What Social Science Can Tell Us About Social Change
by G. William Domhoff
What does the social science literature have to say about social change, especially for democratic countries like the United States? There are a handful of general findings, along with some specific ones that are spelled out in the additional documents listed in the box on the right.
First, social-psychological studies of small groups show that "moral exemplars" -- those who stand outside the general consensus and at first are labeled as "extremists" -- can often be very effective, but with one important qualification: they can't be too extreme or else they will be ignored. Thus, the trick for any social change agent is to be just extreme enough to be an "effective extremist."
Second, historical case studies of social change show that a very small number of highly organized and disciplined people, drawing great energy from their strong moral beliefs and supreme confidence in their shared theoretical analysis, can have a big impact.
Third, the change agents have to understand a key difference between themselves and other people. Most people are focused on the joys, pleasures, and necessities of their everyday lives, and will not leave these routines unless those routines are disrupted, whereas change agents sacrifice their everyday lives -- family, schooling, career -- to work on social change every waking minute. This means that change agents must be patient for unexpected social circumstances to create disruption, or else find effective ways to disrupt everyday life without alienating those they wish to become supporters of their cause.
Fourth, for all the universality of the change agents' moral vision, they have to take the social structure of the given society very seriously to have any chance at all, which means they have to pay attention to the country's history, culture, and form of government. Put another way, this means they have to resist any temptation to copy the methods and plans of change agents in other countries, which was a mistake made by most American activists on the Left throughout the 20th century.
Fifth -- and this one is my own personal conclusion from reading the literature -- the next generation of change agents should take the findings of the social sciences seriously. Put another way, it is not philosophy or "Grand Theory" that will be helpful, but the application of systematic social science findings. The other ways have had their chance, and they have failed to bring about large-scale social change. This is partly another way of saying that social structure, history, group dynamics, and strategy do matter. It may sound either abstract or mundane, but in fact none of these points was taken seriously by those who relied on the likes of Moscow or Mao or Gramsci or Marcuse or Derrida or Foucault to shape their actions in the 20th century.
So what might be the most effective strategies for left/egalitarian activists in the United States? Follow the links below to learn more.