Social Structural Change

Michelle Maiese

July 2003

The Necessity of Social Structural Change

Political conflicts involving warring ethno-nationalist groups often spring from breakdowns of old arrangements. This often results in a call for new or revised political constitutions and social structures.

For example, South Africa abandoned its system of racial apartheid in favor of a modified majoritarian constitution. This is a prime example of social structural change.

Social and political institutions set the context for individual and group behavior and are meant to provide the resources individuals need to survive. How people act and live is shaped in large part by the social structures in which they find themselves.[1] Social justice is, in part, a matter of ensuring that these structures and institutions do in fact satisfy basic human needs.

In some cases, however, a society's social institutions are characterized by exploitation, political exclusion, and unequal access to resources.[2] These structural forces often create a system of winners and losers in which people become trapped in a particular social situation. Structural violence often results, in the form of power inequity, poverty, and the denial of basic human rights.[3] Basic human needs go unmet, and groups suffer from inadequate access to resources and exclusion from institutional patterns of decision-making.[4] Unjust structural forces and divisions also contribute to discrimination, lack of education, and inadequate employment opportunities.[5] An example of this sort of structural violence is the effect of deindustrialization on minority and working-class communities in the United States.[6]

It is unlikely that processes within the system can be effective in dealing with the injustice and inequality that arise out of system fault. Because these processes are designed to support the existing institution, conflicts that stem from unmet human needs may be contained by the existing system but are unlikely to be resolved. There will be protracted conflict until there are changes made to these basic social structures.[7] And in many cases, if social structural changes are not made, eventually change (oftentimes for the worse) will occur by means of violence.[8]

Greg Brown, Program Officer for the International Rescue Committee (IRC), with reference to the Bosnia and Kosovo's Women's Initiatives, discusses how one manages the desire to keep a low profile on joint projects while also facilitating large-scale structural change.

Since instituting fundamental social structural changes is extremely difficult, these structural and systemic problems are often a main cause of protracted, intractable conflicts. Indeed, any set of institutions and social relationships that deny identity, social recognition, autonomy, or preconditions for human development, creates an environment of conflict.[9] Structural conflict is likely to result whenever patterned social relationships fail to satisfy basic needs or secure vital human interests.[10] Any society that aspires to meet the needs of its citizens, deal with serious social problems and avoid violent conflict must address these issues.[11]

A Prerequisite for Peace

Social structural changes are an integral part of transitioning to peace, as well as addressing the injustice that may have fueled conflict in the first place. Indeed, many note that peacebuilding must involve systemic change that helps create and sustain a new social reality.[12] An integral part of minimizing violent conflict is transforming those structures and dynamics that govern social and political relations, as well as access to power and resources.[13] These sorts of systemic changes typically involve policy or institutional adjustments, as well as the creation of new institutions to meet basic political and socioeconomic needs.[14] These social structural reforms aim to ameliorate some of the conflict's underlying causes and conditions and restructure the system of social relationships that has broken down.[15]

Social structural change is also crucial in preventing further protracted conflict. John Burton wrote of conflict "provention" or the prevention of conflict by removing its underlying causes and creating conditions under which it need not occur.[16] Addressing injustice before it provokes conflict often requires far-reaching changes in the existing structures and institutions of society. Suppose, for example, that research discovered that a major societal problem such as drugs or teenage pregnancy could be prevented by a redistribution of resources and the provision of more rewarding jobs. If such social structural changes were made, this might ensure that all members of society had sufficient opportunities for individual development and social bonding, and thus alleviate the structural conditions that contribute to these social problems.[17]

Mari Fitzduff talks about policies of inclusion in Northern Ireland. Catholics used to be excluded from many parts of society; now they are included, which has greatly helped transform that conflict.

Types of Social Structural Change

Today, there is much conflict within states, characterized by a general breakdown of government, as well as economic privation and civil strife.[18] Bad governance is a form of injustice that must be corrected. Thus, one very broad type of social structural change is state reform and democratization. State reform must involve more than just reorganization of the administrative system or the system of resource allocation. These social structural changes should contribute to the establishment of participatory nation-building processes by fostering democratic development, nonviolent and just dispute resolution systems, the participation of the population, and rule of law.[19]

In some cases, parties are chiefly concerned with replacing or altering existing legal and political institutions. Reform of government institutions typically involves measures aimed at democratization and increased political participation.[20] Societies strive to develop a "workable political system in which the multiple social groups can participate to their satisfaction."[21] This sort of state reform has the potential to mitigate and heal the effects of violent intrastate conflict, as well as prevent future conflict.

