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Social trends and new geographies

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posted on 2023-06-09, 15:34 authored by Marcel Van der Linden, Elisa Reis, Massimo Livi Bacci, Stephen Castles, Raul Delgado-Wise, Naila Kabeer, K P Kannan, Ronaldo Munck, Adrienne Roberts, Johan Schot, Göran Therborn, Peter Wagner, Tim FoxonTim Foxon, Laur Kanger
This opening chapter sets the scene for subsequent more detailed analysis of many of the issues raised here. We start by discussing in Section 1 the tension in the current era between humanity’s simultaneously standing at “the peak of possibilities” while also, possibly, facing an abyss due to growing inequalities, political conflict and the ever-present danger of climate catastrophe. We turn in Sections 2 and 3 to the main social and spatial transformations that have characterised the last twenty five years. Again we see advances and regressions, above all uneven and fragile development. These sections set the scene for a consideration of three specific challenges: the tension between capitalism and democracy (Section 4); that between production and reproduction with an emphasis on gender relations (Section 5); and that between demographic change and sustainability (Section 6). We then conclude with a sober appraisal of the prospects for the emergence of viable agents for social transformation (Section 7) before making some general remarks on the challenges and possibilities for social progress (Section 8). The underlying hypothesis for social progress is that development is, and always has been, contradictory. Poverty amongst plenty, individual advancement versus collective regression and repression intertwined with liberty. If the industrial era emerged through what Karl Polanyi called a “great transformation” are we headed towards, or do we need a ‘new’ great transformation? We posit a general need for the market to be re-embedded in society if social progress is not to be halted or even reversed. In terms of the political order we find that the recent transformations of democracy and capitalism have had hugely ambiguous features. It is not wrong to say that the planet is currently both more democratic and more affluent than it was three decades ago. But the ways in which such progress has come about endangers not only future progress, it even puts past progress at risk. In political terms, the increasing diffusion of democracy means that more people across the globe have a say on the collective matters that concern them. But under current circumstances, their participation may not be able to reach the kind of decisions that one would understand as collective self-determination. In economic terms, material affluence is being created in unprecedented forms and volume. But, first, this affluence is so unevenly generated and distributed that poverty and hardship do not disappear and are even reproduced in new and possibly more enduring forms. And second, the continuing production of this material affluence may/will endanger the inhabitability of the planet, or large parts of it, even in the short- or medium-term. We have seen our task as one of offering a complex assessment of the current situation that has not been over-determined by our own political preferences. The positive and negative components of the picture we offer are constitutive of the ambivalent nature of the social progress. We are acutely aware that the world looks very different according to our standpoint geographically, socially and by our social and cultural identity. So we have not posed a false unity in terms of outlook. We consider it useful to pose the key questions as clearly as possible from a collective perspective that includes many diverse disciplinary and subject stand-points. We also seek to avoid an analysis determined by either a depressed Weltanschauung that sees only catastrophe ahead given recent political developments or what some have called a Polanyian Pollyanna tendency that is emotionally committed to positive social transformation regardless of the evidence. Quite simply, neither pessimism nor optimism are adequate diagnostic tools. This is particularly the case when we turn to the possible agents of the ‘new’ social transformation we advocate. While we show the decline of 20th-century agents of social change we also try to bring to life the new potential actors for redistribution, social justice and recognition.


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  • Published

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  • Accepted version


Cambridge University Press



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Book title

Rethinking society for the 21st century

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Report Of The International Panel On Social Progress

Department affiliated with

  • SPRU - Science Policy Research Unit Publications

Research groups affiliated with

  • Sussex Sustainability Research Programme Publications
  • The Sussex Energy Group Publications


Volume 1. Socio-Economic Transformations

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International Panel on Social Progress IPSP

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