A turn-of-the-century central Kansas farm family, with multiple generations living together.
A typical contemporary college campus at a time when young people spend most of their time with peers rather than other adults.
Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock
It is impossible to live in the world today without being bombarded with the reality and pervasiveness of change. The mass media are full of reports of new or continuing crises in some little-known part of the world. They are also full of reports about changes in family life, health, and prospects for economic prosperity or decline. And then there are the fascinating and worrisome reports about the dazzling array of technological innovations that have the potential to revolutionize our lives. While we live in a world that is pregnant with possibilities, it is also at times frightening and hazardous. The general pace of change and the rate at which the world is becoming a single, highly disorganized system suggest that crisis is the ordinary state of social life. Social change is not historically new, but most people today are likely to perceive change as the normal state of the world. Even though we are frightened and fascinated by change, we have come to expect it. Particularly in modern society, life is a journey, not a home.
We are bombarded by the big events of major world transformations, but social change is also the story of individuals and of differences between generations in families. Let us introduce the topic of social change by contrasting the personal stories about the world of Harper’s father and the world of my children. I’ll let Harper
tell you about the lives of his parents from this description of a conversation with his father.
One day in January some years ago when my parents had come to visit, I walked into the kitchen and observed my father just standing with the refrigerator door open, looking into it. When I asked him what he was doing, he said, “Well, I was just thinking that we didn’t have all these different kinds of food when I was growing up.”
My first impulse was to think, here it comes, another story about the good/ bad old days. But instead I asked him to explain. He was thinking particularly about the variety of fresh food (grapefruit, oranges, apples, lettuce, and so on) that was unavailable to him as a child, particularly in January. From that began a series of conversations where I made a serious attempt to try to understand the world he lived in as a child.
My father was born in 1899 on a small farm in southeastern Missouri. His life, as far as I can tell, was typical of at least half of the American population at that time. Like most farmers of the late nineteenth century, he worked the family farm, which was tied to a market economy. His father borrowed money from a bank to buy land, and corn and hogs were sold to make payment to the bank and to purchase seed for next year’s crop. But to me the most striking thing about his early life was the extent to which the family farm was a subsistence operation and not a money household economy. The family lived—almost literally—on what they could grow, produce, and store. His diet (to return to how I got into this) was mainly what could be made from corn, wheat, and salt pork. At the right time of the year there were fresh vegetables from the garden (some of which were canned for the winter), and in the fall there were a few apples from the tree. They did buy some household goods: kerosene for lamps, cloth, overalls and shoes (one pair a year), coffee, and sugar. There were “special” purchases from the mail order catalogue. Much of the money for these extras came from what his mother could produce in the vegetable garden and sell to the town grocer.
As you can see, his mother made a substantial contribution to the household economy, as did each child, as soon as he or she was old enough to help with the variety of farm and household chores. But though the family was a cooperative affair, his father was the unquestioned dictator of the family. Women and children in those times had no legal rights whatsoever and only such privileges as were granted by the male head of the household. As in most American families of the time, patriarchy ruled supreme.
The social life of my father’s family may seem dull by today’s standards. It centered mainly on visiting with the neighbors, going to the country church—“when the weather was good”—and a trip into town on Saturday (an all-day trip). Even though each farm was privately owned and managed, it was embedded in a community life that was strikingly different from what most of us experience today. During planting and harvest times the neighbors gathered in rotation at each other’s farms to cooperatively share the labor. Women spent all day cooking for a grand feast after the day’s labor. My father described these as exciting social events in an otherwise routine existence.
As a teenager—the term was not used then—my father was interested in the opposite sex (some things don’t
change!). Formal contacts between young men and women
were different then. They did not date, but courted. Courtship was understood as a prelude to possible marriage and was under the strict control of parents. At one time my father said that he was courting two different girls, whereupon his mother sat him down and told him to “get serious and quit foolin’ around.” “Foolin’ around” applied to seriousness of intent, not—as it would today—to premarital sexuality, which was strictly taboo in any case.
There were five children born into the family. One died during childbirth, one died as a teenager from tuberculosis, and one survived into adulthood as an invalid with what was called “spastic paralysis”—probably what today would be called polio. Only my father and a sister survived to become fully functional adults. This survival rate was not at all unusual for the time.
The thing that distinguished my father and his sister from their peers was that they finished high school (in 1910 only about one out of ten people did). Not only did they finish high school, they both borrowed money from a bank and went to the regional teacher’s college and were certified to teach. When I asked my father why he went into teaching (I expected an inspiring answer), he said that he had decided that there must be a better way to make a living than “walking behind a plow and the ass end of two mules,” and that becoming a teacher was one of the only things you could do without having some money to start with. His first job was as the teacher in a nearby one-room country schoolhouse. He left the family farm in his early twenties and entered a very different world, one that was being born in the twentieth century. It was a world not of self-sufficient farms, but of cities, automobiles, salaries, and bureaucratic organizations. Today he remembers the farm life as a hard one, but like many older people, he is nostalgic about the lost world of his youth.
The world of my own children is very different—so different that there are few dimensions of it that Harper’s father would recognize. My children have lived their entire lives in college towns, surrounded by well-educated people from all over the world. Both have just graduated from college and the colleges they attended are a far cry (geographically and financially) from the teacher’s college Harper’s father attended. My children take it for granted that everyone goes to college and don’t understand why anyone would think of doing anything else.
Because of improvements in diet and health care, their physical survival was never in question as it was for Harper’s father and his four siblings. Instead, because of the sheer volume of information with which they are bombarded from all around the world, they know that some people like them don’t get enough to eat, others are victims of war and plagues, and adults in their own society get cancer and AIDS. Their general awareness of how other people live and how good they have it is far greater than that of children from prior generations.
