Towards a sociology of endings

There’s a particular kind of sociological theorising which I’ve always been drawn to that concerns itself with the identification of epochal shifts in social life. When I was an intellectually frustrated philosophy student, the work of Giddens on Late Modernity and Bauman on Liquid Modernity seemed to hold the promise of intellectual work that addressed something far greater than the technical problems of philosophy: what is it like to be a person now? I tried to argue in my PhD thesis that this aspect of their work, simultaneously profound yet also slightly asinine, surely accounts for part of the appeal which a sprawling body of work has held for many in spite of its many defects. I wondered recently if it could be seen as a kind of (historicised) sociological anthropology, inquiring into the phenomenology of the person in a way that refuses the possibility of abstracting the core questions from the particular time and place in which they are being asked. However I do think this work is deeply flawed and one of the most incisive ways to analyse these flaws is to consider the claims about transitions from ‘old’ to ‘new’ which are made within it. This is how Paul Heelas describes the transitions that are implicitly and explicitly asserted within the literature on detraditionalization:

[F]ate (or the pre-ordained) v. choice (or reflexivity); necessity v. contingency; certainty v. uncertainty; security v. risk. Differentiated (or organised) culture v. the de-differentiated (or disorganised); the embedded (situated or socio-centric) self v. the disembedded (de-situated or autonomous); self under control v. self in control; and virtues v. preferences (with values coming in between)

Paul Heelas, Detraditionalization, Pg 3

Once you set things up in this way, it’s hard not to see radical change everywhere. The underlying dichotomies operate as an interpretive framework which highlights discontinuities and obscures continuities. This is why, as Graham Crow puts it, a “more nuanced account of the processes involved in beginnings and endings needs to be developed”. He identifies a large number of phenomena of which it has been declared that we are witnessing the end:

  • family relationships
  • community relationships
  • politics
  • poverty
  • capitalism
  • slavery
  • masculinity
  • privacy
  • work
  • unemployment
  • the nation-state
  • organised capitalism
  • socialism
  • history
  • class
  • heterosexuality
  • photography

The identification of ‘endings’ is more methodologically complex than someone like Giddens seems willing to admit:

Endings, and the opportunities for new beginnings for which they open the way, thus merit some attention because they are so frequently a point of reference. Claims to have identified the emergence of a new social phenomenon and the end of an existing one are rhetorically powerful, but assessing them is by no means straightforward. To begin with, there are varying interests at stake in the promotion of certain social phenomena as ‘new’ and others as ‘dead’ or ‘dying’. Most social transformations have ‘losers’ as well as ‘winners’ (Crow and Rees 1999), even though the voices of the former tend to be drowned out by the latter. Secondly, the momentousness of social changes is not always apparent to the people living through them and, as a result, interpretation of their perceptions of continuity needs to be undertaken with caution. Conversely, developments that can seem momentous as they unfold can come to be regarded as less so with the passage of time

In fact it’s very easy to relativise the account offered by Giddens in terms of both his own life and the unfolding of history. He was (anecdotally) going through major changes in his personal life and, it seems with hindsight, moving away from social theory and towards politics. His main three books on this subject were published after the fall of the Berlin Wall, as either history itself or at least one era seemed to be falling away, with market capitalism triumphant and the key question facing the centre-left seemingly being one of how to tame capitalism from within. Given his subsequent trajectory and reinvention as a political guru for New Labour, it’s hard not to see a potentially self-interested dimension to this as well: in identifying the end of the old he positioned himself as an interpreter of the new. This sense of new times, to which we must adapt through ‘modernising’ or risk becoming antiquated, should be understood as crucial to the cultural politics of New Labour as well: in recognising the ‘new’, we claim a temporal identity for ourselves, one superior to that we impose on the ‘old’. Furthermore, as Crow notes, it’s difficult to find empirical grounds for these considerations in everyday life. People often don’t recognise momentous change (for reasons I describe here as the epistemology of collapse) or they experience as momentous things that later come to seem much less so.

The risk is that, as Crow puts it, we lose sight of “underlying continuities by focusing only on those elements in a situation that have changed”. If we develop concepts of social change (e.g. detraditionalization, individualization, globalization) that foreground those elements in a situation that have changed and fail to contextualise them in terms of those elements that have not, we’re led to pronounce epochal shifts (with all their rhetorical and political temptations). In his paper he offers ten propositions concerning the sociology of endings. His point is that if we come to understanding endings better then we’ll be less inclined towards “the premature identification of endings and new beginnings”:

Processes of decline are responded to in various ways.

Long-term decline is not necessarily perceived as such by those living through it, because of imperfect information, self-persuasion, denial, nostalgia, or addiction.

People may be persuaded to remain loyal to existing arrangements even when they are undeniably in decline because they are convinced by one or more strands of The Rhetoric of Reaction, the argument that efforts to change a situation are bound to fail or to bring even more undesirable consequences.

The sociology of emotions and rational choice theory both provide plausible starting points for the analysis of the decision to cut one’s losses by ending involvement in existing relations that are in decline, if and when it is taken.

The social context of decision-making concerning endings is crucial.

The process of moving towards and beyond endings is rarely a smooth, linear progression through a succession of stages.

Accounts of change after the event are vulnerable to post-hoc rationalizations in which the confusion and indeterminacy of events as they unfolded is played down and inevitability emphasised.

The popular metaphors through which ideas about endings are expressed have a bearing on how people respond to them.

Sociological analysis is weakened when framed in terms of over-arching processes of social change that are presented as irresistible at the level of individuals, communities, or wider societies and socio-economic systems.

The analytical problems presented by the processes whereby social arrangements come to an end have very wide relevance.

Many of these points concern agency. People respond differently to endings. People often fail to recognise endings or refuse to recognise them. People may continue to invest themselves in something that is ending because they’re scared of what might come next. People are influenced by each other and by their wider context in how they respond to endings. These factors mean that we should avoid conceiving of endings in a way that treats them as the irresistible force of social change. If we fail to do this, we tend to see a linear transition from ‘old’ to ‘new’, in the process missing the complexity of social change and how its unfolding was shaped by the variable responses of the people on the ground.

It’s a very interesting paper. I find it hard to see how anyone could disagree with Crow’s recommendation that “the temptation to tell an attention-grabbing story should be resisted in favour of a more balanced assessment of change and continuity”. This is his closing statement:

Finally, we might note that sociologists have a mixed record in relation to realising this potential in the analysis of change, not least in terms of the premature identification of endings and new beginnings. Much is lost when complex analyses are reduced to the stark opposition of change or continuity, as is demonstrated in those more subtle analyses that highlight the ways in which change in one facet of a social phenomenon can contribute to the reproduction of other aspects. But caution about oversimplification regarding social change reinforces the case for a sociological approach to the study of endings. This is not least because there is so much more to be said than economists’ focus on the moment when profit turns to loss, and psychologists’ focus on motivation and individual adjustment. People’s perceptions about whether they stand to gain or lose from the substitution of a new social arrangement for an old one are more complex than the former and more volatile than the latter, and this has major implications for the prediction of their individual and collective behaviour and of longer-term social change.

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