Although the terms ‘social dynamics’ and ‘social change’ both indicate a focus on change over time, they are used in different circumstances. Social dynamics has a more precise meaning. First, social dynamics usually presumes change within a social system. That system may consist of similar entities (e.g., members of a family, families in a neighborhood, and nations in the world) or disparate entities (e.g., different types of actors in a political or economic system) or various attributes of a single social entity (e.g., an individual’s education, occupational prestige, and income or a business firm’s age, size, and structure). The system usually is regarded as bounded, allowing the rest of the world to be ignored for purposes of explanation.
Whether the system consists of actors or variables, the term ‘system’ presumes interdependence and typically involves feedback. Thus, action by one entity in the system leads to counteraction by another entity. For example, managers of a firm may counter a strike by workers by acquiescing to the workers’ demands, out waiting them, or hiring nonunion laborers. Alternatively, change in one variable in the system leads to an opposing or reinforcing change in one or more other variables. For example, an increase in educational level is followed by an increase in prestige and then an increase in income. Changes resulting from interdependent forces and feedback effects within the system are called endogenous changes.
There also may be exogenous changes, that is, unexplained (perhaps random) changes that influence change within the system under study but whose causes originate outside that system. For example, in analyses of interaction between a husband and wife, changes in the economy and society in which the couple lives usually are treated as exogenous changes that affect the couple’s behavior, but the societal-level changes themselves are not explained. Because of interdependent forces and feedback effects as well as possible exogenous changes, social dynamics typically implies a concern with complex changes. Simple linear changes or straightforward extrapolations of previous trends are rarely of primary interest.
Second, social dynamics connotes social changes that have a regular pattern. That pattern may be one of growth (e.g., economic expansion, growth of a population), decline (e.g., rural depopulation, the extinction of a cultural trait), cyclical change (e.g., boom and bust in the business cycle), a distinctive but nonetheless recurring transition (e.g., ethnic succession in neighborhoods, societal modernization, the demographic transition from high mortality and fertility to low mortality and fertility), or simply a drift in a particular direction (e.g., the slow but accelerating spread of a social belief or practice through a population).
Third, social dynamics usually implies a degree of predictability: Social change not only can be comprehended in terms of post hoc reasons but also can be explicitly modeled. The model, whether it consists of verbal statements or mathematical equations or computer instructions, involves a set of assumptions or propositions that permit fundamental patterns of change to be deduced. In contrast, although a unique historical event may foster social change, its uniqueness makes successful prediction impossible. One challenge in studies of social dynamics is therefore to convert phenomena that are unique on one level to ones that are representative and therefore predictable on another level. Thus, what some regard as a unique historical event, others see as an example of a regular pattern of change. For example, to a historian, the Russian Revolution of 1917 is a unique event, whereas a sociologist may regard it as exemplifying a response to changes in underlying social conditions. Thus, while recognizing many distinctive factors, one may argue that similar patterns of causes underlie the dramatic political and social transformations that historians call the French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions.
Fourth, the term ‘social dynamics’ is used more commonly than is the term ‘social change’ when regularity in patterns of change is associated with some kind of equilibrium (steady state or homeostasis), that is, when feedback effects are such that small deviations from equilibrium lead to compensating effects that cause equilibrium to be restored. For example, in some developed countries, the distribution of family income (the share of total income received by different families) was remarkably stable throughout the twentieth century despite tremendous growth in population and economic output and social upheavals such as the civil rights and women’s liberation movements. This stability suggests that the process governing the allocation of family income was nearly in equilibrium.
The term ‘social change,’ especially change seen as part of a unique historical process, usually is associated with change from one distinctive situation to another, very different situation. It implies the antithesis of social equilibrium. The way in which the social status of women and minorities has changed during the twentieth century exemplifies social disequilibrium. Studies of social dynamics do not necessarily assume the existence of equilibrium. This point is made clear by studies of the dynamics of economic growth, which often envision a process of never-ending expansion and improvement. Similarly, some dynamic processes imply not a steady state condition but continual oscillation between conditions.
Fifth, the term ‘social dynamics’ is almost always used in situations in which there is an interest in the process of change: the step-by-step sequence of causes and effects and the way in which intermediary changes unfold. It is rarely used when only a simple before–after comparison of the condition of the system is the object of interest. Instead, when authors use the term ‘social dynamics,’ there is usually a sense that the details and sequencing of changes are important because changes are contingent: If the sequence had been interrupted or altered at an intermediary point, the final outcome might have been different. For example, models of social protest often recognize that the state’s response to protests may range from peaceful conciliation to violent suppression. The nature of the state’s response is an important contingency because it affects the likelihood, timing, and character of future protests.
Sometimes the sequence of changes occurs on the level of the system as a whole rather than on the level of individual members. For example, in a simple model of population growth, individual level changes are very elementary: birth followed by death, with the timing of the two being the only question. On the population level, the addition and loss of individuals over time represent a sequence of changes even though on the individual level there may be few, if any intermediary changes and thus little sense of a sequence of causes and effects.