Social Utopias Research Paper

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‘Utopia’ refers to fictions or essays which purport to describe an ideal and feasible community at some, generally undefined, future date. ‘Utopia’ is a doubly ambiguous word coined by Sir (and Saint) Thomas More as the title of a book he published in 1516. First of all, the neologism itself has a Greek etymology which can be read as either ‘no place’ (U-topia) or ‘good place’ (Eu-topia). Second, the label ‘utopian’ can be restricted to utopias as pictures, namely the detailed narrative portrayals of ideal communities, or it can be stretched to include also blueprints which reflect utopian tendencies, namely any systematic exposition of the underlying principles of such communities.

The position taken hereafter will be both comprehensive and restrictive. Comprehensive, as it includes both interpretations under the general heading of utopian impulse—the conviction that ‘a definitive and insurpassable condition is attainable’ (Kolakowski 1990, p. 132). From Plato on, the attainment of the perfect society has been a constant preoccupation in the West, and it would be unduly restrictive to rule out nonfictional utopian writings. However, some limitation seems suitable in order to retain only those visions of the ideal society which are meant to be implemented by human agency. In other words, the necessary and sufficient condition to be let into the Utopian club is to have been dreaming or speculating about a more perfect social order (or, more often than not, doing a bit of both), starting from the presupposition that human life takes place within a societal framework which is plagued by countless evils, but the cure, a radical one, is at hand, to be followed by indefinite perfection on this earth.

1. Visiting Utopias

The utopian quest for a definitive answer to the hypothesized human predicament looks very much like an extended multiple-choice questionnaire with items such as where is this place of bliss located, who are its residents, and what rules do they follow?

1.1 From No-Place To The Earth And Beyond

The Platonic tradition which conceived good societies as necessarily small has been resumed by Thomas More and countless other writers who placed their utopia on imaginary islands or some similar remote sites, waiting to be visited by admiring travelers from the outside world who have been shipwrecked on their shores. With Mercier’s L’An 2440 (1971) the discovery is made through a lengthy process of sleep and reawakening, Rip van Winkle-style, in the utopian future of a whole nation-state, namely France’s 700 years ahead, a narrative convention which has been used in countless utopias. With the passage of time the scope of utopias has become more embracing, to include developed post-capitalist nations in Marxist utopias, the whole Earth complete with a single world government and English as universal language in some H. G. Wells writings, and eventually the solar system through the space colonies as has been anticipated by Freeman Dyson (see Carey 1999, p. 463).

1.2 Not Everybody (Nor Everything) Is Allowed Into Utopia

Radical utopian change is primarily aimed at faulty social institutions but as books are the repository of wrong beliefs and/or immoral fictions, they also can be fated to destruction as is the case for poetry in Plato’s Republic (1941, Book X), in Mercier’s twenty fifth century France or in Cabet’s communist Icaria. Some utopias even provide for the destruction and renewal of much of the urban structures of the past, as in the Boston of Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1951, chap. 5) or the big murky places which were, as we know, the centres of manufacture in England in News from Nowhere by William Morris (1970, chap. 10).

The admittedly extreme case of Wells’ In the Days of the Comet, where several of the world’s big cities are obliterated by a comet whose green vapors simultaneously induce a hypnotic slumber which alters human nature beyond recognition, would suggest that the actual aim of these beneficial disasters is less the physical structures than the human beings, for the latter have to change too in order to deserve the benefits of life in utopia. These changes concern either the existing population or its newborn component.

A first requirement, it seems, is that the raw human material has to be cleansed, either biologically or socially. More’s Utopians secretly hope that all the Swiss they use as mercenaries will eventually be ‘wiped off the face of the earth completely’ as they are unfit to live. A much more significant case is provided by Wells, who considered that in the world state he anticipated, ‘people who cannot live happily and freely in the world without spoiling the lives of others are better out of it,’ a prescription made in 1901 which, most unfortunately, was taken deadly seriously some 40 years later. An as yet uncommon variant concerns gender cleansing, which aims at a deliberate change in the sex ratio. According to Wells, genetic engineering will allow ‘if woman is too much for us, [to] reduce her to a minority’ (Carey 1999, p. 371). More radically, but with here again some pretence of scientific veneer, feminist utopianism deals with this value-laden issue by, unsurprisingly, anticipating an all-woman community based on parthenogenesis (Gilman, in Carey 1999, p. 382), or a flower children paradise where some technology has been used to allow men (if that is the right word) to grow breasts and to suckle babies (Piercy, in Carey 1999, p. 475).

However, social cleansing of class opponents, while massively performed during and after the 1920s, is a most rare occurrence in the utopian literature except as a thought experiment performed by the French utopian Saint-Simon (what if the leading nobles and officials of the bureaucracy died?, the answer being: no impact in social welfare terms), or as an aside in the Marxian literature dealing with the ‘dictature of the proletariat.’

