Modernity A central concept in the study of social change Essay

 

Introduction

A central concept in the study of social change is modernity, a term designed to encapsulate the distinctiveness, complexity and dynamism of social process unleashed during the 18th and 19th centuries, which mark a distinct break from traditional ways of living.   In everyday usage, modernity (its Latin root means “lately”) refers to the present in relation to the past and thus marked by the historical transition from feudal societies to “modern” ones, as a result of industrialization.

Sociologists include within this catch-all concept social patterns set in motion by the Industrial Revolution beginning in Western Europe in the mid-eighteenth century.  Moreover, it displays in terms of combining reasoning with scientific methods to be applied to questions facing society typified by a capitalist mode of accumulation replicated by state organs and institutions measurement of progress is usually materialist (measurable) terms.  It presupposes that there are consensual values within society and as a result of achievable objectives.

If the concept of modernity encapsulates the social reality that owes its existence to the industrialization, does the globalization and the development of the so called-global village signal the beginning of yet another era?  A number of scholars answering affirmatively, now trumpet the arrival of post-modernity.

In its simplest formulation, post-modernity refers to social patterns characteristic of urban-decentralized societies with a formal bureaucratic system of control that tend to promote secularization.  But precisely what post-modernism represents, for the present at least, is a matter of debate.  Although there are many variants of post-modern thinking, the following five themes have emerged (Bernstein, 1992; Borgman, 1992; Crook, 1992; Hall & Neitz, 1993):

1.      In important respects, modernity has failed.  The promise of  modernity was a life

free from want.  As many post-modernist critics see it, however, the twentieth century was unsuccessful in eradicating social problems like poverty or even ensuring financial security for most people.

2.      The bright promise of “progress” is fading.  Modern people typically look to the future expecting that their lives will improve in significant ways, while members (even leaders) of a post-modern society, however, have less confidence about what the future holds.

3.      Science no longer holds the answers.  The defining trait of the modern era was a scientific outlook and a confident belief that technology would serve human purposes.  But the postmodern critics contend that science has created more problems (such as degrading the environment) than it has solved.

4.      Cultural debates are intensifying.  Modernity ushered in an era of enhanced individuality and expanding tolerance.  Critics claim, however, that the emerging post-modern society reveals the shortcoming of this process.

5.      Social institutions are changing.  Industrialization brought sweeping transformation to social institutions; the rise of a postindustrial society is repeating this process.  For example, just as the industrialization placed material things at the center of productive life, now the globalization has elevated the importance of ideas.  Similarly, the post-modern family no longer conforms to any singular formula; on the contrary, individuals are devising varied ways of relating to one another.

Early theorists such as Max Weber and Karl Marx tried to analyze the rise of modern and post-

modern societies and its consequences – both good and bad – for human beings.

According to classic social theorists, such as Marx, Weber, and others, social inequality is the cause of alienation in the modern world.  Moreover, these theorists agree that modern societies have enlarged to a mass scale but claims that the heart of modernization is an expanding capitalist economy.  Hence, capitalist societies still contain pronounced class and racial inequalities and thus social conflict, even if the inequalities are somewhat less severe than it was century ago (Miliband, 1999; Habernas, 1990; Polenberg, 1990; Blumberg, 1991; Harrington, 1994).

 

For Max Weber, modernity amounts to the progressive replacement of traditional world view by a rational way of thinking. He held that ideas and beliefs stand out as causes of social change.  In preindustrial societies, tradition acts as a constant brake on change.  Traditional people, Weber explains, “truth” is roughly synonymous with “what has always been”.  In modern societies, by contrast, people see truth as the product of deliberate calculation. Because efficiency is valued more than reverence for the past, individuals adopts whichever social patterns will allow then to achieve their goals.  A rational view of the world, then, leads people to seek out and assess various options according to their specific consequences rather than according to any absolute standard of rightness. Moreover, Weber declared that modern society had become “disenchanted,” embracing rational, scientific thought; in short, modern society turns away from the gods.  Finally, Weber explored various modern “types” – the capitalist, the scientist, and the bureaucrat.  What these all have in common is the rational and detached world view Weber believed was coming to dominate modern humanity.

