Big Questions in Society

In the course of human history, people have struggled with their natural environment, including other animals (ecological problems), with their fellow humans (social problems of conflict and cooperation), and with their inner nature (psychological problems of civilisation).

The long-term history of humankind suggests that humans have gained increasing levels of control over each of these three domains, mainly by coordinating their actions ever more widely and intricately. However, the price humans pay for these advances seems to be an increase in collective vulnerability. Problems confronting ‘global cities' like Mexico City, Mumbai, New York and Amsterdam are emblematic. Global society is developing into a global risk society. Contemporary societal ‘Big Questions' centre around (a) the ecology; (b) poverty, war and terrorism and migration; and (c) pathologies of individualism.

In social theory, the risks people run and the problems they confront have traditionally been analysed from two separate perspectives. A realist perspective sees risks and problems as objective threats, collective evils affecting large numbers of people and (or) requiring collective action. A constructivist perspective on the other hand sees risks and problems as subjective perceptions leading to claims by groups of people referring to putative conditions.

The history of human problems may fruitfully be analysed from an angle integrating both these perspectives, assuming that objective developments provide general conditions under which political and moral entrepreneurs do succeed, or do not succeed, in framing specific complaints and problems, and in bringing about collective action. Outcomes of these actions, often at least partly unintended, create new conditions for the framing of new problems.

28 August 2012