The Society for the Study of Social Problems (SSSP) was founded 65 years ago with an explicit goal of bringing sociological research to bear on the pressing issues of the day in order to promote social justice. The ethos of the society’s founders, Elizabeth Briant Lee and Alfred McClung Lee (1976), was that sociology should be “a discipline to be used in the service of all people” (p. 5); their challenge to the society was to “be ready to accept the challenges of new issues and conditions as they arise” (p. 7). Many of the original leaders and presidents of the SSSP were animated by the same concern as the Lees about the plethora of problems impacting the post-World War II United States, including pervasive racism and poverty in an era of unprecedented economic growth and prosperity. But a brief glance at the early pages of Social Problems shows that there were also concerns about law, crime, and “deviant” behavior, human sexuality, families, mental health, addictions, disabilities, urbanization, migration, work and jobs, higher education, etc. Most of these topics and concerns, of course, remain central to research at our annual conferences today. A much more recent SSSP president, John Galliher (2002), provides a nice overview of the “cast of characters” and their various but overlapping vision of sociology in those early days; he particularly highlights the likely underappreciated leadership role that Jesse Bernard took in developing and promoting a feminist sensibility in sociology as an integral component to analyzing and acting on a range of social problems—still a hallmark of today’s SSSP.1
My purpose here is not to survey SSSP history, but to affirm continuity with long-standing themes of embracing a critical approach, valuing scholarship that is engaged and relevant to pressing problems of ordinary people, and emphasizing a sociology melded with social activism and willing to “take sides” (Becker 1967). This was the vision that informed the society early on—it is one that many of us still value today. But it is also one that is quite “countercultural” in the contemporary world of professional sociology, with its emphasis on narrow specialization, prestigious publications, methodological and abstract theoretical “sophistication.” Arguably, however, this non-“mainstream” orientation is a SSSP strength, even today!
But we must be ready to pick up the gauntlet the Lees threw down and adapt to new challenges. In a brief preface to the very first issue of Social Problems, inaugural SSSP President Ernest Burgess (1953) pledged that the journal would uphold the “aims of the Society” to “keep in the forefront its emphasis upon research on the problems of American society as providing the knowledge for sound social action” (p. 3). This was a noble goal, and in the mid-twentieth century U.S. sociologists (and for that matter, most other social scientists) were very focused on “our society.” So the vast majority of our progenitors’ interests were in studying “American” social problems.
The young discipline budded and bloomed here in this country, growing in tandem with our emerging system of higher education, and, arguably, with one new university, located in Chicago, as the epicenter. The “Chicago School” developed in the 1920s and 1930s when that university hired a veritable pantheon of top scholars. Some of them worked on developing social interactionism (George Herbert Meade and Herbert Blumer in collaboration with John Dewey). But many of these early sociologists saw the rapidly growing industrial city as their laboratory for a wide range of studies (many involved detailed ethnographies but some also incorporated statistical data). Indeed, Burgess himself was part of a famous triumvirate that included Robert Park and Roderick McKenzie2 (Park, Burgess, and McKenzie 1925) and is credited with founding the urban ecology approach. Burgess (1925) himself may be best known for the “theory of concentric zones,” which attempted to describe the growth of cities via an abstract model, derived directly from empirical observation of housing and settlement types in Chicago. (As graduate students I recall our amusement about a “general model,” which was often depicted as only three-fourths of a circle to account for Lake Michigan!). Indeed, a rather sophisticated—if also completely descriptive—“model” of “urban growth” emerged from urban ecology that assumed the processes in this particular Midwestern U.S. city were typical of “modern cities” (this assumption, of course, turned out to be very problematic). A real strength of this ecological model was its focus on social systems and structures (as well as a willingness to acknowledge the key roles of material forces, population dynamics, and technology). But this “theory,” like most of the work of the Chicago School (and, indeed, nearly all sociology in the first six or seven decades of the twentieth century) was complicit in upholding a striking conceit: the assumption that studying one city (or one case) in “American society” was grounds for generalizing about urban sociology (or other “social problems”).
In fact, this wasn’t an error unique to the ecologists, or Chicago sociologists, but an unfortunate generic pattern: U.S. sociology was about “our society,” and those “other” people and places could be left to anthropologists or perhaps historians or geographers. So Burgess’s statement about the society’s focus on “the problems of American society” was not at all idiosyncratic to the SSSP; it permeated our discipline broadly. To a great extent this view remains a stubborn inheritance that continues to exercise a strong influence on contemporary concepts and theories in many of the subfields of sociology today—there is a definite tinge of ethnocentrism looming over much of the project (which, incidentally, is only partially mitigated when we broaden the scope of study to generalizations about “advanced” or “industrial” society and bring in research on Europe and British overseas settler colonies).