Karl Marx on the other hand, focused on social conflict (between the bourgeoisie and proletarians). For Marx, modern society was synonymous with capitalism; he saw the industrialization as being primarily a capitalist revolution.  His vision of modernity also incorporates a considerable measure of optimism.  Unlike Weber, who viewed modern society as an “iron cage” of bureaucracy, Marx believed that social conflict in capitalist societies would sow the seeds of revolutionary change, leading to an egalitarian socialism.  Such a society, he claimed, would harness the wonders of industrial technology to enrich the lives of the many rather than the few – and thereby rid the world of the prime source of conflict and dehumanization.  While Marx’s evaluation of modern capitalist society was highly negative, then, he envisioned a future with greater human freedom, blossoming human creativity, and renewed human community.  Through the technological miracle of commercialization/industrialization, humanity could finally envision a society free from want.

But he hoped that modern workers would overcome their alienation by uniting into a true social class, aware of the cause of their problems and galvanized to transform society.

Both classic social theorists agreed that the rise of modernity and post-modernity is a complex process involving many dimensions of change.  A popular approach in understanding modernity and post-modernity is explained by the ideas of Karl Marx.  From his point of view, modernity takes the form of a class society, a stratified, capitalist society.  Max holds that alienation or the feelings of isolation resulting from powerlessness in modern society stem from social inequality. Further, Marx cited four ways in which social inequality alienates workers:

1.      Alienation from the act of working.  Ideally, people work both to meet their immediate needs and to develop their long-range potential.  Social inequalities, however, denies workers a say in what is produced or how production is carried out.  Further, work is often tedious, involving countless repetition of routine tasks.  The modern world replacement of human labor by machines would hardly have surprised Marx; as far as he was concerned, capitalism had turned human beings into machines long ago.

2.      Alienation from the products of work.  The product of work belongs not to workers but to capitalist, who dispose of it to gain profits.  Thus, Marx reasoned, the more workers invest of themselves into their work, the more money they lose.

3.      Alienation from other workers.  Marx saw work as the productive affirmation of human community.  Industrial capitalism, however, renders work competitive rather than cooperative.

4.      Alienation from human potential.  Industrial capitalism alienates workers from their own human potential.  Marx argued that a worker “does not fulfill himself in his work but denies himself, has a feeling of misery rather than well-being, does not freely develop his physical and mental energies, but physically exhausted and mentally debased.  The worker, therefore, feels himself to be at home only during hid leisure time, whereas at work he feels homeless”.  In short, industrial capitalism distorts an activity that should express the best qualities in human beings into a dull and dehumanizing experience.

Thus, Marx asserted, work produced alienation, rather than serving as an expression of

personal creativity.  Further, Marx explored alienation, in its various forms, as a barrier to social change.  In place of capitalism, Marx envisioned a socialist system he thought would respond to the needs of all – rather than merely boosting the profits of few to totally eradicate alienation born from social inequality.  Thus Marx, a relentless critic of the present, looked to the future with hope, claiming: “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains.  They have a world to win.”

Moreover, the striking class and racial inequality of the early Industrial evolution both

saddened and angered Karl Marx.  Though, modernity has gradually eroded some of the class and racial inequalities that divided preindustrial societies; the classic social theorists maintain, however, that elites persist, albeit in a different form: capitalist millionaires rather than as nobles who inherited their status.  In the United States, we may have no hereditary monarchy, but the richest 5 percent of the population nevertheless controls half of all property.  And, during the 1980s, the concentration of wealth actually increased.

Max Weber agreed with Karl Marx that class and racial inequality sparks social conflict, but he disagreed with Marx in several important aspects.  First is economic inequality – the issue is so vital to Marx- which Weber termed class position.  Weber’s use of “class” refers not to crude categories, but to a continuum on which anyone could be ranked from high to low.  Second is status, meaning amount of social prestige.  Third, Weber noted the importance of power in the social hierarchy.

A population that varies widely on each of these three dimensions of class and racial inequality displays a virtually infinite array of social groupings, all of which pursue their own interests.  Thus, unlike Marx, who saw conflict between classes, Weber considered social conflict as a more subtle, and variable process.

Weber also suggested that each of his three dimensions of social inequality stands out at different points in history.  Agrarian societies, he maintained, emphasize prestige in the form of honor or symbolic purity.  Members of these societies gain prestige by confirming to norms corresponding to their rank.  Industrial capitalism generates striking economic differences, tying the importance of money to social standing.  Mature industrial societies (especially socialist societies) witness a surging growth of the bureaucratic state and accord tremendous power to high-ranking officials.

