Professor Marshall

LESSON 15: Social Change and the Future

Social Change and the Future

One of the interesting things about being a teacher happens at the beginning of every semester. I begin most of the classes I teach with a lesson on the history of sociology, and as soon as I say the word history I see the eyes of students rolling back in their heads. I don't know if this is because history in general is boring to young people, or if students have had "less than interesting" experiences in their history classes. All I know is that most students don't want to hear about history!

There are reasons however that you are teachers and professors are always harping on an understanding of basic historical events — even when you're not in history class, it is to your advantage to be able to understand things which are learning from a historical and contextual perspectives. We cannot fully understand the time we live in or what might happen in the future if we don't understand the past.

In this lesson, Steele and Price ask us what the future of our society will look like (107). We use the tools of applied sociology to try to construct our vision of the futures we will live in.

How Sociology Helps us to Envision the NOW

The work that sociologists do give us a foundation in understanding the world in which we live. Without sociology we may not have as complete understanding of all of the ways in which the structure and the individual react and act together. Once, as an undergraduate sociology student in a psychology class, a professor said to me, "I don't even know why we have sociology. Psychology takes care of all of the human understanding that we need." As a sociologist today, I unashamedly disagree with that psychology professor. While psychologists examine individual behavior from an individual perspective, sociologists examine individual and group behavior from both the micro and macro perspective. I like to think of psychology as "inside the head," meaning that the work a psychologist does examines what's going on inside an individual that helps to drive their behavior. Sociology, on the other hand, is "outside the head," meaning that the work a sociologist does examines what's going on outside an individual that helps to drive their behavior. Thus, for me, sociology is essential to our understanding of society.

Every day, sociologists envision research which helps us to know where we stand in relation to others, how social forces are impacting groups and members of society, and how individuals are impacting the structure. Without the work of these researchers we cannot fully understand the "now" in which we live.

How Sociology Helps us to Envision the FUTURE

Sociologists can also be invaluable to our vision of what the future might be. By using the tools of sociological research and by conceptualizing things which otherwise may be invisible to us, sociologists help us to construct a world which doesn't yet exist — some of those models more outrageous than others, nonetheless when we learn about the future from sociologists, it can give us a picture of the world in which we might live and it probably allows us a glimpse into a life which is radically different than the one were living today.

We often go through our day-to-day lives without considering that the structure of society is constantly changing. We don't see these shifts in the structure day-to-day, but if you look through a broader scope you certainly can see how much we change over time. Consider the childhood of your parents compared to your own childhood and you can see how much society changes in just one generation. When sociologists forecast the future models of society, they are looking out past several generations — their visions of the future are probably radically different than anything we consider or imagine. This doesn't make those models irrelevant, it just simply means that it is inconceivable to us in the current day to understand the structure so different than the one in which we live. We are always bound by the cultural values, norms, and morals that we choose to be important — we socially constructed the past, we socially construct the here and now, and we will socially construct the future. Understanding past social construction will help us to envision and create a society of the future — whether or not our future society is just and fair, or unjust and unfair, will remain to be seen.

The work of "future forecasting" may sound very "science fiction," but it is instructive for us to note that many of the past gadgets, ideas, and concepts of science fiction are the reality of our world today.

Being Paradigm Bound

We are always surrounded by culture. Even though culture is invisible it has a tight rein on what we do and how we do it, and further, on what we think. Steele and Price refer to us being "inside a box," in a metaphorical sense. The box or paradigm that are authors are referring to is culture. All of the beliefs, values, norms, sanctions, and artifacts of our society are components of culture. In this respect, culture binds us to a certain way of thinking – to a certain paradigm. When we internalize the beliefs of our culture we are creating a paradigm that limit not only our own understanding of the world, but also limits how our society is shaped (Steele and Price 108).

The Cultural Box

Culture is a framework – we learned, it is a social product, it's relative to us, and it normalizes the relationships we have with others with in our culture. This makes it very easy for us to use our own culture as the measuring stick by which we judge other cultures (recall the lesson on culture from chapter 3, and the concept of ethnocentrism and cultural relativity). As Steele and Price point out, that we have the cultural frame is not necessarily a bad thing. Understanding the expectations of our groups and internalizing the cultural values of our society allows us to go about our business in the social world — we don't have to worry too much about what other people are doing and they don't have to worry about what we're doing because, for the most part, we live within the boundaries (or box) that our culture provides.