The Chicago School was also very influential in the development of an overarching perspective on social problems. In the very early twentieth century, there was a strong tendency to see various social ills as the result of personal, individual, and group weaknesses—so things like crime and poverty were viewed as the result of social pathology and even biological deficiencies. But the urban ecologists pointed to another source: social disorganization. They assumed that a well-functioning society (or city or neighborhood or family) is integrated and operates smoothly like a healthy organism or a well-oiled machine. But sometimes various “external shocks” (such as migration, technological or demographic changes, cultural or religious conflicts) cause people or groups of people to no longer “fit in.” A foundational work on this idea at Chicago was the classic study by William Thomas and Florian Znaniecki (1918) on Polish peasants that pointed toward the lack of “acculturation” of migrants in U.S. cities as a major problem leading to various dysfunctions. Park and colleagues (1925) highlighted city growth as a process of “succession” (à la plant communities) that inevitably involves disorganization, competition, and reorganization; their student Louis Wirth (1938) argued that “urbanism as a way of life” is characterized by a loosening of various societal and cultural bonds that lead, on the one hand, to more individual “freedom,” but on the other, to social disorganization and potential “deviance.” The ideas were applied widely in studies of crime, poverty, and addiction, and seen as a ready explanation for all sorts of ills in cities and rapidly changing modern society.
This idea of social disorganization was, indeed, sociological and arguably a major advance from a social pathology approach that focused on individual deficiencies. But it was a very “functionalist” perspective. Of course, Parsonian functionalism reigned supreme in sociology for a long time: it was still required reading for PhD students in the late 1970s, but by then it was under assault. Probably the first iconic (and somewhat romantic) figure in this battle was C. W. Mills, whose book, The Sociological Imagination (1959), is an eloquent and influential argument for a social structural approach that was grounded in what would later be labeled in social problems texts as “political economy.” (And, yes, Mills even wrote of the importance of seeing people, groups, and societies caught up in global forces.) A more direct attack on the social disorganization perspective on social problems was William Ryan’s 1976 book, Blaming the Victim. His work took on various “culture of poverty”/“subcultural deviance” approaches, noting that they “other” the disadvantaged in society and place the onus for their own problems on the shoulders of the marginalized. The same year, S. M. Miller’s (1976) SSSP Presidential Address provided an elegant and remarkably succinct argument that “social problems should be viewed in the broad context of political economy” rather than through either a “personalistic” or “labeling” perspective.
Three or four years later, as a doctoral student, I was asked to teach an “Introduction to Social Problems” course at the University of North Carolina. My interests by then were on world-system analysis and comparative urbanization and development—motivated by concerns about deep levels of worldwide poverty and inequality. So I was surprised to find that many of the existing textbooks were totally focused on “American social problems.” To offer a “comparative” angle in class required adding “supplementary readings” to augment these texts (and, indeed, many “social problems” courses remain totally U.S. centric even today). Indeed, as a student and later a junior faculty member I did not belong to SSSP, nor regularly read Social Problems, assuming that both were very focused on the United States and “domestic” issues; I am not sure that I was wrong.
SOCIETY IS NOT THE RIGHT UNIT OF ANALYSIS
So far I have said almost nothing about global processes or globalization, my own research interests notwithstanding. My research still fits squarely within the political economy of the world-system (PEWS), with research on global city networks, international trade and development, “outsourcing” and global commodity chains, and transnational communities. Today the Global Division of SSSP, which I worked to establish, is a large, growing, and very vibrant part of the organization, scheduling many sessions and including many papers in our conference programs. But no one expects that all, or even a significant portion of, sociologists or society members will become specialists in global/comparative scholarship: indeed, the need to “globalize social problems” is only tangentially linked to broadening our empirical purview to study “other” peoples and societies. There is no global “evangelism” at work here: I am not trying to convince specialists in other areas to become like me!
Nevertheless, the stylized history just presented does suggest that twentieth-century sociology and, perhaps even the SSSP particularly, were very focused on U.S. issues, dynamics, and problems. And there has been a great faith that “American” scholarship on poverty, class, race, gender, family, crime, and so on, could all be studied as “the sociology of … ” with American Sociological Association (ASA) sections and SSSP divisions devoted to these specializations.
