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Critical sociology is an approach to studying society, informed by historical materialism, which seeks to make problematic existing social relations in order to uncover the underlying structural explanations for those relations. As such, it can be applied to all areas of sociological inquiry and is not the study of any subfields within sociology. In each of these areas, we can identify a critical sociology, one that takes to task the underlying assumption of the corresponding mainstream sociology. Advocates of a critical sociology argue that mainstream sociology is, broadly stated, a catalog of what is expected and an explanation for how individuals act when functioning outside those expectations. For critical sociologists, the key is how the norms are defined and what constitutes actions by individuals who violate norms. Where mainstream sociology would see a plane flying out of formation, critical sociology asks whether or not the formation is flying on course, and who or what determines the shape and course of that formation in the first place.
There are two very important areas of sociological research taken for granted at present, but which can easily be identified as the product of a critical sociological lens. The first is the emergence of class as a research concept, and while still contentious on some level a class-based analysis of society is as important as one rooted in an understanding of social stratification. In the class model of society, individuals find themselves in structural positions, and the consequent ability to improve one’s social and economic standing is constrained by the limitations of that structure. Whereas social stratification literature situates each individual along a continuum within society, the class-based literature is more concerned with how structural barriers impede progress regardless of individual efforts. This has led to the social and political activism directed at those political and social institutions reproducing the inequities within society.
The second major contribution of critical sociology is how we understand economic development and the relationship between advanced industrial nations and the rest of the developing world. Theories of modernization were rooted in an understanding of development based on a premise that all nations must undergo stages of economic and social development much like that experienced by advanced capitalist nations. Scholars focused on the lack of efficient bureaucratic structures, incentive mechanisms, rational markets, and labor mobility as the basis for failed or lagging national development. But critical sociologists posited a set of theories about the relationship between developing nonindustrial nations and the capitalist core, challenged the notion of a teleological path to progress, and pointed out that developing nations were harmed by (and not lagging) the more developed nations. This research gave rise to discussions of imperialism, the nature of democracy and development, and explorations into the means by which advanced nations impose bureaucratic solutions (via agencies like the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund) or intervene politically and militarily to ensure regimes and economies favorable to advanced capitalist countries rather than promoting independent economic and social development.
In general, critical sociology can be characterized in two ways. First, those writing in the critical sociology tradition are generally opposed to functional explanations of how society works. The second form of critical sociology is more parochial, and emerges out of the tradition of radical political economy, a tradition that looks more carefully at why society is designed to generate bad outcomes for many people rather than understanding how bad outcomes occur in society. While early critical sociology was rooted in the traditions characterized as Marxism, critical sociology more generally extends beyond the material concerns of scholars writing in that tradition and embraces questions of power writ large, the importance of culture, and the nature of social relationships that are not rooted in its material conditions (e.g., racism and sexism).
Both strands of critical sociology emerge out of the intellectual agenda of critical theory, although sociologists have expanded the range and scope of inquiry beyond that which is most commonly associated with critical theorists. The remainder of this research paper briefly reviews the origins and current directions of critical sociology. In the next section, I explore the historical roots of the discipline with respect to mainstream sociology. This is followed by a discussion of the emergence of critical theory and its role in defining the nature of critical sociology. In the second section, I identify some research within the critical sociology tradition, the importance of this research, and its impact on the theory and practice of sociology. In the final section, I offer some insight into the areas of inquiry that will serve as the focal point of future critical sociology research.
The Historical Developments of a Critical Sociology
To understand critical sociology, it is essential to reflect on sociology as an intellectual discipline writ large. Unlike other subfields within sociology, critical sociology represents an approach to sociological inquiry as opposed to being a branch of that enterprise. This is best understood by looking at the roots of the discipline, and by tracing the intellectual traditions that gave rise to a critical sociology. It is the reaction to these traditions of scholarship and social analysis and the consequences for understanding society that give rise to the methods underlying critical sociological analysis.
