Social Change Vocabulary

It’s important to learn this social change vocabulary if you want to understand or participate in discussions of government policy, politics, and business, as well as economics, history, sociology, and anthropology. These words are used very frequently to describe variations in human societies in different places and periods.

Read about the differences in meaning between several different words for change. Then check out some of their other common forms and some frequently-used phrases (collocations.) There's also a link to a crossword puzzle to practice this (and other) change vocabulary.

This social change vocabulary is used in an interesting and important talk about the institutions, attitudes, and changes that make prosperity possible, The 6 Killer Apps of Prosperity. Reading it demonstrates how these words can be used to analyze societies and their changes.


Differences Between Words Describing Change

Protest signs with words for different kinds of change.
Protest signs with words for different kinds of change.

To cause change: 

  • to alter- to make changes in something
  • to amend- to make changes (often in a document) to correct problems
  • to convert- to change one thing into another
  • to modify- to make changes or improvements 
  • to shift- to move something to the side
  • to transform- to change completely

To deal with change:

  •  to adapt- to change one’s behavior to fit new circumstances
  •  to adjust- very similar to adapt; to make minor changes in course or actions to fit new circumstances

The process of change:

  • cycle- recurring changes, circling around and back again 
  • evolution- gradual change as time passes
  • fluctuation(s)- changes back and forth or up and down, in waves 
  • revolution- sudden, often violent change 
  • transition- a gradual change form one condition to another

To change for better or worse:

  •  to decline- to slowly get worse (it can also mean to refuse)
  •  to degenerate- to become worse (physically or morally) or lose value over time
  •  to improve- to get better
  •  to optimize- to make as good (as near optimum) as possible
  •  to recover- to return to a better condition after a problem or illness

To get bigger or smaller:

  •  to contract- to get smaller (pull into a smaller form) 
  • to decrease- to get smaller in size or numbers
  • to diminish- to reduce something (make it smaller)
  •  to expand- to get bigger (spread out; opposite of contract)
  • to increase- to get bigger (opposite of decrease)  
  • to maximize- to make something as big as possible
  • to minimize- to make something as small as possible (or make it seem smaller)
  • to reduce- make something smaller

Other common forms of these words:

(to ____ marks a verb; a _____ (or an _____) is a noun; the rest are adjectives): 

  • adaptable, an adaptation,  
  • adjustable, an adjustment, 
  • altered, an alteration, 
  • an amendment, 
  • a contraction, 
  • a conversion (a change into a different form or a different religion), a convert (a person who has been converted), 
  • a decline, 
  • a decrease, decreasing, 
  • diminishing, 
  • to evolve, evolutionary, 
  • an expansion, expansive,  
  • to fluctuate, 
  • an improvement, 
  • an increase, 
  • increasing (as well as the adverb increasingly), 
  • (a) maximum (n. or adj.), 
  • minimal, (a) minimum (n. or adj.), 
  • optimized, 
  • a recovery, 
  • a reduction, 
  • a revolt, to revolt (means to start a revolution; to revolve means to turn in circles, as wheels on a car turn when it moves), revolutionary, 
  • a shift (this can mean a change OR a rotating change in the workforce in jobs that run 24 hours: the "day shift", the "evening" shift, and the late night or "graveyard shift") , shifting,
  • (transit is a noun meaning transportation, not change), transitional, 
  • a transformation, transformative

Frequent word combinations for social change vocabulary:

·       diminishing returns (on an investment or proposed program-- so that it is no longer worthwhile)

·       the business cycle

·       an economic adjustment (often used as a way of explaining why something bad happens-- lay-offs and job losses, for example, to compensate or respond to business losses)

·       economic fluctuations, expansion, contraction, or recovery

·       minor (or extreme) fluctuations (in the stock market or in prices)

·       a transitional government

·       Traditional institutions or authoritarian governments can evolve into (undergo a gradual transition to) more contemporary or democratic ones; if they resist change; pressure may mount until there is a revolution--a total transformation.


You might also be interested in Political Language, Understanding the News in English, or Vocabulary for Violence.

HomeLearn English Vocabulary> Social Change Vocabulary.

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