Post-Industrial Lives: Roles and Relationships in the 21st Century


Jerald Hage & Charles H. Powers

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  • Dedication

    Dedicated to our Daughters:

    Rebecca Anne Hage, Catlin Ishihara Powers, and Bonnie-Annique Katayama Powers who have inspired us to worry about the future and, more generally, to the father-daughter relationship, which has given us so much emotional pleasure.


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    Most collaboratively produced books are written by people who either work together or were at one time associated with the same university (Mullins, 1973). This book is different. There has been no overlap in the institutional affiliations of the authors. Instead, we were brought together by a common intellectual style, a body of shared theoretical interests, mutual respect, and a feeling that each of us held different pieces to the same puzzle. Working collaboratively on that puzzle has been an intensely rewarding enterprise. And we hope that our joint effort reflects both West Coast and East Coast sensibilities.

    Our initial theoretical attraction stemmed from our shared interest in social roles and our mutual conviction that role theory, to use that term in the broadest possible sense, has a great deal of unrealized promise as we enter an era of change in the nature of people's everyday lives, which is, paradoxically, as subtle as it is revolutionary. The growing literature on post-modernism and post-industrialism indicates both its critical importance and its elusive character (for the former, see Bauman, 1988; Denzin, 1991; Featherstone, 1988a, 1988b; Kellner, 1990; and for the latter, see Bell, 1973; Naisbitt, 1982, Naisbitt & Aburdene, 1990; Toffler, 1981). Most of this literature has ignored, however, what the transformation means for everyday life. Furthermore, the literature is dominated by a series of dichotomies that we think are far too simple.

    Our effort to provide a more complex perspective reflects intellectual indebtedness to dozens of people. First among them are our respective theoretical mentors, Robert K. Merton, Hans Zetterberg, and Jonathan H. Turner. Hage studied at Columbia University in the late 1950s, where he received the theme of analytical rigor from Hans Zetterberg, including a deep, abiding interest in theory construction and formal theory, and the antithesis of subtle distinctions, including a substantive interest in role theory from Merton. Powers studied with Jonathan Turner at the University of California at Riverside, where he learned that theory is at the heart of science, and that the road to theoretical advance begins with reconceptualization.

    Gerald Marwell, too, was an important intellectual stimulus. Together with Jerald Hage, he developed the vocabulary for describing role relationships (Hage and Marwell, 1969; Marwell and Hage, 1970), which is one of the themes of the book. And Ralph Turner led Charles Powers in his early exploration of role theory, giving rise to the work on role redefinition (Powers, 1981a), which is another of the themes unifying the book.

    If it is these men who provided us with a set of intellectual problems, it is women—our wives and daughters—who provided us with the solutions. We dedicate this book to our daughters and, more generally, the father-daughter role relationships, in which we have learned about symbolic communication, the key idea in this book.

    Hage remembers feeling, the first time he saw his daughter, Rebecca, emotional completeness, a hard feeling to describe, but one so fundamental. And as Rebecca grew during her early childhood, her radiance and happiness nourished the entire family, a family experiencing many hardships and uncertainties associated with movement back and forth between the United States and France, attempting to solve the post-modern crisis of dual-career families compounded by a dual-cultural marriage. But perhaps most of all, Jerry Hage dedicates this book to her because of her enormous skills in reading symbolic communication and in her dedication to using these skills in helping handicapped children.

    Powers's daughters are much younger than Hage's daughter, but the emotional sustenance he gains from them is no less intense. Chuck dedicates this book to his daughters for all the joy they bring him, and for two special gifts he hopes never to forget. When Catlin was 2 years old she helped her dad realize that no matter how many “urgent” concerns seem to demand immediate attention, some relationships cannot be put on hold until tomorrow. Catlin's gift has made each day deeper and richer than it would otherwise have been. Bonnie's unfaltering buoyancy in her first months of life helped her dad finally realize the benefits of looking on the bright side. Bonnie's gift has made each day a little more fun and a little more healthy.

    Our daughters are inheriting a world that is becoming more complex by the day. And each of their lives is made even more complex by the fact that they are dual-race and enjoy cultural influences from more than one nation. These factors make it all the more fitting that we dedicate this book about complexity and social change to Rebecca, Catlin, and Bonnie. We hope as they grow older they will know that for the 6 years their dads worked on this book, our thoughts were never far from them. Although our ways of showing it are sometimes clumsy, our children are the much loved centers of our lives.

    Finally, we want to thank Morris Rosenberg, Sheldon Stryker, Ralph Turner, and Mitch Allen for reading the manuscript and making a large number of critical comments. We have probably not dealt adequately with all of their criticisms, but the book has gained in clarity, subtlety, and range because of their efforts.

  • Epilogue: Sociology for the Post-Industrial Era

    We live in a time of rapid social change. Yet, most people are only aware of the crisis dimensions of change, such as high crime and divorce rates, government deficits, dismal SAT scores, and poor balance of payments performance. Lost to view are the more subtle, more rudimentary, more fundamental changes now under way. Society is being transformed at the level of social roles, and with that transformation of roles and relationships comes a reconfiguration of family groupings, work units, and other forms of social organization that give society its structure. These changes suggest a sociological research agenda for the future, a need for a new approach to sociological theory if we are to make sense of contemporary events or make any progress in our efforts to develop a science of society (Powers, 1990).

