By Richard Barrett
What is Social Change?
Social change is the external expression of internal changes in the beliefs of groups of people who share a common heritage or culture. When the former U.S.S.R. switched from communism to capitalism and democracy, social change took place. When slavery was abolished in the U.S., social change took place. When power was stripped from the British monarchy in favor of a government of elected officials, social change took place. When women won the right to vote, social change took place. The primary driving force for social change throughout history has always been the desire of a group of people to improve their life conditions.
New technology, such as the invention of the steam engine by Robert Louis Stevenson or the telephone by Alexander Graham Bell, is also an instigator of social change. When the printing press was invented and when the radio, and then television, became mass media, social changes took place. New technologies create new opportunities for people to satisfy their needs. The exploitation of these new opportunities results in social change.
Social change is a collective phenomenon. Just as changes in our personal beliefs lead to changes in our personal behaviors, changes in our cultural beliefs lead to changes in our social behaviors. When we change our personal beliefs, our personalities change. When we change our cultural beliefs, our societies change. Personal change always precedes cultural change, and cultural change is the measure we use to track the evolution of consciousness of groups of people and humanity as a whole.
A Historical Perspective
Generally speaking, we think of social change as a constant. But despite the truth of this statement, we must recognize that the pace of social change is not constant. There were times in history when social change accelerated and other times when it remained stagnant. During these latter periods, multiple generations lived their lives with the same cultural beliefs under the same social systems and structures. What distinguishes the present period of human history from all previous periods is this changing pace. During the past 300 years, social change has accelerated to the point that cultural shifts can be measured within generations.
Prior to the present period of human history, there were three significant eras with distinct social conditions. These were the era of clans, the era of tribes, and the era of feudalism. Compared with these eras, the present era can be categorized as the era of ethnic nationalism. One of the distinguishing features of ethnic nationalism is governance in the form of pseudo-democracies. Pseudo-democracies are democracies that have not yet had a chance to fully develop because they have been hijacked by powerful elites. Democracy in the United States, for example, is highly influenced by money and corporate interests, and democracy in the United Kingdom is still very much influenced by the former ruling classes. Only in nations such as Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and The Netherlands has the shift from pseudo-democracy to pure democracy achieved an advanced state.
The shifts from clans to tribes, tribes to feudalism, and feudalism to ethnic nationalism were all facilitated by technological advancements. But the shift from ethnic nationalism to pure democracy and all subsequent social change will be facilitated by the development and growth of spirituality.
To understand the reasons for this switch from technology to spirituality as the principal facilitator of social change, we must understand the link between human consciousness and human needs. There are seven basic human needs that are reflected by social change. The first three correspond to the growth and development of the human ego—survival (safety), relationships (belonging), and self-esteem (respect). The last three correspond to the growth and development of the human soul—internal cohesion (finding meaning), inclusion (making a difference), and unity (service).
The middle stage, known as transformation, is the stage at which the human ego encounters the human soul. During this stage, the ego learns to balance its needs with those of the soul. To do this, the ego must give up its fears. As long as it holds onto its fears, it will be locked into dysfunctional behavior patterns that have to do with survival, relationships, and self-esteem.
Self-actualization occurs when an individual becomes fully independent emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. The growth and development of the soul depends on the willingness of the ego to give up its fear-based personal agenda and gradually expand its sense of identity so that it becomes one with the soul. Personal consciousness evolves as we learn to master each of the seven basic human needs. Each step in the process of personal mastery represents a stage in the evolution of personal consciousness, and each stage in the evolution of personal consciousness is characterized by the mastery of specific beliefs that deal with survival, relationships, self-esteem, transformation, internal cohesion, inclusion, and unity.
This pattern in the evolution of personal consciousness is mirrored in the evolution of our societies. During the era of clans, the predominant issue was survival. During the era of tribes, the predominant issue was relationships. During the era of feudalism, the predominant issue was self-esteem. During the current era of ethnic nationalism, the predominant issue is the balancing of the needs of the egos of the individuals who lead our society with the needs of the individuals who make up our society. This is the era of self-actualization at a national level.
The next stage in the evolution of consciousness of nations, the internal cohesion, will be pure democracy. We will reach this stage when our elected leaders are able to give up making decisions based on their personal or parochial agendas and make decisions based on what is best for the common good of the nation. Beyond this stage lie two more. The stage of inclusion will be reached when the leaders of our nations make decisions based on the good of the nations with which they share common interests—the European Community, for example. This stage will involve some form of regional governance. The stage of unity will be reached when the leaders of our nations make decisions based on the good of humanity, which will involve some form of global governance.
When nations are properly governed, they are able to satisfy their citizens’ needs for survival, harmonious relationships, and a healthy sense of self-esteem at the same time that they give every citizen a voice in the governance of the nation through the free election of representatives and leaders. The further evolution of world consciousness will depend on the willingness of nations to work together for the good of humanity as a whole. Although technology has helped us to get to this place in our evolution and it can assist further in the evolutionary process, the driving force for social change during these higher stages of human development will be the spiritual growth of the leaders of independent nations and those who elect these leaders. In other words, future social change will depend on the evolution of consciousness of our nations—and of the evolution of the consciousness of you and me.
Richard Barrett is an author, speaker and internationally recognised thought leader on the evolution of human values in business and society. He is the founder and chairman of the Barrett Values Centre. He is also a Fellow of the World Business Academy, Member of the Wisdom Council of the Centre for Integral Wisdom, Honorary Board Member of the Spirit of Humanity Forum, and Former Values Coordinator at the World Bank. http://www.valuescentre.com/richard_barrett/
[Published in Aquarian Times, Summer 2003]
 Clan: a group of families claiming a common ancestor. Tribe: a system of social organization comprising several villages, clans, or groups. Feudalism: a political and economic system based on the relation of lord to vassal held on condition of homage and service.