Modernity and Sociology in Modern Society
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A central concept in the study of social change is modernity, “social patterns caused by industrialization.” In every day usage, modernity, with its Latin root means “lately,” refers to the present in relation to the past. Thus, modernity is defined as a situation in which “certain elements of tradition tend to survive the forces of modernization and may even, in this case, be amplified in society” (Nillson, 2004).
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. Modernization then, is the process of social change initiated by industrialization. Peter Berger (1987) identified four general characteristics of modernity or modernization.
1. The decline of small, traditional communities. Modernity involves “the progressive weakening, if not destruction, of the concrete and relatively cohesive communities in which human beings have found solidarity and meaning throughout history”(Berger, 1987). For thousands of years, in the camps of hunters and gatherers and in the rural villages of Europe, people lived in small-scale communities based on family and neighborhood. Such traditional worlds – based on sentiments and beliefs passed from generation to generation- afford each person a well-defined place. These primary groups limit people’s range of experience while conferring a strong sense of identity, belonging, and purpose.
Small, isolated communities still exist in Europe, of course, but they are now home to only small percentage of people. Even for rural people, rapid transportation and efficient communication, including television and the internet, have brought individuals in touch with the pulse of the larger society and the entire world. For everyone, too, the family is no longer the unrivaled center of everyday life. As Talcott Parsons (1986) noted, modern living is played out in distinct institutional settings, including schools, businesses, places of worship, and centers or recreation.
2. The expansion of personal choice. People in traditional, preindustrial societies view their lives as shaped by forces beyond human control – gods, spirits, or simply, fate. Jealousy protecting their traditions, these societies grants one another a narrow range of personal choices.
As the power of tradition erodes, however, a society’s members come to see their lives as an unending series of options. Berger calls this process individualization. Many people in Europe, for instance, adopt one “lifestyle” or another and even a variety of lifestyles, as the way of life one person finds suitable may hold little appeal for another. Recognizing alternatives in everyday life, of course, parallels a willingness to embrace change. Modern people, then, easily imagine the world different from the way it is now.
3. Increasing diversity in beliefs - Modernity and Sociology in Modern Society introduction. In preindustrial society’s, strong family and powerful religious beliefs enforced conformity, frowning, on diversity and change. Modernization promotes a more rational, scientific world view, in which traditional beliefs lose their force and morality becomes a matter of individual attitude. The growth of cities, expansion impersonal organizations, and social mix of people from various places and backgrounds combine to foster a diversity of beliefs and believers as well as tolerant openness to people who differ from ourselves.
4. Future orientation and growing awareness of time. People in modern society’s share a distinctive appreciation of time. First, we tend to think more about the future while preindustrial people focused more in the past. Modern people are not only forward looking but optimistic that discoveries and new inventions will enhance their lives.
Second, modern society’s organize daily routines according to precise units of time. With the introduction of clock in the late Middle Ages, and the growing importance of economic activity, Europeans began thinking not in terms of sunlight and seasons but in terms of hours and minutes. Preoccupied with personal gain, modern people demand increasingly precise measurement of time and are likely to agree that “Time is money!” Berger suggests that one gauge of a society’s degree of modernization is the proportion of people wearing wristwatches.
Neil Smelser (1984) associates modernity with these changes of the different aspects of society:
In the realm of technology, a developing society is changing from simple and traditionalized techniques toward the application of scientific knowledge such as the technological discoveries that produced a factory based-, industrial economy.
In agriculture, the developing society evolves from subsistence farming toward the commercial production of agricultural goods. This means specialization in cash crops, purchase of nonagricultural products in the market, and often agricultural wage labor.
In industry, the developing society undergoes a transition from the use of human and animal power toward industrialization proper as inventors applied new sources of energy-including steam power- to the operation of large machines. So, men are now working for wages at power-driven machines, which produce commodities marketed outside the community production.
In ecological arrangements, the developing society moves from the farm and village toward urban concentrations. Now, instead of laboring at home or in tightly knit groups, workers became part of a large and anonymous industrial labor force, toiling for strangers who owned the factories.
These processes can take place simultaneously, but this is not always the case. Many societies mechanized their agriculture and begin to produce cash crops to foreign markets before their cities, an urban form of employment have begun to grow rapidly This was the case in most Asian and African nations as they are having far more trouble achieving the hallmarks of modernization.
But the paradox of modernity represents the conflict and co-existence of modern and old trends in society. People would always link modernity to the idea of progress (from Latin, meaning “a moving forward”), a state of continual improvement. By contrast, people denigrate old trends in society as stagnation. New technology, for example, remains controversial. More rapid transportation or more efficient communication may improve our lives in some aspects. However, complex technology has also eroded traditional attachments to home towns and maybe even to family. Families that had lived in small villages and towns for many generations were integrated into a hard-working, slow-moving way of life. Telephones (invented in 1876) were rare, and the first coast-to-coast- call was placed only in 1915. Living without television (introduced in 1939, and widespread after 1950), families entertained themselves, often gathering with friends in the evening to share stories, sorrows, or song. Without rapid transportation (Henry Ford’s assembly line began in 1908, and cars became common only after World War II), many people perceived their own town as their entire world.
