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The Role of Societal Revolutions in History

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will examine societal (social) revolutions. We will define the term, identify some famous examples, and learn how they have impacted the course of human history.

What Is a Social Revolution?

The famous rock band the Beatles had a song titled ''Revolution''. Maybe you've heard it before. It begins with the words: ''You say you want a revolution? Well, you know, we all want to change the world.'' The song was written in 1968, at the height of a major social revolution. If you know your recent history, you know this was the time of the Hippie Movement: the time of sex, drugs, and rock and roll.

The 1950s and early 1960s had been a conservative time, characterized by conformity and a maintaining of the status quote. This all changed during the late 1960s. With the Sexual Revolution came new ideas about gender and sexuality. Feminism made tremendous advances within only a few years. American involvement in the Vietnam War fostered a spirit of rebellion and anger toward authority. Young Americans embraced a new Leftist way of thinking.

The late 1960s was a time of tremendous social revolution.
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What took place in the late 1960s was what we might call a societal revolution, or perhaps more accurately, a social revolution. In its broadest sense, a social revolution is a massive change in society. It's different from a political revolution. In a political revolution, typically the government is overthrown, resulting in a ''top-down'' chain of events. In a social revolution, changes take place according to a ''bottom-up'' scheme. The very fibers of society are changed beginning at the grassroots level. Think about the Hippie Movement or Sexual Revolution - it wasn't the government trying to push sexual liberation or drug experimentation onto the people, rather these values and practices began among the masses.

Notable Social Revolutions

Some social revolutions are easily identifiable because they have the name ''revolution'' built in. For example, the Scientific Revolution took place between the 16th and 17th centuries, and resulted in the emergence of modern science, the scientific method, and an entirely new way of thinking about the universe. For centuries people had believed the Earth was at the center of the universe (called the geocentric model), but thanks to the advances made during the Scientific Revolution, a new sun-centered view became accepted (called the heliocentric model). The Scientific Revolution ultimately helped to erode the power of the Catholic Church, fostered the growth of universities, and allowed everyday men and women to understand the basic principles of physics.

The sun-centered view of the universe was a major change of the Scientific Revolution.
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Another social revolution with the word built in, was the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution took place from the mid-18th to the mid-19th century, and consisted of rapid technological and industrial advances, such as the steam engine, modern textile machinery, and modern methods of iron production. The Industrial Revolution caused the birth of the railroad, which dramatically altered transportation.

The Enlightenment was another important social revolution. The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement taking place throughout Europe during the 18th century that emphasized reason, humanism, skepticism, and hostility toward traditional religion. Enlightenment philosophers called philosophes, stressed using human reason to figure things out instead of relying on the so-called ''blind faith'' of religion.

The French Revolution is a tricky one because, yes, on the one hand it was certainly a political revolution, but, on the other hand, it can also be considered a social revolution because of the way it impacted society. The French Revolution took place between 1789 and 1799, and completely turned French society upside down. The French Revolution was a decidedly anti-religious movement, and it helped popularize atheism. It also led to radical social changes, such as racial and gender equality.

This image depicts a festival of reason during the French Revolution. These festivals replaced traditional religious festivals.
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Another famous social revolution took place in the United States during the 1920s, often called the ''Roaring Twenties''. This revolution centered on a rejection of traditionalism and an embrace of modernism. Hedonism (pleasure-seeking) and feminism characterized the decade.

The Role of Social Revolutions

So, how do social revolutions contribute to the unfolding of history? Hopefully, after exploring these notable social revolutions it's obvious, but let's dig just a little deeper and trace some lines of cause and effect.

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