Habibul Khondker: Transformation – Which Way?

Khondker_Habibul - OnTheMove-ruraltownBangladesh-LONGFORM-jpg-lo

Research Committee on Social Transformation and Sociology of Development (RC09)


Social Transformation: Which Way Now?


Habibul Haque Khondker

Abu-Dhabi, UAE

Discussions of social transformation and development are fraught due to the complexities of the “really existing” world situation that are overlaid by conceptual difficulties, unavoidable ambiguities and the obduracy of continued disciplinary (even sub disciplinary) boundaries. Yet, complexity and ambiguity are no strangers to sociology. In the developmental phases of social sciences conceptual categories were purported to be categorical. Consider Herbert Spencer’s or Auguste Comte’s stages of social development; or, Marx’s formulation of the inevitable, revolutionary end of capitalism in the nineteenth century. Their central ideas were schematic and served as a foil against further explorations. Matured social sciences are tentative and sociologists know too well that simplistic formulations fail to do justice to the complexities of the real world. Sociology has moved away from certainty to plausibility.

From Daniel Bell’s “The End of Ideology” thesis in the late 1950s to the “End of History” thesis of Francis Fukuyama, or Samuel Huntington’s “clash of the civilizations” in the early 1990s, or Immanuel Wallerstein’s “rise and future demise of the world capitalist system” in the mid 1970s; or, more recent, Saskia Sassen’s Expulsions (2014) are all examples of diagnosis and prognosis of social transformation. These prognoses tended to analyze society on a large, global canvass. Going beyond the narrow definition of “social” as non-economic relational or societal, they see society as a “set of sets” in politico-economic, multi-dimensional dimension. Though they remain little vague on the temporal dimension. As some of them focus on an ambiguous present, others look to next hundred years or beyond. At the same time, some writers raise the question of whether progress or collapse? The answer is: both. Depending on your social location you are either a part of progress or of collapse. Social transformation affects different classes differently. Yes, for some classes of people located in certain privileged parts of the world, life has been better, that is, longer, healthier and full of life chances i.e., opportunities; for others life has become more precarious. Classical sociologists – Karl Marx, Max Weber, or Emile Durkheim – were aware of the double-edged outcome as reflected in their diagnoses and prognoses.

Social change can best be viewed, at least, at two levels: institutions that constitute the structure of society and the mind of the people, which is as much a product of their culture as it is reflected in their cultures. Social change, empirically, entails changes in social institutions and how we think about what is going on. Needless to add, there are many more perspectives on social change, here we put forth one in broad outline that may reflect the happenings of the world today. Hopefully, even among the plurality of views, we may find a provisional agreement, if not a consensus, on the following propositions:

1. Economic processes and technological improvements are the major drivers of structural changes in society. Economic transformations are never neutral, objective forces taking their own inexorable path. On the contrary, here we see a confluence of political power and economic interest, the interplay of class and privilege. Decisions of powerful elite will leave its footprint on society. Change in society has to take a demographic unit as an ensemble sharing both a place as well as different spaces. Society is an abstraction; people are real. Even the skeptics could be persuaded to see society as a demographic ensemble, a group of people living in a territory, say, a nation-state with political and geographical boundary. Once we see society as an abode of people, we can talk about standard of living – quality of life and so on. We can also talk about their capabilities, functioning and potential. However, a demographic definition of society is narrow. Human beings are not merely bodies; they are enmeshed in relations and institutions. A complex web of relationships, structured social relations mediated by status, class and power.

2. Yet, social change is not just confined to changes in the institutions. Human beings are thinking, feeling, and believing beings. How we perceive happening in society make a lot of difference in how we act. Our mind is the locus of rationality as well as irrational beliefs; many of us seek betterment of human condition by dint of our own efforts in this world, while some seek salvation in the after world and there are many who try to pursue both resolving the inner conflicts one way or the other. Technology, as tools we create for enhancing our capabilities, comes into play. Human minds create technology and technology, in turn, changes how we behave an act. Interesting patterns can be seen in the making of technologies and the evolution of sciences and technology. Technology shapes society as it is shaped and fashioned by society. Consider the impact of telephone from Thomas Edison to iPhone today. A small smart phone with Internet connectivity has unleashed huge potential in transforming society.

