Social Change Strategies


Consider 4 things when planning social change activities:


1.         The target of social change

2.         The agents of social change

3.         Relation of agent to target

4.         What will gain public support for your goal?


1.  Targets:  Individual, Group/Organizations, Communities, Society 


Always be sensitive to the needs of the change targets.


If individuals, goals are to change attitudes, feelings, beliefs, values, perceptions and behaviors.

If group or organization, goals are to change group size, group composition, structure of authority, status/power hierarchies, incentives to participate, communication styles and channels, relationships among group members, tasks associated with positions within the group.

If community, goals are to change inter group relations such as prejudice and discrimination based on race, ethnicity, gender, class, sexuality, religion, age, etc… 


If society, goals are to address (encourage or discourage, depending on your perspective) urbanization, globalization, democratization, modernization, national and international policies, cultural patterns, conflict resolution, national building, improving education, economy, agriculture, environment, etc..

2. Change Agents


Always seek simplest strategy.

Maintain good relations with change target and maximum cooperation with them.

Change should benefit the change target.


3 groups of change agents:


·                directors, administrators, organizers


·                financial backers, political supporters


·                volunteers, employees, technical and professional support staff/consultants (Public relations, lawyers, sociologists, social workers, psychologists, political scientists, grant writers, fundraisers, etc..)



3.  Relation of agent to target


·                If there is inequality between the agents and target on some grounds, but not on others and the goal is to reverse this inequality, then use empirical-rational strategies. Example, Queer Rights

·                If agents want to convince the target group to join them and help them (want to win over the target, not defeat them), then use normative/re-educative strategies.  Example, Women’s Rights


·                If the agents are completely oppressed and exploited by the target group and the agents need to defeat the target, then use power/coercive strategies.  Example, Race Riots, Revolutions

4.  What will gain public support for your goal?    What strategies will gain respect? Which will reinforce negative stereotypes or create new negative meanings?   (Public support here are the people outside of your  target group.) Violence usually does not lead to widespread public support of your goal or your organization.

General Social Change Strategies


Usually multiple strategies are best.  And usually the simpler, the better. 


Change strategies are most effective when:

a.         targets recognize problem

b.         targets agree change is necessary

c.          targets are open to external assistance in social change

d.         targets willing to change


3 categories of strategies:


·                empirical-rational strategies

·                normative/re-educative strategies

·                power/coercive strategies


a.  Empirical-rational strategies: 

Goal is to provide information only. 

Assume rational, informed actors who can digest and use information in their best interest.   Transform the information into knowledge.  Make informed decisions.


Usually work best if target of change are individuals. 

Example: “rock the vote” campaign; college courses ?? 

b. Normative/re-educative strategies

Goal is to expose targets (usually individuals, groups/organizations) to new values and norms and the need to adopt these new values and norms.  


Persuade people to internalize new values, norms, etc..


May be based on rational (such as scientific evidence) or emotional appeals (such as charismatic leaders).   

Examples:  anti-smoking campaigns


c. Power/coercive strategies


Application of economic, political, and moral power and institutions to make people change attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, values, etc..


Can be legitimate or illegitimate authority. 


May withhold rewards or administer punishments to reach goal.


Use of money, bribes, payments for complying.


Examples:  family planning education campaigns in less developed countries (people are sometimes forced or coerced into using birth control methods);  U.S. war with Iraq; Terrorism



Power/coercive strategies work best if:  target is dependent on change agent(s), agent controls change, no other feasible alternatives to produce the change or the costs of them are too high.


Specific Social Change Strategies


1. Violence – type of power/coercive strategy


violence = Action to restrain, injure, or destroy property or persons


No society has been free of violence as a strategy for social, economic or political change


Examples: riots, revolution, terrorism, police or state mob control, guerrilla warfare


Violence usually leads to short-term change, but not long-term change.  Becomes less effective in the short-term if used repeatedly.  Violence is not effective in the long-term because it is subverts/inhibits democracy and humanism, which usually leads to more violence on both sides.  Violence rationalizes the use of violence to solve problems.   Becomes even more difficult to create democracy in an environment when reason, dialogue, and compromise are not the first course of action.


Violent overthrows of governments are more common in the 20th century than democratic political change. 

More military governments than parliamentary democracies.

Sometimes groups use violence to call attention to their needs.  Other non-violent strategies did not work.  Examples: race riots.  In these cases, how did organizers (such as the Black Panthers) get people to respond violently? 


a.         Change agents increase perception of relative deprivation

b.         Change agents maximized anger of the group – told them the deprivation was illegitimate and severe

c.          Change agents gained buy-in from other groups

d.         Change agents point to violent incidents used against them (examples – police brutality, state imposed curfews, institutional racism) 


2. Terrorism (a type of violence)


terrorism = indiscriminate use of threat or violence.


