Sociology and Social Change

“The air does not cease to have weight,” writes Durkheim, “although we no longer feel that weight. “(1) The point is, of course, how do we know that there is that thing called “air” out there if we do not feel its presence? What Durkheim was interested to show, indeed, was that those elements of reality that he came to call social facts(2) were out there, regardless of whether the individuals felt their presence or not. Actually, the individuals are almost never aware of the compelling presence of those social facts, which they have a tendency to take for granted.

Sometimes, however, social facts appear unmistakably to the individual who is not even trained sociologically to discover that which is not so obvious. This awareness about the constrictive presence of social facts is often made possible by any kind of alteration to what we normally take for granted in the regularity of social events. Such breakdowns of normalcy may at times occur by accident -e. g. , we make more eye contact than what is culturally prescribed with a stranger whom we mistakenly identify as an acquaintance.

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However, they invariably occur in the midst of drastic social changes, when completely new social situations put individuals together who are at a loss trying to find out what it is that is expected from them to do -e. g. , a member of a traditionally superordinate group in society turns out to be subordinate to a boss who belongs to a socially inferior group. If individuals learn to recognize that which is not so obvious when they face drastic social transformations, we can assert that it is also under such conditions that sociologists further their knowledge of society and its regularities.

It is thus not surprising that the scientific study of society was born in the midst of the most drastic transformations ever experienced by humankind, the 19th Century passage from a social life dictated by tradition to one in which instrumentality came to prevail. The questions then became “what is happening to the individuals? ” and “how can they cope with their pain? ” The palliative offered, of course, depended upon that which social thinkers identified as the source of the pain.

Virtually all classical sociologists -and a good many intellectuals who did not identify themselves, nor do we identify them today, as sociologists- have participated in this search for the causes and the cure for humankind during the 1800s and early 1900s. Thus, Karl Marx wrote about alienation, as the effect of the separation between the worker and the product of his labor under capitalist labor relations. Durkheim, in turn, was concerned with anomie, a pathological -and, thus, temporary- characteristic of societies in which the division of labor does not evolve naturally, but may be forced by unequal social relations among classes.

In the same line, Weber was preoccupied with the fall of substantial rationality as a logical outcome of the process of rationalization in the modern world. Sigmund Freud, in turn, identified neurosis as the malady of the modern times. If it is not surprising that the scientific study of society was born in the midst of a profound breakdown of social normalcy, it follows that virtually all classical social thinkers were able to appreciate the relevance of social change as an object of study. Indeed, the study of social change constitutes the main object in the sociological theory and inquiry of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim.

For Marx, the analysis of social change is present in an evolutionary model that contends that human history has seen a succession of modes of production -namely, tribal, ancient, feudal, and capitalist- and that the present capitalist mode of production is bound to be superseded by the socialist mode of production. For Durkheim, social change is represented by transformations in the social morphology -or the structure of social relations that links individuals into a coherent entity, society- and the moral structure -or the body of laws, norms, and sanctions that regulate social life.

Durkheim’s scheme of social change involves a contrast between a simple division of labor and a corresponding mechanic solidarity, on the one hand, and a complex division of labor accompanied now by what he called organic solidarity, on the other. The object of Weber’s study of history has been the tracing of the process of rationalization of human life. His model of social change entails a multidimensional triumph of reason, which slowly came to pervade every area of social life in the Occident and which has led to the disenchantment of the World, the fall from grace of magic, tradition, charisma, and ffectivity in the legitimation of authority and wisdom. Social change, thus, was at the core of the foundation of sociology as a discipline.

The preoccupation with social change, moreover, prompted the early sociologists to conceive of developmental schemes to account for the transformation of society. We should bear in mind that the impressive advances of biology during the 19th Century, coupled with the impact of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, must have paved the way for the conception of society as an entity that goes through a succession of developmental stages.

For a while, the developmental approach to the study of social change was circumscribed to the analysis of the Western European nations in which sociology was founded -namely, Germany, France, and England. Later on, however, development studies also came to mean the contrasting analyses of Western, modern societies and their non-Western, traditional counterpart. In the same manner that Darwin sailed off to Patagonia(3) in search for current evidences of evolution, the studies of “primitive societies” brought back by the anthropologists of the English school reinforced the developmental approach on social evolution.

This approach came to view those “primitive” societies as the first links in the chain of social development and the Western, modern societies as the last, mature, and final stage. Of course, the qualifier “primitive” used for those non-Western societies announced their ethnographers’ Western bias. Condescendently, the emerging Western social science was characterizing non-Western societies as immature and as the living examples of the stages already undergone by Western societies.

