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Back | Programme Area: The Social Effects of Globalization

On the Social Costs of Modernization: Social Disintegration, Atomie/Anomie and Social Development

In this paper, Johan Galtung presents a provocative and pessimistic picture of the human condition. “To go straight to the issue”, the author begins, “the first thesis is simply this: many human societies (perhaps most) are in a state of advanced social disintegration at the close of the twentieth century”. At the roots of this process Galtung finds a trend toward “destructuration and deculturation, heading for structurelessness and culturelessness” — or what he defines as atomie and anomie.

This is a sociological argument which is concerned in part with the changing nature and quality of the relations among people. To make his line of reasoning clear, Galtung briefly explains in his paper how models of social interaction have changed over the course of human history, from the earliest (primitive) societies of hunters and gatherers, through the development of traditional structures of age- or caste-based power within agricultural societies, to the modern industrial order. In this progression, relations become increasingly hierarchical and impersonal. The post-modern phase, which the current revolution in communications and robotics seems to portend, in Galtung’s view is characterized by a breakdown of human relations — a collapse and corruption of institutions, an isolation of individuals and the growing predominance of purely egotistical motivation for action.

There is also a cultural dimension to Galtung’s analysis. He criticizes sociologists and development practitioners for concentrating far too single-mindedly on structures of social relations without focusing sufficiently on the changing content of motivation and belief. Human beings need not only workable links to others, but also a set of values and explanations which give meaning to life. Here again, Galtung feels that modernization has created an increasingly untenable situation, as the advance of secular faith in reason has undermined religious belief without replacing it to an adequate extent with other, clearly binding ethical commitments.

In the concluding section of his paper, Galtung urges everyone with a concern for human development to work toward “rehumanizing” political and economic institutions, creating settings for close and co-operative personal interaction within them — not only to improve the quality of life of people, but also to strengthen and revitalize large institutions themselves. At the same time, the author believes that there is a central role to be played by religion in reversing the current slide toward anomie. In particular, he urges that we distinguish less between different formal religions and more between “hard” and “soft” variants to be found in each of these. The task, in his view, is to replace “hard”, or intolerant, belief structures with “softer” — more tolerant, more compassionate — alternatives.

The reader will find many challenging, and often iconoclastic, interpretations of the current human predicament in the following pages. The picture drawn by Galtung of “humanity on the road from nomadism to monadism” — a state in which individuals have lost all capacity to relate to each other at all — is sufficiently dramatic to engage attention and provoke response. That in turn furthers his goal of ensuring that the future he posits will never come to pass.
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  • Pub. Date: 1 Mar 1995
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1012-6511
    From: UNRISD