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Tuesday, 09 September 2008 18:42

People group together in societies.  We surrender some of our individual freedoms from nature to be part of society.  We can thus benefit from greater security and a sense of belonging.  We can solve common and collective problems.  We thus have at least two identities, our identity as an individual and as a member of a particular society.

There are many forms of society.  Some highly populated countries especially in Asia develop systems of social engineering to ensure that their citizens can enjoy peace, security and stability.  Elite government and business groups influence popular attitudes and social behaviours on a massive scale through education, media controls and social pressures.  Less densely populated countries like the US and Scandinavian countries have greater geographic space and can therefore allow more individual freedoms.

National societies are now undergoing dramatic change due to globalisation and technological change.  Western countries took a couple of centuries make the transition along the path from agricultural to industrial to information to knowledge societies.  Now, the rapidly emerging economies in East Asia and elsewhere are making this transition in the space of one generation.

While this represents social progress, in part this can also be social disruption as social cohesion is being challenged.  At the same time, society is itself becoming internationalised.  And if the international community makes more serious efforts to tackle climate change, we will move towards a low-carbon society which would have many implications for citizens' lives.

Set out below are some of the major societal trends of relevance to globalization:

--  Traditional societies are being exposed to sometimes abrupt and dramatic change as they come in contact with other societies.  This can liberate some people from the constraints of traditional lifestyle, while at times provoking disturbance and break down in traditional societies.  Some countries like Korea, which have undergone miracle economic transformations in a few decades, have also experienced massive societal change.  They have now co-existing elements of the most modern and traditional societies.

--  Developed countries, which had in earlier periods, experienced transformations from agricultural to industrial societies, are now moving in the direction of knowledge societies, where knowledge is the main factor of production, rather than capital or labour.  The emergence of knowledge societies and open access to information thanks to information technology have completely changed the power structure in society.  Knowledge is power, and knowledge is now available to everyone.

--  More open knowledge about the activities of government and business has exposed many unethical practices, and been partly responsible for the decline in trust in public institutions.

--  Globalization and technological progress is leading to a rise in the demand for skilled workers relative to lower skilled workers, with consequent effects on wage differentials.  Over the past 15 years or so, in most developed countries, the incomes of workers at the top of the ladder have risen compared with workers at the bottom.

--  Growing migration is making all societies more internally diverse, and at the same time, more the same as each other.  Social diversity is a source of societal richness and creativity.  It can also be a source of social tensions where social integration is not successful.

--  Civil society organisations have grown enormously in all countries.  They fulfil a vast array of functions from research, providing social services, advocacy and contesting public power.  This has added to the richness and depth of our societies.  But there has also been a rise in non-state military activities in the form of terrorism.

--  Information technology, especially the Internet and e-mail, have enabled contact between people the world over with the emergence of global network societies.  Social networking through Facebook etc is only the latest manifestation.  Civil society organisations thus operate at not only the national level, but also the international level.  Regrettably, this also applies to terrorist organisations.

--  The globalization of society also means that citizens increasingly have multiple identities.  They could belong, for example, to their town, province, country and region (like Europe or Asian).  Some people even feel like citizens of the world.  This trend has been encouraged by intergovernmental initiatives like the European Union which create supranational communities.  In other parts of the world, like East Asia, there are initiatives to create regional communities through political, cultural and even sporting activities.

--  Over the past decades, women have been playing a more and more important role in economic life.  More recently, this has also been the case for women in emerging economies.  While this may have been a source of liberation, there are also many reports of exploitation of women workers.

--  Economic prosperity and improved health have led to increased life expectancy in most countries, except most notably those affected by AIDS and other diseases.  This, together with declining birthrates, has led to an "ageing" of our societies.

--  The OECD is leading a global movement of policy makers and statisticians to measure progress in our societies using a broad range of economic, social, environmental and governance indicators, rather than focussing on GDP which is a narrow indicator of material welfare.

Fostering social capital is key to societal success.  Francis Fukuyama defines social capital as the "shared norms that promote social cooperation".  Others associate social capital with trust.

But social capital does not just come automatically.  It must be worked on.  And social capital is a dynamic concept.  It must always be renewed as circunstances change.  Education and civil society organizations can play an important role.

History shows that societies can also collapse -- the Mayan civilization, Roman Empire and Han Dynasty are just a few examples.  The fall of the USSR shows are how quickly and unexpectedly societal collapse can be.  Writers like Jared Diamond have explored how environment and other factors have provoked societal collapse such as in the case of Easter Island.  The capacity to adapt is but one key to societal survival.

Societal elites play a big role in governing all of our societies, be they democratic or otherwise.  In too many of our societies, most notably Japan, government has sought to juggle the interests of society's different interest groups, rather than lead.  This is one of the reasons for long term economic stagnation.  Many Japanese genuinely believe that they can avoid change.

In the past, the US has been by far the most adaptable society.  But today, we cannot rule out a future scenario of societal collapse.  Wall Street and big business have largely captured Washington.  The irresponsible global financial crisis has resulted in political humilation on a global scale.  American society is increasingly divided between rich and poor, which also has an ethnic dimension as many of the poor are black or hispanic.  There are great risks of a dramatic rise homegrown radicalization and terrorism.  America's drugs and arms are massive problems which are tearing apart the country of Mexico, its unfortunate southern neighbor.  A 21st century version of the Berlin Wall is certainly on the cards for the US/Mexico border

This is one of the paradoxes of globalization.  Technological change and globalization have given our societies so much.  But the risks of societal collapse are probably greater than they have ever been.  And we seem almost oblivious to this risk.



Sociology: A Brief Introduction, by Alex Thio.  Pearson International Edition.  7th Edition, 2009.

Measuring the Progress of Societies, OECD

www.oecd.org/progress .

Collapse by Jared Diamond

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