Culturology Institute Our Philosophy

Social Paradigm Shifts: A Pre-Survey of the Literature

One of the core components of Life Itself’s theory of change is that, if we are to address the polycrisis facing us as a civilisation, we must bring about a new social paradigm. This phrase, in common parlance, is expansive in its connotations and can be understood in a number of different ways: everything from institutions and regulatory structures all the way down to social and cultural norms can plausibly be understood as part of the social paradigm. While the social paradigm itself may be broad in scope, we further hold that our focus should be on the worldviews, values and implicit assumptions that form its core. This aligns more closely with the traditional understanding of a paradigm, from Thomas Kuhn’s seminal 1962 work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, as an analytic lens or way of viewing the world and understanding human experience. For example the current social paradigm in the West can plausibly be understood as standing on the pillars of political liberalism and free-market capitalism, and might extend in everyday understanding to everything from free speech legislation to financial institutions. We can see at its root, however, a view of humans as isolated, rational agents, considered separate from both their peers and the environment around them.

While we are far from the only ones who believe that a paradigm shift, and in particular a shift in how we understand our natures and relationships to others and the world, is vital, how this shift might come about remains underexplored. We have therefore begun a preliminary research scoping exercise, to establish where insights into this question might be found, alongside any open questions which continue to persist. Given social paradigm shifts can be approached from a large number of different fields, with each perspective being worthy of multiple doctoral theses in its own right, this preliminary account will be far from complete. Nonetheless, we hope that by sharing the general direction of our very early thinking we can both support similar enquiries by others, and gain valuable input into our own. If you have any thoughts or comments, we’d love to hear from you!

In general, I’ve found approaches to the question can be explored through either a macro or micro level lens. The macro level deals with societies or cultures as themselves the level of analysis, and for the purposes of this piece includes in particular sociology and cultural studies. The micro level deals with determinants of individual or small group shifts and action, and includes the work discussed below on psychology and evolutionary science. Social movement theory sits somewhere between these levels, dealing both with individual and group level motivation but also the mass movements as an object of analysis unto themselves. There are no doubt exceptions to this crude demarcation within the respective literatures mentioned, but I hope it nonetheless provides a useful route of approach for now.


The field of sociology explores the question of paradigm shifts by looking at how and why societies as a whole persist and change over time. Granularity is sometimes added by separating out different layers of society, for example cultural, institutional and so on, and then exploring how these might interact with one another with respect to social change.

Notably, theories such as neoevolutionism appear to relegate the role of values and culture in change to almost nothing, simply being products of decidedly material evolutionary forces.  Other theories, such as functionalism and conflict theory, leave perhaps more room for culture and values to play a more causal role. The former stresses the need and tendency towards stablisation in societies, and sees social change as occurring when some sectors adapt to problems and disruptions (e.g. protests, which will be explored further below) in others in order to restabilise the social whole. Conflict theory, as the name suggests, focuses on inter-group conflicts within society as the driving force for change, as groups battle to extract concessions from one another. While the Marxist origins of the theory are thoroughly materialist in nature, at first reading it seems that there is a role for views and values to play a significant role in stoking and mediating conflictual action, as will be seen in the latter discussion of psychology and social movement theory.

There is sociological work which, interestingly for our purposes, focuses explicitly on the cultural level of society. Work on ‘cultural paradigms’ explores how culture sits alongside other levels of society such as institutions; while each might develop in different ways according to its own principles, they are also activated in ways which lead to congruence with the others. Here focus is less on causal, mechanistic explanation of how one might shift the other, but exploring how a relationship of mutual affect can iteratively and reflexively lead to broader social shifts.

Sociology provides a highly useful lens for engaging with larger scale questions of how societies as objects might come to shift. Due to its focus, however, it appears to have little to say on how individuals, and particularly shifts in their views and values, might interact with and contribute to these. It is also notable that much of the ‘classic’ works and perspectives are highly materialist in nature, although the aforementioned work on cultural paradigms shows that perhaps this is shifting at the cutting edge of the field.

Cultural Studies

The field of cultural studies treats culture itself as the macro-level object level of analysis, with a focus on its dynamics, traits and foundations. Approaches such as culturalism emphasise culture as a way humans construct and impose meaning on the world around them, and in turn how this then influences behaviour and action. Here, the potential role of culture as a force for broader social change is clear, as is the mutual relationship between shifts at the individual and cultural level, as culture is viewed as a product of active human agency. In a contrasting approach to the concept of meaning, structuralism views meaning as created by structures and regularities outside of a given individual, and which themselves constrain and determine individual action. Again, culture here can be seen to play a highly influential role in social change (or the lack thereof), but the theory paints a far less optimistic picture of the ability of the less powerful to override top down cultural imposition to this end.

Cultural studies has, like many other fields, also undergone a turn which rejects a fixed notion of truth. This can be seen in both the post-structuralist rejection that binaries of meaning are fixed by underlying structures (instead viewing meaning as a constantly in-flux result of social processes and relationships), and the postmodernist commitment to the perspectival nature of knowledge. These approaches, while less immediately applicable to the idea of social change at the surface level, can nonetheless provide useful insights into the complex role that social dynamics play in culture making, and caution us to guard against too universalist or mechanistic an approach to shifting culture. 