When I was in graduate school (late 1970s/early 1980s) there was a “pivot” toward comparative/ historical/global sociology. The early precursor to this was the aforementioned Mills, who not only touted the impact of social structure but also the way in which it is a product of historical change, as well as suggested we need to take an “anthropological” view that sees our U.S. way of organizing social life as but one in an arc of possibilities. This nascent “comparative/historical turn” came into full bloom in the late 1960s and 70s: among the active contributors were Barrington Moore, Charles Tilly, Theda Skocpol, Jeffery Paige, Andre Gunder Frank, and Immanuel Wallerstein. While Mills was a “radical” in his own era, he was no “Marxist”—but by this time it actually was becoming acceptable to discuss Marxism.
But one thing that still tended to characterize most comparative studies of social change, ironically, was the older paradigm in sociology that insisted that the “unit of analysis” was “society.” Indeed, this was, in part, passed down from the classical social theorists (Émile Durkheim and Max Weber, but, yes, also Karl Marx) who were fixated on society (and, in fact, there were sometimes explicit arguments that what differentiated sociologists from other social science disciplines was our focus on “society”). Various forms of Marxist analysis in the first half of the twentieth century—which were explicitly not part of the sociological field—attempted to unravel the underlying dynamics of capitalism as they evolved within particular societies (asking questions like whether a particular European or Latin American country was “ready” for a “bourgeois revolution” based on the development of the “national forces of production”). Within sociology (and indeed, across the social sciences) the reigning approach to comparative social change was “modernization theory.” Multiple “variants” of this approach posited somewhat different prime movers of change: Based on the hegemonic Parsonian framework, “culture change” was perhaps most popular.3 Some modernization scholars focused on technological change, others on abstractions such as the organizational complexity embodied in societal divisions of labor, another group on diffusion of “the Protestant Ethic” or its moral equivalent.
To understand this, we need to think about the historical context: It was the post-World War II era and a time of growing geopolitical “Cold War” between the United States/the West and the USSR/Eastern Bloc. After 1945, big changes were afoot, including the decolonization of large swathes of Africa, Latin America, and Asia. The U.S. government was interested in “winning” the Cold War, and one surefire way was believed to be through promoting economic growth and development in poorer countries: If people in those places saw the benefits of growth they could be “inoculated” against going over to “the Red Menace” of communism. At this point, U.S.-based social research into distant poor places was funded by government agencies (fairly generously). Like most U.S. residents, social scientists had little knowledge of these foreign regions (and, in fact, in many of our disciplines we still hold a certain disdain for people who are “only” area specialists, presumably because they are not nomothetic enough). So, how does one try to understand culture change and economic development? We need some sort of conceptual framework, and the logical way to develop one is to look at the so-called “successful” cases of development, which just happened to be places like the United States and other “advanced” Western societies. Thus, the rather historical/descriptive “theory” of modernization that emerged was one that basically tracked on Western experience with the assumption that there was a continuum from “traditional” to “modern”: The key was to move the needle in poorer parts of the world closer to the “modern” end.
There are many ways to criticize this view, which are very obvious to us now (see Portes 1976 for a relatively early critique). Clearly there is no unified “traditional” culture, and there is little reason to think of all the various forms of social change as being arrayed along a continuum. But an even more basic critique questions the assumption of society as the unit of analysis. Although the idea sounded right and resonated with mainstream views in sociology, on closer examination it was manifestly wrong, and imposed artificial blinders on attempts to understand the genuine dynamics of change, particularly in poor regions of the world.
It would be possible to go on a long discursus here on dependency theory and the rise of world-system analysis—suffice it to say that Immanuel Wallerstein’s essays and his magnus opus, The Modern World-System, (four volumes so far), contributed to a rather thorough paradigm shattering! The big insight was not only that the world is interconnected and integrated in various ways in the twentieth or twenty-first century, but that it has been for centuries, and, in fact, the timing and organizational forms of colonialism were critically important in shaping the history of the various societies now in existence. Of course, this was most obvious in places like Africa and Latin America, which bore the brunt of a brutal colonial extractive system (grounded not only the long-distance trade of raw materials but also in the massive trans-shipment of human beings in bondage, in genocidal impulses in resource and agricultural frontiers, etc.). But gradually it also became clear that much of the accumulated wealth of the “advanced” former colonizers also must be contextualized in massive, historical, global “unequal exchanges” (which called into question those fabulous stories about the key role of exceptionalist “cultures” responsible for the rise of British or American entrepreneurialism and societal “industrialization”).