The Development of Sociology as a Science
Most social sciences have roots that trace back as long as there have been universities and colleges organized for the study of the world in which people find themselves. While original scholarship tended to be in the physical realm, scholars and philosophers have long concerned themselves with the place humans hold in the larger universe, the basis and meaning of love and politics, and by the 1700s serious inquiries into how society operates, and the relationship of people and society (for a general review, see Bauman 1976, chap. 1). The publication of Rousseau’s “On the Social Contract in 1762” (Barker 1990) anticipated the need of a social and political order with the authority (as he put it) to impose freedom on individuals. This work formed the foundation of much of the political philosophy of what has come to be known as the Enlightenment and prepared the path for the sociological inquiry into the structure and meaning of society.
Auguste Comte pressed the importance of studying the system of social relations to understand the political and economic behavior of society. In essence, Comte noted that society represents a system of layering by which events can only be analyzed once each of the relationships below the surface is peeled back. Comte stresses the search for empirically based laws of society from which all other actions can be explained (and as positivism developed, through which all actions can be predicted). As Burawoy (1998) puts it, due to the efforts of Comte, “Sociology was the last of the disciplines to enter the kingdom of positivism; from there, armed with superior moral insight, it would rule over the unruly, creating order and progress out of chaos” (p. 12). But perhaps a more important legacy of Comte emerges in his sense that underlying all action is a natural order of things, and all social action is either a confirmation of that natural order moving society forward in its development or a series of actions that result in chaos and failure. As Bauman (1976) points out, Comte’s work can be summarized as “a consistent attempt to establish the case for a ‘social nature’ which makes its way through the fits and starts of political history” (p. 11), and it is the social scientist who can reveal that nature.
In following the tradition of Comte, Durkheim sought to understand the reasons for unequal social outcomes and argues for a moral recentering to counter the disintegrative consequences of the new economic system. Durkheim’s development of sociology as a positive science rooted in the collection of hard evidence led him to uncover the failings of an economic system that takes away the connection of individuals to society as a whole (found in preindustrial society) without providing a new moral compass for social action. That compass will necessarily emerge in the natural order of things, but in the interim Durkheim urges the state to enact laws ensuring the welfare of society’s citizens. To overstate, the system is not itself the problem.
Max Weber ( 1930) provided an understanding of the requisite forces of reason and order that are essential to the development of civil society. His theories of bureaucracy, rational action, and order help us understand how economic rationality must follow the political rationality reflected in the form of the nation-state. Rules of political action give way to rules of economic action—indeed, the former paves the way for the latter in the forms of commercial law, reliable enforcement of contracts, predictable outcomes of the interaction of individuals in society as they seek economic prosperity. While capitalism represented great wealth and prosperity, economic advances occur only when a society has developed the social and political conditions necessary for the orderly and free exchange of the factors of production.
The sociology that took hold by the end of the nineteenth century was related to the emergence of capitalism. Weber’s work on religion, rationalization, and bureaucracy helped shape the discipline. Talcott Parsons’s translation of Weber’s work ( 1930) added a dimension of functionalism in outcomes—that is, the social reality reflects social needs as observed. Inequality and inequities arising in capitalism have as much if not more to do with individual failing rather than structural impediments to the “rational” order of events or actions. While Weber gave us a model of society that worked toward efficient operation, Parsons helped define this operation as a natural state of events and identified the capitalist system of social relations as the natural evolution of society.
Thus, capitalist society was the “natural” condition, and sociology represented the science for understanding how society operated (and implicitly within the perspective that problems in society were the result of individual failure), which in turn gave rise to a critical and oppositional voice within sociology. Critical sociology emerged to challenge that view (Quinney 1979) and to demonstrate that social inequality was not an aberration but itself the normal outcome of a system predicated on power relationships and competing visions of social organization, though, as Luhmann (1994) reminds us, we must be ever mindful of how theory structures the way we examine the world. Levine (2004) outlines some of the political challenges faced by oppositional voices as they emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, and the intellectual developments leading to a critical sociological agenda. A discussion of the intellectual tradition that underpins this critical analysis follows.
