What is a Social Revolution? - Definition & Examples

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  • 0:03 Definition of Social…
  • 0:56 Causes of Social Revolution
  • 2:04 Social Revolution in History
  • 5:08 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Emily Cummins
Expert Contributor
Lesley Chapel

Lesley has taught American and World History at the university level for the past seven years. She has a Master's degree in History.

How does social change happen? In this lesson, we'll talk about what social revolution is and describe a couple of the most important social revolutions in history.

Definition of Social Revolution

How do we implement change in our society? If we see something we think is wrong, how do we address it? A social revolution is a fundamental change in a society. It involves a shift in power in a society. Revolutions occur when a number of people in a society feel discontent with the current order and agree that change is necessary. When we stop wanting to live the way we're living, or if we stop believing in the legitimacy of our current social or political order, we may turn to revolution.

It's important to note that revolution is different than reform, which seeks to change small parts of an existing system, but ultimately keep it in place. Revolution seeks to overthrow this whole system. Revolution can bring about important social, political, and economic changes. Let's talk about some of the causes of social revolution.

Causes of Social Revolution

There are a number of things that can cause a revolution to occur. For one thing, revolutions might happen when a state is no longer functioning well. In other words, when a government is weak, an opportunity arises for revolutionaries to seize on this.

Class struggle, or conflict between different social classes with different access to resources, is often an important explanation as to why revolutions occur. Think about it this way: if a society is very unequal, it's likely that there are many people in it who are discontent. This can create anger directed at elites, leading to an uprising of the working class.

Shifts in culture can also cause revolutionary change. Sometimes, citizens begin to feel troubled by dominant cultural values or norms, and this can bring about change. One example of this in the United States is the sexual revolution. During this time, we saw issues like birth control and women's sexuality discussed much more openly and with less judgement than previous eras. Now that we know a little bit about what a revolution is, let's talk about some specific revolutions and what they accomplished.

Social Revolution in History

We should note that there are many, many revolutions that have occurred in places throughout the world. But let's focus on a few to get an idea of some of the major revolutions that caused massive change.

One of the most important revolutions is the French Revolution, which was a massive cultural shift in France that took place in the late 1700s. France at this time was ruled by a monarch that was extremely powerful. For the majority of people in France, though, living conditions were terrible. Ordinary people were hungry and suffering and resented what they viewed as the lavish life of the monarchy. The government was in debt and implemented taxation schemes that many people felt were unfair. King Louis XVI spent money with little discretion, leaving the country in a precarious position. Disadvantaged farmers and peasants often paid more taxes than noblemen.

Eventually, ordinary or common people, known as the third estate, began to come together in an effort to gain equal representation. The third estate made up the majority of France's population, but they had very little power in the country. There was also a growing middle class who held a set of ideals that reflected an intellectual shift that was happening in the country. We began to see an emphasis on ideals of equality, liberty, and individual freedom.

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Additional Activities

Writing Prompts About Social Revolution

Essay Prompt 1:

Write an essay of at least three to five paragraphs that explains what a social revolution is.

Example: First define social revolution. Then explain what a social revolution is not. Also explain the role of reform in social revolution and how reform differs from a complete revolution.

Essay Prompt 2:

Write an essay that explains the main causes of a social revolution. Tip: Be sure to include an analysis of the role of class struggle in creating a social revolution.

Essay Prompt 3:

Write an essay that explores the similarities and differences between the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Example: Begin with an intro paragraph and a thesis statement. Highlight the roles of class struggle, poverty, and ineffective leaders as you compare and contrast both revolutions. After that, examine the lasting consequences of the revolutions (brutality seems to be a consistent point). Be sure to end with a conclusion that neatly ties together your findings in your comparisons and contrasts.

List Prompt 1:

The lesson highlights the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution of 1917, and also mentions the sexual revolution in the United States. There are likely other social revolutions you have encountered when studying social studies, history, or other types of social sciences. Make a list of as many examples of social revolutions that you can think of. Tip: You don't have to know the details of these social revolutions; simply list them, being sure to consider thoughtfully if they are indeed social revolutions before you list them.

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