Today, of course, globalization is obvious to us all. But, as a longtime sociology journal editor and faculty member in attendance at many national meetings in our discipline, my casual observation is that the societal focus remains very pervasive, particularly in areas not obviously global or comparative. The default assumption in the vast majority of sociological analysis today is that most topics can be studied without any global (or sometimes without any national or other macro) contextualization. Maybe. But isn’t that potentially leaving something out? Indeed, even within contemporary global sociology itself there seems to be a tendency to commit the fallacy of taking society as the key unit of analysis. Today there is a rising popularity of arguments about “cultural diffusion” as the driving force for societal changes around the world (the argument generally is that “Western” ideas start in places like the United States or Europe and gradually diffuse to poor and “less developed countries”). Unfortunately, some of the proponents of this sort of approach seem to have forgotten many of the lessons of the critique of modernization theory.
But to focus on the big takeaway: The idea that society is the key “unit of analysis” hasn’t led to a good understanding of actual social conditions for the vast majority of people on this planet for a very long time. Many of us who do macro-analysis, development studies, and global/transnational sociology are well aware of this and know we must account for the global context. However, significant areas of sociology (and also analysis of contemporary social problems) tend to unwittingly ignore the global dimension and to replicate the “mistake” of studying smaller units, like societies, as total systems; even minimal attention to the global context could provide added leverage to understand many issues in various subfields.
While the classical theorists and most of the sociological giants of the twentieth century focused on society as the key unit of analysis, it is very hard to make that argument in today’s world of instantaneous worldwide communication and economic arbitrage, vast and encompassing transportation systems that move people, products, and material at ever more rapid velocities to the far-flung corners of the Earth, and an international economic and political system that is becoming thoroughly integrated in terms of trade, investment, and governance. Worldwide events and processes that may seem “distant”—such as trade, terrorism, or climate change—impact everyday lives around the planet (including our own and those of our families and students). The global level is not only the most encompassing, but in many cases the most meaningful starting point for sociological analysis (ignoring it can mean “missing” that context, which, in some cases, can simply mean that ultimately we will “get it wrong!”).
MARX WAS RIGHT
Marxism and Marxist ideas are still eyed with some suspicion in “polite society” and mainstream U.S. sociology, and, of course, dismissed by “serious people” in the punditocracy. Most of us have heard the famous factoid that even Marx himself once proclaimed that “I am not a Marxist.” But it turns out from our vantage point in the early twenty-first century, on a basic level Marx was right!
Let me be clear: I am not advocating for particular neo-Marxist approaches. Indeed, the arcane debates of various Marxist “schools” over the past century probably led to the sorts of theoretical cosmic black holes, allowing no light to escape to illuminate the real world, that darkly envelop some other enormous abstract edifices in academia (“post-modernism” comes to mind). Among my sociological colleagues who self-identify as Marxists there is still a tendency to quibble over theoretical purity and moral rectitude, sometimes in very abstract, hairsplitting, narrowly sectarian (but nevertheless rather nasty) public disputes. Much of this is clearly counterproductive and ultimately deflects attention from the real-life empirical questions about social problems, inequality, and ecological destruction in today’s world.
But Marx did identify the “elephant in the room”—capitalism—although, he himself couldn’t have imagined the sort of global capitalism we have today. But the profit-making logic that defines our twenty-first century corporate- and finance-dominated economy (which is now thoroughly global) is the deep underlying factor in the contemporary world beset by pervasive inequality, violence, and ecological calamity. To avoid an apocalyptic future, we need to understand that (and sociologists are well-positioned to lead the way).
We live in a world of burgeoning inequality and increasing economic uncertainty and “precariousness” for masses of people all over the world. In the past few years, an idea popularized by the global “occupy movement” that emerged in 2011 (see MacPherson and Smith 2013; Terjerina et al. 2013) became widely acknowledged: Political and economic power are tightly controlled by an increasingly disconnected plutocracy comprised of the top 1 percent (which more accurately is really the .1 percent, .01 percent, or even some smaller fraction). The masses of humanity around the world, on the other hand, face stagnant or even declining living standards, are confronted with chronic under- or un-employment, and an increasingly large proportion have fallen into an extremely tenuous global “precariat” (Standing 2011). In the broadest sense we live on a “planet of slums” (Davis 2006) where a huge chunk of all humanity lives in absolute poverty in barrios and favelas of megacities or poor countries, and the notion of a “job” in the sense we take for granted is a fantasy. Indeed, even in rich nations, inequality and the eroding position of formerly middle-class citizens leads to extreme frustration, anger, and the rise of reactionary nationalism and other forms of political extremism. The neoliberal global capitalism increasingly dominating not only the United States, but the world as well, is characterized by “market fundamentalism” (Block and Somers 2014), systematic deregulation and erosion of welfare states (Harvey 2007), corporate liberalism verging on political plutocracy (Freeland 2012), and a global “financialization” (Tabb 2010) that has been characterized “casino capitalism” (Strange 1986), generating rampant inequalities (Lin and Tomasovic-Devey 2013; Sassen 2014). While it would be foolish to argue that “capitalism explains everything,” each of the other globalizing forces discussed below can be linked to this underlying (or overarching) reality of the contemporary world.