Critical Theory and the Emergence of a Critical Sociology
One of the central pillars of sociological analysis is found in the writings of Karl Marx. Writing at a time when capitalism’s transformative power and its ability to generate great wealth was first taking hold, Marx’s agenda was to examine how this system worked, how it was different from what came before it, and where a society driven by what he called capitalist social relations was heading. Building on the intellectual traditions of social and political theory, political economy, and within the emergent scientific sociology of Comte, Marx developed a critical theory of society. Earlier forms of utopian socialist writings, scientific political economy, and critical philosophy had as not yet identified either the nature of the class society or the mechanisms that defined capitalism as a social and economic system of human activities. The collected works of Marx brought to the fore issues of alienation, the appropriation through new social relations of the means of production and thereby of the profit of human labor, and the importance of the social and political institutions developing in tandem with the development of capitalism as a globalizing system of production. It was this critical theory that went beyond the notion of a “value-free” empirical exercise designed—as early sociologists attempted to do—to provide an objective description through data collection and analysis. For Marx and those who followed, the task of critical theory was to situate knowledge within the set of social realities and values of society for the purpose of challenging and negating the status quo.
The motivation of the philosophical impulse we have come to understand as critical theory was, in large part, the result of scholars working in what has collectively been called the Frankfurt School (see, e.g., Bauman 1976) who argued that science and technology had become the new religion of capitalist society (see Rockwell 2004 for the Hegelian roots of Marx’s thinking and its role in the development of critical theory). Much as Marx wrote about the reification of commodities, that is, the commodity became divorced from its producer and thereby gained “value” in its own right, so too have knowledge and culture become objects with their own standing rather than part of the society that created them.
The process of reification of culture created a new form of culture that undermined the potential for revolutionary action. Moreover, according to Marx, this process of reification applies to all human experience. As a result, advances of capitalism into the twentieth century closed off the possibility of critical thought as intellectual work became dominated by a “fetishism” of facts. This positivism accorded facts an illusionary objectivity and independence from the social relations in which they were produced (see Ray 1990). The resulting agenda in the period between the two world wars and the development and emergence of European fascism (preceded as it were by the proletarian revolution in Russia, but the defeat of all other revolutionary worker movements in Europe), was one of unpacking the relationship between the development of the capitalist system and the potential for enlightened and emancipatory social change. As Ray (1990) points out, “The project of Critical Theory has been to develop ways of thinking so subversive of dominant legitimations, that to understand them is to resist them” (p. xviii). Critical theory built on Marx’s material analysis and made important inroads into the role of culture and science in the reproduction of these reactionary ideologies (Scott 1978).
Toward a Critical Sociological Methodology
With its intellectual debt to critical theory, critical sociology emerged in the 1960s and 1970s as a challenge to mainstream sociology and as a means to assess the role that capitalism played in determining the structures, relationships, and systems within the American society. For these scholars, many were graduate students at that time, the discipline of sociology was a “bourgeois” science serving as an apology for the status quo rather than a force for analysis of what was wrong with Western society. That is, critical sociologists argued that mainstream sociology was a discipline driven by the need to identify and rationalize the existing social relations as empirically observed working of some natural order in the evolution of society. The fetish of knowledge and the cult of data obscured the way that society was in fact a construction of a particular historic economic system.
Critical sociology is first and foremost informed by a historical materialist approach to understanding society. Specifically, this is the application of Marx’s analysis of the capitalist system to the examination of historical development. While the political economists who preceded Marx focused on understanding the historical roots of contemporary society as the key to unlocking how society functioned in its present day, Marx argued that to treat social history prior to its present moment as external facts is to miss the fundamental relationship between the past and the present. It is precisely how history is implicated in the contemporary material relationships of the present that will unlock our understanding the social processes in force at the present. To assign events prior to any era as some prehistory is to mistake the relationship of those events to current behavior and sows the seeds of missing the critical dimensions of contemporary social relations. As he writes about Adam Smith, “What Adam Smith, in the true eighteenth-century manner, puts in the prehistoric period, the period preceding history, is rather a product of history” (Marx 1973:156). Simply put, Marx argues that in Smith’s search for the essence of the “modern” economy he sets aside the social relationships that gave rise to that modern economy.