One type of structural change is the strengthening of civil society. Civil society involves various sectors, including the business world, trade unions, women's groups, churches, and human rights activists.[22] In many societies, citizens are alienated from the institutions and practices of governance, and public institutions are unable to solve social problems.[23] Community relationships and civic life either do not exist or have disintegrated. When civil society is absent or inactive, it is a sign of an oppressive regime.

Many think that strengthening community and civil society is one way to address persistent social problems such as destructive injustice, poverty, violence, and environmental degradation.[24] Strong civil society can promote dialogue and reconciliation, foster good governance, and build peace across cultures.[25] It can also foster the values of caring, tolerance, and cooperation, and encourage public discourse and broad participation in the construction of public policy.[26] People who care about community are less likely to participate in mindless development, environmental pollution, and racial and economic segregation.

Various types of structural reform aim to strengthen community and civil society. These measures strive to foster public participation and create institutions of governance that can "become vehicles not just for making and enacting policy decisions but for fostering citizenship."[27] Such measures include forums for meaningful public engagement, real opportunities for community members to communicate with public officials, and other forms of inclusive governance.

Part of political inclusion is power sharing. Social structures that preserve unequal power relationships often deny subordinated groups the opportunity to participate in decision-making processes that affect them. Part of restructuring political systems, therefore, is empowering weaker parties to negotiate solutions to deep-rooted structural problems.[28] In the United States, for example, mediators with the Department of Justice's Community Relations Service work with racial minorities involved in community conflicts with schools and the police. They frequently help the minority group clarify their grievances and successfully raise them with the authorities. Mediation frequently follows, and social structural changes which provide for long term improvements of behavior and relationships is frequently the result.[29] Reallocations of power to the victims of gender, racial, or sexual discrimination and injustice can form part of structural change.[30] Governments and/or international donors can initiate specific programs to politically empower these citizens and increase their political participation.[31]

Some nations seek to accomplish many of these goals through democratization. The establishment of democratic institutions such as political parties, voting mechanisms, and court systems can provide the mechanisms for power sharing and the proper balancing of political and economic power.[32] Strengthening institutions might also involve judicial reform, the institution of free elections and the creation of a permanent human-rights ombudsman's office.[33] These institutions should carry out just and transparent procedures and promote open and participatory democratic processes. Such processes can lead to the transformation of power structures and increased involvement in political debate.

Another general way to reform government and redistribute power is through constitutional reform. This can involve a process of national dialogue, allowing competing perspectives and claims to be aired and incorporated. It can also be part of national education with respect to concepts of government, the concerns of different groups, the development of civil society and citizen responsibility, and norms of human rights and tolerance. All of these features can be incorporated into newly formed constitutions that address power inequities and promote political inclusion.[34] Constitutional reform can help political systems and the institutions within them to evolve in response to demands that reflect human needs. In the South African case, for example, systemic change came in the form of major constitutional reform and reallocations of power.[35] The abandonment of apartheid is a prime example of major social structural change.

In other cases, parties wish to address uneven economic development and transform the system of class and property relations.[36] In the United States, for example, there have been accumulations of racial discrimination, leading to education and skill discrepancies that result in further economic disadvantages. There are also income, property, and other monopolistic accumulations that are difficult to deal with in the absence of major changes to existing institutions.[37] These sorts of systemic problems require structural changes if they are to be truly resolved. Such changes might include reallocations of educational resources, job training, and housing, as well as redistribution of wealth through tax reform.[38]

In addition, states can intervene to promote a more equitable distribution of income, correct financial-market inequities, and prevent monopolistic or oligopolistic control over markets.[39] They can implement policies to advance land and agrarian reform, promote trade and industry, and increase inclusive economic growth.[40] Restructuring the economic system in these ways can help states to address immediate socioeconomic issues while also creating a way forward for broader societal change.

Many argue that reckoning with past abuses and injustice must focus on the victims. Restitution to victims often forms part of post-conflict reconstruction, but can also be crucial well beyond the reconstruction stage. Some social structural changes aim at compensation for past political and economic injustice. For example, many people in Africa and in countries to which black Africans were brought as slaves have called for recognition of the losses they currently suffer as a legacy of past injustices. Some argue that reparations should be made, and in the United States, the issue of compensation for losses suffered by African Americans as a consequence of slavery continues to be a subject of debate.[41]

There is a growing consensus in international law that the state is obligated to provide compensation to victims of serious human rights abuses. Compensation programs can restore land to those displaced by war, provide monetary compensation to dislocated victims and pensions for survivors of those killed, grant educational benefits to minority groups, and provide funds for minority cultural activities.[42] Carrying out these sorts of substantial measures is often an important part of reconciliation, and helps the victims of past injustice to manage the material aspects of their loss.