Weber’s concern with the growth of bureaucracy led him to disagree with Marx about the future of modern societies.  Marx, who focused on economics, thought that societies could eradicate class and racial inequality by abolishing private ownership of productive property.  Weber doubted that overthrowing capitalism would significantly diminish inequalities in modern societies, because of the growing importance of power in formal organizations.  In fact, Weber thought that a socialist revolution might well increase inequality by expanding government and concentrating power in the hands of political elite.

Post-modernity also explains global inequality in terms of differing levels of technological development among societies.    Post-modernity, a fascination with technology in the United States and a time of hostility to U.S. interests in much of the Third World, has created socialists nations of the Second World  to warn Third World countries that they could not make economic progress under the influence of the capitalist First World.     In response, U.S. policy makers framed a broad defense of the First World’s free-market economy that has shaped official policy toward poor nations ever since (Rostow, et al., 1996).

Classic social theorists paint a different picture of modernity’s effects on society.  These

 

theorists maintains that persistent inequality undermines modern society’s promise of individual

 

freedom, but instead have caused alienation.  For some, modernity delivers great privilege, but, for the majority, everyday life means coping with a gnawing sense of powerlessness.  For people of color, the problem of relative disadvantage looms even larger.  Similarly, women enjoy increasing participation in modern societies, but they continue to run up against traditional barriers of sexism.  In short, this theory rejects mass-society theory’s claim that people suffer from too much freedom.  Instead, classic social theorists hold, a majority of people in our society are still denied of full participation in social life.

Classic social theorists hail the struggle to empower individuals, which has been gaining strength in recent years.  For example, employees seek greater control of the workplace, and citizens try to make government more responsive to their needs (Toffler, 1991).

On a global scale, the expanding scope of world capitalism has placed more of the earth’s population under the influence of multinational corporations.  As a result of this globalization, about two-thirds of the world’s income is concentrated in the societies, where only about 15 percent of its people live.  Is it any wonder, classic social theorists ask, that throughout the Third World people are also seeking greater power to shape their own lives?

Such problems can challenge Max Weber’s contention that modernity creates a society that is rational. In fact, we can say the opposite: modernity created an irrational society as it fails to meet the needs of so many people.  While modern capitalist societies produce unparalleled wealth, poverty remains the daily plight of more than a billion people.

Moreover, post-modern society’s and its technological advances rarely empower people; instead, technology tends to reduce their control over their own lives.  High technology generally means that a core of specialists-not the vast majority of people – controls events and dominate discussion, whether the issue is energy production for communities or health care for individuals.  Specialists define ordinary people as ill-equipped fro decision making, urging the public to defer to elites.  And elites, from this point of view, have little concern for the common interest.

Hence, despite the modern and post-modern society’s popular view that technology solves the world’s problems, it may be more accurate to say it causes them.  In sum, classic social theorists assert that people suffer from alienation because modern societies have concentrated both wealth and power in the hands of the privileged few.

 

References

 

Bernstein, R.J. (1992). The New Constellation: The Ethical-Political Horizons of Modernity/ Post-

modernity. MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.

Blumberg, P. (1991).  Inequality in an Age of Decline.  Oxford University Press, New York.

Borgman, A. (1992).  Crossing the Post-modern Divide.  University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Crook, S. et al., (1992).  Post-modernity: Change in Advanced Society.  Sage, California.

Habermas, J. (1990).  Toward a Rational Society: Student Protest, Science, and Politics. Beacon Press,

Boston.

Hall, J.R. & Neitz, M. (1993).  Culture: Sociological Perspectives.  Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.

Harrington, M.(1994).  The New American Poverty. Penguin Books, New York.

Marx, K. (1984).  Selected Writings in Sociology and Social Philosophy. T. B. Bottomore, trans.

McGraw-Hill, New York.

Miliband, R. (1999).  The State in Capitalist Society.  Weidenfield and Nicolson, London.

Polenberg, R. (1990).  One Nation Divisible: Class, Race, and Ethnicity in the United Sates Since

1938. Pelican Books, New York.

Toffler, A.(1991).  The Third Wave.  Bantam Books, New York.

Weber, M. (1988).  Economy and Society. G. Roth and C. Wittich, eds., University of California

Press, Berkeley.