WHAT ABOUT TECHNOLOGY?
One of my beloved mentors during my doctoral study days in Chapel Hill was Gerhard Lenski.4 A well-known scholar at the time, Lenski was the author of major books, probably the most famous, Power and Privilege: A Theory of Social Stratification (1966), which took an expansive comparative/historical view on “who gets what and why.” Arguably, his most influential impact came about through his textbook, Human Societies: A Macro-Level Introduction to Sociology (1970), which was a mainstay of many introductory sociology classes. The central argument in his “eco-evolutionary theory” was that the changing technological basis of material life during the long sweep of history (epochal shifts from hunting and gathering to horticulture to full-blown agriculture to changing forms of industrial societies) altered the way many aspects of social life are organized (including social inequality, demography, family structure, and even things like religion and ideology). Although this framework was explicitly not Marxist it was very materially grounded (no vague Parsonian ideas about modernizing “culture” as the prime motor of change). This was a “broad stroke” view (the stages were rather non-specific) and, while Lenski vigorously argued he was not a “technological determinist,” there were times when this approach seemed to verge on that (see Nolan and Lenski 1985). But something about viewing technological change as a part of today’s underlying global condition seems right and very important! After all, we live in an era in which humans all over the world are inextricably bound to various devices, with an obvious impact on everyday life everywhere. And, thus, technology is another factor that must be incorporated into sociological analysis.
One immediate issue here is the way we understand technological change. Does it just “develop” or “unfold” or “reveal itself” as a sort of evolutionary process? Should it be viewed as an “external” force that compels people and societies to reorganize? Or do we need to carefully consider how technological change and its cascading effects are linked to other social dynamics, including the machinations of the socially, economically, and politically powerful?
Obviously, technology/technological change is crucially important, but it is not just an immanent force; instead it develops as part of the political economy of societies, as a social product, and in the early twenty-first-century world, is linked to global capitalist dynamics. A quick synopsis of two book-length arguments by an overlooked twentieth-century labor historian makes this case. In his America by Design (1977), David Noble examined a critical period in the development of the United States into an industrial powerhouse (the late nineteenth/early twentieth century) and described how the emergence of modern engineering guided the application of science to processes of innovation and technological change. Noble concluded that when the way new knowledge is developed and new technologies are embedded in products, machinery and infrastructure is quite deliberately channeled toward corporate profitability. In a later book, The Forces of Production: A Social History of Industrial Automation (1984), Noble focused more specifically on the development of automation in factories (particularly computer-based “numerical control” of machine tools) as a very consciously designed and implemented strategy by large U.S. corporations (such as General Electric) to replace skilled workers and reduce labor costs.
This all may seem slightly obscure—and Noble’s work was criticized by leading management scholars (see, for instance, Chandler 1978). But in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century a major trend was the application of computer-assisted design to almost everything, from everyday consumer products to trains, planes, and automobiles, to bridges and national and global communications webs. The result was unprecedented economic growth and profits for large firms, coupled with systematic job loss for workers. This trend contributed to the “deindustrialization” of the United States (Bluestone and Harrison 1982) and to the “lean and mean” reorganization of work into more “flexible” production (Harrison 1994). Recently, Randall Collins (2013) argued that the rise of artificial intelligence and the pervasiveness of robotics in production processes, in fact, may lead to a final crisis of capitalism itself, noting that today these technological developments undermine the need not only for factory workers but also many white collar/administrative employees: “The real threat of the future is not some Frankensteinian revolt of the robots, but the last stage of technological displacement of labor on behalf of a tiny capitalist class of robot owners” (p. 68). Not a happy thought! And even if this vision is too apocalyptic, there are other ways that technology, including the latest technology embedded in various commodities, deserves more attention from sociologists and students of social problems. The impact is far-reaching and in some areas of social life, insidious.