At the micro-level, work in psychology can help to fill the explanatory gap in theories taking a higher-level perspective, by focusing on how individuals and discrete social groups are moved to act in ways which might bring about change.

Numerous models of individual behaviour change exist, which seek to explain the interplay of individual intentions with other mediating factors both internal (e.g. habits) and external (e.g. material costs and capabilities around action). With regards to intention, work has explored the role of (group) identity in motivating action, as people seek to advance the position of their identity group relative to others (or, in the case of dominant groups, reinforce it against challenge). Similarly, the role of solidarity has been used to explain how larger swathes of populations can side with minorities against the social authority, by positing that a disconnect of identification between the majority and the authority can lead it to identify and then side with the minority.

The role of the media has been further discussed as a shaping force of people’s intentions, with interesting explorations of how the effects of media consumption are in turn mediated by other factors such as emotion, prior knowledge and direct experience. Social and affective factors such as cultural norms have also been highlighted as a further determinant of individuals’ intent to act, with such norms also holding the potential to act as mediators between intention and action.

The importance of mediating factors is highlighted by the so called ‘value-action gap’, which refers to the phenomenon of individuals’ actions being inconsistent with the values they hold. Climate change presents an obvious example, where awareness and reported values around climate issues have thus far not been matched by anywhere near the same degree of behavioural change. Psychological approaches to exploring why this may be will prove vital for further research into how shifts in views and values can be translated into systemic social change. Models such as ABC (attitude, behaviour, context) posit the interactions of attitudinal and contextual factors, with the latter including  the aforementioned costs and capabilities, as causing behaviours. Similarly the MOA (motivation, opportunities, abilities) model builds in not only objective contextual factors in opportunities, but also in abilities internal mediating factors such as habits and knowledge.

Evolutionary Science

An interesting, and complimentary way to understand how views and values change at the individual level, and how these might translate to paradigm shifts at the collective level, can be found in evolutionary science. 

The concept of epistasis, used in basic terms to refer to the effects of gene interactions (to be more specific, non-additive contributions of two genes to a single phenotype), has been extended to cultural attributes such as views and values. A model has been created demonstrating how cultural traits can spread through populations based on ‘fitness’ – if an individual is in a highly internally consistent cultural state, she is less likely to adopt alternative traits. If a certain view arises, for example, which is more consistent with the view sets of a large swathe of the population than the one it is competing with, then it may find itself adopted by large numbers of people. 

On this model, paradigm shifts occur when external environmental influences shift the fitness levels of the dominant sets of cultural traits, leaving open the potential for significant shifts in views and values as a response. 

While like any model this approach is a simplification which tells far from the whole explanatory story, it offers a fascinating linkage between micro and macro level shifts, and a useful analytic lens for exploring how they might relate to one another.

Social Movement Theory

Social movement theory sits somewhere in between the macro and micro level, focusing on how social movements arise and begin to agitate for change. The interdisciplinary field explores the influence of both structural and psychological factors. Deprivation, emotion and, as above, identity are among a number of factors which are highlighted as triggers for mobilisation. Similarly at the contextual level the presence or absence of resources and proper political processes to resolve grievances are among the channels which are said to explain and influence whether movements spring up and succeed. 

Social movement theory is a highly useful linkage between belief and action, and also deals somewhat with the success of actions themselves. This is predominantly through their translation into broad based action, but the field also engages at least somewhat with the effects of these actions in shifting society in the ways they agitate for. For example, the radical flank effect is used to explain the influence of radical activists for a given cause on the success of more moderate activists for the same cause, and outlines at least one dynamic which might contribute to the success of a movement in attaining its stated goals.

Further Questions and Conclusions

This work was intended to give a high-level overview of where relevant material might be found to support a more rigorous, future investigation into the question of social paradigm shifts. While proper literature reviews of each of the fields above would be required to fully grasp their potential contributions to this effort, this first stage has provided a number of useful insights nonetheless.

Frist, it is notable that worldviews and ways of being, where they are discussed, are still done so in a manner that focuses on what we might understand as more surface level or simple characteristics, such as identity and basic rights, rather than the deeper level of how we understand our nature as human beings (such as whether we are atomic or interconnected). I would hypothesise this is because shifts in these latter areas are rarer and therefore have historically played less of a role so far in social change. Given it is these shifts which are of most interest to many of us in this space, further work will be needed to see if and where more directly applicable literature exists.

Relatedly, causes and inhibitors of shifts in worldview are somewhat underexplored.  There are references to certain experiences, their emotive effects and so on, and perhaps how some views fit with prior belief sets. Despite this, a deeper and more multifaceted interrogation of how worldviews shift is needed.

It stands to reason that these fields all touch different parts of the elephant. This is perfectly understandable, but the task of interweaving them usefully will be no mean feat. Also, necessarily given it involves modeling reality, much of the work surveyed was quite linear and reductionist. There appears room for a complex systems informed approach to integrating these fields in a way which better fits the nonlinear nature of our social reality, and we would love to hear any advice on any work which might prove a good place to start.

Overall, this has still been a useful first step and brought forth a highly informative body of work to engage with, especially inasmuch as it can inform how the worldview shifts we are particularly focused on are mediated by other factors when they are translated to social transformation. I for one am certainly looking forward to continuing the investigation! 


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