    Changes in the Way People Live

    We have self-consciously grounded our analysis in the real matters people confront in their daily lives. Rapid change has been the inescapable truth of the late twentieth century. Not only have there been dramatic political upheavals, but the rudimentary ways in which people relate to one another are also being transformed. This book suggests the essence of that transformation in social roles, interpersonal interaction, and social networks. Taken together, the transformations of these three domains constitute nothing less than the total reconstruction of society as we have known it.

    Social Roles Transformed

    Role relationships are the most basic building blocks of social order, and they are changing fundamentally in three ways: (a) They are becoming less routine; (b) they are becoming more personalized; and (c) they are becoming more conflict-ridden, meaning that there is an increase in role conflict, or disagreements over what is expected of the occupants of roles. All three types of change translate into less reliance on traditional role scripts and more customization and redefinition of roles over time.

    The first major way in which roles are being transformed is through the reduction of routine. This comes about primarily because of the knowledge explosion and improvements in technology. To begin with, knowledge growth has increased our ability to measure all sorts of phenomena and has simultaneously increased our awareness of the ways in which different phenomena interact with one another. Every problem is therefore seen as more complex and calls for more individualized investigation, diagnosis, and treatment. And at the same time that new levels of complexity enter into the way in which we approach problems, the routine tasks that once dominated our attention are being taken over by machines. Thus, as automation reduces the amount of time people spend performing routine tasks, our growing awareness of complexity results in an increase in the amount of time people spend on nonroutine tasks. Information search followed by creative problem solving, rather than routine performance of well-scripted roles, dominate PI life. As sociologists our research agenda for the future should include exploration of contemporary adjustment problems (stress and burnout) as well as the ways in which changes in roles are shaping how people map out and make sense of events on a deep structural level (creative minds and complex selves).

    The second way in which roles are changing is that they are becoming more personalized. Role-sets, the collections of companion roles a position comes into contact with, are increasing in size. To be a mother, or a fire fighter, or a teacher, or an insurance agent implies having to deal with a wider range of other social positions now than it did 20 years ago. For example, most of the calls fire fighters now respond to are injury or resuscitation calls rather than fighting fires per se, which means fire fighters have to cooperate with and obtain training and information from a wide array of health care professionals. The first aid dimension of the job also exposes fire fighters to new risks, including exposure to blood-borne diseases such as AIDS and hepatitis. Even when fire fighters are fighting fires, a larger proportion of those fires are industrial and/or involve exposure to toxic fumes. In preparation and response, the set of other roles with which fire fighters come into contact has greatly increased. And this is just one job. The same pattern is being repeated almost everywhere. Part of sociology's future research agenda should be to investigate how people handle the growing complexity of role-sets and the information overload that can result from it.

    At the same time that role-sets are increasing in size, the number of people in each of those other positions, what we call person-sets, is diminishing. Taken together, these two factors tend to make every role relationship more personal. For although we are coming into contact with a greater number of different positions, those positions are generally occupied by fewer people at any given time, so that our relationships develop more personal orientation. This trend is particularly noticeable in the workplace. Over time role occupants come to be seen less as role automatons and more as unique people. PI relationships are personalized by virtue of this structural tendency in the direction of large role-sets and small person-sets. But we need to know how people maintain a sense of structural order as roles come to be more individualized and personalized.

    The third change in the nature of role relationships is a manifestation of the first two. Role conflict, disagreement about what is expected of people in a relationship, is on the increase. This is a structural given. For as roles become less routine, traditional role scripts are less tenable. And as relationships become more personalized, our willingness to adjust to the needs of others increases, as does our expectation that others will adjust to our individual needs. But by how much is role conflict really increasing? And how much role change does a given increase in role conflict actually imply? What kinds of people are capable of making the requisite changes and what kinds are not? All these questions require exploration if sociology is to remain abreast of and relevant to the times.

    Decline of routine activity and greater personalization of relationships, complicated by growth in role conflict, have the effect of calling traditional role scripts into question. Roles are becoming less script-like. Role redefinition has become a part of everyday life. It is this change that is at the heart, from a conceptual and analytical point of view, of the transformation to PI society. So the process of role redefinition should be central to the future research agenda in sociology (Powers, 1981a, 1990; R. Turner, 1990). In post-industrial societies people periodically redefine roles in creative ways in order to be more adaptive to circumstantial conditions and more responsive to the needs of others. We need more case studies leading to improved generalizations about the process of role redefinition.

    The conclusion to be reached from all this is that human agency is on the increase (Touraine, 1988).1 That is, people have more choice in structuring their lives. The choice to stay in or depart from a particular position was never uncommon, but now people go further, reshaping the role relationships by redefining their obligations to others. Reliance on agency is built into the nature of PI organization (Hage & Powers, 1990). A conceptual analysis focusing on roles helps us to understand that agency is a functional requisite in post-industrial society, and also helps us to explain why human agency has been expanding across time. For as roles become less routine, more personalized, and more conflict-laden, the need for adjustment increases. The ways in which different patterns of social structure variously effect human agency call out for more investigation.