For those of us who study broad issues in development and social change, the wherewithal of rich nations and giant transnational corporations to conduct research and development (R & D) (and to control the resulting intellectual property) is a driving force in global inequality. But we also know that the unprecedented rapidity of technological change in a variety of spheres, particularly in transportation and communication, has vastly increased the “time/space compression” in today’s world (Arrighi and Silver 1999; Harvey 1989). The incessantly increased flows and volumes of information and our ability to transport people and things to all corners of the earth are changing many social dynamics in the twenty-first century—and, if anything, the pace of that change is speeding up. The way cell phones impact personal interactions, the reality of presidential candidates whose idea of politics is sending out 140 character tweets, the rapidly shrinking attention spans of our children or students staring into their devices—all are illustrative and telling. On the other hand, technology has opened up many potentialities, too: the spotlight that a group like the black lives matter (BLM) movement has shone on the value of ubiquitous cell phone cameras to record events that previously may have been ignored (allowing authorities to “get away with” abusive behavior), the usefulness of social media in organizing a range of social movements, the ability of poor people in areas of Africa with poor infrastructure to have access to modern banking and finance (Maurer 2015) (okay, that might be a “mixed blessing”!), and so on.
RACE, GENDER, AND OTHER “OTHERS”
Inequality and discrimination based on race, gender, sexual identification, disabilities, as well as the various forms of intersectionality between these dimensions of difference/oppression is a major focus of many scholars of social problems today, including feminists, critical race theorists, scholars of ableism/disability, and others. Sociology and the SSSP are very diverse and scholars in these areas have made major strides in recent decades to understand key dynamics of these inequalities and how they overlap and reinforce each other. Perhaps more than many other subfields in our discipline, this work has “raised consciousness” and literally changed the world (examples might be major changes in law and public opinion that challenge institutional racism/sexism and increased tolerance for the LBGTQ community across broad swathes of the world—though, of course, these battles are hardly definitively “won”).
I don’t presume to know as much as my esteemed colleagues who study these issues, but recognize their contributions. For instance, feminist scholars are making major additions to our knowledge of how the capitalist world-economy works—and the important way it incorporates women as workers and consumers into the fabrics of global inequality. Pathbreaking work in the 1980s illustrated how exploited female labor was integral to the rise of outsourcing into a “global assembly line” (Fuentes and Ehrenreich 1983; Ward 1990) and how the globalization of care work via women migrants to rich countries was leading to an “international division of reproductive labor” (Parrenas 2001). More recently, feminist sociologists are helping expose the way in which corporate globalization subverts arguments for women’s autonomy in order to promote women’s exploitation as workers (Desai 2007) and consumers (Braun and Traore 2015) in underdeveloped countries, while simultaneously undermining the actual power of poor women in those societies; Christine Bose (2011, 2015) empirically demonstrates the transnational sources of gender inequality and the pervasive regional dimension of this global phenomenon. Critical race theorists, students of comparative ethnic dynamics, and scholars of LGBTQ inequities and disability studies are all also important voices in any discussion of global inequality. There is no doubt, as eminent sociologist Göran Therborn argued in his recent, Killing Fields of Inequality (2013), that race, gender, ethnicity, disabilities, and sexual identities are imbued with “existential inequality, the unequal allocation of personhood, i.e., of autonomy, dignity, and degrees of freedom, and of rights to respect and self-development” (p. 49) that are intrinsic realities in and of themselves, and not totally reducible to any single factor like capitalist exploitation.
But I do think that my effort to globalize social problems may provide some insight even here. Part of the logic of inequality and oppression (both in the United States and around the world) is not only discrimination and vilification, but also “exclusion.” Who is “in?” Who is “out?” Race, gender, ethnicity, disabilities, and sexual identities become powerful mechanisms to determine who will be excluded—or even “expelled”: consider the forced migration of hundreds of millions of political and economic refugees in today’s world (the recent European migrant crisis) or the rise of the massive and ever growing precariat all around the globe.
While these ideas are au courant, a SSSP theme from some years ago was rather prescient: In 1999, Evelyn Glenn’s conference theme was “Citizenship in an Era of Globalization,” and much of her presidential address focused on how the history of legal citizenship systematically excluded (then gradually began to include) women, migrants, and racial minorities, arguing that in the past there was a “deep and common desire to exclude and reject large groups of human beings” (2000:1). She contended that globalization might unleash the great “’emancipatory potential’ of universal citizenship” in our country (2000:2). Despite noting that exclusionary citizenship “is in the interest of big capital and its minions,” Glenn’s essay is quite upbeat and optimistic, linking rising interest in universal human rights and transnational social activism (the massive anti-World Trade Organication [WTO] protest in Seattle seemed to have successfully challenged global neoliberalism months before she delivered her presidential address). But she did note, ominously, that “(t)he 1990s have also seen a resurgence of nativism” (p. 5)—a phenomenon on metaphorical steroids during our own times (not only in the United States but, indeed, even in putatively more enlightened Europe).