Imagining Life Outside of the Cultural Box

As Steele and Price point out, there really is no way to accurately know what the future will be because our vision is always restricted by the culture of today (110). But this doesn't mean that we shouldn't think about what the future might bring. Frase (2012) uses a scenario-based approach to consider what our future(s) might look like. He arrives at 4 scenarios or possibilities of what society will look like (paraphrased below):

Communist Utopia (The Egalitarian and Abundant Society)

Frase, relying on the work of Marx, says that this vision of the future would involve complete liberation from work for humans. Relying on technology and a future where work and the workplace is completely automated would allow human beings a different type of reality. In Marx's writings, he espouses this type of society, but acknowledges that it would take a true revolution in order for us to get there. Marx envisioned a society where work was fulfilling to individuals – that is to say we would desire to participate in work because we felt fulfilled by it. Marx felt that in this respect we would no longer need to be paid to work, instead we would work because they wanted to and this would completely shift the structure of society from capitalism to the Communist Utopia. In this world, as Frase asserts and based on the work of many theorists, there is no longer conflict based on wages, workers, labor, and corporation. Instead, an egalitarian form of social structure takes the place of stratified capitalist society.

Artificially Scarce (Stratified Abundant Society)

In this form of future society, which is quite different than the prior example, the privileged class (call them rich, wealthy, bourgeoisie, or the "haves") continue to exercise their power and control over others. Instead of using their ability to employee those less fortunate, thus using labor as a co-modified means of control, they turned to using intellectual rights to maintain their control over others. This creates a situation of artificial scarcity in a society because only a handful of people retain control over what everyone else could or might possess. Automation is abundant in this type of society, and thus jobs are scarce — and this would definitely be a dysfunction for the wealthy as their products or intellectual property could not be bought unless people had the funds to be able to do so. There are various ways in which this type of society could play itself out; there are also various ways in which this type of society could implode, creating the revolution that would move society to another form. One of the hallmarks of change in society is what happens when large numbers of people become dissatisfied with the current structure or regime — in the stratified abundant society the wealthy will always have to live life looking over their shoulders as they continue to extract more and more resources from everyone else, everyone else will become more and more dissatisfied with the system.

Fair and Scarce (Pure Socialism)

Returning to the work of Marx, this is the type of society that he would have seen as a middle ground between capitalism and communism — a system where the chains of labor are broken. Unfortunately, this system does not yet have the technological advances of the communist utopia and therefore, scarcity is also prevalent. Under this system labor has disappeared, fossils of an old society. However wages remain — these wages are considered to be a human right — and everyone gets them. These wages are used not to purchase other people labor, but to purchase resources or to trade with someone else for something may have that you want. In this type of society, there still must be a regulating body (a government) which helps to manage and control the price of resources. Thus, this society has one foot in its capitalist past, and one foot in its communist future. It blends these two economic and political systems together to try to seek a new form or structure.

The Extermination (Stratified Scarce Society)

Under this future society model, we find a world that still has a stratified structure where a few have hierarchical control over many. In this future world, automation exists to the point that the wealthy elites no longer need to modify the labor of the masses — this means that virtually everybody becomes superfluous to the wealthy. Without labor to be co-modified, most people have no value to the rich. Of course there are those who can supply services to the wealthy, but this group will not be representative of the non-elites. Because automation has taken over the jobs of most people the non-ruling class live in impoverished existence – and impoverishment creates social unrest. This means that the wealthy have to figure out a way to protect the new structure as it still works to benefit them. One way to keep the poor in line is to redistribute some wealth (as we do today in our welfare state nations) — the wealthy don't like this solution as they fear that those who are needy will place more and more demands on the wealthy and their resources. Another option could be that the wealthy insulate themselves from the rest of us, purchasing homes which are barricaded, using drones and personal security forces for protection. But neither of these two solutions is a long-term solution as eventually the masses will overtake the few. This brings us to the third solution — extermination of the less fortunate. Once the wealthy no longer need our labor we are superfluous — unnecessary and dangerous to the wealthy their only choice is to get rid of us.

Conclusion

Which of these futures will we live in? Of course, this is impossible to predict, however it is instructive for us to think about what the future might look like. Thinking about the entirety of the world with regard to the future is challenging. Scaling down our vision to looking at smaller groups might be an easier task. For example, we could envision the institution of the family, as do Steele and Price (110). It might be easier to forecast or build a scenario about what the future family may look like 50 years from now than it would be to envision the changes that our entire society will undergo in that same period of time. We could practice forecasting our future with any number of social institutions: religion, education, the government, our media, and so forth. Thus, it is easier to handle and understand what changes might be on the horizon.

References 

Frase, Peter. "Four Futures." Jacobin. N.d. Web. 8 Feb. 2014.

Steele, Stephen F., Jammie Price. Applied Sociology. Belmont: Thomson Wadsworth, 2008. Print.