Conceptualizing Social Transformations: 
Lessons From Eastern Europe
Balkans'21 - volume 1 / 2002
       The future of social sciences greatly depends on the ability of researchers to detect, as Max Weber did, profound changes in the ‘spirit of time’. In the midst of the turmoil after the First World War he warned scientists that the certainty of unifying ideologies was lost. 
    The many small gods of everyday preferences have grasped the opportunity to wage their devastating wars. All-pervading conflicts and disenchantment have become the norm in a situation of uncertainty and rapid change (Weber, 1992 [1919]: 101).
      With many variations from country to country and from year to year, the situation in Eastern Europe during the nineties has been comparable to this picture. The dust of political rallies of excited millions settled fast. The millions tasted the fruits of the promised land. Mixed feelings accompany the new experience. The freedom of speech, organization and travel is a civilizational achievement together with the abundance of goods on the market. Mass unemployment and the loss of life chances by large segments of Eastern European societies is the other side of the coin. 
     What can social scientists learn from this sobering experience? Most of all, they have to adjust their concepts and methodology to a reality in flux. In some national cases the change has reached the phase of institutional and value-normative stabilization. In others the wave of rapid social innovations continues. Most societies in the region are still plagued by disparities between aspirations and need-satisfaction, knowledge and practical action, change and order. Because of their instability and the high level of uncertainty they can still be properly labeled risk societies.
     In conditions like these social sciences cannot escape the fate of being at risk themselves. Their cognitive capacities and practical relevance are put on a severe test in an environment which does not pay too much attention to science. What is most at stake is the integrity of knowledge about social dynamics. There are various ways to react to the extraordinary situation. The promising one is to turn the challenge into opportunity by strengthening the reflexivity of social science theorizing and research. Referring to the experience from the UNESCO-MOST Project Personal and Institutional Strategies for Coping with Transformation risks in Central and Eastern Europe [1], we shall try to accomplish this task in order to highlight both the social and the intellectual context of the studies on the Eastern European societal transformation.
1. Social Dynamics and Intellectual Paradigms
     The Eastern European experience is unique but it is just a special case of the worldwide social change of everyday life and deep social structures. The high speed of globalization puts its imprint on all social interactions. The overall trend of individualization cuts across social systems, functions and processes. Together with the increase of social complexity due to the ongoing differentiation and integration, social dynamics puts well-established patterns of hierarchic government on trial. The high complexity of processes brought about by actors with diverging interests comes to the forefront. The efforts to cope with social complexity by means of polyarchic frameworks involve state institutions and business organizations, political parties and voluntary associations and social movements fostering social innovations. Their guiding idea is the improvement of knowledge and management (governance) of social dynamics  (Albrow, 1996; Beck, 1997; Castells, 1999; Genov, 1999). 
Therefore, the changes in social reality constitute the major reason why the uniting core of theoretical advancement in social sciences today is the issue of social dynamics. More precisely, there is a burning need to theoretically clarify sources, processes and results of social development. The task is to elaborate on a reformed evolutionism taking into account continuity and radical change in social reality, the trends of global development together with the permanent innovations at the level of micro-social interactions.
A major reference point for solving the task is the concept of social structures and functions. However, today it is practically uncontested that there is no privileged concept of one social structure opening the paved way to explanations of social development. There is no concept of one social function offering enough explanatory space for the study of stability and development in social reality. A range of well-differentiated analytical concepts is needed in order to accumulate and systematically analyze empirical data, to draw generalizations, to substantiate explanatory hypotheses and carry out effective prognostic procedures. 
     In addition, the special attention paid by social scientists to globalization brought about a series of innovations in the study of social development: 
     First, globalization clearly involves a large variety of actors and structures having different paths and logic of change. Against this background, the traditional teleological understanding of social development understood as a progressive improvement of social relations and processes gives way to a neutral definition of qualitative social change. Nowadays it is pertinent to conceive it either as a substantial improvement of the adaptability of a social system to its environment or as a decline and dissolution of the system’s structures and functions. This re-definition of social development raises many questions as to the progressivist overtones of modernization theory. 
     Second, the major traditional point of reference of theorizing and research on social development is the concept of society. More specifically, it is the concept of society understood as a nation-state. The recent studies on globalization, regionalization and on their local manifestation in ‘glocalization’ revealed an extraordinary variety of microsocial causes and reasons of broader social processes and their consequences. That is why the trans-national and trans-cultural comparisons became so important. They are best adapted for research on achievements and contradictions of ‘glocalization’. 