Smith focuses on explaining the particular operation of capitalism, production, and the creation of wealth, but for Marx that analysis is doomed by Smith’s failure to understand the ties to precapitalist production. Differentiating use value from exchange value, Marx argues that both always existed so long as humanity exerted itself with regard to nature (i.e., trying to change nature through production) but the particular aspect of contemporary (i.e., capitalist) social relations is precisely the history of how exchange values become appropriated by some, and through that appropriation some members of society exert control and power over others in society. Marx (1973) goes on to explain the connection between history and material reality:
Relations of personal dependence (entirely spontaneous at the outset) are the first social forms, in which human productive capacity develops only to a slight extent and at isolated points. Personal independence founded on objective [sachlicher] dependence is the second great form, in which a system of general social metabolism, of universal relations, of all-round needs and universal capacities is formed for the first time. Free individuality, based on the universal development of individual and on their subordination of their communal, social productivity as their social wealth, is the third stage. The second stage creates the conditions for the third. Patriarchal as well as ancient conditions (feudal also) thus disintegrate with the development of commerce, of luxury, of money, of exchange value, while modern society arises and grows in the same measure. (P. 158)
Out of this development, according to Marx, all other social, political, and ideological institutions and perspectives emerge, each subject to the requirement of the material conditions dominant in any era and each subject to transformation as those material conditions change. It is a mistake, as many have done, to reduce Marx to an economic determinist analysis of society even as Marx focuses on the material relationships extant within society. Rather, critical sociologists, following Marx and critical theorists, argue that one cannot understand the complex relationship between what Marx calls the base and superstructure—the material reality of how society organizes production and the complex set of social, political, and ideological institutions that govern and maintain that social organization of production—unless one also understands the historically specific forces that drive the emergence of contemporary society.
Unlike mainstream sociology, which takes society as given, tries to catalog its various activities and relationships (albeit an important task in its own right), and measures progress toward some naturally determined ideal, critical sociologists take society’s existing relationships as both the product of its past and the source of its future— and it is only through proper understanding of how society came to be will we be able to address how to influence change toward a more progressive and positive vision for the future. To paraphrase Marx, mainstream sociologists have only to interpret the world; the point for critical sociologists is to change it. It is through the historical materialism of critical sociology that an understanding of how society operates is possible, leading to a program for change.
The Current Status of Critical Sociology
Initially, critical sociologists asked questions relating to the outcomes that we experience, and the historical conditions that drive contemporary social outcomes. Furthermore, there was interest in creating a theoretical frame that would lead to identifying the means for establishing some ideal state of being. The social unrest of the 1960s and the increasing intellectual dissatisfaction with the extant sociological explanations caused many sociologists to look toward critical theory to inform their analyses. With a focus on the nature of the capitalist system and a debt to the writings of Marx (see especially Marx 1964, 1967, 1972), critical sociologists and radical economists embarked on a detailed exploration of the role that the capitalist system played in defining and determining the nature of production and work (Thompson 1964; Braverman 1974; Burawoy 1979; Edwards 1979), the nature of class structure (Zeitlin 1970; Wright 1979), the nature of the state (Poulantzas 1978; Wright 1978; Block 1987; Esping-Anderson 1990), the emergence and role of ideology (Gouldner 1970, 1973; Ollman 1971; Marcuse  1977), the nature of education and the reproduction of social relations (Bowles and Gintis 1976; Apple 1979; Willis 1981), the creation of urban space (Edel 1973; Harvey 1973, 1982), the nature of public sector fiscal policy (O’Connor 1973), the nature of organizations (Clegg 1975; Clegg and Dunkerley 1977; Bradley and Wilkie 1980), the nature of international capital and worldsystems (Baran and Sweezy 1968; Wallerstein 1974, 1976; Chase-Dunn 1989), the nature of Third World development (Frank 1966), the role and structure of the ruling class (Therborn 1976, 1978; Domhoff 1978), and the nature of culture and religion (Tawney  1958; Eagleton 1976; Berger  1977).
