Bottom-up change is when the collective actions of everyday individuals make an impact on the world at large. This is contrasted to top-down change, which is decided by leaders and policymakers. In this article, we’re going to delve into how bottom-up methods are enacted to make a large-scale impact on social norms. 

Making a Lasting Impact

Systemic change comes in two forms; bottom-up and top-down. Top-down change is decided by those who lead. It makes for fast, immediate action when swift changes are necessary. But it can fall apart without a strong connection between the top and bottom. Politicians, corporate executives, and policymakers are often the people behind top-down change. Bottom-up change is driven by everyday people who are affected by the system. Changes in their actions and behaviors eventually make their way up to affect legislation and policy. This fosters long-lasting, organic change, but can fail without adequate momentum.

Read: Top-Down vs Bottom-Up 

Bottom-Up Approaches to Social Change

Bottom-up change is rooted in the actions and behavior of the masses. In that sense, we can infer that most social change is bottom-up, because social change hinges on changing the way we interact with one another

But what drives social change? To put it simply, tension. Strained relationships between differentgroups of people forces society into a state of flux, where interpersonal interactions escalate towards a change in the status quo. The pioneers of bottom-up change are usually grassroots networks of people, or just plain individuals, who take it upon themselves to act against social norms. This conflict creates an introspective dialogue that aims to question societal traditions. 

Impacting the Top

The past few decades have seen several bottom-up movements make their way into mainstream society. They began by challenging the way everyday social interactions are viewed, eventually impacting legislation. A few examples are highlighted below.

LGBTQ Movement

The modern LGBTQ movement can be traced back to the 1960s. While there was a growing number of activists calling for gay liberation after World War II, it was the Stonewall Riots of June 1968, that became the flashpoint for today’s LGBTQ movement. The patrons of Stonewall were tired of being unlawfully raided by the NYPD, and so they fought back. This led to the creation of Pride Month, which today is celebrated every June. 

But the continuing fight for equality is riddled with tragedy. Hate crimes, the AIDS epidemic, and legal discrimination from religious groups and medical institutions sought to bring the movement down. But activists fought on, changing the national rhetoric as the community became more visible. They forged ties through gay rights advocacy, Pride marches, and gay-friendly bars and restaurants. More people, including celebrities, began coming out. 

By the 2000s, the LGBTQ community was front and center on the national stage. Where campaigning for same-sex marriage began in the 1970s, it wasn’t until 2003 that a Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling voted in favor of same-sex marriage. Over the next decade, thirty-six other states would do the same. Finally, in 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples should have the right to marry under the same terms as opposite-sex couples

Racial Justice

The nearly century-long fight for racial justice is a prime example of bottom-up social change. During the early 20th century, top-down legislation like the Jim Crow laws made Black life very difficult in the South, so activists answered back with the Civil Rights movement during the 50s and 60s. City-by-city, marches, protests, sit-ins, and boycotts were organized to fight legalized segregation. As governments saw the social and financial impact of the movement, they were forced to react. Against a backdrop of nationwide activism and civil unrest, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. 

Despite the Civil Rights Act, living conditions didn’t improve. Hundreds of riots ensued throughout the 1960s, as police violence, backlash from segregationists, and the loss of leaders like MLK weighed down on the community. 

The ensuing decades saw poverty, violence, drugs, and the AIDS epidemic. But with new generations came new attitudes toward race. The Black community had made huge gains in upward mobility by the new millennium. Rap and Hip-Hop became a global cultural force, bringing the plight of Blacks in America, and abroad, to a worldwide audience. But the struggle isn’t over. After the death of George Floyd in the hands of police in 2020, protests calling for justice broke out worldwide, highlighting the need for yet more progress.

Key Takeaways

Bottom-up change requires a shift in the behaviors of everyday people, which build momentum towards large-scale movements. When the tension reaches a breaking point, leaders are forced to adjust their policies in reaction to changing attitudes. 

  • Social change, by its very nature, is bottom-up. 
  • Bottom-up social change is driven by tension, which changes the way people interact with each other.
  • These changes, if large enough, can affect policy and legislation.
  • The ongoing struggles for racial justice and LGBTQ equality are relevant examples of bottom-up social change.