As an intellectual enterprise, contemporary social sciences are replete with claims of social collapse. Over the last 20 years, scholars have proclaimed “the end of history,” “the end of politics,” “the end of work,” “the end of the family,” “the end of liberalism,” “the end of medicine,” “the end of ideology,” “the end of individualism.” There is little doubt that we are experiencing massive social change. As we are approaching the year’s end, something new is emerging, helter-skelter, in our midst that bears little resemblance to any existing political, theological, or sociological model of how the world is supposed to work.
The social shifts are sufficiently different in character to have produced a new social form, one suitably widespread and anchored to become visible. This claim of a new social form lies at the heart of the postmodern contention that we have entered an era of ambiguity, and we argue that postmodernists advance this claim in a way that sociologist cannot ignore. While they are right on target in capturing the spirit of rapid social change that characterizes the present era, their embrace of the resulting “chaos” as a new social form is misguided: they mistake an era of societal transition for a new enduring social structure or even a hybrid of modern society.
In historical perspective, what we are now experiencing bears a striking similarity to the place on the cultural and historical map that created sociology at the end of the last century. Rising suicide rates, the growing prominence of Protestant countries and the subsequent demise of Catholicism’s hold on the Western world, and the movement from agricultural to industrial production all have their parallels in the current social era.
A widespread belief seems to be emerging that the U.S. economy is in the throes of a fundamental transformation. The true enthusiasts treat the new economy as a fundamental industrial revolution as great or greater in importance than the concurrence of inventions, particularly electricity and the internal combustion engine, which transformed the world at the turn of the year.
There is no dispute that the U.S. economy is awash in computer investment that productivity has revived. Economists have long been ambivalent about what social interactions constitute the proper domain of the discipline. The narrower view has been that economics is primarily the study of markets, a circumscribed class of institutions in which persons interact through an anonymous process of price formation.
Throughout much of the twentieth century, mainstream economics traded breadth for rigor. In the first half of the century, institutional economics, which thought broadly but loosely about social interactions, gradually gave way to the neoclassical theory of general competitive markets. A pivotal development was the transformation of labor economics from a field narrowly concerned with work for pay into one broadly concerned with the production and distributional decisions of families and households.
The important development was the emergence in macroeconomics of endogenous growth theory. Whereas classical growth theory assumed that the production technology available to an economy is exogenous, endogenous growth theory supposes that today’s technology may depend have been influenced by the past output of the economy. The broadening of economic theory has coincided with new empirical research by economists on social interactions. Unfortunately, the empirical literature has not shown much progress. Economics has sufficed with a remarkably small set of basic concepts: preferences, expectations, constraints and equilibrium.
Widespread literacy is alleged to be indispensable to popular government. Dramatic changes in communication technologies which are said to affect exposure to traditional print media-we need to look afresh at reading’s political impact. Learning to read is a political act. Inability to read limits an individual’s participation in community life. It was probably for this reason that slaves in the antebellum South were kept illiterate. Even today, a connection between literacy and citizenship exists in evidence showing that persons who read are more likely than those who do not identify with larger political communities.
American people are haunted by Old World hegemonies and hence are committed to individualism and modernism for philosophical and practical reasons. American people are a restless and contentious lot producing a kaleidoscope of attitudes about most social issues. The American people can be found in the election turnout figures and in gross economic indicators, to e sure, but they are more than that; they are also the meanings of their behaviors.
Raised on a diet of political supremacy and technocratic invincibility, the American people were shaken to the core by 9/11. Shortly thereafter, a number of bromides caught the national ear: “America has lost its innocence forever,” “this is the first war of the twenty-first century,” “the U.S. just joined the world of nations.” At some point, history may prove these claims true. But 9/111 has already shown something more heartening: the functionality of a longstanding communal discourse. Admittedly, that discourse is shot through with contradictions and impossible overstatements. That contradictions and overstatements can prove sustaining to a people is a curious fact-an American fact.
Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. Available on-line: