Monday, 15 August 2016

Modernity and Classical Social Theory

Social theory emerged as modernity morphed and shaped human society. Mass education led to high literacy rates, and when compounded with the popularity of empiricism; researchers started to study the processes of societal evolution, as well as its impact on the members of society. Thus, modernity is defined by adoption of empiricism which in turn accelerated the pace of scientific revolution. Thus, the scientific method became the dominant force which shaped how modern society evaluates new innovations and inventions. Social theory is as a result of the use of scientific methods to study and analyze the society (Craib 25). Nonetheless, how did modernity come about? Modernity evolved through a series of stages that are described below. Thereafter, it will be shown that the classical social theory is the best sociological tool that can be used to describe and analyze the sociological phenomenon termed modernity.
Delacroix Fanatics. Photo Credit: Wikipedia
The exact historical period that defines the transition into modernity cannot be precisely set. However, if modernity is considered within the dimension of change of attitude; then it can be stated that modernity started when members of the society adopted new ideas and changed the attitudes towards reverence of tradition, and in turn started to revere progress. The period when this event occurred varies among different cultures and nations; but it nonetheless marks the beginning of modernity (Buechler 331).
Modernity has accelerated the pace of societal evolution, and has thus introduced many new changes to how the society operates as well as altered the social dynamics that operate within any given modern society. Some of the present sociological theories state that the process of adoption of either progressive ideas or traditional dogmas is cyclic with the society going through a cycle characterized by phases of modernity and conservatism (Hurst 117). Nonetheless, it is still evident that conservatism and modernity can co-exist within the same society with neither of them negatively impacting the other. This is possible as members of the society can ascribe to traditional values while concurrently using modern concepts and ideals to achieve successes.
Even so, the cycle of societal transitions through tradition and modernity is still valid. This is explained by the fact that tradition and modernity designate a spectrum of value-systems; not a rigid monolithic and highly disparate value-systems (Delanty 77). This means that that some of the people who adhere to tradition may adopt the moderate value-system of the tradition which permits them to adopt certain modern values and ethics. Likewise, some of the people who adhere to tradition may adopt the most strict and fundamentalist value-system of the tradition which disavows modernity and its associated values.
A good example in this case is Islamic Fundamentalism which has spawned off violent terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda. These fundamentalist groups adhere to a strict form of Islamic exegesis known as Wahhabism which postulates that pious Muslims must live and follow the traditions of the early Muslim communities who lived in the Hejaz in the seventh and eight century A.D (Mohanty 133). When such fundamentalist individuals come to dominate the social discourse, then the society as a whole tends to gravitate towards tradition and rejection of modernity. Hence, the validity of the cycle of societal transitions is predicated on two factors; proportion and dominance (Delanty 87). 
It is the majority proportion of population who determine whether the society is a modern society or a conservative society. If the population of conservatives in the society greatly exceeds the population of the progressive members of the society, then the society is likely a conservative society. The converse also applies. Still, dominance is the most important determinant factor (Turner, Abercrombie, and Hill 17). If the conservatives in the society are politically, economically and culturally dominant, then the society will ultimately gravitate towards conservatism. Likewise, if the progressives in the society are the dominant socio-economic force, then the society will ultimately gravitate towards progressivism.
Socio-economic dominance is thus the main factor which determines whether the society tilts towards modernity or conservatism (Turner, Abercrombie, and Hill 23). In Europe, the intelligentsia and the progressive idealists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were the dominant socio-economic force, despite the fact that they were a minuscule portion of the population, but they still managed to shape and steer the trajectory of societal changes and evolution towards adoption of value-system and ideologies which define modernity (Wagner 287). Thus, European societies morphed into modern progressive societies because they adopted the value-systems of the socio-economic dominant force.
Post-modernity is defined by the post-modern theory. The post-modern theory states that the present society is living in the period after modernity where pluralism, relativism and diversity define social life. Post-modernity is estimated to have begun during the mid-twentieth century. It is characterized by constant change and relativity. Sociologists argue that post-modernity is an era where human advancement in the realms of science, technology, culture, politics, religion and law has led to an understanding that there is no absolute universal laws and that every phenomenon that characterizes social, political and economic life is relative and flexible. Thus, no religion or culture is better than any other religion or culture since there are no absolute criteria that can be used to rank them (Dickens and Fontana 91).
Also, there is no linearity in thought and thus the very concept of an idea of progress is blurred. This has been brought about by the adoption of relativity by post-modernists thus negating the concepts of right and wrong, good and bad, truth and falsehood; and moral or immoral. Thus, according to post-modernists, the idea of progress is also relative because there are no standard metrics that can be used to judge whether the an idea fosters progress or retrogression.
The concept of multiculturalism is a post-modernist concept. Multiculturalism postulates that no culture is superior to other cultures, and thus all cultures are equal and should co-exist together in harmony. The idea that all cultures are equivalent also means that the value-systems of all societies are equal. Thus, one can deduce that all the moral guidelines and ethical teachings of cultures are equivalent to each other, and none supersedes the other. This has led to the emergence of moral equivalence as a product of post-modernism.
Moral equivalence has been used by sociologists and policy-makers to argue against all forms of discrimination. The basis of discrimination is moral, cultural or racial asymmetry. This means that there are superior moral values, cultures and racial groups. The basis of superiority is relative because if one thing is superior, then there must be an inferior thing which was used to gauge and qualify the superior values of the superior thing (Dickens and Fontana 151). The same concept applies to communities. If one community is superior, then there must an inferior community which can be used for comparison purposes. Comparison between communities can be made using an agreed set of metrics which are mainly religious, moral and cultural values. However, since post-modernism asserts that these values are equivalent to each other, then no comparison can be made because each community will be judged by its values and thus found to be just as good as the other community.
Post-modernism argues that everything is relative. Thus, the very concept of modernity is relative based on the relativity precept of post-modernism. This is because there exists no set standards that can be used to gauge and determine whether the present society is more modern as compared to past societies. This means that the societies which existed during the middle ages, Renaissance period, enlightenment period were each modern in their own ways because they must be judged according to the value-systems that prevailed during their period of existence. Thus, post-modernist thought can be used to argue that the middle-age societies were just as modern as the Renaissance period societies; and that both of these societies are just as modern as the present societies (Giddens 117). 
It is therefore clear that the non-linearity, relative and equivalence theories which define post-modernist thought made the very concept of post-modernity just as contentious for the very simple reason that the post-modern society is just as “modern” as the present society and it can therefore not be defined as “post-modern”.
Moreover, the post-modern theory is critical of the concept of truth, and it is thus critical of the traditional disciplines of science, especially biology. Biology has confirmed that races are biological constructs and not sociological constructs as postulated by post-modern theory. Biological constructs such as races, gender and height are universally accepted as reality (Elliott and Lemert 235). Thus, it can be deduced that post-modern theory does negate some aspects of reality; and this has made it a very contentious issue. Nonetheless, it is evident that the sociological phenomena cannot be described by the post-modern theory.
Classical Social Theory
Classical social theory can be used to define and describe modernity and also trace it development through the ages. Classical social theory ascribes dimensions to modernity. Thus, based on classical social theory, there are three dimensions of modernity; cultural modernity, political modernity, and socio-economic modernity (Hurst 95).
A social theory aims to explain sociological phenomena. A social theory can be descriptive, objective or scientific. It thus forms the basis of social science which seeks to explain the fluidity of sociological phenomena. Sociological phenomena are fluid because they are constantly changing as the society evolves. Thus, social theory aims to describe and analyze a sociological phenomenon in an evolving society (Hurst 80). The sociological phenomenon that will be described and analyzed by the classical social theory is modernity. As stated earlier, classical social theory ascribes dimensions to modernity; and each of these dimensions is described below.
Cultural Modernity
Cultural modernity is the product of the rise of mathematics and natural sciences. Studies in mathematics and natural sciences starting from the Renaissance period led to the scientific discoveries as well as codification of scientific and mathematical laws. Furthermore, it led to the development of the scientific method whose use ultimately led to the emergence of empiricism. Empiricism postulated that laws of nature can be observed, studied and experienced. Empiricism focuses on sensory perception as the yardstick to judge, describe and analyze reality. It thus rejected concepts which could not be verified scientifically through the scientific method. The scientific method is an objective procedure used to study nature. The philosophy of empiricism was popularized and developed by leading philosophers of Renaissance and post-Renaissance Europe including Edward Pococke, Niccolo Machiavelli, Francesco Guicciardini, John Locke, Rene Descartes, Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, Isaac Newton, Galileo Galileni, Charles Darwin and Baruch Spinoza (Chambers 177).
At its core, advances in mathematics and natural sciences enabled empiricists to argue that rational thought should be given precedence over dogmatic thought. The Church had prioritized dogma, and thus the emergence of Empiricism led to church losing its power and hold on the people. This ultimately led to the secularization of Europe as the intellectual authority which was traditionally bestowed to religion was being gradually replaced by the intellectual authority of science (Rosman 866). The philosophers who spurred the evolution of traditional European societies into modern societies were few in number as compared to the general population - who were predominantly religious conservatives. Nonetheless, the social impact of the theories and philosophies propagated by the empiricists eventually directed their societies towards cultural modernism. This ultimately enabled the society to smoothly transit from the post-Renaissance period into the Age of Enlightenment where rational thought predominated over religious dogmas and superstitions.
It is thus evident that - according to the classical social theory - the shift to modernity occurred when society adopted and prioritized empiricism and rationality over religious dogmas. Hence, modernity is defined by the adoption, prioritization and utilization of empiricism and rationalism by society.
Political Modernity
The rise of Protestantism was occasioned by the rejection of the absolute authority of the Roman Catholic church. This event was contemporaneous with the rise of rationalism in the socio-cultural sphere. The development of secular science during the post-Renaissance era occurred alongside developments in political thoughts and philosophies. The predominant political school of thought at that time advocated for the establishment of sovereign authorities which would not be subservient to Papal authority. Adoption of beliefs, philosophies and practices of this political school of thought ultimately led to the emergence of nation-states which were conceptualized to be sovereign because they were not subordinate to the Roman Catholic church. Additionally, contemporaneous political philosophies advocated for linkage of National constitutions from religious laws; and this led to the emergence of secular constitutions which prioritized natural law, thus introducing the concept of human rights as an enforceable jurisdiction (Smith and Smith 211).
Popular sovereignty relies on popular mandate to legitimize national rule. The rise of popular sovereignty during the 17th and 18th Century led to the emergence of representative democracies. Some of the greatest advocates of representative democracies were John Locke, Immanuel Kant and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The need for representative democracies led to the American Revolution as well as the French Revolution (Smith and Smith 221).
It is therefore evident that according to the classical social theory, the shift to modernity occurred when society adopted and utilized secular constitutions to establish and defend sovereign nation-states. Thus, modernity can be defined as the adoption and utilization of secular constitutions, which prioritize natural laws and human rights, to establish, rule and defend a sovereign nation-state.
Socio-Economic Modernity
Socio-economic modernity is characterized by capital accumulation. Modern capitalism is a product of socio-economic modernity. With the rise of sovereign nation-states and rationalism, national constitutions were modeled to promote regional and international trade, with the rationale being that trade fosters peace among nations as well as allows nations to accumulate wealth.
New economic theories postulated by prominent thinkers such as Adam Smith and Vilfredo Pareto led to the emergence of empirical economic studies. This led to the formulation of economic laws which were aimed at regulate and foster trade as well as protect private properties. Protection of private properties provided an incentive for people to engage in economic activities and thus accumulate capital. This ultimately led to capitalism (Amariglio, Cullenberg, and Ruccio 188).
Advances in science and technology due to the scientific revolution supported the agrarian and industrial revolution; and ultimately increased economic productivity. Increased industrial output meant that more products were available to be traded with other nations. Thus, the international trade flourished, and this created an international market system (Amariglio, Cullenberg, and Ruccio 218). It is therefore evident that according to the classical social theory, the shift to modernity occurred when society adopted and utilized economic policies which favored trade and capital accumulation. Thus, modernity can be defined as the adoption and utilization of economic policies and economic laws which foster international trade, protection of private assets, capital accumulation and economic productivity as well as ensure that a sovereign nation-state has been well integrated into the international trading system.