Beyond taking care of the initial stock, selective breeding is of great concern in some utopias, with a variety of patterns such as state control and astrological supervision of matings in Campanella’s The City of the Sun (Carey 1999, p. 61) on the one hand, and reliance on unhindered sexual free market as a means toward race purification in Looking Backward, on the other. Once again H. G. Wells is quite clear that in his world utopia nonprocreational sex is all right, but parentage shall be subject to strictly enforced age, health, education, and income standards.

1.3 The Rules Of The Utopian Game: A Difficult Tradeoff Between Equality, Compulsion, And Welfare

One crucial commonality underlying all utopian designs, fictional or otherwise, is that the source of what goes wrong in human affairs lies not in the original sin, which nobody can do about, but to faulty social institutions which can be dealt with by human agency. The ‘fault’ in social institutions lies in their giving free rein to the worst instincts of humankind, such as greed, aggressiveness, and jealousy and/or in stifling its best inborn instincts. Then, the right social arrangements are those that promote maximum equality among members of the relevant community. In the words of one typical exponent, the French revolutionary Babeuf (Carey 1999, p. 177), ‘society must be made to operate in such a way that it eradicates once and for all the desire of a man to become richer, or wiser, or more powerful than others.’ The positive fallout to be expected from this equality maximizing purpose are the usual ones of plummeting crime rates, eradication of (relative) poverty, and a stronger social fabric. As for the negative aspects, such as drabness and enregimentation in daily life, they figure quite explicitly in some works including Utopia (‘when you have seen one town, you have seen them all’) or Cabet’s Icaria (‘everything concerning food has been regulated by the law [which] accepts or rejects any type of nourishment’).

Interestingly enough, perfectly consistent egalitarian utopias are in a minority, as Kolakowski (1990) points out. The majority is made of inconsistent schemes which allow having one’s utopian cake and eating it by mixing egalitarianism with other, qualitatively different elements. Saint-Simon and Marx (in his infrequent utopian moments), Bellamy and, incredibly enough, even Cabet, are all evidence of such a compromise, with its unfailing reference to the utmost development of individual potentialities, to the concomitant productive efficiency of the economic infrastructure which allows egalitarianism to coexist with an unlikely upper-middle class affluence, but very little mention of what happens to delinquent or work-shy members of the community.

On the whole, there are few utopias which succeed in convincingly combining (a) a fair amount of equality, (b) minimal state coercion, and (c) nonascetic lifestyles. News from Nowhere (Morris 1970) is strong on the first two counts but unconvincing on the third, as all pastoral fairyland are. Huxley’s Island (1962) is another case of equality cum small government, but a very short-lived one, whose indisputable ascetism is moreover counterpoised by a tropical paradise-type environment and recurrent use of mind-changing pills. The aforesaid feminist utopias are too clearly conceived for a restricted female readership to deserve discussion except as one curious brand of science fiction among others. However, Fourier deserves a special mention for the quite imaginative trade-off he devised between the three poles of the (a), (b), (c) triad for he is, as he rightfully argued, ‘the only reformer who has rallied round human nature by accepting it as it is and devising the means of utilizing it with all the defects which are inseparable from man’ (Manuel 1965, p. 207). Unfortunately, in spite of his efforts, neither the Russian Czar nor the Rothschilds accepted to invest some seed-money to check whether Fourier was right in claiming that all the passions created by God could work in harmony when afforded maximum expression in Fourierist phalansters. As for those experimental utopian communities created in North America by some followers of Fourier, Cabet, or Owen, they were at best honorable failures.

2. Utopias Appraised

2.1 The Birth Of Utopias: A Well-Kept Secret

Each utopia is in itself a permanent paradox: how an ideal society can be established by a gathering of hopelessly imperfect individuals? As has been shown above, makers of utopias are generally quite willing to let us know how their pet ideal society was discovered; they are also tireless in the description of their commendable arrangements. However, how a given utopia came into being looks like a well-kept secret (Ferns 1999). In most cases the problem is just swept under the carpet. Utopias, as Chesterton (1905) sarcastically pointed out, ‘first assume that no man will want more than his share, and then they are very ingenious in explaining whether this share will be delivered by motor car or balloon.’ The implicit reasoning seems to be that the merits of the ‘nowhere’ are vastly more important than the account of how it came about. There are also some cases, especially in the nineteenth century, where utopian changes were vindicated as the obvious response to the necessary laws of historical development which move the world, but except some evasive references from the Marxist side to the inevitable transition through a dictatorship of the proletariat, William Morris was the only anticapitalist utopian to acknowledge that the new imagined society did not come about peacefully: ‘it was war from beginning to end, bitter war.’ As for Wells he found a third way of explaining away the emergence of a world utopia by ascribing it to the destabilizing impact of a disaster, either natural (the above-mentioned comet) or human-made (a nuclear war in The World Set Free, Wells, 1914).

