Community Development Asset Mapping Concepts

from Theoretical Perspectives on Community
and Sociology: Understanding and Changing the Social World 

What happens to “community” in modern societies?

Key Concepts
Gemeinschaft and gesellschaft—Tönnies

Mechanical and organic solidarity—Durkheim

Anomie—Durkheim

Modernization refers to the process and impact of becoming more modern. More specifically, it refers to the gradual shift from hunting-and-gathering societies to postmodern societies and perhaps especially to the changes brought by the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century.

The terms modern and modernization have positive connotations; it sounds good to modernize and to be modern. Modernization implies that progress has been made and is continuing to be made, and who would not want progress? Yet modernization also has a downside, as we will see in this section and in the later discussion of the environment.

A related problem with the terms and concepts of modern and modernization is that many people think of Western nations when considering the most modern nations in the world today. This implies that Western society is the ideal to which other societies should aspire. While there are many good things about Western societies, it is important to avoid the ethnocentrism of assuming that Western societies are better because they are more modern. In fact, one reason that many people in the Middle East and elsewhere dislike the United States is that they resent the “Westernization” of their societies from the influence of the United States and other wealthy Western nations. When they see Coca-Cola and Pepsi logos and the McDonald’s golden arches in their nations, they fear Western influence and the loss of their own beliefs and traditions.

These caveats notwithstanding, societies have become much more modern over time, to put it mildly. We thus cannot fully understand society and social life without appreciating how societies have changed as they have become more modern. Not surprisingly, sociologists have recognized the importance of modernization ever since the discipline of sociology began in the 19th century, and much of the work of sociology’s founders—Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, Karl Marx, and others—focused on how and why societies have changed as they became more modern.

We can draw on their efforts and related work by later sociologists and by anthropologists to develop an idea of the differences modernization has made for societies and individuals. Several dimensions and effects of modernization seem apparent (Nolan & Lenski, 2009).

First, as societies evolve, they become much larger and more heterogeneous. This means that people are more different from each other than when societies were much smaller, and it also means that they ordinarily cannot know each other nearly as well. Larger, more modern societies thus typically have weaker social bonds and a weaker sense of community than small societies and place more of an emphasis on the needs of the individual

We can begin to appreciate the differences between smaller and larger societies when we contrast a small college of 1,200 students with a large university of 40,000 students. Perhaps you had this contrast in mind when you were applying to college and had a preference for either a small or a large institution. In a small college, classes might average no more than 20 students; these students get to know each other well and often have a lot of interaction with the professor. In a large university, classes might hold 600 students or more, and everything is more impersonal. Large universities do have many advantages, but they probably do not have as strong a sense of community as is found at small colleges.

A second aspect of modernization is a loss of traditional ways of thinking. This allows a society to be more creative and to abandon old ways that may no longer be appropriate. However, it also means a weakening or even ending of the traditions that helped define the society and gave it a sense of identity.

A third aspect of modernization is the growth of individual freedom and autonomy. As societies grow, become more impersonal, and lose their traditions and sense of community, their norms become weaker, and individuals thus become freer to think for themselves and to behave in new ways. Although most of us would applaud this growth in individual freedom, it also means, as Émile Durkheim (1895/1962) recognized long ago, that people feel freer to deviate from society’s norms and thus to commit deviance. If we want a society that values individual freedom, Durkheim said, we automatically must have a society with deviance.

Is modernization good or bad? This is a simplistic question about a very complex concept, but a quick answer is that it is both good and bad. We see evidence for both responses in the views of sociologists Ferdinand Tönnies, Weber, and Durkheim.

Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft
Tönnies (1887/1963) said that modernization meant a shift from Gemeinschaft (small societies with strong social bonds) to Gesellschaft (large societies with weaker social bonds and more impersonal social relations). Tönnies lamented the loss of close social bonds and of a strong sense of community resulting from modernization, and he feared that a sense of rootlessness begins to replace the feeling of stability and steadiness characteristic of small, older societies.

Weber (1921/1978) was also concerned about modernization. The hallmarks of modernization, he thought, are rationalization, a loss of tradition, and the rise of impersonal bureaucracy. He despaired over the impersonal quality of rational thinking and bureaucratization, as he thought it was a dehumanizing influence.

Durkheim (1893/1933) took a less negative view of modernization. He certainly appreciated the social bonds and community feeling, which he called mechanical solidarity, characteristic of small, traditional societies. However, he also thought that these societies stifled individual freedom and that social solidarity still exists in modern societies. This solidarity, which he termed organic solidarity, stems from the division of labor, in which everyone has to depend on everyone else to perform their jobs. This interdependence of roles, Durkheim said, creates a solidarity that retains much of the bonding and sense of community found in premodern societies.

Mechanical, organic solidarity and anomie
In his book The Division of Labor in Society (1893), Durkheim argued that as society grew more complex, social order made the transition from mechanical to organic.

Preindustrial societies, Durkheim explained, were held together by mechanical solidarity, a type of social order maintained by the collective consciousness of a culture. Societies with mechanical solidarity act in a mechanical fashion; things are done mostly because they have always been done that way. This type of thinking was common in preindustrial societies where strong bonds of kinship and a low division of labor created shared morals and values among people, such as hunter-gatherer groups. When people tend to do the same type of work, Durkheim argued, they tend to think and act alike.

In industrial societies, mechanical solidarity is replaced with organic solidarity, which is social order based around an acceptance of economic and social differences. In capitalist societies, Durkheim wrote, division of labor becomes so specialized that everyone is doing different things. Instead of punishing members of a society for failure to assimilate to common values, organic solidarity allows people with differing values to coexist. Laws exist as formalized morals and are based on restitution rather than revenge.

While the transition from mechanical to organic solidarity is, in the long run, advantageous for a society, Durkheim noted that it can be a time of chaos and “normlessness.” One of the outcomes of the transition is something he called social anomie. Anomie—literally, “without law”—is a situation in which society no longer has the support of a firm collective consciousness. Collective norms are weakened. People, while more interdependent to accomplish complex tasks, are also alienated from each other. Anomie is experienced in times of social uncertainty, such as war or a great upturn or downturn in the economy. As societies reach an advanced stage of organic solidarity, they avoid anomie by redeveloping a set of shared norms. According to Durkheim, once a society achieves organic solidarity, it has finished its development.

We have already commented on important benefits of modernization that are generally recognized: modernization promotes creativity and individual freedom and autonomy. These developments in turn usually mean that a society becomes more tolerant of beliefs and behaviors that it formerly would have disapproved and even condemned. Modern societies, then, generally feature more tolerance than older societies. Many people, undoubtedly including most sociologists, regard greater tolerance as a good thing, but others regard it as a bad thing because they favor traditional beliefs and behaviors.

Beyond these abstract concepts of social bonding, sense of community, and tolerance, modern societies are certainly a force for both good and bad in other ways. They have produced scientific discoveries that have saved lives, extended life spans, and made human existence much easier than imaginable in the distant past and even in the recent past. But they have also polluted the environment, engaged in wars that have killed tens of millions, and built up nuclear arsenals that, even with the end of the Cold War, still threaten the planet. Modernization, then, is a double-edged sword. It has given us benefits too numerous to count, but it also has made human existence very precarious.

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