    Some people assume that predictability is impossible where human agency is involved. That is, people like Blumer (1969) seem to imply human agency translates into “anything goes.” But this is far from the case. In post-industrial role relationships characterized by agency, the partners co-determine what will happen. This allows for a great deal of variability, but obligations still structure the activities of the person in that role, and the characteristics of those obligations are reached in accord with others. The implication is that the locus of social control has moved closer to the individual. Tradition and authority have less to do with shaping people's lives; they exert less control now than ever before. But anarchy has not resulted, because a new form of social control is taking the place of tradition. This new social control is to be found in interpersonal understanding and commitment (Bradley, 1987). That is why we must consider the ways in which role relationships, and also interaction, are being transformed as we enter the post-industrial era. The decomposition and replacement of traditional social control mechanisms need to be studied.

    Interaction Transformed

    The transformation of roles from script-like relationships into personalized, customized relationships has far-reaching implications for symbolic interaction. It means, in essence, that role relationships no longer gain their stability from the force of conformity to traditional norms or stereotypic models. If a role relationship is to be lasting in post-industrial society, it must gain its stability from within. If they are unable to rely on standardized role models as surefire guides for behavior, the people in a working relationship need to have a sense of trust between, a sense of confidence that the relationship as it is presently defined is workable for all concerned, and a sense that the people involved are sufficiently in touch with one another that they will recognize when further change is necessary and will be able to redefine the relationship as called for.

    Since relationships have grown more personal, commitment comes to be predicated on a sense of mutual understanding and acceptance. But these do not develop automatically. They develop over time, through shared activities, and above all through communication that extends beyond a cognitive level to an emotive level of awareness.

    We have added emotion to the role theories of both Nadel (1956) and Merton (1968), as well as the symbolic interactionisms of Mead (1964) and Blumer (1969), by defining symbolic communication as having two interconnected levels: verbal and nonverbal, or cognitive and emotional levels (Chapter 3). Four distinct messages are communicated in the nonverbal emotive channel: (a) the relative importance of what is being said; (b) whether the role partner believes in what he or she is saying; (c) emotional directionality, including intensity (e.g., happiness versus anger); and (d) the degree of salience of the audience to the speaker. Using the nonverbal emotive channel of communication allows us to interpret the symbolic meaning of what is being said by placing the cognitive or verbal level of communication in an evaluative context, for the verbal level does not have much meaning unless the nonverbal or emotive level is added.

    Each of these four nonverbal emotive messages is important. Nonverbal signals about the importance of the message to the speaker focus on the old problem of motivation. The more others seem to believe in what they are saying, the more convinced and more motivated we listeners become. This does not mean that we necessarily accept everything they say, only that motivation to act together is in part fed by the speakers' own feelings as expressed in a variety of nonverbal signs.

    This leads naturally into the next signal or message that is sent: Does the speaker believe in what is being said and done? A basic problem in Habermas' (1984) scheme, and also in J. Turner's (1987) analysis, is the issue of trust that lies at the heart of motivation. Habermas leaves as unanswered how we develop a sense of trust or how are we able to pierce through the various presentations of self that manipulate impressions. Our insight is that people find it much more difficult to manage feelings than words. Nonverbal expressions of feeling help us ascertain whether people are sincere. Obviously we need to know a person fairly well before we can successfully decode the nonverbal level, and increased experience with a role partner provides more occasions when impression management breaks down and true convictions are revealed—moments of truth. Trust develops when we learn to tell whether a person is being truthful with us. With emotional slips, the masks people project through impression management fall away and a great deal is revealed in a short period. This can change the feeling tone of a role relationship overnight. PI life implicates people in more complex, less routine relationships, and therefore provides them with more opportunities to learn to read one another's feeling tones.

    The third message is critical for two reasons. The expression of emotions is important for the affirmation of the self. Scheff (1979) has argued that it is vital for people to express rather than block their feelings. As we have suggested, one price of impression management is that it is likely to block genuine feelings until people are no longer in touch with themselves, what they really want, or what would actually make them happy. When this happens, unexpressed emotions eventually creep out in a variety of unpleasant ways that have a deadening effect on relationships. Furthermore, individuals who engage in impression management are less likely to receive the feedback that would allow them to find their true selves. The recognition that impression management cuts off others and reduces our own sensitivity to feedback helps explain why organizational leaders can be so slow to change, even when experiencing failure.

    Just as the expression of feelings validates the self, how we feel about our role partners validates their participation in the relationship. It is not just the verbal communication that is important; the nonverbal level is essential for validating membership in groups. Again, the price of impression management is to reduce the capacity for the speaker to validate role partners, which weakens the relationship because, as we argued in Chapter 5, relationships that are not validated suffer entropy. Thus, aspects of nonverbal communication speak to fundamental issues involving the affirmation of self and of others. They speak to the ways in which trust and motivation are built.

