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AMERICAN SOCIAL TRENDS

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PART VIII Social Change 56 AMERICAN SOCIAL TRENDS CHARLES L. HARPER • KEVIN T. LEICHT In this reading, the first of three to focus on social change, Charles L. Harper and Kevin T. Leicht address what they consider to be the most important so-cial trends in the United States. Harper, professor of sociology at Creighton University, and Leicht, professor of sociology and Director of the Institute for Inequality Studies and Director of the Social Science Research Center at the University of Iowa, believe that we need to understand that social change occurs on various levels in society, including the micro and macro levels. In the selection below, Harper and Leicht focus primarily on the lat-ter, social change that occurs on the macro level of society, by examining larger structural and cultural trends and countertrends in society. YOU can think about social change in three ways. First, change can be significant social events, such as World War II, the assassination of Pres-ident Kennedy, the suicide attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Persian Gulf War, or the breakup of the Soviet empire. Each of these events had an impact on change in con-temporary J\merica. Second, change can be macroscopic, or broad-scale social trends and cultural themes. These pervasive change processes enable you to see patterns and make more general sense out of particular historical events by revealing "underlying" patterns and directions. Third, change can occur in the spheres of social life that are closely connected to the lives of individu-als, such as age groups, families, work settings, education, religion, and so on. In other words, this third perspective focuses on change in the population and social institutions. Each of these perspectives on change has strengths and weaknesses. A focus on particular events is important but may suggest that social change is only the accumulation of particular events with no patterns or broader processes. Understanding large-scale social trends is important, but these trends by themselves tell you little about particular events or the everyday Charles L. Harper and Kevin T. Leicht, "American Social Trends" from Exploring Social Change: America and the World. Copyright © 2002 by Pearson Education. Reprinted with the permission of Pearson Education, Upper Saddle River, NJ. 627628 Charles L. Harper • Kevin T. Leicht life encounters between individuals and social change. A focus on particular social institutions as settings for everyday life may do that, but in artificially separated "parts" that may not illuminate much about how you experience change as a whole person. A better focus would try to show the interconnec-tions among events, broad social trends, and changing institutional settings for everyday life.... A word about the time frame: We focus mainly on the recent past (from roughly 1950 to the present) because we wanted to emphasize a time pe-riod that would be familiar to you. But many of these changes-particularly the structural trends-are not unique to American society and have been taking place in many societies at least since the 1600s. You can see them as the most recent and peculiarly American manifestations of the social processes that have been a part of the emergence of contemporary urban industrial societies. We should warn you that as we come close to the pre-sent, the data about change become less clear-cut and its meaning more controversial. Structural Trends Structural trends have to do with changes in our relationships with other people in society and in the organizations and communities in which we par-ticipate. One trend is the growth in scale of social life. This means that people's lives are increasingly connected with larger numbers of people in big struc-tures, such as communities and organizations, that operate in a vast scale over large geographic areas. You can get a sense of this by comparing your life with the early life of your parents or grandparents. You probably live in a larger community, shop in larger stores for things provided by larger com-panies, attend larger schools, and visit or vacation over larger geographic areas than they did as young adults. Your life is certainly more regulated by a huge national government. You still live in the "small worlds" of friends and family, of course, but increasingly you have connections, direct and in-direct, with anonymous people working in large organizations very distant from you. To illustrate, consider what you are doing right now. We wrote what you are reading in Iowa and Nebraska, but it was manufactured and sold by a publishing company located in New Jersey (Prentice Hall), which is owned by a large multimedia company based in London that publishes educational books, fiction, bestsellers, and the Financial Times newspaper (Pearson). In your grandparents' world most book companies were small independent publishers. This is but one example of the general growth in scale of our eco-nomic life. The growth in scale of social life can also be seen in the process of urbanization. Around 1900, about half of America lived in scattered small towns and rural areas. Now at least 70 percent of the population is concen-trated in a handful of large urban areas that dominate the social, political, and economic life of the nation. Increasing scale means the existence and some-times the absorption of small social systems within enormous larger ones.American Social Trends 629 A second closely related trend is the centralization ofcontrol (or power and authority, if you wish).l Growth in size inevitably means the growing con-centration of power to make important decisions in the hands of fewer peo-ple. You do have the freedom to make choices, but increasingly those choices are limited by the huge organizations that dominate our economic, political, and social life. They are not all-powerful, but our options about what to buy, where to work, what to do with our garbage, and how we relate to our neigh-bors, raise children, spend our leisure time, and get health care are increas-ingly controlled by large organizations remote from our everyday lives. As our example of the Prentice-Hall book-publishing company shows, the webs of organizations that control our lives are by no means easy to comprehend. "Large" no longer means that tens of thousands of employees work for highly visible companies in major cities in large office


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