     Third, as a result of the debates on the state and perspectives of global environment the concept of sustainable development came to intellectual fashion. Currently it is more and more getting social content and relevance. This effect comes about from the study of social relations and processes, which foster or hinder sustainability.
     How could social sciences successfully cope with the tremendous challenge of this social and intellectual development? The search for answer to this question will focus on the convergence and divergence in the efforts of social scientists to cope with the complex and complicated contemporary social development. 
2. The Issue of Global Trends 
     Neither mainstream sociology in Western Europe and North America nor the national sociological traditions in Eastern Europe possessed in the eighties elaborated concepts suitable for predicting the radical move from state socialist institutional arrangements to what had to become a post-state-socialist social order. The conceptual vacuum was immediately filled in after 1989 by the fuzzy idea of transition. In fact, it seemed to be productive since Eastern European societies undoubtedly had to move from political over-centralization towards decentralized market economy and political pluralism. Moreover, it seemed that the transition could be fast and easy since it had to focus on the transfer of sophisticated and well-functioning institutional patterns from the West to Eastern Europe. The warnings that the envisaged rationalization cannot be as smooth were rare exceptions (Genov, 1991). In fact, the tensions and conflicts, which appeared later on the surface, were in-built in the very logic of the rationalization process. At the end of the eighties the societies in Eastern Europe have reached the point of an intensive structural and cultural imbalance in the relations between individual and collective, instrumental and autonomous, long-term and short-term social rationality. It was objectively impossible to reestablish the balance soon, easily and at a low social cost. 
     Moreover, Eastern Europeans had to learn that there were numerous variants of market economy and political democracy which could not be transferred from the West to Eastern Europe without local adaptations. They turned out to be substantial, painful and time consuming. Complicated issues to be resolved concerned for instance the sequence of reforms, the relations between ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ changes and the role of civil society and the state in the process (Morawski, 1996). Another crucial reason for the difficulties was connected with the fact that institutional patterns in Western Europe and North America were also experiencing the pressure to adjust to profound changes due to the accelerated globalization. Thus, Eastern European societies found themselves under the double pressure of the catching-up rationalization following already established institutional patterns and the innovative adjustment to the new challenges of globalization. The latter task had to be resolved in Eastern Europe together with similar processes in the most advanced societies (Sz?ll and Ehlert, 2001). 
     Given the historical circumstances, it was too easy to explain the unexpected troubles of the transition of Eastern European societies towards market economy and democratic politics just by referring to civilizational deficiencies. The problem was by far more complex and was reflected in the multidimensional concept of societal transformation under the impact of global social trends (Genov, 2000). After various elaborations, the major trends in question could be reduced to four which penetrate all present-day societies, albeit to a different extent and with different intensity. The channels of their penetration include the global transfer of technology, worldwide commercial and financial transactions, transnational political processes and the diffusion of cultural patterns by means of telecommunications. Individual and collective actors may refer to these trends explicitly or not. Even when unaware of them, actors contribute to their diffusion  (Genov, 1997).
     First, this holds true for the spread of ideas and institutional configurations of instrumental activism. The key point of the process is the concentration on instrumental values and behavioral patterns which make out the core of modern industrialism, or, broadly seen, of the Western type of Weltbeherrschung (domination of the world) in Max Weber's terminology (Weber, 1988 [1919]: 1f.). After Weber it is taken for granted that, once Weltbeherrschung has been defined as the major goal, the instruments of activity have become the major issue. In fact, instrumental value-normative orientations are a vital moving force of modern production and economic exchange. They animate competitive political systems as well as the culture of entrepreneurship and responsibility. They dominate the life-world in advanced societies and make out the central part of their ‘secularized religion’. Following this pattern of value-normative orientation and institutional arrangements, the West was able to secure its domination on the rest of the world. That is why the moving forces and the effects of instrumental activism are in the center of problems, which invigorate and yet plague the modern civilization. These problems are well documented in the discussion on the vaguely defined but existentially relevant vision of sustainable development. It is now practically taken for granted that sustainable development is not possible in the context of deepening economic and social disparities. Thus, the crucial cognitive, normative and practical issue concerns the possibility to reach and maintain a ‘win-win’ situation for both instrumental activism and sustainable development. 
