Making Societies: The Historical Construction of Our World


William G. Roy

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  • Sociology for a New Century

    A Pine Forge Press Series

    Edited by Charles Ragin, Wendy Griswold, and Larry Griffin

    Sociology for a New Century brings the best current scholarship to today's students in a series of short texts authored by leaders of a new generation of social scientists. Each book addresses its subject from a comparative, historical, and global perspective and, in doing so, connects social science to the wider concerns of students seeking to make sense of our dramatically changing world.

    • An Invitation to Environmental Sociology Michael M. Bell
    • Global Inequalities York W. Bradshaw and Michael Wallace
    • Schools and Societies Steven Brint
    • Economy/Society: Markets, Meanings, and Social Structures Bruce Carruthers and Sarah Babb
    • How Societies Change Daniel Chirot
    • Ethnicity and Race: Making Identities in a Changing World Stephen Cornell and Douglas Hartmann
    • The Sociology of Childhood William A. Corsaro
    • Cultures and Societies in a Changing World Wendy Griswold
    • Crime and Disrepute John Hagan
    • Gods in the Global Village: The World's Religions in Sociological Perspective Lester R. Kurtz
    • Waves of Democracy: Social Movements and Political Change John Markoff
    • Development and Social Change: A Global Perspective, Second Edition Philip McMichael
    • Aging, Social Inequality, and Public Policy Fred C. Pampel
    • Constructing Social Research Charles C. Ragin
    • Women and Men at Work Barbara Reskin and Irene Padavic
    • Making Societies: The Historical Construction of Our World William G. Roy
    • Cities in a World Economy, Second Edition Saskia Sassen
    • Gender, Family, and Social Movements Suzanne Staggenborg
    • Law/Society: Origins, Interactions, and Change John Sutton


    View Copyright Page


    To Alice, for constructing an enchanted reality


    • FIGURE 1.1 Boundaries and Gradients 15
    • FIGURE 2.1 Black Figured Lekythos (Oil Flask), 500–490 b.c.e. 34
    • FIGURE 2.2 The Aztec Calendar 36
    • FIGURE 3.1 Two Projections of the World 58
    • FIGURE 3.2 The T-O Map, 7th Century A.D. 60
    • FIGURE 4.1 “Scientific” Drawing of Head Shapes 91
    • FIGURE 4.2 Nonverbal Army Intelligence Test 93
    • FIGURE 4.3 Political Cartoon Equating Blacks and Irish in Harper's Weekly (1876) 99
    • FIGURE 5.1 Munitions Factory, Bridgeport, Connecticut, in Harper's Weekly (about 1880) 121
    • FIGURE 5.2 Boy Scouts to the Rescue (in Punch 1909) 139
    • FIGURE 5.3 Timetable of the Lowell Mills 145
    • FIGURE 5.4 Rosie the Riveter 147
    • FIGURE 5.5 Public and Private Life in 1890 (Harper's New Monthly Magazine) 149–150
    • FIGURE 6.1 A Tenant Renews His Vows 168
    • TABLE 1.1. The Category of Family in Anglo-European Culture 17

    About the Author

    William G. Roy is Professor of Sociology at UCLA and author of Socializing Capital: The Rise of the Large Corporation in America (1997). He has won the Luckman Distinguished Teaching Award at UCLA and the Distinguished Contribution to Teaching Award from the American Sociological Association. His current research concerns American folk music, social movements, and race.

    About the Publisher

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    Sociology for a New Century offers the best of current sociological thinking to today's students. The goal of the series is to prepare students and—in the long run—the informed public for a world that has changed dramatically in the past three decades and one that continues to astonish.

    These goals reflect important changes that have taken place in sociology. The discipline has become broader in orientation, with an evergrowing interest in research that is comparative, historical, or transnational in orientation. Sociologists are less focused on “American” society as the pinnacle of human achievement and more sensitive to global processes and trends. They also have become less insulated from surrounding social forces. In the 1970s and 1980s, sociologists were so obsessed with constructing a science of society that they saw impenetrability as a sign of success. Today, there is a greater effort to connect sociology to the ongoing concerns and experiences of the informed public.