    Lasting bonds, especially for people who are not very verbal, are likely to be created and sustained by doing things together rather than by talking. At the same time, if we do not enjoy the person we are with, this will be communicated as well, which is why forced efforts to revive affection sometimes accentuate problems rather than relieve them. Both parties have to have the right directionality of emotion. Trying to either get closer to someone who isn't ready to be close or rekindle closeness only repels them.

    One intriguing implication of our ideas is the prediction that emotional bonds are deepening as we move toward role relationships characterized by variety of activities, uniqueness of the role partner, activity integration, and so on. The post-industrial transformation is creating a society predicated upon gemeinschaft, even more than was the case in pre-industrial times, when emotional bonds were generally based on blood relationships and therefore involved little choice. With more leisure time and much more choice of what can be done with it, with better communications systems and more opportunities to interact, even kinship relations can develop stronger emotional bonds. The growing recognition of the importance of emotions as a topic for sociological study reflects the new reality of more intimate social relationships in post-industrial society.

    Emotions also play an unheralded role in the post-industrial workplace. Intuition and insight are more likely to emerge when individuals are in contact with their feelings. Emotions are also critical for creativity and problem solving because they allow us to more easily detect the ideas and suggestions of others. If we are in better contact with our own feelings, we more readily observe those of others; that is, we become better listeners and interpreters of symbolic communication. Frequently, when ideas are being exchanged, their importance may not be well expressed on the verbal level—new ideas are by definition usually not well thought out and therefore are usually not expressed well with words. Their significance will be expressed first and more accurately on the nonverbal level. Joint efforts at successfully building innovative ideas into something useful is a distinct kind of work requiring this second-channel communication; for in groups confronting uncertainty, objections are seldom clearly stated. But if group members are “listening” to the feeling tones, they will understand when they must take the time to explore vaguely formulated ideas or unspecified objections.

    Studying the way in which feelings allow for the choice of correct or creative solutions will be a particularly fruitful line of inquiry because it touches upon so many contemporary issues. For example, some ideas are not heard and others are. Coming to understand how group members “hear” a new idea and build upon it would be an extremely important and immensely practical contribution to research on innovation. This speaks directly to the heart of the idea-building process. Furthermore, in creative problem-solving groups there is probably a special set of roles, with some people suggesting ideas, others evaluating them, and still others providing the necessary technical information relative to those ideas, and so forth. We believe the emergence of new and specialized roles in creative groups will be a particularly useful avenue of research for those concerned with the management of innovation.

    One final dimension of this phenomena has to do with the growing importance of telecommunications. Accurately gauging the importance of a message requires great astuteness if the message arrives via electronic mail. This raises a series of practical research questions about the best sociological strategies for effectively promoting the meaningful interaction needed for team creativity in an age of telecommuting and telecontacting.

    Social Networks Transformed

    Changes in the character of social roles and interaction lend new importance to networks. As role-sets increase in size, and as demand for flexible response or creative solutions to complex problems increases, people must be able to reach out for help and ideas to an ever more diverse and constantly changing array of others with unique talents, training, and insights. This need cannot be satisfied under the umbrella of a formal organization with fixed personnel, for a fixed organization cannot maintain a large enough talent pool to meet every possible array of contingencies that might arise on a case-by-case basis. Nor can this need be met in an open market, for effective solution of complex problems requires a depth of communication that can only come from sustained interaction. Fluid networks seem to offer a solution, helping people meet needs that were once met in markets or hierarchies. But the degree to which this has happened, the process through which it occurs, and the precise forms it takes need to be systematically explored. And issues of coordination and control need to be studied, especially multi-organizational coordination where different units are linked together by semifluid networks.

    We predict that the fluid network will be the defining form of social organization in the PI era. Formal organizations will continue to exist, but interorganizational networks, which span organizational boundaries and provide for the interpenetration of functional activities, will grow in importance. Joint ventures are an example. This raises several important research questions. How permeable will the fluid networks of the future be? How will resources, rewards, or revenues be allocated within those networks? What structures of coordination will develop? How will the growing importance of inter-organizational networks transform the organizations being linked? In what ways will markets be either supplanted or disrupted by the growing importance of fluid networks?

    The elaboration of roles-sets, which occurs largely through the extension of social networks, provides an analytical tool for understanding how the institutions of society are being reshaped. It is no accident that network analysis has become an important aspect of sociological theory in recent years. The corporations and families of today are being reconstituted by the linkage of group members to outside experts via relatively personal yet fluid networks, and sometimes those units are even reconstituted into multiple organizations and families. Blended families created by divorce and remarriage are an example. Institutions are being reshaped in the process. In the corporate world the standard benchmarks of organizational design—occupation, level, and department—are being deconstructed into process committees in profit centers, joint ventures, and other emergent social forms. Here is another quite promising avenue of research, especially for those interested in the future of organizations.

