1 The Personal Experience of Social Change
f you could use only six words, how would you describe your life? F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby
, wistfully suggested that he and his wife, Zelda, would write, “For Sale: baby shoes, never worn.” One of my former students, Joe Hampton, penned, “No plan. Hope it works out.” Trying to compose a phrase that captures or summarizes a life is a challenge.1
Life is long (we hope) and full of twists and turns. As the German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote, “From the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing can ever be made.” Our plans, sacrifices, character, perseverance, and common sense help take us where we want to go, but the road was not built by us, nor do we have control over the traffic lights and detours.2
That is why, in part, the study of society and the effort to understand social life is so important.
We live in a world that could easily go about its business without us, and we leave the world with surprisingly little consequence, especially given all
the effort we expend to become who we are. Whenever I arrive at a faraway destination, my first thought is that life there would be absolutely the same if I had missed my flight. With taxis whizzing by, church bells ringing, school children rushing down the street, people in shops looking over things to buy, friends embracing, I think, “I might as well be a ghost,” until I hear someone at my shoulder asking if they can help me.
This is the mystery and marvel of studying social change. The human world in all its political, economic, cultural, biological, linguistic, and demographic complexity has been constructed over thousands of years and remains a work in progress. In that time, human beings for several thousands of generations have been born, lived and died. They are long forgot ten by history. Still, they did have their moment, and the world would be slightly different had they not lived. In their totality, there would be no social world, no culture, no economy, no political system, no war, and no religion if these seemingly insignificant and nameless millions had not lived.
Jesus Christ, Mohammed, Buddha, Zoroaster, and Confucius? What about Genghis Kahn, Nefertiti, Napoleon, Adolf Hitler, and Mao Zedong? Add to that Socrates, Aristotle, Cleopatra, Leonardo da Vinci, Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky, and Mohandas Gandhi? Who would we be without Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, and Martin Luther King Jr.? These people and many, many others left a larger footprint than will most of us. In very significant ways they changed how we experience, think about, and see the world. Their visions and efforts visibly altered social and material life, science, law, religious thought, the arts, economics, war and peace.
True enough, but they did so not alone and not only by dint of their brilliance, ego, creativity, and determination. The changes we attach to these individuals can only be under stood by taking a more inclusive, expansive view of the social world. They lived in a particular time and place in which their efforts could be monumental because their ideas and deeds resonated with thousands of others to disrupt the taken-for-granted order of things and channel human endeavors in new directions. It is in the recognition of the dynamic confluence of personal efforts and the social milieu, biography and history, the private and the public that we can understand social change.3
A Twentieth-Century Life: Iris Summers
Iris Summers was no one special. She lived a very normal life for her times, but the times changed greatly, and in many ways Iris changed with them. She
sometimes thought longingly about “how things used to be”—both the good things and the bad—and was never eager to embrace a fad or whatever was in vogue. Iris didn’t fear the future, though, and gradually and without much thought kept up with the social changes around her. She was careful with her money (what little she had) as a way of preparing for the future that would inevitably include small setbacks. She believed that some things—expressed as aphorisms and epigrams—were always true. “Still water runs deep,” she would say. “A room full of friends is never crowded.” And she often quoted maxims when giving time-honored advice, sayings like, “Look before you leap” or “The horse has a big head; let him
worry.” She thought these pieces of wisdom defied social change; they were true no matter who you were or what was going on in the world. But what happened around and to Iris Summers greatly affected her life and the way she lived. Her biography illustrates social change, not only for one person, but for a society through most of the last century.
Iris became a mother in the decade following the Second World War. Her children joined the twentieth-century Baby Boomers who bought rock ‘n’ roll vinyl records, joined the ongoing civil rights movement, and fought in Vietnam. The social tumult of their formative years made them feel like they were the century’s agents of social change: protesting and demonstrating, experimenting with drugs, and questioning the American Dream of unlimited abundance and personal fulfillment through material consumption. A few years later the computer and cell phone became ubiquitous for Iris’ grandchildren who were part of a more conservative Generation X. Their children, seemingly obsessed with social networking, are described by the columnist David Brooks (2013) as having “a deep suspicion of authority, the strong belief that hierarchies and organizations are suspect, [and] a fervent devotion to transparency.” Her great grandchildren are Millennials, like many of you.
When Frederick Lewis Allen’s The Big Change: 1900–1950
was published in 1952, it was hard to imagine that the rate of social change in the first half of Iris Summers’ life could be equaled in the second half. But social change probably accelerated.4
The British historian Eric Hobsbawm concluded that the second half of the twentieth century were years of “extraordinary economic growth and social transformation [that] probably changed human society more profoundly than any other period of comparable brevity.” In
his reckoning, the “scale and impact of the consequent economic, social and cultural transformation [was] … the greatest and most dramatic, rapid and universal social transformation in human history” (Hobsbawm 1994: 6, 8, 288). Iris Summers experienced both halves of the twentieth century. You—living in the twenty-first century—may experience yet an even greater acceleration of social change.
