weber, modernity meant increased rationality and a corresponding decline in tradition. In this process bureaucracy increased as well. Compared to Toennies and Durkheim, Weber was pessimistic and critical about the effects of modernity. He was concerned that rationalization would erode the human spirit.

Karl Marx: Capitalism

While other theorists were concentrating on social stability, Marx focused on social conflict. He agreed with Toennies' analysis of the changing nature of community. He was concerned with Durkheim's sense of the increase in the division of labour. His position also supported Weber's view about increasing rationality and declining tradition. However, for Marx, these processes were all changes which supported the growth of capitalism, and of this he was very critical. Such changes, he suggested, would eventually lead to social revolution where egalitarian socialism would allow technology to enrich the many instead of the few. Marx apparently, however, underestimated the significant impact of centralized bureaucracy in socialist, as well as capitalist states.


Modernity is a complex process involving many factors. Table 24-2, (p. 605) summarizes the characteristics of traditional and modern societies along the dimensions of cultural patterns, social structure, and social change. Seventeen different variables are used to compare the two types of societies.

Structural-functional Theory: Modernity as Mass Society

One approach to the study of social change views modernization as a process which creates mass societies. A mass society is a society in which industrialization proceeds and bureaucracy expands while traditional social ties grow weaker. Two points are stressed. First, the expanding scale of social life leads to impersonality and cultural diversity which overwhelms most individual’s attachment to community. Second, the expanding role of the government dominates the regulation of people's lives through a complicated and impersonal bureaucratic structure. Critics suggest that the theory romanticizes the past and ignores inequality.

Social Conflict Theory: Modernity as Class Society

This approach is largely derived from Karl Marx's analysis of society. A class society is a capitalist society with pronounced social stratification.


For Marx, it was the growth of capitalism, not the industrial revolution which caused the growing scale of social life. He saw the profit motive promoting self-interest and greed, which broke down social ties that bound small-scale communities.

Marx saw science not only as a source for greater productivity but also a justification for the status quo.

Persistent Inequality

While many theorists argue that modernization began to break down rigid categorical distinctions, proponents of the theory of class society see a greater concentration of power and wealth occurring. Statistics Canada data, for example, has shown that the top 20 percent of individual earners get 46.5 percent of all income in Canada.

A criticism of this approach, however, is that it tends to underestimate the ways in which egalitarianism has increased in modern societies. The mass-society theory and the class-society theory are summarized in Table 24-3, (p. 609).

Modernity and the Individual

While mass-society theory and the theory of class society have been discussed to this point as perspectives focusing on macro-level issues concerning patterns of change, they also offer micro-level insights into how modernity affects individuals.

Mass Society: Problems of Identity

According to this view, establishing an identity becomes more difficult with the social diversity, isolation, and rapid social change which modernization brings about. As Lipset suggests identity is the quintessential Canadian issue.

David Riesman developed the term social character to mean personality patterns common to members of a society. He views preindustrial societies as promoting tradition-directedness, or rigid personalities based on conformity to time-honoured ways of living. This would be associated with Toennies' gemeinschaft and Durkheim's mechanical solidarity. In culturally diverse and rapidly changing industrial societies, another type of social character emerges. This type, called other-directedness, refers to highly changeable personality patterns among people open to change and likely to imitate the behaviour of others.

Class Society: Problems of Powerlessness

According to this view, individual freedom is undermined by the persistence of social inequality. Herbert Marcuse, using this perspective, challenges Weber's contention that modern society is rational. For Marcuse, because society is failing to meet the basic needs of many people it is actually irrational.

Modernity and Progress

Generally, people view modernity as progress, but this conception ignores the complexity of social change. The Kaiapo of Brazil, highlighted earlier in this chapter, illustrate this point.

While basic human rights have been advanced the issue of individual choice and freedom versus duties and obligations toward one another is not resolved. Science and technology is supported in North America but all change is clearly not progress.

Modernity: Global Variation

Most societies are not either traditional or modern; they maintain characteristics of both types of society.


Postmodernity refers to social patterns characteristic of post-industrial societies. Postmodern theorists suggest that:

  1. Modernity has failed
  2. "Progress" is fading
  3. Science does not hold the answers
  4. Cultural debates are intensifying
  5. Social institutions are changing

While modernity has generally increased the quality of life the Controversy and Debate Box (pp. 612-613) suggests that the U.S. is in decline, can Canada be far behind?


Modernization theory and dependency theory, discussed in great detail in Chapter 12, are seen as relevant. Modernization theorists see modernity as increasing the standard of living among the people of a society.

Dependency theory, on the other hand, suggests that social change brought on by modernization victimizes the poorer nations while further enriching the wealthy of the rich countries.

Whatever theory one supports, the study of Canadian society cannot be isolated from the interconnections of global relationships. Interactions between countries are technically more feasible today than discussions between neighbouring towns a century ago.

Canada is also experiencing an internal revolution, from deference to defiance (See Exploring Cyber-Society Box pp. 614-615) which is probably related to the immense flow of information in the post-industrial world. The Internet is power.

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