Posts Tagged ‘opinion’

The S-Curve of Cultural Change

Many observers have been struck by how quickly public opinion has shifted on homosexuality in the United States. A quarter-century ago, about 12 percent of Americans agreed that “homosexual couples should have the right to marry one another.” And only a decade ago, Americans opposed gay marriage by healthy 20-25 point margin. Now, most Americans support it.[1] Politically, what was once an easy winning issue for the GOP is increasingly becoming a drag on the party’s candidates.

Sigmoid (source)

Sigmoid (source)

The pattern of change on the wider question of homosexuality has also been striking. In the mid-1970s, about 70 percent of Americans told pollsters that “sexual relations between two adults of the same sex” were “always wrong.” In the 2010s only 46 percent did.[2] Note this, however: Americans’ views of homosexuality changed little for the first half of those years; indeed the percent who damned gay relations grew a bit. Then, in the 1990s, expressions of tolerance skyrocketed.

We see roughly a similar pattern of change in public opinion about other major issues: In most cases, a clear consensus holds for a long time. When opinions start to change, the change takes up increasing speed toward a much more even division. That is when the topic becomes socially and politically divisive. A majority forms around a new consensus and the pace of change slows again as the most committed supporters of the old view reluctantly come around; some never do. Researchers call this pattern the S-curve or, more properly, the sigmoid. Some readers will recognize this as the standard description for the diffusion of innovations. In this post, I discuss a few examples of the process and the implications it has for understanding social change. (This post draws from Century of Difference, Ch. 9, and here).


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