2.2 Are Utopias Such A Good Place?

While many people have adhered to, and would still subscribe to Oscar Wilde’s dictum that ‘progress is the realization of Utopias,’ reaction against utopia’s blandishments is visible from the very beginning, as evinced by Aristophanes (1924), whose The Parliament of Women, with its satire of ‘utopian’ sexual relations, was contemporaneous with Plato’s Republic. Very often the word ‘dystopia’ is used to convey the idea of a utopia turned sour. Unfortunately, it is too often applied to any kind of work, fictional or otherwise, which anticipates a dismal future for some existing society or for the world at large. If one agrees with the statement that ‘to count as a utopia, an imaginary place must be an expression of desire. To count as a dystopia, it must be an expression of fear’ (Carey 1999, p. xi), a case can be made for a distinction between two kinds of fear.

The first one, which is as old as the prophets of doom (with Malthus as its first modern voice) concerns the downfall which humankind might be heading for given its underlying, presumably lethal logic, a message for which the phrase ‘disaster scenario’ suggested by Carey seems quite appropriate. The second fear has been voiced by the Russian philosopher Berdiaev as quoted in the epigraph to Huxley’s Bra e New World (1963): ‘Utopias seem much more realizable than once was thought. We find ourselves faced today with a problem distressing in a very different way: how can we prevent their realization? Utopias are realizable, and towards utopias we are moving. But it is possible that a new age is already beginning, in which cultured and intelligent people will dream of ways to avoid ideal states and to get back to a non utopian society, less ‘perfect’ and more free.’ Dystopia, etymologically ‘a bad place,’ which makes it a kind of mirror image of utopia, can thereby serve to characterize those anticipations which seek to warn their readers that the world is evolving dangerously closer to utopia, the latter being then no more a solution but the problem.

In some of the dystopias, the target is clearly identified: socialist egalitarian utopias Bellamy-style in the first, and quite funny, example known (Jerome 1891, see Beauchamp 1983); the revulsion against Bellamy and his ‘cockney paradise’ was a source of inspiration for News from Nowhere (Morris 1970), The Machine Stops (Forster 1965) was written as a ‘counterblast’ against A Modern Utopia (Wells 1987), while Men Like Gods, a utopian novel by the same Wells provoked Huxley into writing a parody famously known as Bra e New World (1963).

Unsurprisingly, one finds in the ‘patented’ dystopias from Jerome’s prototype on, all the major features that are typical of mainstream utopias, but with reversed connotations: what was described in the typical utopian package as benevolent government care, strong social ties, true equality, and full development of individual potentialities is now disclosed as just the opposite, namely constant public scrutiny, compulsory uniformity, and lack of privacy; in other words the embodiment of the rule that ‘everything is allowed for the sake of the society,’ an ‘unholy maxim’ designed, Tocqueville said, ‘to legitimize all the oppressions to come.’

If the typical dystopia is utopia taken upside down (so much so that it is sometimes unfairly interpreted as just a pro-Establishment reassertion of reactionary values), Bra e New World (Huxley 1963) is on the other hand remarkably difficult to classify. As Carey put it, ‘medical science has eliminated virtually all diseases, together with the debilitating effects of old age. There is no pain, no hunger, no want. [Bra e New World] can be read as an ambivalent text, dystopian from one angle, utopian from another.’ Hence the society described therein holds more attraction for readers today (particularly young ones) than Huxley expected (Jennings 1996); small wonder that the dystopian human hatchery in Bra e New World (Huxley 1963) appears as a major positive highlight in Marge Piercy’s feminist community (Carey 1999, p. 476). Oddly enough, the same ambivalence has been detected in Utopia (More 1965) which can be read, its modern, progressive features notwithstanding, as an ultimately dystopian admonition against relying on economic and social arrangements that are functionally efficient but at odds with a Christian and humanist set of values (Abrash 1977).

3. Some Concluding Remarks

Is there a future for utopias? If the latter are meant as comprehensive and hopefully feasible institutional schemes where happiness prevails once for all through consensual equality, the answer is probably ‘none.’ However, one can bet on the resilience of a special brand of utopian mentality, which did not leave any book worth remembering and whose followers literally believe in the imminent coming of paradise on earth after a cataclysmic confrontation between the true believers, generally under the guidance of a Messiah, and the forces of evil (Campion 1994). In addition, even if large-scale utopias seem to be a thing of the past, one should not forget the persistence of partial utopias, namely the widespread conviction that in some specific areas of human endeavor, some ultimate state of (bounded) perfection is attainable, health being the most obvious candidate.

As far as dystopias are concerned, they may be threatened with obsolescence by the vanishing of nonmillenarian utopian constructs but, after all, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell’s dystopian masterwork (1983), was not aimed at a specific utopian fiction but at a too real target. Above all, one must keep in mind that the key raison d’etre of dystopias is to be a reminder of the ubiquitousness of unintended (dismal) effects of presumably well-intended social action (Boudon 1982). Hence, there is some reason to expect that the major issues on the dystopian agenda might include the dual threats of (a) the subversion from weapon-rich, singleminded millenarian groups; and (b) the disruption of the social fabric through human genetic re-engineering brought on, not by some benevolent Big Brother as in conventional utopias (and dystopias), but through decentralized parental decision making (Silver 1998, in Carey 1999, pp. 514–17).


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