Social Movements for Structural Change

Many argue that the existence of injustice and oppression in established power structures must be recognized and confronted.[43] If violent conflict and revolution is to be avoided, inequities in political and economic power cannot be ignored. But can parties significantly alter basic social structures without intense mass violence?[44]

Malfunctioning social structures can sometimes be reformed through nonviolent protest and peaceful political mobilization.[45] History provides many examples of political and social movements that aimed to radically change existing political and socioeconomic structures. Many of these structural changes altered the balance of power between social groups, led to increased political participation and corrected systemic forms of injustice.

In the United States, for example, the civil rights struggle led to the establishment of legal procedures and institutions for dealing with discrimination issues in employment and schooling.[46] Though not entirely nonviolent, it was largely so. In the more distant past, the American Revolution successfully reconstructed the North American political system along liberal-democratic lines This led to the construction of a new constitution and established the colonies' political and economic independence from England. Similarly, many anti-colonial independence movements before and since then have sought to replace colonial political institutions with new forms of government responsive to native interests.[47] While many of these have been violent revolutions, many have not, including the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which was a massive political and social change, which came about largely without violence.

Labor management struggles also seek to reform economic structures and change oppressive power relationships between social groups. The American New Deal, for example, used nonviolent methods to alter the balance of economic power between dominant and subordinate classes. The New Deal's labor legislation compelled larger interstate corporations to recognize and bargain with labor unions and banned unfair labor practices.[48] These new labor policies attempted to outlaw the exploitation of the working class and alleviate severe economic inequality.

Both constitutional structural changes as well as the reorganization of a community's socioeconomic system can serve as nonviolent ways to address systemic injustice. Groups need to organize together to form social movements that confront structural problems and the social ills that result from them. Such social movements might develop around the environment, minority rights, women's rights, religious or cultural independence, and a variety of other issues. Many believe that these movements are a key part of nonviolent social structural change, as well as democratic processes in general.[49]

However, it is unclear whether more radical social structural changes can be carried out by peacefully working within the existing system. Some believe that when political and legal forms support unequal power relationships, working within this framework to carry out reform is unlikely to succeed.[50] There is a need for more revolutionary tactics.

Limits of Social Structural Change

Eileen Babbitt describes an Oxfam project in Rwanda that aimed to scale-up interpersonal and local transformation to bring about societal transformation.

Unfortunately, social structural changes such as power-politics and institutional changes often have limited success in breaking cycles of violence.

Large-scale social structural change is limited, in part, because national and global elite often seek out the most acceptable and efficient means of managing serious social conflict rather than resolving it.[51] Rather than dealing with the total situation in all its complexities, management and containment of symptoms is the most common response.[52] In some cases, this is because the deep-rooted changes required are regarded as politically unacceptable or too costly to pursue. Changes may seem too costly even when the long-term costs of merely managing social problems in the future will turn out to be even higher. Only when reform policies are seen to have significant social payoffs in the long term -- though politically unpalatable in the short term -- can there be radical systemic change.[53]

Through advanced costing procedures, experts can attempt to weigh the costs of refusing to deal with the roots of the problem against the costs of social structural changes. However, the effect that certain social structural changes will actually have is usually uncertain, and given that predictions are not conclusive, decision-makers are often hesitant to enact radical institutional reform.[54]

In most cases, elites tend to initiate changes at the level of more local or peripheral social structures while leaving more central structures intact.[55] Authorities are typically in favor of system and role preservation because they have a vested interest in the status quo. Thus, structures that support the norms and behaviors of dominant social groups will tend to be preserved. Changes that are regarded as a threat to the immediate interests of those who determine economic and social priorities are unlikely to be enacted.[56] Thus, some political and economic structures turn out to be extremely difficult to alter.

In war-torn societies ravaged by conflict, social structural reform will be insufficient to satisfy human needs. When economic and political institutions have been utterly destroyed, they require reconstruction rather than alteration. Furthermore, whether structures need to be fully reconstructed or simply reformed, this is highly costly. In many cases, countries will have to rely on outside humanitarian aid and development assistance in order to create economic and political institutions capable of satisfying human needs.