Later, scholars who asked how race, gender, and other forms of inequality persisted even under supposedly liberating and often Marxist analyses posed challenges to critical theorists and many critical sociologists. In the introduction to her book, Lydia Sargent (1981) exposits many of the contradictions and theoretical considerations that confronted women engaged in progressive politics throughout the 1960s and 1970s. One of the more important assaults on the limitations of a purely materialist, Marxist, analysis of society comes from Heidi Hartmann’s (1981) well-titled essay on the unhappy marriage of Marxism and feminism. In this essay, and the debates that followed (see Sargent 1981; Sergent 1981 for early compendiums on this work and reactions to Hartmann’s premises), Hartmann questions whether we can safely assume that all forms of power inequality (coming, as it does, at the height of the Women’s Movement) can be addressed through an analysis of a society rooted in traditional Marxian concerns of class struggle and the appropriation of the means of production. Simply put, Hartmann asks, why should we assume that by simply addressing the social consequences of a particular economic organization of social relations we will remove the gender-based inequality in contemporary society? Unwilling to give up her Marxian roots, Hartmann nonetheless acknowledges that there are legitimate questions raised by feminist scholars.
Nancy Fraser (1985) more pointedly takes critical theory to task, and by extension critical sociology, when she identifies the failure of critical theory to consider gender inequality in its exploration of oppression and inequities within capitalist society. She argues,
A critical social theory frames its research program and its conceptual framework with an eye to the aims and activities of those oppositional social movements with which it has a partisan though not uncritical identification. The questions it asks and the models it designs are informed by that identification and interest. (P. 97)
Why, she then asks, does critical theory (represented in the writing of Habermas) fail to examine or even acknowledge the domination of females by males? Following what might broadly be called a critical sociology, Fraser explores the problem of capitalist exploitation and offers us the distinction between public and private spheres as a way of grasping the nature of gender inequality. Gender-based workplace inequality persists and takes on new forms (see Roberts 2004 and the other essays in Gottfried and Reese 2004). In a similar vein, scholars brought questions of race as well as gender to bear (HillCollins 1990) as they took radical and mainstream scholarship to task for its primary focus on material conditions, class structure, and capitalism as an economic system.
The importance of a class versus status approach to the problems of the day can be seen in the ongoing discussion of the importance and impact of race in our society. In this important work on the consequence of racial inequality, Wilson (1978) articulates an argument that African Americans suffer because they are trapped in the lowest strata of our society. A history of past oppression and unequal treatment due to the scourge of racism and slavery may explain the underlying basis for their status, but it is not an explanation for the continued poverty they face. Wilson looks instead to a failure of African Americans to secure the necessary attributes that accounts for their lower status. The legacy of racism is economic distress and persistent poverty, but the solution cannot lie simply with legislation outlawing racism. For Wilson, there is a declining significance of race, and it is the creation of an emergent middle class (more accurately, a middle-income strata) that will alleviate the plight of African Americans.
In response, Marable (1983) offers a class-based analysis of the African American experience, and much as Gunder Frank did with developing countries Marable posits a competing theory of failed economic growth and persistent poverty as the result of capitalist social development. It is the lack of control over the means of production and their class position that relegates African Americans to the bottom layers of society. Race helps explain why African Americans fill the ranks of society’s poor, but it is the fundamental relationships within capitalism that keep working people poor. No significant change will occur as the result of the creation of an African American middle class in much the same way that the emergence of a middle class writ large cannot alleviate the struggles of working people everywhere.
The debate continues, and much the same way that Hartmann raised concerns about whether a purely Marxist analysis can get to the roots of gender-based social inequality, critics look at the problem of race in the U.S. society. A recent example is Leonardo’s (2004) inquiry about whether there may well be an unhappy marriage of Marxism and race theory, in this case as it pertains to our understanding of why educational policy seems to regularly fail inner-city minority children. Leonardo posits that discussions looking mainly at the way education reproduce class positions (Davies 1995) fail to take into account the decidedly racial pattern of low performance, but race-based explanations are not enough when one considers rural poverty and low educational attainment in the society as a whole.
Although Marxist analysis remains important, critical sociology has moved well past its roots as primarily a critique of the social order in the exploration of extant power relationships existing within a society organized under the principles of capitalist social relations. The state of contemporary critical sociology is strong; the topics explored are increasing broad as scholars revisit old themes of colonialism and the origins of European capitalism (von der Heydt-Coca 2005), education under a changing capitalist system (Monahan 2005), the role of sociology as a politically engaged discipline (Burawoy 2005), and religion— whether looking to its roots (Goldstein 2005) or its current challenges (Langman 2005).
