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What is social change?

An introduction to social change and activism

Throughout history and around the world, there are countless examples of social change campaigns – some which succeeded in achieving their goals and others that faltered.

In this blog, we’ll explore the meaning of social change, the activist approaches used to mobilise powerful movements and the challenges campaigners face in their pursuit of justice.

What is social change?

Social change can be used to describe any shift in dominant or existing social structures, institutions, value systems or rules of behaviour.

The causes of social change are many and varied, and can involve technological, cultural and other factors.  One such cultural factor is the desire by some to address perceived inequalities within social structures, which may be based on a person’s race, religion, gender, or class. When people feel that their civil liberties and rights are being compromised, individuals come together to correct these injustices through various forms of activism as part of a social justice movement.


What ‘types’ of activism are there?

In Joss Hands’ book @ is for Activism, he outlines three modes of activism that can be used in social change campaigns.

These are:

  1. protest and dissent: an expression of dissatisfaction with the status quo and an appeal to others for change
  2. resistance: considered a more active practice, for example, joining an organisation that lobbies for change
  3. rebellion: the strongest form of activism that implies direct action and can scale from small to large acts.

It’s important to note that these practices are closely related, and one can escalate to another depending on circumstances and responses to these acts.


Uncover more about social change and activism in the University of Sussex’s Media, Ethics and Social Change MA online course


Does activism vary around the world?

Put simply, yes. Although we can roughly categorise modes of activism, the methods people use to spark change is often relative to the political context of a country or state.

For example, many countries with democratic political systems have seen protest and dissent centred on the right to vote in elections.

The UK’s suffrage movements in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were born from the frustrations of men and women who were previously denied the vote based on their class or gender. After decades of pushback and persistent campaigning, universal suffrage was eventually granted to all adults over the age of 21 in 1928. However, it is important to note that some women living under colonial rule wouldn’t obtain the right to vote until much later as part of the anticolonial and civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s.


What are the barriers to social change?

As the fight for universal suffrage in the UK illustrates, the path to social change is often long and fraught with roadblocks.

One of the major reasons for this is that those with power are resistant to upsetting the status quo that both reflects their core beliefs about the world and maintains a system from which they benefit.

Furthermore, mainstream media is often owned or controlled by the same ruling elites, making it even harder for marginalised groups to spread awareness of their experiences and share their message in an uncensored way through these channels – if at all.

Throughout history, this has meant that those leading social change campaigns have had to adopt alternative media practices and strategies to which seek to dismantle traditional media’s communicative strategies.

Examples of alternative media practices and strategies include:

  • radical leaflets
  • pirate radio
  • graffiti
  • protest music
  • performance art
  • activist videos
  • political documentaries
  • social media and the internet.

In recent years, the latter of these has proven itself to be a hugely powerful tool for activist groups to spread awareness and mobilise social change movements.

Read our blog to learn more about the opportunities – and limitations – of social media campaigning and digital activism.  


Examples of social change campaigns


  1. Anti-apartheid movement

Launched in opposition to the government’s segregationist policies against South Africa’s non-white citizens in the latter half of the 20st century, the anti-apartheid movement used various activist strategies. These included non-violent demonstrations, protests, strikes, political action and eventually armed resistance in response to the police’s violent responses to demonstrations. After decades of campaigning and eventual economic sanctions imposed from foreign governments, apartheid was abolished in the 1990s. Nelson Mandela famously played a major role in the movement and was imprisoned for 27 years for his activism. After apartheid ended, Mandela became the first democratically elected leader of South Africa.


  1. School strike for climate change

Launched in 2018 by Greta Thunberg, the movement started with the then 15-year-old skipping school to protest for meaningful climate action outside the Swedish parliament building. A social media post showing Thunberg’s solitary protest quickly garnered attention and gradually, other students joined her. Soon, the movement had morphed into the #FridaysForFuture campaign in which tens of thousands of students across hundreds of cities worldwide skipped school in an act of civil disobedience to join peaceful demonstrations. Thunberg has attained mass media attention for her cause, sparked other grassroots activisms, and is famous for speaking truth to power – directly calling out world leaders for their inaction at events including the UN Climate Conference and COP26.


  1. Me Too

Activist Tamara Burke began the ‘Me Too’ movement in 2006, seeking to empower and unify survivors of sexual assault. In 2017, the term went viral after actress Alyssa Milano spoke out about her experience of abuse from film producer Harvey Weinstein. In a tweet, she encouraged fellow survivors of sexual assault to use the hashtag #MeToo in the hope it might ‘give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.’ Within hours, social media was flooded with thousands of posts from other women, and by October 2018, the Pew Research Center reported that the hashtag had been used over 19 million times. The social media campaign resulted in the launch of the Time’s Up Legal Defence Fund which raised £15 million to fund legal assistance for victims of sexual assault. In addition, the accusations aimed at Weinstein, who has since been convicted, emboldened hundreds more women working across various industries to report their experiences of sexual assault.


These examples demonstrate the various approaches used by activists to achieve the aims of their social change campaigns, be it raising awareness of a cause, enabling solidarity, or mobilising and securing real social change.

On the Media, Ethics and Social Change MA online course at the University of Sussex, students learn from world-leading experts about the interconnected nature of digital media, social activism and justice, journalism, digital culture and technology.

If you are interested in learning more about these topics and gaining the skills necessary to bring about social change in your own work and life, our Masters programme might be right for you. Visit the Media, Ethics and Social Change MA course page today to find out more.


Liked this blog? Read: Social media and campaigning: is digital activism effective?