3. We talk about social change in big historical sweeps, such as, pre-industrial, industrial and post-industrial societies. Some talk about societies; even civilizations in competition, which are problematic, as if societies are in an eternal race in which some are ahead, and some are left behind. The great divergence of the East and West is now intersected with the North and the Global South. Geography is presented as a major determinant, as if we are doomed by our geo-cultural location. Space is a social, not merely a geographical coordinate. Consider someone growing up in Palestine, a war zone. Did she choose to be born there? Imagine, if that young girl were born in another place, say, Sweden. One’s location in life makes such a huge difference.

4. The precariousness of life. Precariousness is unequally distributed. Some are in deep precariousness – one illness away – one illness can make the difference between in and out of poverty as shown by Anirudh Krishna (2010). How many people are living on the edges now? Some on the boat, trying to reach a safe destination – crossing perilous ocean – from a space of despair to a space of hope and security. Some people are living in a space that is potent with precariousness; for example, an earthquake-prone region in Nepal, or a potential target of Tsunami. Some girls wait haplessly to be taken away by Boka Haram or some other gangs who would turn them into sex-slaves. Human slavery thrives in many parts of the world.

5. Normalization of war: One of the tragic consequences of the unending war in the Middle East, a direct result of external intervention in violation of international law is the normalization of war. Though it has caused colossal loss of lives and the region continues to bleed with little hope and prospect of peace, it merits little attention in the sociological discussion. Other wars, as in Ukraine or potential war elsewhere are also underway. The new form of intra-national and intra-regional war is truly global war where combatants from far afield are drawn with little regard for national boundaries. A recent UN report estimated close to 25,000 international fighters from over 100 countries were involved in conflicts worldwide, with the largest by far into Syria and Iraq (Gulf News, June 10, 2015). Nation-states are either involved directly, indirectly or technologically. Remote control war manifested in a drone attack targeting enemies, destroying property and killing innocent lives as collateral damages. Wars over ideologies are now superimposed on traditional reasons of war over space, resources and punishing an enemy. The main casualties of these wars are humanity and the dignity of life. The superpowers rather than making peace and intervening to stop war, are directly making war, invading countries, crossing internationally recognized boundaries, destroying property, lives and livelihood in wanton lawlessness.

6. Refugees. A direct outcome of break down of national societies by enforced wars, people are leaving their homes to save their lives. Young, and old are running with what little they can carry from war zones to stable parts of the world. Living in border shelters – depending on the charity of others, losing their dignity. As of the end of May 2015, there are 3.9 million Syrian refugees were scattered in neighboring countries. Turkey has been a major destination of Syrian refugees with 1.7 million living in refugee shelters. North African refugees are trying to escape war-torn Libya and the neighboring regions aided by unscrupulous agents of human trafficking, risking perilous voyage to Europe. By mid 2015, more than 100,000 refugees crossed the Mediterranean to Europe in the first half of 2015 risking their lives on flimsy boats. Fifty-four thousand of them reached Italy, while 48,000 landed in Greece. While the US with over $600 billion dollar military expenditure annually, remains number 1, countries in the vicinity of war zones have also seen a sharp increase in military spending. Wars lead to increase in military spending thus diverts resources from meeting the needs of nutrition, health care, education and housing in so many developing countries as well as in the refugee camps.

7. A good measure of social progress is the health of people. Health and nutrition issues will not disappear anytime soon. Eradication and return of polio shows underlying vulnerabilities of public health crisis as triggered by Ebola outbreak or MERS scare. The number of people living in poverty is decreasing over the years, yet nutritional deficiencies and hunger remain widespread.

8. Climate changes and global warming are forces not independent of human actions. Human interactions and choices made globally and at the institutional levels with direct consequences on climate change is one of the challenges that sociologists are beginning to address.

The development discourse since the end of the Second World War, and the development institutions were touched by the Cold War ideology. Modernization theories were junked too hastily on the charge that they were ahistorical. True, some of it was ahistorical; but not all. Nor did its replacement, Dependency theory, was always an exemplar of historical scholarship. The discourse of development continues to be vitiated by ideological fault line.

The end of the so-called Cold War in the 1990s gave us a semblance of respite and a sense of optimism prevailed with the talk of peace dividends and their potential use to develop the poor regions of the world. Sociologists of social change escaped from the trap of naiveté. However contested, Samuel Huntington, portrayed future conflicts and clashes along the civilizational in fact, ethnic and cultural and religious fault lines.

