The Social Scientific Perspective

The GREAT SOCIOCULTURAL revolution is now sweeping our world. Centered in North America, Japan, and the urban, industrialized countries of Western Europe, it extends to the still largely rural, third World nations of Asia, Africa, and Latin America and to the

formerly communist-dominated (“second World”) regions of Central and Eastern Europe. Rapid change, both peaceful and violent, is a fact of life that virtually everyone on Earth today has come to expect, if not unconditionally accept.

The Shape of Things to Come This revolution is now boiling at or near the surface of contemporary social relations everywhere. With increasing regularity, it erupts into our daily affairs, taking on many different guises. In the United States, this revolution is evident in the conflict between the defenders and attackers of government regulation, in the debates about immigration—legal and illegal—about the country’s participation in the United Nations, in the challenges to welfare programs for the poor, and in the post–September 11 concern about “homeland security.” 

Here, and in other countries throughout the world, it has manifested itself in pro- and antiglobalization protests and movements for civil rights on behalf of formerly excluded ethnic minority groups, gays and lesbians, persons with disabilities, children, and senior citizens. It is also evident in our changing attitudes and behavior in the realm of gender. The realities that our parents and grandparents took for granted are now in such doubt that today we are even asking ourselves what it means to be a man or a woman.

Common to all of these debates, conflicts, challenges, and movements is the explicit recognition that something is wrong with society as we have known it. Those involved, regardless of their specific views on the various issues, acknowledge that serious shortcomings and unwanted costs are now associated with the manner in which people have become accustomed to treating one another.

A historical juncture has been reached at which the old ways of managing human affairs, from the interpersonal to the international levels, are becoming less and less effective. Yet, despite the numerous possible options with which we have experimented or merely dreamed, no clear alternatives have emerged to guide us into a highly uncertain future. Just as modernity displaced feudalism as the dominant cultural form in Europe some 250 years ago.

Weinstein, Jay. Social Change, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2010. ProQuest Ebook Central,

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One evident feature of this revolution is its global character: in one way or another, it is affecting all of human society (see Sassen 1996, 1998). As sociologist Robert Schaeffer (2009) has noted in a recent survey of the phenomenon of globalization, “We live in a time of global change. But people experience change in different ways. Global change .. . affects some people more than others, and it can have different consequences—good and bad—for people in different settings” (xi).

Such widespread, and uneven, impact is now possible because of the expansive growth of bureaucratic organizations, especially multinational corporations, along with developments in electronic communication technologies. People living in large cities on every continent are now well connected through the automobile and other consumer items they make and buy, the fast food chains that are opening new branches near their homes or offices, and the kinds of music and TV programs they enjoy. 

With each passing day, people in the most remote hinterlands are being swept into this world system via roads and communication satellites. A trend, a movement, a style, or a new technology that originates in one place can easily find its way to the most far-off and unlikely adopters in practically no time at all.

This phenomenon is the subject of a highly influential study by George Ritzer (2008), professor of sociology at the University of Maryland. Entitled The McDonaldization of Society, the book and related works by ritzer (1998, 2002) argue that the innovations in the mass production and marketing of hamburgers that made the McDonald’s restaurant chain so successful have now become part of the emerging world culture. 

One can, Ritzer observes, find a McDonald’s outlet virtually anywhere in the world, serving essentially the same main items (along with local specialties to maintain contact with “tradition”). Moreover, the characteristic methods of production and distribution introduced in the 1950s by McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc are rapidly becoming part of the operating procedures in all industries, from machine tool production to gasoline service stations.1

It would be impossible to assess exactly what role electronic telecommunication has played in our global revolution, in part because its effects continue to reverberate and magnify as you read this. Some ideas can be gained from considering the fact that an entire new social institution, the communication/information system, is now being formed. The tasks of creating, storing, and distributing information have become so important to modern society that they require their own unique niche in the social structure.

Weinstein, Jay. Social Change, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2010. ProQuest Ebook Central,

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The Science of Change Today

Why? What has happened to change the rule rather than the exception? How did this global revolution begin, and how might it end? What kind of future will emerge from all the apparent chaos?

This chapter provides some foundations for answering these challenging questions, beginning with a brief look at some of the major issues now of concern in the field of sociology and the related disciplines that study social change. With so many aspects of collective life accelerating, globalizing, or being reformed as a result of rapidly shifting ethnic and gender relations, social science, too, is undergoing a thorough reinvention (the earliest observations on this situation include Bauman 1989; Horowitz 1993; and Touraine 1989).

As is the case with people in all professions, social scientists have become increasingly aware that the knowledge and tools they have inherited from past generations are not entirely adequate to deal with today’s realities. So much now happening is unprecedented, and, most seriously, so much of it was unanticipated by relevant experts, who, perhaps, should have seen what was coming.3

This round of intellectual self-examination is part of a broad-ranging cultural movement with roots in architecture, philosophy, and literature. Within the social sciences, two reinventions related to the movement have thus far proved to be especially relevant in gaining a more effective understanding of current conditions.

The first is a renewed interest in applying the analytical tools of sociology to historical material. This approach was developed extensively by social historians such as Fernand Braudel and Edward A. Wrigley and by historical sociologists, especially immanuel Wallerstein, Stephen Sanderson, Charles Tilly, Theda Skocpol, Robert Wuthnow, and Daniel Chirot, all of whose works will be cited in this book. It seeks to trace the sources of today’s social instability to transforming events of the past and to discover common patterns in history that would help explain contemporary political revolutions, religious movements, demographic transitions, and the like.4

The second is a reexamination of the concept of sociocultural evolution. This difficult and highly controversial concept was either openly employed or at least implied by nearly all of the classical theorists of change (Sanderson 1990; 2007, chap. 1 and afterwards). Although contemporary social scientists are heirs to this tradition, and although evolutionary theory has shed significant light on the workings of society, we now know that the classic approaches were seriously flawed. In particular, the concept of sociocultural evolution, as traditionally applied, was intended to account for a vast range of changes in all regions of the world and throughout history (as well as prehistoric eras), many of which do not even remotely qualify as evolutionary.

In addition, the traditional concept of evolution was far too deterministic because it denied the broad scope that choice and intention actually have in shaping human affairs. And, it was too often burdened with the theorists’ ethnocentric biases to be of much use in scientific explanation. Classic social evolutionists typically assumed their culture was the most “highly” evolved. With these flaws in mind, how, one now wonders, can the undeniable advantages of an evolutionary perspective be preserved without giving in to the excesses of determinism and ethnocentrism?

The following section briefly considers these concerns. First we discuss the basis on which researchers decide what kinds of historical events and “episodes”—among all the possibilities—are viewed as especially significant in accounting for contemporary change. Anthony Giddens’s (1981) definition of episode is used here: “Episodes refer to processes of social change which have a definite direction and form, analyzed through comparative

Weinstein, Jay. Social Change, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2010. ProQuest Ebook Central, Created from capella on 2018-10-07 17:18:35.