The Modernization of the Western World
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The Modernization of the Western World

A Society Transformed

John McGrath, Kathleen Callanan Martin

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eBook - ePub

The Modernization of the Western World

A Society Transformed

John McGrath, Kathleen Callanan Martin

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About This Book

The Modernization of the Western World presents an overview of the history of Western civilization and provides readers with the intellectual tools they need to comprehend how societies function and change. Covering Western history from ancient history to the current era of globalization, it draws on the tradition of historical sociology to describe the forces of social change and what they have meant to the lives of the people caught in the midst of them.

This second edition is revised throughout to bring the content up to date with recent developments and discusses key themes such as terrorism, refugees, the European Union and multinational corporations. It also includes a new chapter on the Ancient World, covering this era from the advent of urbanization and agriculture in the Middle East to the fall of Rome and emergence of Christianity, providing valuable historical context.

Clear and concise, this book succinctly illustrates the essential turning points in the history of Western society and identifies the economic, social, political and cultural forces that are transforming the wider world to this day. Illustrated with maps and images and containing a glossary and new boxed features explaining key concepts, this is the perfect introductory book for students of the development of Western civilization.

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1 The Modernization of the Western World

John McGrath and Jay P. Corrin

Key Terms

anomie, collective conscience, conflict theory, empiricism, modernization, social norms, socialization, verstehen, wertfrei
Any understanding of how societies function and change requires some basic understanding of the way that human beings interact. The fact that different societies encourage different sorts of behavior is one of the things that makes studying history and social science interesting. Yet beneath the obvious differences, there are also certain behavioral constants and commonalities shared by all societies. Appreciating these aspects of social life provides an important key to meaningful analysis.
To begin at the beginning, so to speak, we need to recognize that humans have evolved over time to meet certain challenges to their survival. The first anatomically modern humans survived on the savannas of Africa, tens of thousands of years ago, because natural selection, operating over several million years, had given them certain characteristics that made them successful as a species. These included both physical attributes and intellectual qualities that allowed them to meet their needs. Humans began to communicate, learn, and plan in ways that were far superior to any previous creature.
Certain behavioral tendencies also helped people to survive. Like many other species, humans fared best in groups that made it possible for them to act cooperatively to meet the challenges of existence. Though there have been many sizes and types of human groups, or “societies,” the survival of solitary individuals has been immeasurably more difficult from earliest times right up until the present. This is because collective action facilitated certain key activities, such as food gathering, learning culture, child raising, and defense against human and animal predators. Group living made this possible. The result is that humans have long recognized the need to be “social animals,” and they have adjusted their emotions and behavior accordingly.
This need for group living has only increased as societies have become more “modern.” Over the history of humanity, our ancestors have nurtured their unparalleled intellectual abilities to enable the creation of such complex entities as languages, philosophical systems, and technologies. Such developments have raised our standard of living by quantum leaps and transformed our world in both literal and figurative senses. Doing so, however, has not lessened our reliance on each other, but in fact has only increased it, and as our societies have become more complicated, we as individuals have lost much of our self-sufficiency. In the modern age, we still depend on social living for material and emotional survival, and we possess a powerful urge to feel a sense of belonging to a larger group, or what we call a “society.”
It is perhaps stating the obvious that this aspect of human behavior, the need to belong, has been a central factor in the history of humanity, perhaps as much as the need for food and protection, to which it is related. It has been a powerful influence on the way that societies have evolved and changed, and the student of history must keep this in mind. To put it another way, it is impossible to understand history in any meaningful way without understanding the centrality of society in the lives of individuals. Our study concentrates upon the social forces that have created history and that continue to shape our destinies.