Theorization of Modernity
The explanation of the three dimensions of modernity provided above show that they are strongly inter-related. Classical social theory serves to explain this inter-relation and thus provide a cohesive description of the dynamics of modernity. The interrelation is described by the following five factors; political economy, liberalism, positivism, Marxism and elite theories (Hurst 113).
In 1776, Adam Smith published his magnum opus, The Wealth of Nations. The economic concepts elucidated in the book served to found political economy as a unique discipline. Smith explained that there are universal laws which govern economic behavior. This led to the emergence of the market theory which stated that the price of a product is set by its demand in the market in relation to the supply available. Other economists also postulated that individual self-interests supersede the collective good, and thus people would prefer to engage in economic activities which have a high yield irrespective of whether it harmed the community. Thus, it is evident that the market should be regulated and laws be in place to inhibit illegal trading. Regulations and laws are formulated and enforced by state authorities; and therefore the state must exist for a market to flourish (Hahnel 75). Thus, according to the postulates of political economy, socio-economic modernity follows cultural modernity and political modernity.
Liberalism postulates that progress can be conceived as the freedom to own private property and engage in trade in a nation whose constitution defends religious tolerance and free trade. Its greatest advocates were Alexis de Tocqueville, John Locke and John Stuart Mill. Representative democracies abide by the constitutional law and their limited governments are able to promote free trade. Thus, representative democracies promote and support the ideals of liberalism. Liberalism states that the civil society should serve to mediate between state interests and individual interests. Thus, liberalism advocates for a balance between egalitarianism and individualism (Bramson 65). Thus, according to liberalism political modernity should support and foster socio-economic and cultural modernity.
The key tenet of positivism is that knowledge is obtained from empirical observation. Auguste Comte argued that valid knowledge results from empirical observations and not from metaphysical conceptions. Thus, positivism advocates that social sciences should follow natural sciences, and that social progress can only be assured when the knowledge obtained from both the social sciences and natural sciences are integrated together in social life (Hasan 320). Thus, according to positivism cultural modernity should guide the process of socio-economic and political modernity.
Marxism defines the process of historical materialism. According to Marxism, the basis of conflict and injustice is the class struggle between the producers of capital and the owners of capital. Thus, it postulates that the government should determine the economic nature of the state superstructure. Normally, Marxism advocates that all means to produce capital should be collectively owned (Bramson 125). Thus, according to Marxism socio-economic and cultural modernity must be tied to political modernity.
The elite theories form the basis of liberal democracies. They reject the main postulates of liberalism and Marxism; and instead postulate that the socio-political elite should make rational choices which should serve to further the interests of their respective sovereign nation-states (Wagner 89). Thus, according to elite theories socio-economic and cultural modernity should guide the process of political modernity.
Modernization Theory
Modernization theory emerged in the 1950s in the US. It postulates that non-Western societies will only become modern when they unilinear course charted by Western nations. The theory affirms that all non-western societies would ultimately adopt the Western Model and favor greater differentiation of the political, economic and social systems (Craib 203). Therefore, according to the modernization theory, socio-economic and cultural modernity follows political modernity.
Social theory emerged as modernity morphed and shaped the society. Modernity evolved through a series of stages. The classical social theory is the best sociological tool that can be used to describe and analyze the sociological phenomenon termed modernity. Classical social theory ascribe three dimensions to modernity; cultural modernity, political modernity, and socio-economic modernity. Based on the political dimension, modernity can be defined as the adoption and utilization of secular constitutions, which prioritize natural laws and human rights, to establish, rule and defend a sovereign nation-state. Based on the socio-economic dimension, modernity can be defined as the adoption and utilization of economic policies and economic laws which foster international trade, protection of private assets, capital accumulation and economic productivity as well as ensure that a sovereign nation-state has been well integrated into the international trading system. Finally, based on the cultural dimension, modernity can be defined as the adoption, prioritization and utilization of empiricism and rationalism by a society.
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