Sociologists who analyzed the big pictures delved in the discourses of modernity, multiple-modernity, post-modernity and globalization (s) with direct bearing on the diagnosis and prognosis of society. Historical sociology played a central role in shaking the theories of social change from the comfort zones of modernization paradigm, rooted in ahistorical evolutionary models. Predictability and linearity fell on the waysides, Immanuel Wallerstein, Charles Tilly, and a host of other big picture sociologists made plausibility, non-linearity and even chaos as important parts of their theories. Multiple modernity accommodating multilinear trajectories of development replaced unilinear modernization research. The debate between and convergence and divergence schools was accommodated in the premises of globalizations.

The flagship development institutions, such as World Bank, which transformed itself from a focus on mega project oriented development to human needs based, development. The shift from macro to micro was the result of works of socially conscious economists such as Mahbubul Huq and Amartya Sen. The United Nations Development Program in its Human Development Report focuses on social indicators of human development. The UN launched the Millennium Development Goals in 2000 tracking social development until 2015. This period saw measurable improvements in human development indicators, including gender related issues. Though serious challenges remain, gender parity has improved in several countries. As the MDG period ended its place was taken by the UN attention to sustainable development recognizing that people are at the center of sustainable development and phrases such as ‘just, equitable and inclusive” became the new development goals. Dignity, solidarity and global partnership are now the new foci of development.

The goals are attainable provided the rulers and guardians of the world see the connectedness of the problems. The refugee problem that has gotten world’s media attention are not deliberated the guardians of the world who obstinately fail to see that it is directly connected to the wars and military interventions for which the global powers were directly involved. Violence breeds more violence. Violence from above produces violence from below. It is in that logic, the creation of ISIL, ISIS or Daesh whatever term you want to use is an outcome of violence, external military intervention and flouting of international laws.

Some glimmers of hope come from mass technology such as Internet driven social connectivity and especially, the mobile technology, which may change the future in a remarkable way by opening possibilities of discussion, knowledge and development. It has potential for the education of the hitherto disconnected and disenfranchised to empowering the downtrodden. At the same time, the technology of connectedness can be used for the ends of destruction and terror. A recent US study identified 46,000 Twitter accounts linked to supporters of ISIL.

The proper utilization of mobile technology as well as other mass technologies will be dictated by the broader discussions of the kind of future we want. Should we live as global, cosmopolitan citizens when we see rationality, freedom, and equality as our collective heritage or continue to relativize the world as our world versus theirs, between the East and the West or between the North and the South?

Sociologists of development do point out the need for tackling global inequalities and injustices, yet expansion of that conversation with fellow social scientists, philosophers, legal experts and historians is still rudimentary. It is of utmost importance to put global justice as the center of research agenda. There is little gain in discussing whose justice? Relativizing such important issues may be good intellectual gamesmanship but it is time to launch a global conversation on justice minimally defined. The starting point may very well be redressing the flouting of international laws, minimizing social injustices and the conditions that create them.



Khondker_Habibul - portrait-edHabibul Haque Khondker is a professor at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at Zayed University, Abu Dhabi, UAE. Habib studied at University of Dhaka, Carleton University, Ottawa and University of Pittsburgh. Habib taught at the National University of Singapore from 1985 to 2005. He also held visiting positions at the United Nations University, Tokyo, Cornell University, Columbia University, Institute of Social Studies, the Hague and University of Pittsburgh. Habib served as a member of the Executive Council of the International Sociological Association from 2010 – 2014 and presently the Co-President of the Research Committee on Social Transformation and Sociology of Development, RC09. He is on the editorial board of several international journals. – Habib’s research interests cover globalization and modernity, role of science and technology in development, gender and science, migration, disaster and development and political sociology with focus on civil society and democratization. Habib has published many articles in numerous journals. Among his latest books are Globalization: East and West (Sage, 2010) co-authored with Bryan Turner; 21st Century Globalizaton: Perspectives from the Gulf, co-edited with Jan Nederveen Pieterse (2010) and Asia and Europe in Globalization (Brill, 2006) co-edited with Goran Therborn.


Banner Image:  On the Move. Photo taken by the author in a rural town in Bangladesh.

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