The Logistics of Social Change and Times of Crisis

With quarantine foremost on everyone’s minds, many are asking how current events will change society. Many articles have been published. Yet, very few bother to describe how societies change and how their predicted changes will win out over others that can just as easily be imagined.

To understand the likelihood of a prediction coming to fruition, such as how this will affect the digitalization of culture or impact the process of globalization, we should first understand the process changes will have to take to be implemented. This process is deeply connected with human psychology and sociology.

The Logistics of Social Change

For simplicity, let’s think of social change as physical movement. As with any movement, there will be a number of forces acting upon it. There will be thrust to move it forward but also resistance, which can stop, slow, or change its trajectory. In social change, these forces come from people supporting or resisting change. Less obviously, they also come from the physical infrastructure, social organization, and government policies already in place. How these help or hinder social change helps determine the fate of the movement.

The Internet was conceptualized in the USSR well before it came into working reality in the US. Soviet thinkers in the early 60s envisioned it largely as a way to automate the economy. This would have required massive computational power, the digitization of extraordinary amounts of data, the development of communications infrastructure for transmitting new data, and complex algorithms for analyzing, sorting, and using the data. The Soviets had incredible mathematicians but lagged in communication and computer infrastructure and would lag in these fields for decades. Thus, the power of this idea met with little thrust and much resistance, as considerable investment and effort would have been needed to implement the change.

Intangible changes – such as changes to social structures, can be seen in the same light. The LGBTQ rights movement in the US, for instance, came after decades of largely successful rights movements for women and ethnic minorities. It tapped and merged with elements of what was, by then, a widespread American philosophy celebrating individuality and diversity. The success the movement has had in establishing itself as an everyday, if still controversial element of modern life has been remarkably successful. Changing more physical aspects of society – legislation, tax policy, marriage laws, and written hospital regulations – has been a more difficult, as these require overcoming greater resistance towards achieving greater permanence and integration.

Extending our physical movement metaphor, social change is also subject to a certain type of gravity. Individuals find habits very hard to break. Even when we wish to change them, we often find ourselves pulled back to them, even if we’ve managed to keep our new diet and exercise routine for a week or even a month. Societies have the same tendencies to resist change and revert toward previous states. Thus, we see anti-Facebook memes on Facebook and we see, even decades after civil rights movements, increasingly active counter movements to halt or even reverse their advances.

This gravity of the individual and society is natural even if it is not always pleasant. It is how we retain our identities and how societies remain societies even under duress. Thus, social changes require sustained thrust, often over surprisingly long periods, if they are to hold.

Social Change in Crisis Periods

Crisis periods can help spur social change. Crises, especially like the current one, disrupt daily routines. They (should) make us reassess our surroundings, take stock of what we have, and reprioritize what we believe is important. Crises at least partially remove our sense of permanence and leave us looking for new solutions. We are more open to innovation.

However, the same rules of thrust, resistance, and gravity are true during crisis and non-crisis times. The most effective social change movements will be those that require the least amount of effort and investment, usually by taking advantage of pre-existing infrastructure and organizational elements.

Thus, in adjusting to life under quarantine, we might give greater weight to certain aspects of our current lives – such as our families, our work, or our usual entertainment venues. Yet we are likely to try to change our system as little as possible. We seek “a new normal” that closely resembles the old.

Politicians are similarly not widely promising the fix the systemic problems laid bare by the crisis. This would require considerable realignments to how government and society function and their underlying philosophies. Instead, vast resources are to be spent within the current systems, with temporary tweaks and patches to allow the systems to survive longer.

Crises disrupt our connection to individual and social gravity, but we maintain a sense of where that gravity was. We try, at least initially, to reconnect to it again. This is normal. Humans are adaptable, but also crave permanence, which allows for the individual and society to be sustained even in times of duress. It is perhaps one of our most powerful evolutionary traits.

Logic and foresight are equally remarkable human abilities – allowing us, at least in the absence of panic, to realize our basic instincts and suppress them for the good of using our limited resources more effectively toward greater long-term goals. These should not be forgotten in times of crisis.

Social Change and Coronavirus

So where does this leave us in the current situation?

Although it may seem like everything has changed – the forces of nature have not. Social change is evolving as it always has – only now, in a crisis, more elements are in greater flux together. All elements – whether social, political, or economic – will continue to affect each other. Some will augment others, providing more thrust, and others might work at cross purposes, providing resistance. And we will still be drawn to a center of gravity, especially in the long term and especially so long as we believe that a return to our previous normal might be possible.

We might argue that current events will boost globalization. People around the world are having a powerful shared experience. This effectively creates an element of shared culture: a source for common dialogue as well as a source of interest in how others dealt with quarantine and empathy for them for having gone through it. On the other hand, solutions to how to effectively seal a border are now paramount in the minds of many. Some countries, even those in wider alliances like the EU or Eurasian Union, are instituting or considering bans on the export of essential food stuffs, essentially hoarding them for their own citizens and potentially threatening global supply chains. So, perhaps alliances will break down and counties will look for ways to turn inward, a deep blow to globalization.

Maybe current events will move our culture more fully online. Surely, use of online services will go up; people have few other options if they are not allowed to leave their homes. Many will have first-time experiences in video conferencing, telecommuting, or even online shopping. Once introduced to these tools, people are likely to turn to them again. Yet, it may be equally true that people emerge from their homes with a renewed hunger for in-person socializing and non-virtual experiences.

In fact, all of these trends are already in motion, creating what might be seen as contradictory changes. A government can move to tighten border controls even while a population sees the world as a more unified collective. We can move more of our culture and commerce online even while we long to leave the house and travel. Contradiction within society and individuals is common and natural. It is, in fact, what gives us the thrust and resistance that social and individual changes operate within.

We should be thinking about where these events are going. We should plan to prepare ourselves for what changes may be coming. We should also realize that our society is a complex natural system with many moving parts that depend on us to move them and change them. By understanding how the system works, and our place within it, we can avoid panic and encourage the use of foresight and logic in our pursuit of adaptation. Understanding is the first step in effecting the social change that we would like to see within our ever-changing society.

About the Author

Josh Wilson

Josh Wilson is the Assistant Director for The School of Russian and Asian Studies (SRAS) and Communications Director for Alinga Consulting Group. In those capacities, he has been managing publications and informative websites covering geopolitics, history, business, economy, and politics in Eurasia since 2003. He is based in Moscow, Russia. For SRAS, he also assists in program development and leads the Home and Abroad and Challenge Grant scholarship writing programs.