Critical sociologists continue to engage our understanding of race, how it is conceptualized and how it must be analyzed apart from concepts found in classical Marxism (see Coates 2004). In particular, they raise questions about the role race plays in social policy in the era of globalization and neoliberalism (Brewer 2004) and the continuing role race plays in both repression and resistance within advanced capitalist societies (Arena 2004). Critical sociologists turn their gaze on the emergence of a so-called new international order or perhaps another “new international order” looking at the nature of oppression and resistance (Podobnik and Reifer 2005). Gianpaolo (2005) examines how workers outside of this country react to the conditions formulated by our economic and social policies and the way these are projected in the rest of the world. In addition, critical sociologists wonder how these new systems project the opportunity for new form of social resistance and new kinds of student movements (Ross 2005).
Still rooted in a concern over oppression and inequality driven by Marx’s analysis of capitalism, critical sociology has embraced postmodernism, feminism, and cultural criticism to name but a few approaches to understand the way in which the existing social relations shape power and define its consequences. As the recent collection of essays in Pfohl et al. (2006) demonstrates, there are significant links between the history of a society, the culture that emerges, and the power relationships that result, all of which go beyond situating these processes within capitalism. But at the same time, as Shor (2006) argues, these social outcomes cannot be separated from the underlying material conditions in existence. Reactions to these conditions generate social movements that resist the power inequities in both the economic and the cultural realm (Gamson 2006).
Critical sociology is more than a subdiscipline; it is an approach to how one understands and investigates social processes and phenomena. It helps generate the subjects of inquiry as well as formulate the underlying assumptions of that analysis. For example, Gurr (1970) gave us an explanation for social unrest that was rooted in the notion of individual failure, a society where individuals who cannot succeed resort to the mob mentality and strike out in their frustration. Its underlying assumption about society borrows from a Durkheimian sensibility that each of us has a place and only our lack of adjustment will drive us to do irrational and unreasonable acts. By contrast, Tilly (1978) offers a more structural understanding of the nature of power and the resources that accrue as a result, and looks to the organization of and organizations within society as the reasons for social unrest and resistance. Borrowing from both a Weberian view of the rational mobilization of resources to explain organizational capacities and constraints and a Marxian understanding of class structure and role of political power, Tilly offers what might be called a critical sociological explanation of the same phenomenon. More recently, Buttel and Gould (2005) use the critical sociological lens to examine the growing international social movements that arise in response to corporatism and the threat to the environment globally.
Critical sociology exists to counter those who serve as apologists for the existing social order. That is, perhaps, overstating the underlying intellectual motivation of mainstream sociology. However, as long as there are social outcomes dividing rich and poor, the powerful from the powerless, and oppressors from the oppressed, there will be a critical sociology. And as long as sociological analysis seeks to understand these differences through measurement and description rather than change the difference as part of the enterprise of sociological investigation and analysis, uncover the mechanisms that perpetuate these differences, and expose the social order that give license to some segment of society to benefit at the expense of the rest of society, there will always be a critical sociology.
Future Directions for a Critical Sociology
The twenty-first century poses several significant challenges for sociology in general, challenges that will more readily be addressed from a critical sociological perspective that is uniquely suited for looking into the future (Cooke 2004). These changes are rooted precisely in the transformations of capitalism within each country and overall as the international system of production develops into a global economy. These include questions of citizenship, identity politics, and the transformation of social policies to address these challenges; the increasing dismantling of the social welfare function of industrialized nations; the emergence of increasing risk in everyday life as the meaning of work changes; the continued legacy of postcolonialism as new forms of nationalism emerge in response to intensified globalization; and the transformation of the economy from a predominantly industrial system of production to one commonly and in turn called a service economy, an information economy, and now a knowledge-based economy. Let us consider each one for a moment.
