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Study notes

Role of Social Influence Processes in Social Change

  • Levels: AS, A Level
  • Exam boards: AQA, Edexcel, OCR, IB

We have previously looked at minority influence and the work of Moscovici (1969) and Nemeth (1986) who concluded that a consistent, committed and flexible minority is most effective in influencing an individual. However, minority groups also play an important role in facilitating social change by influencing an entire society to change their attitude, behaviours and beliefs.

Moscovici (1980) put forward a conversion theory to explain how social change occurs and there are three clear factors that determine the success of a minority to facilitate social change, including: consistency, sacrifices and group membership.

Firstly, the minority must be consistent in their opposition to the majority. History has provided many real life examples, where consistent individuals have challenged and questioned the values and norms of society (and have been criminalised for their views). Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela led civil rights movements and were consistent in their views against apartheid for many years, which helped bring about social change. Furthermore, the results of Moscovici’s (1969) research highlight the importance of consistency in minority influence. Moscovici found that a consistent minority were more likely (8.4%) to convince a majority that the colour of a slide was green when it was in fact blue, in comparison to an inconsistent minority (1.3%).

Secondly, minorities that make sacrifices are more likely to be influential. If minorities show their dedication to the cause through sacrifice, for example imprisonment or even death, their influence becomes more powerful. For example, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white male passenger in the 1950s, she was arrested for violating US law. This event helped trigger the civil rights movement to end the racial segregation laws in America. The case of Rosa Parks demonstrates that people who are willing to make a sacrifice (in her case being arrested) show their commitment to their cause and as a result are more influential.

Finally, if the minority is similar to the majority, in terms of class, age, gender or even sexuality, then they are more likely to be influential.Maass et al. (1982) investigated the idea of group membership and found that a minority of heterosexual men were more likely to convince a heterosexual majority about gay rights, in comparison to a minority of homosexual people. Maass concluded that ‘straight’ men have more persuasive power when discussing gay rights with other straight men, in comparison to gay men. This supports the idea that similarity in terms of group membership is an important factor for minority influence and social change.

This process can be used to explain many examples of social change, which have occurred throughout history.

For example, the suffragettes were consistent in their view and persistently used educational and political arguments to draw attention to female rights. Furthermore, they remained consistent for many years and despite opposition continued protesting and lobbying until they convinced society that women were entitled to vote. In addition, many of the suffragettes made significant sacrifices for their cause; many risked imprisonment and others risked death through extended hunger strikes, making their influence even more powerful. Finally, the suffragettes used group membership to convince other women to join their cause to expand their influence and membership. Overtime their influence spread with people considering the issue until it lead to social change and all adults gaining the right to vote.

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