Stimulants and Barriers to Social Change

Forces stimulating social change are stronger over time than barriers. So change is inevitable in the long term. But most people resist change in the short term.

There are psychological, cultural, social, and economic stimulants and barriers.



1. Perceived needs (motivates people to change)

Stimulant examples: wireless Internet

Barrier examples: sometimes people don't perceive need to change (sexual rights, birth control) or their perceived needs maintain status quo (women who "need" men)


2. Communication patterns

Stimulant examples:

experts or people with credibility -- professors    
arousal of fear -- Bush
negative campaigns -- just about any politician today
present both sides of debate -- this class
present message 1st or last -- job interviews
enlist a group's help -- weight watchers
homogeneity between messenger and audience -- civil rights, women's rights

Barrier examples: heterogeneity/cultural diversity -- physician's instruction

3. Attitude → Behavior models

behavior change required before attitude/belief change internalized

Stimulant example:   involvement in activist groups, travel 

Barrier examples: men who say they are not sexist, people who say they are not racist 

4. Personal Influences

a. people change because they desire affection, respect, acceptance of another person

Stimulant examples:  peer effects, celebrity effects

Barrier examples: "Hillary" effect

b. anticipatory socialization

example: former students stop "skipping" when they get jobs




1. High and low Context

Stimulant examples:  low context has formal rules and communication to inform people of rules. People are loosely linked. Change is easier and quicker in this culture.

Barrier examples: high context has informal communication and rules are communicated between individuals. People strongly connected and must interact in order to survive. Change slow here.

Examples: Arab and Asian countries vs. European countries and U.S.


2. Cultural integration

Stimulant examples: in cultures with low integration  people and organizations are less dependent on one another (or they perceive themselves to be). Change occurs easier here. People look for change. Used to change and conflict. 

Barrier example:  in cultures with high integration change affects everything in society because all people and organizations are tightly linked.  People are not used to change. They value the security and comfort in knowing what is expected in any setting.  Change is slow here.

examples:  environmental vs religious groups;  urban vs rural communities

3. Other Barriers to Change

fatalism: beliefs, attitudes and behaviors regarding breast cancer among AA women

ethnocentrism: MLK activities, patriotism (sometimes)



1. Desire for prestige -- status seeking behavior

Stimulant examples: TV diffusion, SUVs, professional sports

Barrier examples: women's rights, civil rights for people of color, LGBT issues 

2. Contact with other societies

Stimulant examples: travel/tourism (Levi's), war, professional conferences

Barrier examples: ignorance and fear of unknown leads people to avoid difference (people of color, people of different sexualities)


3. Friendships

Stimulant examples: participation in activist groups

Barrier examples: some religious groups

4. Social class

Upper classes more likely to adopt change because they have more resources.  Class issues/power sometimes help maintain status quo.

Stimulant examples: cars with safety features, solar energy, environmental protections, anti-smoking

Barrier examples: gas pumping in NJ, pig farms

5. Authority/Power (**)

informal and formal (laws)

Stimulant examples: vaccines, fluoride in water, war (conscription), evacuation, recycling, children and parent's smoking/seat belts

Barriers examples: Peter Principle, abuse of power -- legal (keating 5, Helms), informal -- men's authority over women and women buying into it supports male privilege


6. Fit with culture

Stimulant examples: wireless phones

Barriers examples: '360' evaluations, segway


7. Timing

Stimulant examples: war with Iraq

Barriers examples: new teacher training programs during standardized testing


8. Participation in process

Stimulant examples: campus Blue Ribbon Task Force includes students, Kristi and Sarah's project

Barriers examples: annexation, community development plans


9. Competition

Stimulant examples: lighter laptops, cheaper desktops

Barriers examples: Microsoft software


10. Group Mobilization

Stimulant examples: movements, doctors in Greenville, Moral Majority and Disney

Barriers examples: NRA, solidarity in groups often leads members to resist change within the group (March of Dimes, NOW, NAACP)


11. Ideology/rationalization/habit/tradition -- barriers


traditional gender ideology resists change in sexual civil rights (opposition to gay men/lesbians) and change in family structure (men as primary parents/domestic engineers)

women as religious leaders

catholic church and birth control

patriotism used to support war

smoking (habit)

nutrition and fried foods (tradition)



1. Perception of Economic Advantage

Stimulant examples: 401k's, affirmative action

Barriers examples: health care reform, minimum wage increases, environmental regulation


2. Costs

Stimulant examples: my textbooks, car seats for kids

Barriers examples: "segway", unfunded mandates, environmental protections

Social costs: remove stigma if you want people to adopt change (ex. women and condoms, Medicare 'cards')


3. Vested interests

Stimulant examples: industrialization, NAFTA, deregulation of savings loans/phone companies/air travel, War with Iraq and oil/open Arab markets

Barriers examples:  midwifery, zoning, legalization of marijuana/war on drugs, money to support DSS 


4. Limited environmental/social resources -- Barrier

Some countries do not have surplus of land, water, oil, forests, coal, etc...  or skilled labor, or infrastructures to match labor to resources.  This leads to slow change.

At the individual level, some people do not have time/energy to get involved in social changes.