Citizenship and Identity Politics
As the recent rioting in France, reminiscent of the racial rioting in the United States during the late 1960s, points out, industrial nations in both Europe and North American are increasingly becoming multiethnic and diverse (see Fasenfest, Booza, and Metzger 2005 for a discussion of ethnic and racial transformation of U.S. cities) due to internal migration and immigration from the periphery. While this has provided labor in many sectors for many decades, not only in Europe but also among low-wage work in the United States, there is an increasing need to find ways to redefine citizenship and belonging. The French rioting was as much about cultural difference as it was about social exclusion, and in Germany there is the irony that greater liberal freedom has resulted in more traditional religious communities to impose restrictions not possible in their home countries (e.g., among the Turkish community). Critical sociology will bring an understanding of both social and economic processes rooted in the historical development of these migrations, situated in the cultural resistance of the host countries struggling to maintain old definitions in a new cultural environment.
Dismantling Social Welfare
We are not strangers to fiscal crisis or fluctuating economies and downturns that put pressure on our social resources. But as the economy changes in fundamental ways, traditional social welfare functions are increasingly eroded in a permanent manner. For some countries, like the United States, these functions were weak at best; for other countries (e.g., Europe and Japan), they were part of the social fabric (whether more formal as in Europe or informal as in Japan). As the work of Gottfried and O’Reilly (2004) points to, not only does the social welfare net fray but also there are clearly gender (and race) dimensions of these changes. Critical sociology will permit an exploration of the underlying historical basis for these welfare functions as a way to understand the particular pattern of their dissolution.
Emergence of a Risk Society
The important work of Ulrich Beck (1992) has pointed out that even as economic growth of the economy overall reaches record levels (true throughout the 1990s), individuals were increasingly uncertain and uncomfortable with their status in society. Firms gradually moved away from models of employee loyalty leading to lifetime employment and toward a pattern of fluid labor forces laid off and hired back as the market and product cycles demanded. As the national economy was increasingly enmeshed in a global economy, workers are pressed to be more flexible in order for the firm to be more competitive. Young people especially look for new models for their work lives, coming under increasing pressure as a result of the absence of a path for their future (Powell and Edwards 2003). For most workers that means less pay, loss of benefits, and greater insecurity. Critical sociology will provide a window into how to understand these changes and how to mobilize for greater security and economic stability.
Postcolonial Resistance and Globalization
The much publicized (and growing international) resistance to events like the meetings of the World Trade Organization and the World Bank highlights the nature of resistance not just on the national level but as the product of international coalitions seeking to alter the pattern of decline and immiseration that follows. Critical sociologists (see, e.g., the collection of essays in Podobnik and Reifer 2005) are increasingly looking at how resistance has been transformed and projecting what new arenas of opposition will emerge in response to this social and economic transformation. While even mainstream sociology acknowledges that there are new challenges, most of the time this is seen as the cost of the global transformation of the economy. Critical sociology argues that the form and extent of that transformation is a function of particular social forces rooted in capitalism, and that alternative visions are possible.
Post-Fordist Economic Transformation
The transition of our economy has been a long and somewhat drawn out process. The first stages of this transformation are the well-researched periods of rust-belt deindustrialization as industry either moved away from or simply closed older operations in traditional industrial cities. Not just the decline of older cities like Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Youngstown in the United States but also the shuttering of mills in the United Kingdom and the decline of the Ruhr Gebeit in the western regions of Germany demonstrate that this was a global process of change. Some places remade themselves by focusing on services and high technology, some by becoming centers of financial operations. But this last decade has witnessed two fundamental changes: many of these so-called high-tech and service work is leaving the industrial nations for the developing world, and many of the traditional industries are becoming transformed permanently. In the first instance, we have heard much about India, Malaysia, and the Philippines, and in the second, even though automobile production remains robust in the number of automobiles produced and sold, the global work force employed in making cars has dropped dramatically as a result of automation, new production techniques, and new materials. Critical sociologists are just beginning to explore what is meant by good jobs, how these changes will alter our understanding of work, and perhaps how this transformation may well alter the very social fabric we have woven for the past 100 years.
The future is unclear. Critical sociology, so long as the future is driven by a capitalist social, political, and economic logic, may well be the best way of exploring the present to understand the future.
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