Identifying the nature of social and cultural continuity and change| The concepts of continuity and change are commonly used in our society, but for many of us they are hard to define. These terms share the feature of time being a determining factor. It is the opportunity of time that allows a society to develop and modify itself to change. Likewise when we observe a particular culture or community over a period of time we can oberve clear continuities.
The term ‘social change’ is a term used within sociology and applies to modifications in social relationships or culture (the term ‘cultural change’ is the term used within anthropology). Since society and culture are interdependent, ‘sociocultural change’ is a more accepted term. The study of sociocultural change is the systematic study of variation in social and cultural ‘systems’. There are inherent methodological problems of identification and measurement of change, and rarely does one cause produce one effect.
All societies are involved in a process of social change, however, this change may be so incremental that the members of the society are hardly aware of it. People living in very traditional societies would be in this category. Societies are characterised by change: the rate of change, the processes of change, and the directions of change. The actions of individuals, organisations and social movements have an impact on society and may become the catalyst for social change.
The actions of individuals, however, occur within the context of culture, institutions and power structures inherited from the past, and usually, for these individuals to effect dramatic social change, the society itself is tripe’ for change. Broad social trends, for example, shifts in population, urbanisation, industrialisation and bureaucratisation, can lead to significant social change. In the past, this has been associated with modernisation, the process whereby a society moves from traditional, less developed modes of production (like small-scale agriculture) to technologically advanced industrial modes of production.
Trends like population growth and urbanisation have a significant impact on other aspects of society, like social structure, institutions and culture. Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century social theorists focused fairly extensively on modernisation, but they tended to present on oversimplified “grand narrative” which resulted from heavily ideological interpretations of the contrast between tradition and modernisation. They also attempted to externalise absolutes, “social laws” as they saw them, and they argued that these social laws were operative in structurally similar societies.
Social continuity cannot simply be defined as the absence of social change, that is, things remaining the same, because social change is a continual process in all societies. Nothing “remains the same”. However, within societies there are structures which are inherently resistant to change, and in this sense, we can talk about them as being social continuities. Individuals within societies need social continuities to a lesser or greater extent, depending on significant factors like age, gender, education, access to power, wealth, vested interest, etc.
Even “rock-solid” institutions like the family, the law, and religions are subject to change, even though they represent social continuity. There has always been ‘family’ and it is still the foundational institution for society and the primary agent of socialisation, however the composition of ‘family’ has changed in recent years, leading to different kinds of families and different socialisation experiences for their members. The same ideas can be applied to law and religion.
Social and cultural continuities can be likened to individuals’ habits – comfortable patterns of behaviour that give individuals a sense of security and personal control – a haven or a respite in a sea of social and cultural change. There is a high correlation between the rate of social and cultural change and resistance to that change. In times when members of a society feel that change is ‘out of control’, it is likely that the desire for continuity becomes more extreme, resulting in backward-looking idealisations of the past.
While social change is itself a continuity, certain periods of human history have created “great transformations” (Polanyi 1973). The Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution created one such Great Transformation. Polanyi saw it as beginning in the 17th and 18th centuries and continuing today, characterised by:| | | • the rise of a capitalist, global economy and growth in production and wealth • a ‘scientific revolution’ – new ways of thinking about causation, moving from religious to secular • a new concept of time population growth, immigration and urbanisation
a political move to ‘nation’, which involved governments expanding their control to social, economic and cultural life, followed by the extension of that control to other, less advanced” countries (colonialism/imperialism) either through military conquest or trade conquest and today, perhaps, characterised by conquest through communication (eg. the Americanisation or westernisation of culture). | | | According to Bessant and Watts (1999: 20):”A key sign of the magnitude of the changes in that first Great Transformation is found in the ways people continued talking about the experience of loss, ‘the world we have lost’.