The Individual and Society

Social scientists analyze how social forces affect actions, ideas, and values. A process known as socialization is a starting point in understanding the behaviors of both individuals and groups, and it is an essential concept in the social sciences. During socialization, an individual learns how a society works and the normal behaviors expected from its members, or social norms. Understanding and conforming to social norms is how a person gains acceptance in a given society, and during socialization people constantly adapt their behavior in response to the reactions of others and their perceptions of these reactions. While much of this learning may take place unconsciously during social interaction, socialization is usually accomplished willingly and even eagerly, because it allows a person to feel like a member of their society, imparting to them this precious sense of belonging.
Understanding the impact of socialization on both individual and collective behavior is critical for understanding the workings of human societies. This basic concept—the symbiotic relationship between individuals and society—underlies much of the contribution made by the pioneers of sociology who emerged during the industrial age more than a century ago. Living in societies that were confronting rapid and complex social change, social scientists including Karl Marx, Émile Durkheim, and Max Weber analyzed the impacts of such transformations. Their studies focused upon how societies functioned and changed, and what this meant for the relationship between the individual and the larger society. These three social theorists, as well as others, contributed valuable principles of social behavior that are highly relevant today, and which provide the foundation of this study.
Karl Marx (1818–1883) is best known to some people as the originator of “Marxist” revolutionary doctrines, yet to reduce his ideas to these alone is to undervalue his larger contributions to social theory. Much of his work, such as his magisterial study Capital, provided an analysis of the operation and impact of capitalist economic systems.1 As an observer of a rapidly industrializing Europe that was fraught with social and political instability, Marx attributed many of the problems of his age to what he considered the fatal flaws of industrial capitalism: its promotion of inequality between social classes, its tendency toward monopoly, and what he believed to be its inherent instability. Though Marx’s predictions of inevitable revolution have proven to be mistaken, his critiques of capitalism and its problems have proven to be prophetic. Moreover, social scientists and historians who have employed the sociological perspective he originated, known as conflict theory, where change is seen as the result of class conflict, have contributed many insights that are useful for understanding the processes of social change.
The French social scientist Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) applied a rigorous methodology based on empiricism—the systematic analysis of past experience—to the study of how societies functioned and evolved. Regarding any given society as an entity in its own right, he examined the interplay of the subgroups and individuals who comprised its parts.2 What held the parts together, and allowed them to work together for the benefit of all, were common cultural elements that not only provided direction but also gave a society’s members a sense of belonging. Chief among these were what he called a “collective conscience,” a shared sense of values often expressed as ethical and religious beliefs. It is from the collective conscience that we derive our guidelines, or social norms, for proper social behavior; these not only provide order and social cohesion, but also allow each individual to develop the critically important sense that he or she belongs to a larger whole. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Durkheim first explained how the process of social change could undermine traditional values and social structures, which promoted the deadly social malaise he called “anomie,” where individuals have a difficult time understanding changing roles and social norms. He argued that anomie, or normlessness, was a particular danger in rapidly modernizing societies, where the members had difficulties adjusting to changing social expectations and consequently suffered from widespread despair. The phenomenon of anomie, in turn, made it difficult for the larger society to function in a healthy way, and anomic societies became vulnerable to a host of social problems.
Durkheim’s German contemporary Max Weber (1864–1920) developed many of the central principles of modern sociological analysis, including many now-standard sociological concepts and terms. Like Marx and Durkheim, he was concerned about the impact of modernization, especially its tendency to make individuals feel helpless in the midst of large social forces over which they had little control. He had a particular interest in the development of new sorts of power and authority in modern life, and he examined how the increasing dominance of rational and formal social structures transformed individuals’ values and outlooks.3 He urged social scientists to always employ verstehen (a deeper understanding based on an appreciation of the cultural views of the society itself) while maintaining strict objectivity by taking a wertfrei (“value-free”) approach. Both of these have become fundamental principles of modern social science.
These three social theorists collectively laid a lasting foundation for analytical, empirical, and logical social analysis. They were concerned with identifying and explaining the cause and effect behind social change, and understanding how traditional societies could evolve into more complex entities that would continue to evolve, often at accelerating rates. The problem of the individual’s relationship to the larger society was a central issue in all of their work, and each believed that understanding this was absolutely necessary for understanding historical processes. Their theories and concepts, as well as contributions from other notable social scientists, provide the foundation for our study of the modernization of the Western world.


Modernization, as a historical process, has had many different definitions and interpretations. It is a relative term, and a modernizing society is one that moves in a direction where certain aspects are becoming increasingly important. These characteristic aspects are generally mutually reinforcing, and it is often difficult to draw distinct borders between them. If one tried hard enough, a person could probably identify dozens of social characteristics that are found exclusively, or almost exclusively, in what we might consider “modern” societies, but that many characteristics probably makes a definition that is unwieldy and not especially useful.
For our purposes in this book, we use the term modernization to refer to a process that has eight identifiable elements. In no particular order, these are:
Specialization of Labor
Political Centralization
Faustian Ethos
Any society where these eight features—or even most of them— are prominent can be considered to be “modern” to a significant degree. As we will see, they are often interconnected. The precise nature of these characteristics may differ considerably from one society to another, or change over time; in fact, different people may even define them differently. Yet as a template that is useful for understanding the nature of this particular sort of social change, we have found that these characteristics collectively give a reasonably thorough and useful definition of modernization.

Modernization as a Process

Europe had a unique and globally transforming historical experience in that it gave birth to what is recognized as modernization, a process of institutional and individual change that produced revolutionary alterations in social structures and human consciousness. Modernization defies facile definition, but for our purposes we can consider it to be the transformation of a society from rural and agrarian conditions to urban and industrial modes of living. This transformation brings about certain predictable, mutually reinforcing elements. (See Box).
Modernization represents the most powerful engine in history for transforming social institutions and human consciousness. It is a process that necessarily affects all aspects of society. Historically, traditional patterns of social ordering have arisen as solutions to challenges presented by the environment and by other societies, and tradition allows a society to function, and even prosper, as a collective whole. As we have seen, especially during the last 1,000 years, traditional societies have been vulnerable to the transformative power of modernization, as it is expressed through cultural, economic, and political forces. The rapid social change produced by modernization can be both liberating and psychologically discombobulating, depending on the cultural conditions in which the experience takes place. Durkheim recognized this and sought to help the society around him adjust successfully to the inevitable reality of modernization. Although he understood that it could be destructive under many circumstances, he also recognized the potential benefits of this process to increase prosperity, social tolerance, and individual freedom. In today’s world, as in the past, there are efforts to utilize traditional elements, such as religion, to thwart the onslaught of modernization, but historical evidence suggests that it is a process that cannot be reversed. We must, instead, understand how this process operates, and how it has operated in the past, so that we can take advantage of the opportunities it presents to us.
What are the factors that produce modernization? There are a variety of theoretical explanations, but the most pioneering and ultimately seminal were provided by Marx and Weber. Marx believed social change was essentially the product of economic forces. “It is not the consc...

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