Saskia Sassen, in her recent work, Explusions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy (2014), claimed that while older forms of global capitalism were tightly tied to incorporation and exploitation of more of the Earth’s people, lands, and resources, the impetus for contemporary neoliberal economic growth seems to be increasingly dependent on expelling people from any connection to the economic system. So today we are seeing patterns like “the rise of displaced populations in the Global South and the rising rates of incarceration in the Global North … (this new phase) is marked by expulsions—from life projects and livelihoods, from membership, from the social contract at the center of liberal democracy” (Sassen 2014:29). This process (poignantly illustrated by the aforementioned migration crisis in Europe today) plays off of various worldwide “existential inequalities,” with the powerful mechanisms of “the savage sorting” Sassen identifies. British labor economist Guy Standing, in his book, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class (2011), depicted the global emergence of a large and growing group of extremely economically insecure people floating in and out of work and the labor market. Disproportionally impacted categories include women, racial minorities, undocumented migrants, prisoners, disabled persons, and young people—all groups whose work (and perhaps their very being) is systematically marginalized, devalued, and degraded. William Robinson (2014) goes even further. He holds that the current state of global capitalism not only is based on exclusion of a vast “surplus” population (including those in a growing worldwide prison system, and those denizens of the “planet of slums”), but also a system of militarized accumulation, a panoptical surveillance society, and globalized policing. The racial, religious, ethnic, and global process of sifting and sorting almost surely influences our definition of personal value and dignity—and which groups and categories should receive it—here in the United States and other advanced democracies. Again, this phenomenon is global, systematic, and linked to the world’s dominant economic powers and structures.
If this all seems very harsh, stark, and nihilistic, there is also a less dramatic version of relative exclusion. In development sociology over the decades, a research subfield focused on the “informal sector” and the “informalization” of work, historically, in the poor megacities of the “Third World” (Portes 1984) but also analogous to the “underground economy” worldwide, even in the United States (see Portes and Sassen-Koob 1987). Part of the wider dynamic of today’s socioeconomic polarization is a growing number of informal workers, not only “over there,” but also right here, whose status involves various levels of informality—our own Uber and Lyft drivers may fit in this category. Scholarship on the “share economy” or “gig economy” is in its infancy, but already it is becoming clear that this unregulated work sphere is plagued by various types of discrimination on the basis of race, gender and other factors (see Greg Harman’s 2014 article in The Guardian or Dean Baker’s 2015 congressional testimony for overviews). Evidence indicates that not only are “sellers” often members of marginalized groups, but there is also pervasive discrimination against women, racial/ethnic people/neighborhoods, and other excluded groups mentioned above as consumers/customers. Empirical examples include rideshare services in which “drivers with disabilities get deactivitated,” people refused rides from “drivers whose appearances they didn’t like,” and drivers who refused to pick up disabled people (Harman 2014). That same article notes similar problems with Airbnb and other informal room-renting services. In all these cases, legal protections against discrimination that apply to regular taxis, hotels, and landlords are non-operative. These may seem like small, local indignities, but to reiterate, this is another manifestation of global neoliberalism and the worldwide precariat. Making that link provides invaluable context.
IT’S THE ENVIRONMENT, STUPID!
In her book Explusions (2014), Sassen also devoted considerable space to the role that “dead land, dead water” plays in the contemporary global economy. Similarly, Robinson (2014) grimly noted that worldwide capitalism is now pushing at the ecological limits of reproduction, evoking the threat of mass human extinction as a potential result. For these authors—and for John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York in The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Planet Earth (2010) or Jason Moore in Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital (2015)—the appropriation of “cheap nature” has been a key mechanism for corporate profitability. Sassen (2014) offered example after example of specific cases of extreme ecological destruction in the service of profitability, equating the “‘liberated profit seeking’ of the recent global neoliberal era with extreme ‘indifference to the environment’” (as “disposable” as the expelled humanity discussed above). Numerous quantitative studies also show the relationship between various forms of investment and global economic integration and ecological degradation (cf. Jorgenson, 2003, 2006; Jorgenson and Clark 2009, 2012). It is undeniable that the present worldwide ecological crisis of the “Anthropocene” is inimically linked to the contradictions of global capitalism and embedded in the dynamics already discussed throughout this essay. To undo or even mitigate this destruction, which threatens the extinction of our species, if not all life on the planet, we must begin to direct a great deal of analysis at environmental issues.