     Second, another powerful global trend contains the evolution and diffusion of the modern patterns of individualzation.  It makes itself manifest in the widening of the pool of options for individual development and realization as well as in the increase of personal capacities to make decisions adequate to the situation. In the advanced industrial societies, innovations in market economy, competitive politics and in pluralist culture made individualization the major feature of social development taking the form of institutionalized individualism as Talcott Parsons called it (Parsons, 1978: 321). The trend is complex and controversial. The growing autonomy of individuals has anomic implications leading to disorientation and deviance coupled with organizational pathologies. Nevertheless, individualization is a blessing for millions despite the uncertainty and the responsibilities it shifts onto the shoulders of individuals. There are numerous specifics concerning the extent and the forms in which this applies to the social development in Eastern Europe.
     Third, another global trend, which guides developments in Eastern Europe is the upgrading of organizational rationality. It concerns the timely and sufficient differentiation of social structures and functions. Another characteristic of the trend is the strengthening of social integration. Both tasks are being mainly resolved in modern societies by formal organizations. Western-type organizational bureaucracies are able to efficiently allocate resources in a way unattainable for traditional societies. However, bureaucracies tend to abuse resources for servicing their own apparatus first of all. In this way, they close themselves to changes in the organizational environment, blunt the ‘cutting edge’ of their creativity and power of innovation, and lose positions in the competitive world. This scenario might attain catastrophic features when the organization in question is the state. Pathological developments of this type might become rather costly for society. This is of crucial relevance for Eastern Europe since the democratization wave there is a historically important case of upgrading rationality of organizational structures and processes. The process has brought about massive dissatisfaction. Its causes and reasons invite for a careful examination. The issue deserving a special attention in this context is exactly the changing role of the state. Another key issue concerns the link of states with supranational processes of regional integration and globalization. 
      Fourth, during the last decades the global civilization has experienced an accelerated  universalization of value-normative systems. The trend is being intensively pushed forward by the electronic media. Its deeper causes and reasons are rooted in the spread of universal technological standards, in the globalization of economy, in global political interdependencies as well as in the globalization of culture and life styles. There is no doubt that the same technological problems handled by basically the same technologies cannot but produce and support similar cultural patterns of problem management. The universal trend of individualization brings about strikingly similar cultural effects worldwide. Universal patterns of upgrading organizational rationality come to stabilize and support the uniform technological rationality and the trend towards paradoxical homogenizing effects of individualization. Global cultural homogenization develops its own inertia. However, together with the increasing cultural universalization, the world is becoming culturally more and more diversified.  New ‘tribal’ affiliations, new religious or life-style identities really matter more in ideological and practical terms in affluent societies fostering individualization. Openings to the toleration of cultural and behavioral diversity go hand in hand with self-protective cultural closures of privileged or threatened groups. 
3. Societal Transformation and Risk
      Against the above background, the specific national cases of rapid social development in Eastern European during the nineties have at least one common feature. It is the transformation of all subsystems of these societies in order to adjust to global trends. On the analytical level, the concept of societal transformation understood in this way refers to the impact of global trends on key systemic characteristics of each society. This implies the attainment of a new quality of four parameters of the particular societal system at least. 
First, the productive infrastructure has to be transformed in order to bring about new technological chains and new patterns of participation in the international division of labor. In historically specific terms, this mainly means an adjustment to the requirements of global information technologies. Eastern European societies are rather underdeveloped in this respect as a rule (World Employment Report, 2001). 
      Second, new patterns of economic organization are evolving. The change typically concerns the ownership but also investments, production, distribution and supply. In the given context, the key issue of economic restructuring is the adjustment to the increasingly globalized markets. 
      Third, the distribution and use of political power takes qualitatively different forms from the ones regulating state socialism. This implies substantial changes in the structure and performance of state institutions, but also of other bodies of decision-making and control. The major direction of change is the establishment of a working division of powers and the involvement of civil society in well-coordinated governance.
[1] The project was coordinated by the present author during the period 1997-2001. Besides social scientists from Central Europe, the Baltic states and Russia, in various forms also colleagues from Southeastern Europe (Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania, Slovenia and Yugoslavia) actively participated in the implementation of the project. back
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