Western social scientists thus implied that the logical development path for the “primitive” societies meant to replicate the series of stages traversed by the supposedly more mature Western societies. When sociology arrived in the United States, it increasingly abandoned the European concern with social change and development. The American society was indeed changing rapidly. However, the preoccupation with the ill-effects of the breakdown of the Old World normalcy found few followers on this side of the Atlantic. American social scientists, rather, optimistically considered social change as progress.

Instead of conceiving of social change as posing problems of adjustment, American social scientists focused on the processes whereby innovations become adopted. Increasingly, the focus on progress as well as on the diffusion of innovations of American sociology needed to emphasize the process of human interaction. Before long, society ceased to be the main object of study of American sociology, and its place was successfully claimed by community studies and analyses of small groups. When microsociology finally dominated the scene, there was little room left for the analysis of social change -a macrosociological concern.

Interestingly, the propositions formulated by American microsociology were meant to be true in any human society, regardless of the level of development. Humans being human, this microsociological perspective seemed to propose, one needs to describe human nature to be able to predict and explain the process of human interaction. To the extent that human nature was assumed to be immutable and universal, the logic went on, its study can be successfully completed within the boundaries of the well-analyzed American society.

There was thus little need for cross cultural or international studies. These tendencies of the American sociology were part of the American culture’s isolationist orientation that was prevalent between the 20th Century’s two World Wars. The role that the United States was to perform at the end of World War II, however, brought an end to the isolationist tendencies of the American culture. Not only did Americans have to acknowledge the existence of a World outside their borders, but their country was supposed to lead the capitalist world into the Cold War and beyond.

Within sociology, this necessary acknowledgment of the international order translated into a preoccupation with macrosociology. With an emphasis on interdependence, the theory that came to dominate the sociological scene was structural-functionalism. Its leading propounder, Talcott Parsons, reintroduced the developmentalist scheme of the classical sociologists. His image of society was one of a system immersed in a constant process of increased differentiation.

What he meant by differentiation was a process whereby the tasks necessary in a ociety to guarantee its survival are performed by an increasing number of substructures (or institutions). Rather than overlapping or duplicating their functions, new institutions take over fragments of the activities formerly performed by a single, less differentiated (that is, specialized) institution. Such a multiplicity of tasks to be performed by an increasingly large number of institutions requires interdependence as well as coordination. The coordination is made possible by a shared system of values as well as by an increasingly differentiated subsystem of society that deals with the attainment of society’s goals.

The interdependence, on its turn, is facilitated by parallel differentiation processes that are taking place simultaneously in every substructure of society. Concomitantly, every newly differentiated substructure (that is, institution) of society becomes internally differentiated so as to take care of the four functional prerequisites of every social system -namely, adaptation, goal attainment, integration, and latency of tensions. The microsociological preoccupation of American sociologists that preceded structural-functionalism was captured by a new challenge.

Parsons’ four functional requirements as well as his pattern variables(4) are applicable to both the social and the personality systems. The goal turned out to find a fit between the functional requirements of the social system and the individual’s orientations and personality system. Microsociological followers of Parsons thus attempted to study the process whereby innovations that are necessary for the modernization of society were adopted by individuals who still lived in “pre-modern” societies.

By the 1950s, the puzzling experience of drastic social change that had given birth to sociology almost a century earlier was all but forgotten. The notion of progress that by then dominated American sociology saw modernity as the solution to all past problems and as the promise of a perfect society. The theory of modernization took from Weber only the comforting elements of his notion of rationalization and ignored all its ill-effects.

Indeed, Weber’s thesis on the doom of democracy all but disappeared from the sketchy translation of his work. 5) Modernization was conceived as the logical outcome of the inherent strength of rationality. Due to its attractive accomplishments in all spheres of social life, modernization was expected to wipe away any remnants of irrationality. Theorists of modernization predicted that superstition, magic, and traditions standing in the way of rationality and progress would gallantly yield to modern scientific and technological methods and organizations. The path of triumphant modernization would start in the pre-modern world in that area of the social system that first comes in contact with the “developed” world: trade and economic relations.

The economic organization of “developed” societies would leave an imprint in the economic organization of the “underdeveloped” societies. It would call for an increasing orientation towards the supposedly rational goals of the marketplace. The rest of the path to modernity would see, one by one, every aspect of social and cultural life adjusting to the needs of the rational economic system. Social scientists adhering to the theory of modernization called such a path development. It was meant to repeat -in a rather accelerated fashion- the triumph of modernity in the West.