Because Iris Summers’ time and place reveal the forces that compel social change today, it is worth recounting her life as she lived it: observing, anticipating, accepting, quietly resisting, and adapting in often unrecognized ways to a rapidly changing social world.
From Farm to Factory
When growing up, Iris lived near many of her relatives, and her cousins were among her closest friends and playmates. Nearly every Sunday during her childhood, relatives gathered at one or another’s farm. They grew most of what they ate: fresh fruit and vegetables in season, canned, pickled, and dried goods otherwise; meat they butchered; and the flour of their wheat and corn. Ice cream was churned by hand using ice cut from the river months before and stored under hay deep in the cellar. Sunday afternoons were spent riding horses or playing in and around the barn; for the adults, in conversation and card games. Relatives would stay late—cleaning up, drinking, smoking, and listening to the radio. Some helped with evening chores like milking the cows and feeding the chickens, geese, pigs, and horses. This bucolic life was full of hardships and hard work, making the periodic abundance and leisure of Sunday gatherings all the more special.
As a girl, Iris’ daily life was not terribly different from her parents’ and grandparents’ experience when they were young. Iris’ forebearers made their own libations—cider, beer, and whiskey—instead of buying them. Rather than a radio, music was provided by local amateurs, including family members. There were more foods of a distinct ethnicity or region of the world, and the people would be speaking a different language: German, Gaelic, and Norwegian rather than English. Everyone in her family had been farmers, though. Over the centuries the machinery changed, and more work was done using the power of horses and mules. But it was a similarly difficult and precarious life, with more than a little social and political injustice.
Iris’ grandparents on her father’s side were from Germany before it was Germany. That is, they lived in an autocratic state rife with religious intolerance. Letters from the old country told of impending war driven by Prussia’s goal of German unification, of young men being pressed into
fighting. The bell and iron fence of a Catholic church were melted down and forged into a cannon, and many of the peasants—especially the Catholics—quietly packed up their farms and fled the region, becoming immigrants in a new land.
Her mother’s family lived in Canada for several generations before migrating to the United States. They were horse and mule breeders, masons, and house builders, wheelwrights who built wagons and carts, traders and millers. All of them had a farm to produce most of what they needed. Iris and her husband had distant relatives with names like Chandler (lantern or candle maker), Sawyer, Smith (blacksmith), Cuthbert (thief),5
Skinner, and Miller.
Like many of your grandparents and great-grandparents, Iris Summers was born on a farm. Literally, she was born in her parents’ bed in a house on a farm, delivered by a woman who lived nearby and had a lot of experience helping women in labor. Birth on the farm—calves, colts, piglets, chicks, pups, and kittens—was an everyday event, and so was slaughtering pigs, cattle and chickens for the family’s meals. Three generations of Iris’ ancestors were captured on daguerreotype and tintype, and the first pictures of Iris were portraits taken in a studio. But her grandchildren have many pictures of her and her family on their farm, sometimes in work clothes and often with farm animals. That’s because, when she was a girl, the family bought a Kodak Brownie camera that
allowed her generation to be the first in human history to have a visual record of their lives preserved for posterity.8
NAMES AND SOCIAL CHANGE
Names tell a story of social as well as personal change. The practice of adopting a family name often indicates that an increasingly strong state wants to keep track of its citizens, usually to tax them or conscript them into war. Polish, Persian, Hindu, or Chinese immigrants, among others, have their name altered when they migrate so they will sound and be spelled in a way recognizable by people who speak only the host country’s language. People from disfavored groups sometimes change their names to avoid discrimination in their new land of opportunity.
The names of the world’s boxing champions tell the story of social change, in particular the story of immigration and upward social mobility. The point at which a prominent ethnic group’s names diminish from the list of great prizefighters is a rough approximation of when the ethnic group “made it” in America. First were the Irish, German, and Scottish fighters (John L. Sullivan, Jack Dempsey, Harry Greb, Bob Fitzsimmons), followed by Jews (Barney Ross, Benny Leonard/Benjamin Liener) and Italians (Rocky Graziano, Carmen Basilio, Rocky Marciano, Jake LaMotta, Ray Mancini), a century of African American boxers (Jack Johnson, Henry Armstrong, Joe Lewis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Archie Moore, Sugar Ray Leonard, Floyd Mayweather, Jr.) and more recently
Latino boxers (John Ruiz, Paulie Ayala, Steve Curry, Tony Lopez). Both of the latter groups have yet to achieve equity in American society and continue to have many fighters in the ring.
In the United States, supporters of women’s equality who married in the 1960s and 1970s were much more likely to keep their family name or hyphenate their own and their husbands’ family names than were women marrying in earlier and more recent decades. Following the civil rights movement, ethnic pride among African Americans contributed to an upsurge in creative, distinctive first names.6
Religious conversion (e.g., from Christianity to Islam or the Nation of Islam) sends a strong political message of change. No one could miss the point being made by the great prizefighter Cassius Clay when he became Muhammad Ali,7
when the fiery orator and Black Power activist Malcolm Little became Malcolm X, or when the poet, dramatist, critic, and activist LeRoi Jones became Amiri Baraka.