A group of academics has set out to work out whether social change is accelerating, or not. TL:DR? They conclude that it is not.

Since this isn’t what you hear from the hucksters on the conference circuit, it’s worth spending a little bit of time unpacking their analysis, which broadly unfolds in three parts.

It’s an open access journal, so the article isn’t behind a paywall.

Starting point

Their starting point is a claim made a decade ago in the same journal, Technological Forecasting and Social Change, “that social change was proceeding at hyper-speed and, moreover, that it had consequently come to outpace technological change.“

They test this with US data, and with a narrow focus on social change.

The initial section reviews the literature, and spends some time trying to pull apart the technology literature, the economics literature, and the social change literature. This is a useful section that ranges from William Ogburn to the work of Emery and Trist:

This brief review suggests that while the social and the technological are deeply implicated in one another, it still makes sense to (a) keep the distinction between the two, and (b) develop an understanding of what social change might mean and how it might be measured.

Rates of change

The second section turns to data and discusses the challenges of measuring rates of change. Well, it’s complicated, of course. But eventually they decide to use US data (there’s lots of it) take a one hundred year time span, and draw on qualitative sources as well as quantitative. This data is organised into seven categories:

Population; Health; Home, Education & Leisure; Religion; Work; Wealth; Law & Order.

Pretty much all of these show more rapid growth in the first half of the century. Here’s the population chart, for example.

US population and Annual Percentage Change in Population


In fact, the only indicator that seems to have accelerated rapidly since the 1970s is the incarceration rate.

From all of this they move to a conclusion, around five points.

The first is that answering the question raises lots of methodological problems, and epistemological ones.

The second is that every generation thinks that it is living through a period of change. But it needs more than this to assess whether social change is rapid.

Third, they underline that they have stayed away from technological change. Nonetheless, they nod in the direction of Robert Gordon, who concluded that the rate of technology change between 1860 and 1900 was much faster, and much more fundamental than that which we have experienced.

Punctuated equilibria

Fourth, they observe that none of the data they have looked at suggest that change happens in long waves.

If anything, the data would lean one towards a radical or punctuated equilibrium model of change, where a long period of relative stability is followed by an unexpected short period of rapid and revolutionary change.

They nod here to Peter Turchin’s structural-demographic model, but this also suggests that change is likely to occur around punctuated equilibria. And maybe using Google searches for the word ‘secession’ isn’t the best data point here.

Strauss and Howe suggest there’s an approximately 80-year model that runs from crisis to crisis, although their generational analysis within that is too tidy for its own good. In work I’ve done, there seems to be an approximately 40 year regulatory cycle, but this is driven more by an interaction between economics and politics than by social change.

Salespeople at work

Fifth, they point out that more research would be fruitful, and that there may be other ways of doing it:

A wealth of quantitative historical data is available for mining and analysis, and other indicators of social change may reveal a different picture, interesting patterns or intriguing relationships between constructs. To take but a few examples, we have paid no attention to phenomena such as the shifting prevalence of (illegal) drug consumption, hours of work, linguistic competence and preference, etc.

Their final question is about the discourse around rapid or accelerating social change:

Finally, it is worth asking why – and to whose benefit – there is so much talk of us living in a period of rapid and unprecedented change when perhaps the truth is that others have lived in more interesting and eventful times.

Who benefits? Salesmen and saleswomen of all stripes and types, I suspect. There’s nothing like talk of rapid change to create fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

H/t Ian Christie

This article was also published on my Just Two Things Newsletter.