Social change in a society comes about through the progressive development of ideas and concepts developed first by individuals, and promulgated to the extent that they become embedded in the “mind” of society. Society is primarily static in nature, attempting to preserve a “status quo” which includes habits, life-ways, and social power and economic status structures. Progress can only come about as ideas infiltrate and reach a “tipping point” whereby they fire the imagination or the sense of rightness for a change to be initiated, usually in response to a crisis or problem faced by the society and a recognition that the existing framework is unable to address the problem effectively.
Society tends to exercise the weight of force to maintain the status quo, whether this is peer pressure, law development and enforcement, or outright brute force exercised to restrain individuals from acting together to effect change. The use of force is generally accompanied by manipulation of the media, propaganda and selective education.
There is a proverb “the pen is mightier than the sword” which implies that individual development, through the power of thought, can effectuate long-term changes in society that overcome the raw strength of the policing and military power that attempts to stifle change. Eventually the idea, if it aligns with the need of progress and the time-spirit, will win through despite opposition. In some cases, this may take generations as old, ingrained, fixed habits die off with the older generation, and new ideas percolate among the young.
The process involved therefore can seem long, and there may be violent reactionary events to try to impede the progress or set it back substantially. Change involving a single individual may move rapidly, but the inertia of the much larger societal groupings implies a somewhat glacial change process. At some point, change that is building up pressure below the surface may erupt and seem revolutionary, but a careful analysis will show that it generally took its time to build up before it suddenly came victoriously forth.
Sri Aurobindo observes in The Synthesis of Yoga: ” … long after the individual has become partially free, a moral organism capable of conscious growth, aware of an inward life, eager for spiritual progress, society continues to be external in its methods, a material and economic organism, mechanical, more intent upon status and self-preservation than on growth and self-perfection. The greatest present triumph of the thinking and progressive individual over the instinctive and static society has been the power he has acquired by his thought-will to compel it to think also, to open itself to the idea of social justice and righteousness, communal sympathy and mutual compassion, to feel after the rule of reason rather than blind custom as the test of its institutions and to look on the mental and moral assent of its individuals as at least one essential element in the validity of its laws. Ideally at least, to consider light rather than force as its sanction, moral development and not vengeance or restraint as the object even of its penal action, is becoming just possible to the communal mind. The greatest future triumph of the thinker will come when he can persuade the individual integer and the collective whole to rest their life-relation and its union and stability upon a free and harmonious consent and self-adaptation, and shape and govern the external by the internal truth rather than to constrain the inner spirit by the tyranny of the external form and structure.”