    Each book in this series offers in some way a comparative, historical, transnational, or global perspective to help broaden students' vision. Students need to comprehend the diversity in today's world and to understand the sources of diversity. This knowledge can challenge the limitations of conventional ways of thinking about social life. At the same time, students need to understand that issues that may seem specifically “American” (e.g., the women's movement, an aging population bringing a strained social security and health care system, racial conflict, national chauvinism, etc.) are shared by many other countries. Awareness of commonalities undercuts the tendency to view social issues and questions in narrowly American terms and encourages students to seek out the experiences of others for the lessons they offer. Finally, students also need to grasp phenomena that transcend national boundaries—trends and processes that are supranational (e.g., environmental degradation). Recognition of global processes stimulates student awareness of causal forces that transcend national boundaries, economies, and politics.

    If the goal of Sociology for a New Century is to broaden the students' vision, no book in the series is more ambitious toward attaining that goal than William Roy's Making Societies. Roy helps students question the most “natural” of categories: time, space, gender, race, and class. Leading them through examples drawn from around the world, he shows how these categories are social constructions, historically formed, ideologically loaded, and subject to change. This will be a revelation to many readers. Like all revelations, it will be profoundly unsettling, for students will be encouraged to question not only what they know but also the conceptual frameworks they use when they claim to understand anything. It is the series editors' belief that this unsettling, this provocation, will open new ways of thinking about the social world, how it is, and how it might be.


    One of the greatest challenges of teaching sociology is to lift students out of their “natural attitude,” the tenacious tendency to identify the familiar with the inevitable. Indeed, one of the deepest changes in sociology over the past decade or so has been the fuller development of social constructionist perspectives on the social world. Conventional sociology, both mainstream functionalism and its emancipatory challengers, has been criticized for its essentialist assumptions about social life, charging that the failure to problematize why social reality exists the way it does misses the opportunity to explain these patterns and the possibility to transcend them. Issues of race and gender have moved from documentation of inequality between races and genders to asking why races and gender exist. Questions of class have shifted from the degree of disparity or the rates of mobility to the historical origins of structured inequality. At the same time, sociologists have joined other social scientists in examining the fundamental parameters of experience such as time and space. Challenging the rationalist perspectives that treat time and space as immanent properties of nature, scholars have problematized how social time and place structure the way people relate to each and underlie institutions.

    These issues of social construction can begin to chip away at students' natural attitude by demonstrating that the world they take for granted as natural and inevitable could have, and indeed has, been different. Not all societies divide people into fixed races, assign everyone to only one of two sexes, or accord higher status to those who accumulate wealth. Many societies treat time as a cycle more than a line, and almost none can imagine it as a “thing” that can be sold, saved, wasted, or spent. Few societies think of space in terms of abstract coordinates that can have meaning apart from the activities that happen in particular places. If the things people take for granted as natural are really socially constructed, we must then seek explanations of why particular relations arise. Why does Anglo-European society divide people into races and genders that structure the opportunities they have and the material comforts they are likely to enjoy while pretending that the vast wealth possessed by a few is within the grasp of anyone? Why have complex time systems that barely affect the way people live evolved into standardized systems that permeate social life so pervasively that people feel trapped by time? Why has the conception of space changed from a place where social activities occur to a commodity so basic to the economic system that the language designates areas of land as “real” property?

    Presenting social construction as an issue of explanation rather than one of existence can keep the analysis from wandering into the sophistry of postmodern relativism. The understanding that social reality is constructed need not imply that it is any less real than “natural” reality. Rather than dwell on how “real” social patterns are, it is more constructive to discover why the patterns have arisen and explore how they might be transformed. The consequences of distributing resources by race, gender, and class are very real to the members of society, even if those on the losing end are more acutely aware of their importance. The fact that most people must sell their time to live and use some of the payment to buy space is not just an issue for philosophical debate. At the same time, the search for explanation can imprint the contingent nature of realities that students initially assumed to be self-evident.

    The search for explanation also goes beyond the more microsociological perspective that originally gave rise to social constructionism. While challenging students to see how reality is constructed in their everyday lives certainly can jolt them out of their natural attitude and help them understand how social life is reproduced by mundane activity, this book is more concerned with showing how things could be different, both how they have been different in other societies and how an understanding of differences in the past can open vistas to differences in the future. The chapters try to show how things that we normally take for granted as natural have been different in other societies and how the patterns of Anglo-European society have arisen historically. Since it would be impossible to authoritatively cover all aspects of either, I have chosen a sample of contrasts in other societies to unharness preexisting assumptions about iron necessity and then give a plausible, though rarely definitive, account of how Anglo-European patterns developed. Though many of these accounts are contested by scholars, I felt that it was pedagogically more important to present solid, coherent accounts of how social construction works than getting students bogged down in debates.

