How are social change and changes in knowledge linked
By seeking spiritual development instead of material growth, the development of global citizenship as opposed to local politics, and respect of the ‘non-human’ natural world through a rejection of anthropocentrism (Bromley, p. 114) this apparently radical agenda has entered the public consciousness and been accepted by many. With the growth of ‘green’ thinking we witness new social movements arising such as eco-feminism, advocated by Vandana Shiva, which reject the ‘patriarchical’ system of Western ‘reductionist’ science in favour of a spiritual approach to the environment in which women work in harmony with nature (Bromley, pp.
109-110). Alongside the growth of this and other environmental interest groups we witness ‘unconventional’ belief systems such as pre-Christian paganism, Eastern religious tradition and other metaphysical practices being adopted in supposedly secular communities such as those in the West (Bromley, p. 111). This unexpected development demonstrates how changing knowledge, such as that arising through environmental awareness, can produce unforeseen social change. But how do disparate examples of social change fit into and explain the wider context of society?
It is here that three theories of social change seek to provide explanation: the risk society, the knowledge society and the fragmented society. These contemporary theories attempt to explain and locate isolated examples of change, such as those discussed above, into broader all-encompassing frameworks (Goldblatt, p. 120). I will now briefly examine each starting with the risk society thesis. The issue of environmental degradation, discussed earlier, lies at the heart of the risk society thesis and was formulated by the German sociologist, Ulrich Beck.
He claims the defining characteristic of the current age is ‘the knowledge that we collectively face the possibility of global catastrophe’ (Goldblatt, p. 137). With a move away from the certainties of the ‘safety state’, which provided comprehensive welfare and insurance coverage, to an age in which risk management is rendered unworkable, due to the nature of global environmental problems, we witness an era of uncertainty where knowledge claims by governments and scientific experts are undermined and delegitimized (Goldblatt, pp. 143-144, p. 152).
Advocates of the risk society imply that growing environmental knowledge has altered our perception of the world producing a society in which safety and certainty no longer exist. Uncertainty and ambiguity predominate as the ‘old order’ is destabilized with new and unpredictable outcomes arising (Goldblatt, p. 152). This largely pessimistic view of society places the environment and the changing knowledge that surrounds it as the central condition promoting and effecting change, and in this respect differs substantially from the knowledge and fragmented society theories that take the economy as their starting point.
The knowledge and the fragmented society are, however, dissimilar in that they can be perceived as two sides of a coin with the prior being positive and latter negative. The knowledge society thesis, an amalgamation of ideas by Bell, Leadbeater and Cairncross, stresses the importance of scientific, marketing, and theoretical knowledge in contemporary society. Set against a background of changing sectorial employment from manufacturing to services it points to the rising power and influence of ‘professionals’ with expert knowledge increasingly trusted and valued.
With the development of new communications and information technology, a demise of class politics, looser more democratic management in the workplace and greater cultural diversity, it portrays knowledge as a force for good bringing positive social change and increased prosperity (Goldblatt, pp. 143-144, p. 152). Proponents of the fragmented society, writing from post-Fordist and post-modernist perspectives, view the situation differently.
They see knowledge undermined by the conflicting opinions of experts leading to political and scientific disillusionment (Goldblatt, p. 133). This set against a backdrop of capitalism prone to periods of ‘boom and bust’, increasing division between high and low skill workers, extensive deregulation through neo-liberal politics and a subsequent reduction of welfare provision, we witness a fragmentation of society with multiple winners and losers across geographical, labour market, and social provision boundaries (Goldblatt, p.
131). Changing knowledge in this scenario creates a divisive world with a bleak social outlook for many. The fragmented and knowledge society theories do, however, describe how the conditions under which knowledge changes affect society – the contradictory conclusions reached merely reflect the approach of and values held by the authors. It can be demonstrated, without doubt, that changing knowledge affects society.
From the impact of women’s knowledge upon the medical profession, to the threat posed by environmental knowledge upon traditional politics, the connections are clear and self-evident. However, the circumstances and conditions that affect social change are not always easily compartmentalized and simply described, through a gender, class, or environmental basis and this is where the development of broader explanatory frameworks arise.
The risk, knowledge and fragmented society theses seek to do just that by describing multiple agents of change and their interaction. While contestable in many respects and the conclusions they reach being largely unsubstantiated they illustrate the underlying processes under which knowledge changes whether the threat is of self-annihilation, or shifting economic circumstances – perceived positively or negatively. Whether they succeed in providing explanations that enlighten and illuminate our perception of the social world is debatable.It is largely a question of personal preference as to which theory you choose. There is no simple conclusion.
References Bromley, S. (2000) ‘Political ideologies and the environment’ in Goldblatt, D. (ed. ) Goldblatt, D. (2000) ‘Living in the after-life: knowledge and social change’ in Goldblatt, D. (ed. ) Goldblatt, D. (ed. ) (2000) Knowledge and the Social Sciences: Theory, Method, Practice, London, Routledge/The Open University.