    And as network structures grow in size and fluidity, people find that interpenetration of the various institutional aspects of our lives grows. We devote more work time to family role obligations: bringing our children to work, getting on the office phone to locate support services for aging parents, and so on. Nor is this a one-way street. We also tell our children to go watch videos while we finish the work we feel an inner compulsion to bring home, and we take more work with us on family vacations. Sociology needs solid research on how much interpenetration of various role-related activities actually occurs in different settings. And we need to study successful strategies for formalizing and orchestrating the interpenetration of activity, such as Apple Computer's on-site day care for children of employees, and IBM's information and referral system for employees who are responsible for young children and / or aging parents with special problems.

    The Deconstruction and Reconstruction of Society

    The new post-industrial agenda is reconstruction of the society from the bottom up. This starts with redefinition of family and work roles and assumes another important form in networks that break through old organizational boundaries. But novel network arrangements can work only after relationships have been redefined, a point that may be obscured somewhat by Figure E.1, which directs attention to the fact that institutional changes necessitate new kinds of minds and selves.

    Figure E.1. The Twin Processes of Deconstruction and Reconstruction

    Social roles, the obligations that attach people to one another, are being redefined as traditional scripts give way to co-determined, customized sets of obligations that fit people's changing needs. The ways in which people interact with one another are changing as we abandon impression management and seek more genuine, honest, and open communication. And the interlinkages that tie people in the society together are changing, as fluid networks replace hierarchical organizations and supplant reliance on open markets. The social force of knowledge, as manifested in technology, rising levels of education, and increased R&D, has resulted in rapid deconstruction of industrial organizations and traditional families. But from the standpoint of this book, the most critical changes are the deconstruction of social roles and role-sets (see Tables E.1 and E.2).

    Table E.1 The Reconstruction of Society
    Post-Industrial SelvesBehavioral OutcomesInstitutional Requirements
    Creative mindsQuality of group problem solvingProduct innovation, technological innovation
    Flexible selves in problem-solving groupsQuality of role redefinitionRapidity of technological and product change
    Complex mindsSophistication of creative solutionsMatrix authority structures
    Complex selves in problem-solving groupsCapacity to handle complex solutionsNetwork governance structures
    Complex rolesAmount of renegotiationDeconstruction of occupations, hierarchical and organizational boundaries
    Complex role relationships and role-setsAmount of role conflict
    Table E.2 The Reasons for the Growth in the Independence of Role Relationships or Human Agency
    Dimensions of Role RelationshipsEssential Argument
    ScopeDifficulty of programming a variety of activities in different places and at different times
    IntensityThe above difficulty is compounded by long-duration activities that require great effort
    IntegrationCoordination of many role relationships cannot be programmed because of the complexity of the problem
    FluidityRapid changes prevent programming of role relationships

    These changes are not easy. They generate an astounding amount of role conflict, placing individuals at risk of burnout or information overload and producing high rates of role failure. But we are adjusting to new conditions over time. Society is literally being reconstructed in ways people would never have imagined 20 years ago. If we have helped readers understand the shape of the new social order, then we have achieved our primary objective.

    Sociological Theory Transformed

    Our primary objective was to describe fundamental changes in the ways in which people are connected to one another. But we also hope this book contributes in important ways to the reorientation of sociological theory. For if our analysis is correct, sociological theorists need to change the way in which they think about society on an analytical level. We need to focus on different issues, getting past our myopic preoccupation with wealth and power so that we can focus on knowledge growth as the engine of social change. We need to understand sociological phenomena in a new light, recognizing that agency is itself a communal rather than an individual enterprise, and that range of choice is a variable property reflecting the nature of social structural conditions. And most important, we need to construct different types of theory, combining useful insights from different theoretical schools to produce a viable analytical scheme for studying the meso level of social organization, where individuals are influenced by and in turn influence the character of a social order that extends beyond themselves.

    Knowledge Growth: The Engine of Social Change

    If society is being transformed in fundamental ways, we need to ask ourselves where that change comes from and what kind of internal logic the new order will have. Earlier sociological theorists tended to approach the question of change while preoccupied with power (e.g., Marx, 1967; Pareto, 1984). This preoccupation diverts attention away from the true underlying logic and real engine of change in PI society. That is knowledge growth. The logic of the industrial order revolved around the mobilization of power and the concentration of wealth, but the logic of the post-industrial order revolves around knowledge growth. Knowledge growth makes roles more complex, implicates people in less standardized interaction, and prompts people to enter more complex networks bridging bounded social units. At the same time, the objectives of activity are changing. Whereas power and wealth are the final objectives and ultimate pursuits of life in industrial societies, the greater knowledge and better understanding in the interests of mastery over difficult problems and uncertain conditions are the ultimate objectives of life in PI society. They are the things people pursue as tests of self-worth and personal meaning.

    This marks a profound change in orientation, but one that sociologists seem reluctant to embrace. The history of our discipline has revolved around the study of inequality for too long. We have always looked at society in terms of who gets what, and how, and what the consequences of a given distribution of wealth tend to be. But if we are to understand the workings and inner logic of post-industrial society, we must now turn at least in part to the issue of knowledge growth, discover the structural conditions and interaction dynamics under which knowledge growth will proceed most quickly, examine the ways in which knowledge is expanded and used, and explore the impact of the knowledge explosion as the ripple effects from that explosion radiate through society.