    Finally, the macrohistorical emphasis offers an appropriate scaffold for presenting basic concepts of social explanation too often missing from social constructionist perspectives. The issue of why some patterns become adopted rather than others elicits the issue of power. Some people have had a greater hand in developing patterns than others, and some have benefited from the patterns more than others. Eschewing models of history based on either popular consent or elite hegemony, the explanations in this book probe how popular movements have interacted with powerful groups. Much of this interaction has taken place in the context and construction of social institutions. The social relations of time, space, race, gender, and class are not only shaped by dominant institutions but also, to some extent, constitute them. The capitalist economy is based on the commodification of time and space. Chattel slavery, the capitalist form of slavery, helped give rise to the modern concept of race while making possible the industrial revolution that enabled capitalism to spread throughout the world. The modern state has standardized time and space and codified race, gender, and class into law. As discussed in the final chapter, the rise of nations and nationalism reflected and shaped all five issues. Even secondary institutions such as education reflect prevailing time and space conceptions while socializing new generations into them. The role that education plays in reproducing racial, gender, and class inequality is well known.

    The book has selected five kinds of socially constructed reality: time, space, race, gender, and class. There is no compelling logic for choosing these; other constructions could have been just as profitably included: nature, science, family, religion, art, and even sociology. I chose time and space because they are so basic and the forms of inequality because they are so consequential for contemporary society and everyday life. The book begins with time and space because they are less controversial than the forms of inequality and because they provide a starker challenge to the natural attitude. If the reader can grasp how time and space are socially constructed, the concepts can be applied in a more sophisticated fashion in exploring the sensitive issues of race, gender, and class.

    This book could not have been possible without the support and contributions of many friends and colleagues; any virtues it might possess are much enhanced by their efforts. I have wanted to write a book for Pine Forge Press ever since conversations with Steve Rutter, when he was planning the enterprise, inspired me to imagine what a book written for students could be. His contribution far exceeds the ordinary publisher, helping develop the book's vision, providing feedback and en-couragement throughout the process, and tolerantly abiding my missed deadlines. Wendy Griswold was the point person throughout the writing process for the talented and committed series editors, with Larry Griffin and Charles Ragin providing special insight in the early stages. I was blessed with an uncommonly conscientious and talented group of academic reviewers:

    Lisa Brush, University of Pittsburgh

    Joann DeFiore, University of Washington, Bothell

    Kelly Moore, Barnard College, Columbia University

    Tracy Ore, St. Cloud State University

    Teresa Swartz, University of Minnesota

    Idee Winfield, College of Charleston

    I am also grateful to developmental editors Kathy Field and Mark LaFleur, who materially improved on my earlieer drafts. Ann Makarias, assistant to the publisher, skillfully helped shepherd the manuscript through the editing process. She was always available with a cheerful and constructive answer to my queries and concerns. Gillian Dickens helped make my often mangled prose readable. Barbara Moroncini far exceeded the expectations of an undergraduate research assistant, reading the manuscript from the perspective of an intelligent student, finding typos and infelicities I missed while correcting the text, tracking down sources I thought were lost, discovering illustrations that not only represented but also enhanced concepts, and cheerfully responding to my panicked call for help when deadlines approached.

    Many friends, colleagues, and graduate students enriched the ideas, pointed me to important sources, reined in my wandering from the topic, corrected my errors, and improved my writing. Ron Aminzade, Tyrone Harvey, Cathie Lee, Jennifer Lee, Ruth Milkman, Ruth Stedman, Susan Stockdale, and the members of the UCLA Workshop on Comparative Social Analysis read and made valuable comments on the chapters. Patricia Ahmed was hired to find material for Chapter 3 on space but wrote it up so eloquently that it would have been unjust to not list her as a coauthor. The book has its origins in a course in UCLA's honor's collegium on “Time in Society and History” and was expanded in an undergraduate course, “Comparative-Historical Sociology.” It incorporates many ideas I learned from the students in those classes. My wife Alice not only provided the love, support, and tolerance authors typically extol but also made an intellectual contribution. Drawing on the insight that enabled her to do a book on the construction of truth as related to plagiarism and intellectual property, she helped sharpen the central ideas and provided feedback on the entire manuscript.

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