Thursday, August 20, 2009

Spotlight: Jurgen Habermas explores the question: Do societies evolve?

For those of you unfamiliar with him, Habermas is one of the world's foremost philosophers. His major claim to fame is the development of his, "communicative rationality," theory. What I find to be so interesting about this guy, is his daring claim (particularly daring to me, this idea is not touched much in undergrad social science classes): that societies go through development and evolution, just like individuals. Both the individual and the society at large share a common evolutionary structure of growth. That is, societies reflect the individual, and the individual reflects society. No man is an island, because we share common languages, cultures, or as he puts it, our "life world."

"The ontogenetic models are certainly better analyzed and better corroborated than their social evolutionary counterparts. But it should not surprise us that there are homologous structures of consciousness in the history of the species, if we consider that linguistically established intersubjectivity of understanding marks that innovation in the history of the species which first made possible the level of sociocultural learning. At this level, the reproduction of society and the socialization of its members are two aspects of the same process, they are dependent on the same structures."

He's basically saying that, individual studies of development are much more researched, but the evidence is abundant that there is a macro-developmental spectrum too. A shared language helps establish a shared culture, and that culture can go through its own process of development in the complex interaction of people and their traditions, their capacity to reflect on their worldviews, and even their capacity to change them in light of new challenges. For instance, Habermas mentions the shift from tribal societies to mythical-based ones (or rather, the emergence of civilization) is best understood as a cultural adaptation to growing population. A growing society could no longer identify itself from the perspective of its own ancestry, and its modes of organization were no longer effective in larger groups. Therefore, people naturally adopted different perspectives, ideas and attitudes towards the world at large.

"The transition to societies organized through a state required the relativization of tribal identities and the construction of a more abstract [meaning less body-bound] identity that no longer based the membership of individuals on common descent but on belonging in common to a territorial organization. This took place first through identification with the figure of a ruler who could claim close connection and privileged access to mythological originary powers. In the framework of mythological worldviews the integration of different tribal traditions was accomplished through a large-scale, syncretic expansion of the world of the gods- a solution that proved to be rather unstable [and precipitated the next major transformation."

I bring up this point by Habermas because we are facing a similar evolutionary challenge in modern times. As human populations expand, our modern tribes, or "nations," can no longer remain isolated and self-interested. We are at a point in civilization where we recognize whatever one nation does, may affect the entirety of the world. We share global problems, global dangers, and as such, we are faced with the challenge to adapt our "lifeworld" to survive and establish some form of equilibrium. In other words, our common "structure" of consciousness has to find a more inclusive and cooperative mentality, just as it has done in the past, but to a more intensified, and certainly more tolerant worldview. Pluralism, cultural relativism has done what the relativism of tribes has done, but there is still lacking a clear idea as to what may "bind us" together, at least in popular discussion. It's a heated debate.

Some academics recommend a "World Federation," which may be necessary and inevitable. But how will it be structured? Who will make up the federation? Will it be in danger of becoming a dangerous, oppressive power? Still others recommend uniting through a common challenge: avoiding ecological disaster, and solving the energy crisis. While this is part of our world's problem, I don't think the problem will unite us so much as the emergence of a more inclusive worldview, and the means to do it. This has happened in the past, how might it manifest today?

I believe another point of view is emerging within society. Habermas also mentions that aside from cultural evolution in a social dimension, physical adaptations of a society also provide new means and new ways of socializing. For example, a complex language system, combined with the ability to write, created an even deeper cultural space to bind the society together. We are in the process of a similar expansion of cultural space: the internet is the bare-bones skeleton of a future "culture space," which, potentially, may envelope the world. Some say the internet is the greatest invention next to the printing press. That too, helped expand and complexify cultural space (differentiation and increasing layers of complexity is a universal direction in evolution). So what we have the potential for, now is the means (internet, network, decentralization) for a new cultural worldview (worlcentric, collaborative and cooperative society). The physical setup of the internet empowers collaboration, cooperation and group effort, so efficiently its beginning to outrank traditional hierarchies and bureaucracies, not to mention over-power them. The idea of power is very important in the social sciences, so understanding this new mode of social action as being empowering, even more so than "centralized" authority will provide individuals with the inspiration for new philosophies, new worldviews that are more tolerant, universal and inclusive. We are living in fascinating times, and I believe we now have the means, or at least the seeds, for a true world civilization.

Monday, August 17, 2009

OSS updates.

We have a twitter: opensourcesocio. Please contribute to discussion via tags "#sociology" "opensocio"

More members are trickling in, though I'd like to start focusing my efforts on getting us exposed to more people.

Getting back from vacation tomorrow, new thoughts and ideas coming soon!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Rheingold and Gordon Brown talk about a new kind of society.

Two interesting TED talks I recently came across: Gordon Brown, prime minister of the UK and Rheingold, author of Smart Mobs discuss the implications of internet and mobile communication technology.

Although recent issues in England about surveillance may make Brown seem a bit hypocritical talking about internet, democracy and a global government, I think the implications he's speaking of transcend any limitations he may have. The idea is that, the time has come for us to begin creating a closer, inter-dependent world civilization. The technology is literally at our fingertips. What Brown may not realize is, the need for central authority figures, institutions, etc. may slowly deflate, and finally go extinct by the end of the next century. I'm sure many folks are not yet aware of the implications of a network society. Rheingold goes into the details of what a network society might do, and what it is already doing. Collaboration, he argues, has always been a part of human nature. We do things when we think we can receive mutual benefit. I help you, you help me, we help each other. This inter-connection, although it isn't quite selfless or compassionate, helps bind people together, and may help folks slowly recognize and appreciate one another a little more.

To me at least, the idea of "tit-for-tat" is a primitive and basic component of human nature, which we should by all means enhance and exploit for the benefit of everyone. To paraphrase the words of Robert Wright, cooperation and collaboration trumps competition. As a sociologist, I believe at least creating an environment where "tit-for-tat" is now a primary focus for the majority of tasks in civilization (everyday life, greater projects, smaller projects, food, energy, etc), you generate a fertile ground for a more world-centric consciousness. That may sound fancy, but all it means is, we now have a more effective way for organizing ourselves in civilization, and that may eventually bind the world together, not in some great, bloated centralized government, but in a networked, diverse system of minds and bodies, a network civilization, more capable of dealing with environmental issues, energy problems and famine.

At any rate, both are great videos. Check them out when you have a few minutes to sit and listen.

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