The household they grew up in is embedded in a wired, electronic, credit-based economy. Unlike Harper’s father, all my children’s material needs were purchased in local stores or (increasingly) online through Internet shopping services. These products are produced in remote parts of the world and delivered to suppliers using “just-in-time” delivery systems that instantly respond to changes in demand and supply. These consumer items are purchased with credit and bank debit cards and rarely (if ever) with cash. My children were in their early teens before they discovered there was
any connection between credit cards and actual U.S. currency—that “old-fashioned” way of buying things that uses piles of paper with pictures of buildings and politicians on it! The food they consume is grown all over the world, is available during all seasons of the year, and much of it has been genetically altered so that it has no recognizable connection to its plant and animal ancestors in the wild. While Harper’s father was able to observe his parents working on their farm and could see the significance of their work (because it showed up on the dinner table), my children’s parents (both of us) work for pay in large organizations remote from their everyday lives. Even our paychecks are electronically deposited each month in a bank account in our name.
The social life and entertainments available to them were unimaginable even a generation ago. Both of my children have traveled to distant parts of the United States (from Iowa City, Iowa), and both children have been to Europe several times, including a recent trip together without their parents. They take cable TV, video games, PCs, and the Internet completely for granted. They spend a good deal of time with peers and relatively little time with mom and dad. Both children have known about what used to be called the “facts of life” from elementary school, something that Harper’s father was not exposed to until his teen years (at the earliest).
The family life of my children is starkly different as well. We parents have a lot of influence, but there is much more negotiating between them and their parents about rights, duties, and privileges. Their parents are divorced, many of their friends’ parents are divorced or never married, and we parents make decisions in collaboration with each other and our children rather than in the dictatorial style of the patriarchal past. Marriage, for them, is certainly an option, but it is a distant one and it is certainly not a requirement for taking their place in the adult world.
Now that they are out of college, my children have struck out on their own but they still face a bewildering array of career choices. In fact, the entire concept of a career may not exist. They have had their first experience with the structure of the economy and the job market, and they will have to contend with an economy that is not, in fact, open-ended.
This is briefly the story of change in the lives of two generations of our families. Their story is not representative of change in the lives of all American families. You might find it interesting to compare their story with stories about change between generations in your own family. Imagine a far-fetched situation. Suppose you are an investigator from another planet researching human life on earth and have just read the story of change in the two generations of our families. You might say: “Well—you have told me about the life of Harper’s father and your children and how they are different. But how did they get to be so different?”
Our answer would be: “To understand change in individual lives you must understand some things about broader patterns of social change. Changes in individual and family life are shaped in complex ways by changes in technology, the economy, and urbanization.” It is always interesting and often easier for us to think about how our individual lives are changing, but to understand more fully how and why this is happening you need to understand the patterns and forces of change in the social worlds of individuals and families. And sociology has a powerful set of ideas to interpret and comprehend these forces and patterns. That is what this book is about.
For both practical reasons and intellectual curiosity, people have always been fascinated and agitated by the problem of understanding permanence and change. In Ancient Greece, Heraclitus of Ephesus argued that the world was a process in constant flux and development, while his counterpart, Parmenides of Elea, maintained that the world was an indestructible, motionless continuum of matter and space and that change is illusory. This ancient polarization of thought is also found in sociological thinking. To deny the reality of either persistence or change doesn’t recognize the way people experience the world.
Here is a working definition: Social change is the significant alteration of social structure and cultural patterns through time. That’s very abstract and begs at least three other questions: What is significant? What is social structure? And what is culture? Significance, we admit, is largely in the eye of the beholder. When you assert that “nothing important has really changed” or that “things have drastically changed,” those are judgments about significance. In everyday life and social science we make judgments about what is significant and what is trivial, but people with different outlooks can honestly disagree about them. At its root the notion of social structure means a persistent network of social relationships where interaction between persons or groups has become routine and repetitive. Social structure can be understood as persistent social roles, groups, organizations, institutions, and societies.
But if you studied only social structure you would miss important cultural aspects of change in our social life. The distinction between social structure and culture is a most basic distinction in social science. It is an important and convenient way of focusing on different aspects of social life. If social structure is the network of relationships where people are embedded, culture is the “social software” that people share which provides meaning to social life. Culture is the shared way of living and thinking that includes symbols and language (verbal and nonverbal), knowledge, beliefs, and values (what is “good” and “bad”), norms (how people are expected to behave), and techniques ranging from common folk recipes to sophisticated technologies and material objects.
The important point is that grasping the whole picture of social change requires that we understand important structural changes (for example, changes in the composition of the population and households, in the size and complexity of organizations, in the economy), and how they are connected to changes in culture (for example, changing definitions, values, problems, fears, hopes, and dreams that people share).
Some Beginning Clarifications
That’s a pretty abstract discussion of a complex process. Here we want to raise six issues to begin sorting out parts of the process and to preview some of the things we will discuss in more depth in later chapters. These have to do with different (1) types of change, (2) levels of change, (3) time frames of change, (4) causes of change, (5) relationships of change to human intentions, and (6) some terms often associated with change.
Types of Change.
It is important to note that even the words change
can mean that there are concretely different things going on. Consider, for example, at least five different ways that structures can be altered. First, there are changes in personnel
where new people with different life histories and experiences are continually entering and leaving established roles (a change in presidential administration would be a good example of this). Second, there are changes in the way parts of structures relate.
These include changed role relationships—such as differences in family roles that we mentioned in our personal stories. On different levels, the growing complexity of society and the growing specialization of occupations in the economy...