    This does not mean that the distributions of wealth and power are meaningless or irrelevant. Far from it. They are important precisely because they impact on knowledge growth and the application of knowledge for improved problem-solving. The mechanisms of exploitation, which have produced a great underclass and denied large segments of society a realistic opportunity to develop to their human capital potential, have simultaneously denied society the contributions those people are capable of making. A society that easily discards millions of people is unlikely to succeed in PI competition. That path is so obviously dysfunctional that ignoring the problems of the underclass seems incomprehensible.

    The key to our argument is that knowledge shapes events in PI society even more than the distributions of wealth and power. One of our special contributions to the study of knowledge has been to pinpoint the connection between technology, education, and R&D. As knowledge grows through expanded R&D, we implant more knowledge in machines via automated technology, and in people via education. Only by looking at the three together can we begin to develop a real sense for the ways in which our society is changing. The current state of knowledge and rate of knowledge growth is such that more knowledge is being embedded in minds than in machines. As we have noted throughout the book, this has radical implications for the ways people are called on to live and work.

    Agency by Co-Determination

    The transformation of roles induced by knowledge growth has a tremendous impact on choice. The growing importance of fluid networks means we can choose who we want to interact with and in what capacities. And the growing prevalence of role redefinition means it is more acceptable for people to shape and design the nature of their relationships with others. At the same time, our capacity to do so is increased by the availability of cars, telephones, fax machines, and electronic mail, all of which expand our ability to activate relationships at will. Moreover, the development of new technologies, and their integration with old technologies, will further accelerate this process. For example, interfacing “virtual reality” with phone systems will make it literally possible, from a sensory point of view, to reach out and “touch” one another, and see one another, and smell one another, and feel one another. We will be able to really be there without really being there. Imagine the implications for enacting, sustaining, reviving, and altering social relationships along the concatenated networks that link people together in PI society!

    In the past, agency has been viewed as the question of choice. Can individuals choose, or do they lack choice? Our analysis suggests that this conceptualization is inappropriate for the times. For where choice exists, it no longer tends to be individual choice. The choices PI people exercise most often are those requiring negotiation and co-determined agreement among people who must cooperate, but can no longer look to traditional scripts to guide behavior. Choices must be made, more than ever before. But these choices are increasingly made by people acting collectively, rather than by individuals acting unilaterally as if they were autonomous.

    On the surface, our formulation sounds like that of Blumer (1969), who assumed that people construct society. But Blumer failed to show how that construction occurs or why it occurs some places more than others (Powers, 1981a). We demonstrate that knowledge growth, and more specifically the ways in which new knowledge is implanted in minds, in machines, and in patterns of social organization, determines the level of structural need for the exercise of agency as a functional prerequisite to flexible adaptation in the face of uncertain and changing conditions.

    Knowledge explosion has made the world a different place. People want customized solutions to complex problems, which means that cooperation and flexibility are both necessary. People have to have the freedom (not as individuals, but as partners) to modify their roles and reconfigure the systems of relationships in which they work and live. Post-industrial society cannot function effectively unless people are able and willing to exercise that kind of agency. The severity of contemporary social problems is evidence that society has a good distance remaining to go in its reconstruction, and that we have a long way to go in preparing people for dealing with the demands of post-industrial life.

    Sociological Theory on the Meso Level

    Roles are becoming more relational; human agency is on the increase; and networks are gaining importance and growing more fluid, providing a substitute for markets and hierarchies in the interface between social units. In theoretical terms, we focus on the meso level of social analysis, which provides a link between the micro world of the individual and the macro world of the wider society (Collins, 1988, has a similar intent). In the process we offer a new synthesis of old theoretical perspectives, and a new solution for old theoretical problems in the discipline.

    In PI society people are called on to constantly reconstruct their roles to allow responsiveness to the changing needs of others, while organizations are called on to produce creative solutions to complex problems and rapidly adapt to changing circumstances. Both sets of demands, micro individual and macro organizational, are satisfied on the meso level of role relationships and network interconnections, where people work collaboratively, pool human capital, and redesign relationships to maximize creativity and improve problem-solving potential. This assumes creative minds and complex selves working in an environment where impression management subsides and makes room for genuinely effective communication, and where social networks are fluid enough to allow people to change the mix of talents they can call upon at different times.

    A recent American-German theory conference (Alexander et al., 1987) on the problem of micro and macro linkages highlighted renewed interest among sociologists in how the individual and society are connected. Our theoretical contribution has been to combine a macro structural-functional analysis of society with micro symbolic interactionism. The new functional requisites of PI society are actually interactional characteristics. PI society produces rapid technological change to which individuals must respond with flexibility, and it creates complex new social problems that people need to learn how to deal with creatively. People who are comfortable both with multiple identities and with expressing their feelings are more likely to be creative and flexible than individuals with one central or core identity to which all other identities are subordinated. Rapid technological change makes role scripts functionally obsolete and requires the constant redefinition of role relationships and role-sets as well as reconstitution of social networks. The new functional imperative is for fluid structures that nourish constant innovation.