It is true, of course, that in the past few decades “environmental sociology” has emerged and is a growing, dynamic area of scholarship, research, and teaching. Excellent! But is it enough to designate a disciplinary specialization that constitutes exactly half of one section of the ASA or one division of SSSP (identically labeled as “Environment and Technology” in both)? Does that absolve the rest of us from beginning to take some responsibility for understanding the global web of life and how to preserve it? Indeed, I think it is imperative that we begin to build that focus into our own analysis of whatever sociological topic we study. The potential impending end to life on earth and the threatened extinction of our species probably deserve some attention from all of us as scholars via both our teaching and our research.
IS IT ALL JUST “GLOBALONEY”?
Globalization means a lot of different things to different people. It can be simply an argument about more international contact between people via travel, communication, and trade.5 Some pundits now argue that “the world is flat” (Friedmann 2005) and, thus, national borders and nation states are increasingly irrelevant. It’s also popular to claim that we now share an increasingly globalized culture (Barber 1996; Ritzer 1993), with debates about whether there is a push toward homogenization or hybridization (Pieterse 1994) devolving into discussions about whether people around the world follow the same rock idols or sports superstars, or about the similarities and differences in fast food menus from continent to continent (Steger 2013).
There is, undoubtedly, a focus among some sociologists on various forms of transnationalism, whether nation states are losing some degree of sovereignty in a globalized system, and in the diffusion of Western or cosmopolitan culture around the entire globe and the implications for consumerism and worldwide markets. These are not intrinsically uninteresting issues, nor are topics that animate the scholars who are part of our own SSSP Global Division, or the ASA sections on the Political Economy of the World-System, or the Sociology of Development or Global and Transnational Sociology. But, like any subfield or subspecialty, global scholars’ studies can be very specialized and esoteric, perhaps on topics that would fail to deeply engage our sociological colleagues.
But my approach in this essay is not to win converts for my genera of research, but to provide a focused set of conceptual ideas for thinking about today’s globalizing social problems (leaving issues related to global studies aside). Starting with a stylized history of the SSSP and how social problems were framed in the United States, I first reaffirmed the goals of the society’s founders (a critical sociology in the service of social justice and as an approach that is open to new challenges as new issues and conditions arise). A strong emphasis on the problems of “American society” was eminently sensible at our beginnings, but consistent with other sociological thought in the twentieth century, it led to a certain conceit about how general our theories could be when the research vision was rather parochial. There was little comparative, much less global, focus in those days, and there was a strong assumption that society was the key unit of analysis (or, at least, the most macro level that needed to be considered). But the world-system perspective that emerged in the last two or three decades of the twentieth century debunked that approach and insisted that nations, countries, and societies were part of larger overarching global systems. Furthermore, the central organizing principle of that worldwide system is global capitalism, in which large corporate entities with disproportionate power following the logic of profit making have disproportionate power to create a world of great wealth, technological wonders, an amazing global transportation and communication infrastructure, and a vibrant multifaceted global culture, but also one facing pervasive human and societal inequalities, vast new mechanisms and institutions of violence, and the threat of planetary ecological calamity. Technology, science, and innovation grow out of this political-economic system, which is increasing global and globalizing, and is a factor that most sociological research and pedagogy must consider carefully today, in ways that we might not have done before. Race, gender, ethnicity, disabilities, and sexual identities are all often seen as very local or societal, but the age-old dialectic about “who’s in” and “who’s out” in terms of citizenship and other legal protections is not only critical for the “othering” of these groups, it can serve a systemic purpose in the global political economy (with the current global migration crisis driving this reality home). Finally, the contemporary globalized political economy, or if you prefer, global capitalism, is also a key driver of ecological destruction spreading throughout the biosphere, and although “environmental sociologists” specialize in this area, this grave issue is something all of us should consider in our teaching, research, and our daily lives. Not only are ecological issues and constraints increasingly impinging on other social dynamics, but this “social problem” is possibly an existential one not just for the SSSP and sociology, and not even for just humanity, but (not to be too dramatic!) for life on earth.
Many thanks to several esteemed colleagues who provided valuable commentary and critique—often at rather short notice—on earlier drafts: Robert Macpherson, David J. Maume, Pamela A. Roby, Pamela A. Quiroz, Michael F. Timberlake, Steven C. Topik, Dorothy J. Solinger, and Judy Stepan-Norris. I am particularly appreciative of Laura A. Long, who is a professional academic editor and my partner in marriage, for her very careful line-by-line editing. She improved the essay considerably—doubtlessly, it would have been even better had I taken all of her advice.