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Neil Smelser: The Consensus Approach to Social Change

Neil Smelser illustrates how a sociologist using the consensus perspective can study the problem of social change. By the use of such concepts as social system and structural differentiation, he talks about the problem as concerning the adaptive adjustment of society, the social system adjusts or adapts itself in order to re-establish an equilibrium thereby overcoming any strains or tensions disturbing to its tendency towards stability and integration.

In Social Change in the Industrial Revolution, Smelser applied this framework in a detailed study of social growth resulting from industrial development of the Lancashire cotton industry during the period 1770-1840. He suggests that this period can be seen as a series of adjustments occurring in society, in contrast to the period before 1770 that was stable and represented a period of equilibrium. This new equilibrium was achieved in the years after 1840.Certain initial conditions led to the industrial structure being unable to meet productive requirements and it was through a process of structural differentiation that is described as general sequence of identifiable stages that a new and better-suited structure emerged. He suggested that the same general process and sequential stages of adaptive structural differentiation can be seen to have taken place in the family as it became unable to perform its functions adequately as a result of the changes in the economy. He follows this further by analyzing and describing the growth of processes of structural differentiation within a variety of institutions such as trade unions ,saving banks, friendly societies and so. These are seen as providing in part the necessary specialist agencies to mediate between the family and the economy since family life had become segregated from work. Throughout this period the various parts of British society were constantly adjusting to one another, thus demonstrating their interdependence and their collective tendency to produce equilibrium. Smelser suggests that the value system is the primary source for evaluating possible structural change in society. The value system supplies the standards for legitimizing and approving new arrangements and expectations. The value system limits the directions and degrees of change. He admits that values can change but they generally change much more slowly than social structure. The fundamental value system remains constant during a single sequence of differentiation and so for that particular period, the criteria for assessing the performance of any unit of the structure do not vary.