    Role theorists and symbolic interactionists have had the right ideas in principle. But they have largely ignored the organizational settings where role redefinition and fluid networks are most obvious, and have consequently failed to produce a body of theory that captures and explains the full richness of the real world. We try to correct this problem by fully integrating structural-functionalist and symbolic interactionist perspectives to develop a new, empirically grounded, and testable theory that is directly linked to an identifiable research agenda.

    Many have been critical of the structural-functionalist perspective because of a perception that it places heavy emphasis on stability without change. Our functionalist approach is the very opposite. The essence of our theory is that constant change in the society—produced by growth in knowledge—implies functional requisites at the individual level. Rapid change is inescapable. But not all societies will be successful, or competitive, in a PI world. Societal success rests on having a populace composed in large part of individuals with complex selves and creative minds who are capable of performing in symbolic roles and fluid social networks. The best test of a mature functionalist perspective is precisely its ability to accommodate change, which our theory does. How is adaptive change possible? How does it occur? Our analytical framework provides answers to those questions.

    One sign of the coming post-industrial society is the appearance and subsequent failure of many new social forms. Another sign is to be found in a widespread pattern of role failures. Failure is the best evidence that a functional perspective is indeed viable.

    Similarly, the many experiments that are occurring are healthy signs of a society in which people are attempting to adapt social structural arrangements to changing conditions, another structural-functionalist tenet worth rescuing. But this should not be taken to suggest that all experiments will be equally successful. Quite the contrary. All the current evidence indicates that the United States and many other countries are having a great deal of difficulty in adapting to post-industrial social problems and to the new rules of global competition. Japan, by contrast, is a society in which people learn cooperative teamwork strategies from an early age, giving the Japanese what is, from a sociological point of view, a built-in competitive advantage when commercial success rests on coming up with integrated solutions to complex multidisciplinary problems—another issue that warrants sociological investigation. Societies have to adapt, especially in periods of wrenching socioeconomic change. Given the widespread pattern of adaptive failure in the United States, this is an appropriate time to redirect attention to the problem of societal adaptation.

    Admittedly, many people rejected the structural-functional perspective because adaptation was made an article of faith, just as the inevitability of class conflict was in the Marxist perspective. But by calling attention to the importance of role conflict and institutional failures (e.g., Coser, 1956), adaptation is transformed from an a priori assumption into a research question and a pressing theoretical problem.2

    Most of the discussions of micro and macro linkages in the German-American conference mentioned above avoided any analysis of the intervening links between the individual and society (for an exception, see Munch & Smelser, 1987). They were usually strong in either their sense of the individual or their sense of society, but not of both. In this book we have tried to provide equal time to the individual (Chapters 3, 4, and 5) and to society (Chapters 1, 2, and 7), as well as to role-sets as a bridge between the micro and macro order (Chapter 6). In each of those chapters we discuss and explore different dimensions of the linkage between individuals and society—between micro role relationships and macro institutions. As sophisticated technologies eliminate routinized activities, the tasks left for people to perform are those requiring ingenuity and problem solving, rather than execution of routine procedures. Role relationships expand in number, and social networks become both more extensive and interactionally intense. Role matrices gain importance in the orchestration and maintenance of intra- and interorganizational relations.

    People are not only reconstructing society via the redefinition of roles and the construction of more complex role-sets and more fluid social networks, they are also creating new products and developing new services, inventing new techniques and therapies, and exploring new ways of sustaining interpersonal relationships (Forester, 1985). We thus offer a theoretical synthesis, which melds micro and macro approaches to sociology and has practical and applied as well as theoretical dimensions. By studying how roles in work organizations and families are being redefined, why they are changing, and how this impacts on the role relationships in them and the networks between them, we grasp much more effectively how the individual and society are intertwined.

    Functional change is both increasing choice in role relationships and increasing variety in role-sets. Thus, part of the macro-micro linkage is a casting adrift of roles from societally defined role scripts, precisely so that they can become complex and flexible in the face of demands for more detailed information search and more innovative problem solving. The accent is on group creativity, co-determination of strategies, and interpersonal negotiation in an environment characterized by role conflict. The reconstruction of society has only begun. It necessitates symbolic communication where honest feelings, rather than impression management, are expressed. This is a problematic aspect of the “new world order.”

    Although Mead, Merton, and Nadel overlooked the importance of knowledge or technology in their various theories, we have found that other concepts they introduced are critical in building a satisfactory theory of post-industrial society. From Mead we take the basic question: What kinds of minds for what types of societies? Our answer is that knowledge growth and technological change in post-industrial society require creative minds and adaptive selves. From Merton we borrow the ideas of role-sets, role scripts, and role conflicts. We suggest that as role-sets become more complex, role scripts disappear and role conflict increases. From Nadel we borrow the ideas of networks and role matrices, and argue that the growth in knowledge is resulting in a movement toward more network integration of role matrices both within organizations and external to them.

    As we have synthesized Mead, Merton, and Nadel, we have added to their cognitive theories a heavy dose of emotion as well as co-determination. In all these instances we have made predictions that would run counter to the expectations of Mead, Merton, Nadel and others, for our theory is a novel synthesis. This is as it should be. Synthesizing inevitably means borrowing some ideas, eliminating others, and developing new insights.

