Over centuries past, human societies have been through fundamental changes often defined as ‘modernisation’. Despite huge advances in knowledge, social science has struggled to conceptualise the nature of these changes and to integrate insights from across different disciplines into a single framework. Disciplinary fragmentation and methodological parochialism as well as a postmodern aversion to ‘grand theory’ have impeded theoretical synthesis. To overcome this impasse, we introduce social transformation as a meta-theoretical conceptual framework for studying ‘big change’. Defining social transformation as a fundamental change in the way that societies are organised and resources are distributed, we distinguish five interconnected dimensions – the political, the economic, the technological, the demographic and the cultural – which together constitute the ‘social realm’. Studied simultaneously, these dimensions are able to capture ‘big change’ in its universal aspects while keeping sight of the diversity of its concrete manifestations. We apply this framework to explore how the ‘modern transformation’ has reshaped societies and to show how the interplay of the various political, economic, technological, demographic and cultural transitions have transformed social life around the globe in strikingly similar ways – notwithstanding the varied, unique ways in which this ‘modern transformation’ has concretely manifested itself across societies and over different periods.
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This working paper is published under the scope of ERC-funded Migration as Development (MADE) research project. To learn more about the project and the current research findings, please visit the project's website.