This would happen not only because it was functionally required by the social systems of the up-to-then pre-modern societies, but also because the individuals themselves would in the end be willing to embrace development and its modern accomplishments. The strength of development would render it prestigious and people all over the world would be willing to emulate it. “More than any other great power, the United States is in constant contact with Latin America. This contact has had its Westernizing effect.

The forms of United States contact with the area have been many and varied, ranging all the way from invasion and military occupation through cultural and constitutional influences as well as financial investment, to trade and technical assistance. It is true of virtually every Latin American state that its major contacts outside the area are with the United States: in Mexico, the money spent by gringo tourists is the fourth largest source of national income. (… ) “Economic development, a process of rapidly growing significance in the area, also has Westernizing effects.

Industrialization has begun in many of the countries, and everywhere there is evidence of economic change. This process is abetted by the technical assistance programs –whether supported on a bilateral basis by the United States or multilaterally through the United Nations– which have been operating on a large scale in Latin America since the 1940’s. These programs, chiefly in agriculture, education, public administration, and industrial productivity, have elevated the standards of living in the participating countries and have imported Western technology.

While the effect of the interplay between levels of economic development and political patterns is as yet unclear, it is undoubtedly true that Westernization of the economy has significant repercussions on the political scene. “(6) The prestige of the sociological promise of development was instrumental in the spread of the discipline of sociology worldwide. Sociology departments and chairs surfaced in universities of the “pre-modern” world, where its members launched projects to study the local expression of development. A recurrent theme everywhere, however, was the disappointing unevenness of development.

The result of this new concern was a new concept, cultural lag, that would call sociologists’ attention to the fact that cultural values change at a slower pace than the rest of society. (7) Yet from the occurrence of a cultural lag did not follow that the path of development would be aborted. It would only be somewhat more complicated and -thereby- interesting to study. A more serious doubt concerning the infallible path to development came from the pre-modern world. It did not originate in sociology, but it was voiced by an influential economist.

For Raul Prebisch, an Argentinean who directed the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America in Santiago, Chile, the current international division of labor precluded the “underdeveloped” countries from catching up with the “developed” ones. According to Prebisch, “developing” countries chiefly produce and export primary products,(8) whereas “developed” countries are the exclusive exporters of manufactured goods. Prebisch maintained that such a division of labor between “developing” -or periphery-and “developed” -or core- countries was far from being mutually beneficial.

Rather, he claimed that primary products follow a trend of declining prices compared to the rising prices of manufactured goods. Such a deterioration of the terms of trade for primary products, according to Prebisch, would offset any increase in the “developing” countries’ productivity. (9) His recipe was to encourage the industrialization of “developing” countries. He proposed policies that would give the local private sectors incentives to invest in the manufacturing of industrial goods rather than to import and to distribute such products locally.

Chief incentives would be protectionist measures to ban or tax very heavily imported manufactured goods. In fact, this practice of import substitution industrialization had been taking place in the countries of the Latin American region with the most developed economic infrastructure (e. g. , Argentina, Chile, Brazil, and Mexico) since the 1930s depression. In the 1940s the war economy efforts of the industrialized countries prevented the export of manufactured goods to non-industrial countries, thus furthering the chances of industrialization attempts in the region.

Prebish’s recommendations thus did not “cause” import substitution, but they were instrumental in justifying its protectionism from a changing world. The promise of import substitution industrialization as a spring-board to economic development, however, was short lived. By the end of the 1950s, Latin American economists realized that the manufacturing of products for final consumption still posed the problem of trade deficits for developing societies.

In fact, capital goods -such as machines, dies, tools- and highly refined materials -such as petrochemical derivatives- were not produced in developing nations at a level enough to satisfy the needs of local industry. (10) Such trade deficits seriously limited the growth capacity of an industry that was dependent on the availability of foreign exchange resources. The desarrollista (Spanish for “developmentalist”) school was of the opinion that it was incumbent upon the State to invest in economic infrastructure and to firmly draw policies that would encourage private investment in capital goods production.

The developmentalist school was also concerned with the growing disparities between the economically developed centers of developing nations and the backward, poor areas of those same countries. In order to lessen such disparities and to spread development throughout the developing world, developmentalists recommended that, wherever possible, state industrialization policy creates “poles of development” outside the industrial centers.