    Looking to the Future

    The knowledge explosion will not produce a trouble-free world. As we have stressed, the transformation to post-industrial society is causing enormous difficulties. In particular, there is a growing population of people who are disenfranchised because they lack the training and disposition to be problem solvers. This is a human capital problem. It presents an enormous challenge to society, a problem made all the more serious by lack of resolve on the part of political leaders to abandon programs and policies conceived in the industrial age. We must tailor a forward-looking agenda.

    Nevertheless, society is being transformed from the ground up. Symbolic interaction gains importance in post-industrial society because of the constant role redefinition generated by technological change. Role redefinition is one of the truly ubiquitous features of social life and therefore one of the really fruitful areas for future sociological research (Powers, 1981a, 1990; R. Turner, 1990). A focus on role redefinition should not only shed a great deal of light on the specific techniques people use for maintaining relationships, but also enable us to address a wide range of practical questions. Analysis of role redefinition forces an awareness of the increasing number of role conflicts people find themselves having to deal with. These conflicts provide opportunities for studying symbolic communication and the place of emotions in the role redefinition process, for only by carefully reading the symbolic level of communication can role conflicts be successfully resolved. This is especially true for those close role relationships involving teamwork or invoking a great deal of affect.

    On a wider plane, network structures are beginning to supplant markets and hierarchies as the structural bulwark of society. In the process, new forms of interunit combination are emerging, and society is being reconstructed.

    It is our prediction that the real expansion in research and development, and all of its consequences for knowledge growth, has yet to occur, which makes this book timely. We have made a series of predictions about the direction in which post-industrial society is evolving, and these predictions can be tested as the future unfolds. One thing that our synthetic theory should do is reduce the sense of future shock or the fear of uncertainty by providing a satisfactory explanation for the way in which societal transformation will help people cope with change.


    1. Agency has been an important theme in sociological theory from the beginning (e.g., Parsons, 1937) to the present (e.g., Cohen, 1989; Giddens, 1984) and was the focus of the 1990 German-American Sociological Theory Conference.

    2. Perhaps the most controversial point we have made is that the high divorce rate is a sign of failure. Divorced readers might resent this and argue with us. But surely most would admit that if they could have avoided the pain that their divorce engendered, they would have. We suggested a number of reasons why divorce is more common today than it was in the past and—most debatable of all—we predict that the incidence of divorce will decline in the future. We feel the primary cause of divorce is the inability of one or both partners to redefine spousal roles as personalities and situations change over the course of the life cycle. This inability seems to us to be a common characteristic of industrial personalities and industrial times. But one of the truly distinctive traits of post-industrial people is the comparative ease and comfort with which they are able to redefine roles over time.


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    Name Index

    About the Authors

    Jerald Hage received his Ph.D. at Columbia University in 1963 and for some 30 years has been doing research and writing about organizations, including the book Theories of Organizations. During the past few years, he has published an edited book, titled The Futures of Organizations, and an analysis of the relevance of organizational theory to the developing world for U.S.A.I.D., titled Organizational Change as a Strategy for Development (with Finsterbusch). Most recently he has finished, with Cathy Alter, a book on systemic networks as a new form of institutional governance and is just completing a textbook designed to teach readers how to think in structural, political, ecological, and institutional terms about organizations.

    Since the early 1980s, Hage has been increasingly shifting his attention to the problem of societal change, his long-time interest. He published two books relative to the theory of the state—State Responsiveness and State Activism (with Hanneman and Gargan) and State Intervention in Medical Care (with Hollingsworth and Hanneman)—both of which attempt to synthesize a number of different theoretical perspectives. Currently, he is analyzing the impact of state interventions on the growth of unionization, pathways of growth in welfare expenditures, state coupling of education to the economy, and other issues that explore societal change.

    Neither the study of organizations nor of society, however, represents Hage's major interest, which is writing general sociological theories sensitive to both history and economics. This book represents the first in what he hopes will be a series of books designed to provide a new synthesis.

    Charles H. Powers is an Associate Professor at Santa Clara University in California's Silicon Valley, where he heads the Department of Anthropology and Sociology's program in Business, Technology, and Society. This program helps students apply specialized sociological knowledge in a business context. Stimulating organizational innovation and capitalizing on the advantages of work-force diversity are two of the program's themes.

    Powers is a sociological theroist who focuses on (a) role change, which is one of the unifying threads of this book, and (b) the interconnection between economy and society. His earlier works on socioeconomics include Vilfredo Pareto and the second edition of The Emergence of Sociological Theory (co-authored with Jonathan Turner and Leonard Beeghley). Powers also edited the English translation of Vilfredo Pareto's last monograph, The Transformation of Democracy. He is currently working on a compendium of axioms and principles that clarify the boundary between economics and sociology.

    Dr. Powers received his B.A. and M.A. from the University of Illinois at Urbana and his Ph.D. from the University of California at Riverside. His previous teaching positions were at Talledega College in Alabama, and Indiana University at Bloomington. He also taught in the M.B.A. program at Santa Clara University.

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