In addition, any efforts aimed at structural reform must be accompanied by efforts to heal relationships and help individuals deal with psychological trauma. Survivors of war must be rehabilitated psychologically and spiritually, and develop shared meanings so that relationships can be transformed.[57] Social structural change cannot adequately address injustice, put an end to violent conflict and contribute to peacebuilding unless this human dimension receives significant attention as well.

[1] E. Franklin Dukes, "Structural Forces in Conflict and Conflict Resolution in Democratic Society," in Conflict Resolution: Dynamics, Process, and Structure, ed. Ho-Won Jeong. (Vermont: Ashgate Publishing Co., 1999), 159.

[2] Patricia Ardon, Post-War Reconstruction in Central America: Lessons from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. (Oxford: Oxfam GB, 1999), 9.

[3] Dukes, op. cit. 157.

[4] John Paul Lederach, Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies. (Washington, D.C., United States Institute of Peace, 1997), 83.

[5] Dukes, op. cit. 168.

[6] Richard E. Rubenstein, "Conflict Resolution and the Structural Sources of Conflict," in Conflict Resolution: Dynamics, Process, and Structure, ed. Ho-Won Jeong. (Vermont: Ashgate Publishing Co., 1999), 173.

[7] Burton, John. Conflict: Resolution and Provention. (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990), 247.

[8] Ibid., 250.

[9] Ibid., 235.

[10] Rubenstein, op. cit., 173.

[11] Dukes, op. cit., 162.

[12] Lederach, op. cit., 118.

[13] Ardon, op. cit., 10.

[14] Burton, op. cit., 229.

[15] Rubenstein, op. cit., 175.

[16] Burton, op. cit., 233.

[17] Ibid., 237.

[18] Gunther Bachler, "Conflict Transformation Through State Reform" Berghof Research Center for Constructive Conflict Management, 2. Available at:

[19] Ibid., 1.

[20] Lederach, op. cit., 83.

[21] Lumsden, op. cit., 139.

[22] Bachler, op. cit., 4.

[23] Dukes, op. cit., 161.

[24] Ibid., 162.

[25] Bachler, op. cit., 4.

[26] Dukes, op. cit., 163.

[27] Ibid., 164.

[28] Rubenstein, op. cit., 181.

[29] For example, mediator Will Reed talked about indicators of success of his work: "You're looking at trying to come up with real, lasting solutions. I got the agency's award for being able to mediate long-lasting systemic changes in civil rights cases and it was simply because with most of the places and cities I went into, I didn't go in with the idea of just resolving the situation. I sought and I tried to teach others, the ones that I had to work with and supervise, to look for systemic change. If you want to look at a mediation and say that you're a mediator, and want to point back to some of your work years later, well the idea is to shoot for systemic change that's going to be lasting, that's going to have some carry-over value in it....I have one [bi-racial government-citizen] committee that is still in existence and has been for 22 years. (Will Reed, Civil Rights Mediator Oral History Project, Conflict Research Consortium, University of Colorado. Accessed July 03, 2003.)

[30] Dukes, op. cit., 160.

[31] Bachler, op. cit., 4.

[32] Ibid., 5.

[33] James K. Boyce, "El Salvador's Adjustment Toward Peace: An Introduction," in Economic Policy for Building Peace: The Lessons of El Salvador, ed. James K. Boyce, (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1996), 13.

[34] Neil J. Kritz, "The Rule of Law in the Post-Conflict Phase: Building a Stable Peace," In Managing Global Chaos: Sources or and Responses to International Conflict, eds. Chester A. Crocker and Fen Osler Hampson with Pamela Aall. (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1996), 600.

[35] Burton, op. cit., 248.

[36] Rubenstein, op. cit., 183.

[37] Burton, op. cit., 249.

[38] Ibid., 248.

[39] Boyce, op. cit., 9.

[40] Ibid., 10.

[41] Louis Kriesberg. Constructive Conflicts: From Escalation to Resolution, 2nd edition. (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), 331.

[42] Kritz, op. cit., 599.

[43] Dukes, op. cit., 167.

[44] Rubenstein, op. cit., 187.

[45] Ibid., 182.

[46] Kriesberg, op. cit., 380.

[47] Rubenstein, op. cit., 184.

[48] Ibid., 185.

[49] Dukes, op. cit., 169.

[50] Rubenstein, op. cit., 186.

[51] Ibid., 176.

[52] Burton, op. cit., 244.

[53] Ibid., 249.

[54] Ibid., 238.

[55] Rubenstein, op. cit., 176.

[56] Burton, op. cit., 237.

[57] Lumsden, op. cit., 137.

Use the following to cite this article:
Maiese, Michelle. "Social Structural Change." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: July 2003 <>.

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