Another conflict is that, not only do we often see the industrialization of agriculture (i.e., the growth of huge mechanized farms) without the rise of industrial cities, or the growth of cities without a decline in the strength of organized religions or the emergence of modern educational institutions, but we also see the rise of anti-modernist social movements in some nations (Germani, 1983). Another example, a rising standard of living among Europeans, has helped make our lives longer and more comfortable. But affluence has also fueled materialism at the expense of spiritual life, creating ambivalence toward change in the minds of many people. In a recent survey, most adults in Europe expressed mixed feelings on the subject of scientific change “makes our way of life change too fast” (N.O.R.C., 2001).
Many people also celebrate modern society’s recognition of basic human rights. The assertion that people have rights simply by virtue of their humanity is a distinctively modern idea found in the United Nation’s Declaration of Human Rights. The modern idea of idea of individual dignity is in conflict to the traditional notion of personal honor. That is, honor seems distinctly out of place in modern society, in fact it is fading. In contrast to codes of honor that guided people in the past, human beings now value individual self-worth and self-determination.
In principle, the idea that individuals should have considerable autonomy in shaping their own lives has widespread support in Europe. Thus, many people will applaud the demise of traditional conceptions of honor, viewing this trend as a sign of progress. Yet, as people exercise their freedom of choice they inevitably challenge social patterns cherished by others who maintain a more traditional way of life. For example, people may choose not to marry, to live with someone without marrying, perhaps even to form a partnership with someone of their own sex. To those who support individual choice, such changes symbolize progress; to those who value traditional family patterns, however, these developments signal societal decay (Wallis, 1985). Industrial technology has also unleashed an unprecedented threat to the natural environment. In short, social change gives rise to uncertainty, complexity, and controversy, making sweeping assumptions about the effect of change risky at best.
Smelser and others (1986) who study modernization have shown that “technical, economic, ecological changes ramify through the whole social and cultural fabric.” There are many illustrations of this trend in modern life. In the political sphere of life, we see the authority systems of the village giving way to domination by the institution of nation-states. In the small-scale, preindustrial societies of Europe, government amounted to little more than a local noble. A royal family formally reigned over an entire nation, but without efficient transportation and communication, the power of even absolute monarchs fell short of that wielded by today’s political leaders.
As technological innovation allowed government to expand, the centralized state grew in size and importance as the government entered more and more areas of social life – regulating wages and working conditions, establishing standards for products of all sorts, schooling the population, and providing financial assistance to the ill and the unemployed.
In the area of education, a societies attempt to produce workers who can meet the needs of new industries, new educational institutions are established. For example, a local school must have a standardized education program. Moreover, in the area of religion, there is decrease in the strength of organized religions. But a number of religious groups deny that modernization must be accompanied by the rejection of religious faith, by the separation of religion and government, or by more democratic political participation. Hence, there are many aspects of modernity that are being strongly challenged by different religious movements.
Families also change as traditional extended families adapt to new economic institutions that demand greater mobility. So, before the Industrial Revolution, Europe and North America formed an intricate mosaic of countless rural villages and small towns. In these small communities, people lived out their lives surrounded by kin and guided by a shared heritage. Gossip was an informal, yet highly effective means of maintaining rigid conformity to community standards. Stratification system also changes as a result of increased social and spatial mobility. Older patterns of gender inequality are modified (and often replaced by new forms of inequality) as women are in greater demand to feel positions in economic societies. The emergence of new class, the wage workers, increases the power of the common people usually adding to their determination to become better educated and to participate more fully in political life. None of theses changes is inevitable or irreversible; workers, for example, may see their unions “busted” in times of recession or economic change. But in the long run, all these trends are likely to appear in a modernizing society.
Modernity and sociology are deeply connected in the analysis of modern society. This is basically because the birth of sociology came at a time of rapid social change initiated by industrialization. Striking transformations in the seventeenth – and eighteenth- century Europe drove the development of sociology. As the social ground trembled under their feet, people understandably focused their attention on society. Hence, a number of people sought to define the life of modern society through sociology. Like individual “choices,” modernity rarely just happen; they are usually products of powerful social forces. So it was with sociology itself.
In this view, modernity is a useful concept that permits researchers to capture many important aspects of modern life in all their complexity. In particular, the issue of the paradox of modernity has proved particularly useful in exposing the difference between the traditional past and modern trends. Modernity is thus both a relevant concept that allows deep analysis of modern life and the interpretation of many complex phenomena in a specific society.
Berger, P. 1987, The Homeless Mind: Modernization and Consciousness, Vintage Books, New York.
Germani, G. (1983), Modernization, urbanization, and the urban crisis, Little Brown, Boston.
Gray, I. 2004, The Transformation of Modernity: Aspects of the Past, Present and Future of an Era, Journal of Sociology, vol. 40, pp. 91+.
Nillson, M. 2004, The Paradox of Modernity: A study of girl discrimination in urban Punjab, India [Online] http://www.ekh.lu.se/publ/mfs/9.pdf
N.O.R.C. (2001), General Social Surveys, 1982-2001: Cumulative Codebook, National Opinion Research Center, Chicago.
Parsons, T. (1986), Societies: Evolutionary and comparative, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.
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Wallis, C. (1985), “Stress: Can We Cope?” Time, vol. 121, pp. 48-54.