Studying social transformation

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  • 7/30/2019 Studying social transformation


    International Political Science Review online version of this article can be found at:

    DOI: 10.1177/0192512101221002

    2001 22: 13International Political Science ReviewStephen Castles

    Studying Social Transformation

    Published by:

    On behalf of:

    International Political Science Association (IPSA)

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    Studying So cial Transfo rmatio n


    ABSTRACT. Global change and th e increasing importance of transnationalflows and networks in all areas of social life create new challenges for thesocial sciences. However, their un der lying assum ption s are linked to the irorigins in Western models of industrialization and nation-stateformation. There is still considerable national specificity in modes oforganization, theoretical and methodological approaches, researchquestions, and findings. In contrast, social transformation studies can beunderstood as the analysis of transnational connectedness and the waythis affects national societies, local communities, and individuals. Newresearch approaches include a focus on transnational processes; analysisof local dimensions of change using participatory methods; and theconstruction of international and interdisciplinary research networks.

    Key words: Development theory Globalization Network research Social tran sformation


    The last quarter of the twentieth century was a period of rapid growth intran snation al linkages and flows affecting all areas of hu man life: econ omy,politics, en vironmen t, culture, society, and even interp ersonal relations. Th ese

    global processes gave rise to major social transformations throughout the world, sothat old economic and cultural dichotomies such as modern and traditional,highly-developed and less-developed, eastern and western, the South and theNorth lost their sharpness. It became increasingly difficult to act locally withoutthinking globally (as the slogan went), while the national level lost itspreeminence as a framework for u nder stand ing society.

    Social scientists who set out to analyze these dramatic changes soon came upagainst the limits of existing theories and methodologies. Core disciplines such aseconomics and sociology were based on (often tacit) cultural assumptions anddevelopmental models deriving from the western experience of capitalism and

    In tern ati on al Pol it ica l Scien ce R eview (2001), Vol 22, No. 1, 1332

    0192-5121 (2001/ 01) 22:1, 1332; 015201 2001 Intern ation al Political Scien ce AssociationSAGE Publications (London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi)

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    industrialization. The evolution of social scientific knowledge had been largelybased on the principles needed for construction and integration of the westernnation-state as the o rganizational form for global expan sion and hegemony.Hence the emphasis was on understanding emerging industrial society and on

    studying colonized societies, in order to control dangerous classes and peoples(see Connell, 1997).

    Moreover, despite international interchange between social scientists, there was(and still is) considerable national specificity in the modes of organization, thetheoretical and methodological approaches, the research questions, and thefind ings of the social sciences. Within each coun try, there are competing schoolsor paradigms, yet these function within distinct intellectual frameworks withstrong histor ical roo ts and surp rising durability. Such frameworks have often beenexported to areas of political and cultural influence in a sort of intellectual neo-colonization. The determinants of national specificity include: religious,philosophical and ideological traditions; varying historical roles of intellectuals in

    constructing national culture and identity; relationships between states andpolitical classes; the role of social science in inform ing social policy; and modesof interaction of state apparatuses with u niversities and other research bod ies.

    This is not the place to pursue such issues of the sociology of knowledge. Thepoint is that global change and the increasing importance of transnationalprocesses require new approaches from the social sciences. These will notautom atically develop out of existing paradigms, because th e latter are often basedon institutional and conceptual frameworks that may be resistant to change, andwhose pro tagonists may have strong interests in the p reservation of the intellectualstatus quo. If classical social theory was premised on the emerging national-industrial society of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, then a renewal

    of social theory should take as its starting point the global transformationsoccurring at the dawn of the twenty-first century. As transnational linkagesper vade all areas of social life, national boun daries become m ore porous and localauton omy declines; commun ities and regions become increasingly intercon nectedand mutually dependent. Just as cutting down a forest in one place hasconsequences for the global environmen t, social, economic, cultural, and politicalchanges in a specific country are likely to affect people elsewhere. Socialtransformation studies can thus be understood as the analysis of transnationalconnectedness and the way this affects national societies, local communities, andindividuals.

    This, in very broad terms, is the thinking un der lying Un escos Management of

    Social Transformation ( MOST) Program. The approach of MOST has been tosponsor international networks which have sought to develop new researchthemes, methods, and theories through collaborative practice. The task ofdeveloping an overarching theoretical framework is still in its early stages. Thisarticle is an attempt to contribute to this debate by discussing some of the basicideas of social transformation studies. Of course, this endeavour is not specific toUnesco. A rich and innovative literature on globalization and socialtransformation has begun to em erge in recen t years. Moreover, principles of socialtransformation research are being developed and used by practitioners in a rangeof organizations, both govern men tal and non-govern men tal. We are dealing with acomplex and fast-changing field.

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    Social Transfo rmatio n and Develo pm ent

    There is nothing intrinsically new about the term social transformation.Generally it implies an underlying notion of the way society and culture change in

    response to such factors as economic growth, war, or political upheavals. We mayhave in mind the great transformation (Polanyi, 1944) in western societiesbrought about by industrialization and modernization, or more recent changeslinked to decolonization, nation-state formation, and economic change. I amsuggesting th at it is useful to define social tran sformation studies in a new, morespecific sense as an interdisciplinary analytical framework for understanding globalinterconnectedness and its regional, national, and local effects. Social trans-formation studies therefore need to be conceptualized in contrast to notions ofdevelopmen t ( or development studies).

    M odern ity, Progress, an d Developm en t

    The notion ofdevelopmentoften implies a teleological belief in progression toward sa predetermined goal: usually the type of econom y and society to be found in th ehighly-developed western countries. Social transformation, by con