Goal is to alter the state of mind or policy of a nation or society.  This is done by:


Coerce the targeted group into taking action. For example, to end U.S. economic policies towards Afghanistan and other Arab nations

Demoralize and intimidate opposition. Examples: suicide bombings induce fear in troops – they don’t know who the enemy is.  Fear of unknown.   Example: 9/11 – Americans now feel unsafe.  Press coverage helps instill fear beyond the terrorists true ability to cause harm (the exception here now is chemical, biological and nuclear weapons have ultimate ability to cause harm).


Call attention to the cause.  Example, press coverage of terrorist acts informs huge number of people of the terrorist group’s allegations.  (Sometimes terrorism appears to have no social change agenda – for example, Internet and computer viruses)


What is defined as terrorism depends on definition of the situation: What one group defines as terrorism, another group will define as liberators. 


Terrorists are usually not supported by nation states.


Unintended consequences of terrorism: solidarity across world – everyone lives in fear now and this has brought some countries together against common enemy.



3.  Non-Violent Strategies


Pickets, strikes, marches, demonstrations, rallies, consumer boycotts, teach-ins, sit-downs, civil disobedience, public meetings, press releases, newspaper articles, radio ads, cultural performances, arbitration and negotiation, educational campaigns


The goal of non-violent strategies is to change attitudes, beliefs, values, behaviors, and to stop injustices and violence.


Non-violent strategies often stop violence because targets who are acting violently find it difficult to attack individuals who are not defending themselves.  There are common values and beliefs cross culturally against attacking passive others.  If the targets still respond violently, this often leads them to lose support of followers. 


Many of the non-violent strategies serve as a moral appeal to injustice/unfairness/cruelty.  Sometimes creates guilt in oppressors and controlling groups.


Nonviolent strategies are effective if (1) the target is open to moral appeals (for example, these strategies may not work at all in societies with military governments) and (2) there are 3rd parties to intervene for social change, particularly 3rd parties with political power or influence (for example, the Civil Rights Movement worked well because it leveraged support from whites in positions of power who helped establish legal changes)


4.  Social Movements


Movements form from non-violent social change groups when the group gains momentum and begins attracting large numbers of people and expands their agenda beyond a few objectives into changing larger institutions, norms, culture, and organization. 


Because of their large numbers of members/participants, movements are able to:


a.         bargain: can guarantee a large number of votes for political candidates in exchange for the candidate adopting their platform.  Or, can threaten to boycott a company if they do not change a policy.

b. raise money to support the movement.  This often enables a paid administrative staff which enables the organization to be much more effective.



Movements have the disadvantage of disorganization sometimes because of the large numbers of people all working towards a common goal.  Difficult to keep lines of communication open and not duplicate work. Having an administrative staff and office cuts down on these problems.


Accomplishments of social movements in the U.S.:


Labor movement: end of child labor, shorter working hours per day, shorter work weeks, safer working conditions, right to unionize and collective bargain


Environmental movement: leglislation protecting environment, recycling, pollution controls, land usage, ability to sue and fine companies that do not comply to federal or state standards


Consumer protection: car seat belts, air bags, protection against “lemons,”  safety inspections of manufactured products, testing of drugs and food


Civil rights movement: legal changes, education integration, addressed voting violations, representative juries, employment discrimination, affirmative action


Women’s movement: acess to health care and birth control, divorce law changes, children’s rights and child support reform, property rights reform, welfare reform, pornography regulation, Family Medical Leave Act.  Currently addressing child care reform, maternity and paternity leave



5.  Legal Change


Nearly all social change groups seek various types of legal change.  Why? Because in modernized societies:


a.         people respond to legal changes, they respect the law (it is seen as democratically driven and rationally determined), and legal change leads to relatively quick social change.

b. changes in the law lead to changes in all other institutions.  For example, in the 20th century education became compulsory. This lead to changes in family and the economy.  Recently, legal changes limiting where you can smoke in public has lead to changes in business.  In Afghanistan, women and girls are receiving education. This is expected to lead to widespread changes in the society, namely an improved status of women in society and in the long term, a reduction in terrorism. 


c. the law can be used to punish those who do not comply with social changes.  This reinforcing the social changes.


Sometimes legal change doesn’t work – examples include Prohibition and the war on drugs.


Legal change can either create a new social order or disrupt an existing oppressive order.