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1991 Commencement Speech: James Coleman, Department of Sociology, University of Chicago

Source: Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Marquette University Libraries

Every generation arriving into adulthood confronts a society it did not create. This is a society created by the generations that have gone before, and by the events that those generations have experienced and coped with. The society you confront at this stage of your life is one that you will inherit, but one that for some years remains under the control of an earlier generation - insofar as its processes are under anyone's control.


Yet this society that you confront as you come into adulthood will become, before you leave the stage some 50, 60, or 70 years hence, the society you have created. You confront it now as a society of a certain character, and you, together with events you cannot fully control individually or collectively, will turn over to your successors a quite different society.

All that I've said is true for every generation. But what I will say next is very specific to your generation. For the society you see now is changing especially rapidly, through technological developments and demographic changes. These changes create dilemmas, some of which you will confront individually, some of which you will confront in groups and organizations, and some of which you will confront as a whole society.

The technological changes that will create dilemmas are at least three: Productivity without labor, the conquest of physical distance, and the biological revolution. Productivity without labor is already evident in the shrinking labor content that goes into manufactured goods - not merely the export of manufacturing jobs to developing countries, but the capture of those jobs, and others, by smart machines of one sort or another. The problem this creates for an individual - for each of you - is how to gain skills that the smart machines will not also learn and then displace you. The problem this creates for a society is how to insure that, with the scarcity of work that can compete with the smart machines, the society does not divide into two: a small class which can still outsmart the machines, and thus contribute to productivity and earn a living, and a large class whose productivity is no longer competitive with that of the machines, and becomes a dependent class.

The second technological change is the conquest of physical distance. This conquest has taken, and continues to take, two forms. One is the increase in speed and ease of travel, which shrinks the globe. One of my sons, with a job in London in an English firm, is in the process of buying a house there. Some of you will in a similar way break the boundaries of your nation and make your job moves not from one city to another but from one continent to another. Even more will this be true of your children. Thus even the definition of what constitutes your “society” will change, from one circumscribed by national boundaries to one for which those boundaries are unimportant.


Physical distance is also conquered in a different way. It is conquered by the transmission of information instead of things.

Ever since the discovery of DNA, and the recognition that this molecule is an enormously complex code to transmit genetic information across generations, this has led to wild science fiction tales, in which genetic information is transmitted through space, sending persons - or the information contained within them - via signals through space. Although reality will hardly catch up with science fiction in this domain, it is true even now that for many purposes, physical proximity is unnecessary so long as information can be transmitted. Existing modes of communication, such as the telephone, the fax, radio and television, have already transformed our cognitive worlds. New possibilities have additional consequences for the organization of everyday life. Business conferences, which can even now be nearly as well carried out long distance by use of teleconferencing, will be even more so in the future, substituting for business travel. Electronic communication, in conjunction with smart machines, has implications for the location of work, moving some work from office to home. Even the process of meeting people and making new acquaintances - whom one may never even meet face to face - has become possible over 900-mode telephone lines.

The biological revolution is a third important element in technological change. Standing on the threshold of genetic modification, it is hard to see what the future will bring, beyond the cure of many diseases, and the genetic modification of plants to improve 1he quantity and quality of food production. But there are simpler developments in biology that can have a much greater impact on society. Consider only one: the possibility of determining the sex of one's child. With offspring gender a matter of choice rather than chance, the production of boys and girls becomes a matter of demand and supply. As economists have learned, this can create instabilities when there is a time lag between a production decision and a marketable product.

College students may see it as a lag, which can make, for example, business school graduates a glut on the market when graduation time comes, though they were in high demand a admission time. Economists call this the “hog cycle”: farmers increase their production for hogs when pork prices are high, thus depressing the prices when the hogs come to market.

Choice of gender at birth can turn the ratio of men to women at time of adulthood into a massive hog cycle, ricocheting back and forth from an oversupply of men to an oversupply of women, a ratio perpetually out of balance. The lag between a production decision, to have a boy child or a girl child, and a marketable product is about 20 years, a lag that could make the demand and supply of the two sexes perpetually unsynchronized.

This example raises the question, does a greater range of choice always mean greater happiness? Not if the aggregation of those choices produces unintended social consequences. Yet as biology undergoes a knowledge explosion, choice replaces chance in an increasing number of areas - and with choice, social dilemmas that we've never before confronted.

But the technological changes may not be the most consequential of those you will experience. Demographic changes will make America a far different place than it is now. This is already evident in the changes that have taken place; but those changes have only begun. As an example, a recent newspaper contained an account of “gang wars” in Long Beach California, between youth of the old settlers and the newer immigrants. The “old settlers” were not Anglos, but Mexican Americans, themselves immigrants of a few years back. The new immigrants were Cambodians, 45,000 strong.

The struggle between the “old settler” Mexicans and the “new immigrant” Cambodians in Long Beach is only the forerunner of the future. The transformation of multiple economic markets, largely confined within each nation state, to worldwide international markets that ignore national boundaries has begun as the 20th Century draws to a close. (A similar transformation of multiple markets within a nation to a single nationwide economic system occurred earlier in this Century, with the decline in number of substance households; the birth of radio, which began the widespread advertising of products produced for a national market, and the arrival of movies, which generated a demand for uniform goods.) This worldwide economic system is leading, and will continue to lead, to migration on a massive scale.

The United States itself will become, not a nation with “majority whites” and various minorities, such as African Americans, Hispanics, and Asian Americans. It will become instead a nation in which we are all minorities. Now as any sociologist knows, when there are two or more groups, none of which is in a majority or clearly dominant, there come to be struggles for power that are absent when there is clear-cut dominance. The gang wars of Long Beach are an example, but turf battles are fought not only among teen-age gangs, but in city councils, in state and national legislatures, in local elections, in schools (and within the teaching staff of a school), in residential communities. Thus an indirect consequence of the creation of a worldwide economic system will be a plethora of local interethnic struggles for dominance. In the earlier period of mass immigration to the United States, this potential conflict was reduced by a melting pot ideology and a broad desire to assimilate to an “American” standard. But the melting pot rhetoric has given way to multicultural rhetoric, and the immigration experience as the 21st Century replaces the 20th will certainly not duplicate that of a century earlier.

I have described a number of changes that you can expect, changes that will make the world you confront through adulthood different from the one into which you were born. But you will also create a new world, a world that is partly due to these changes that cannot be wished away, but is partly due to your actions. When you are ready to hand over the world to your successors, it will be a world you have created, a world shaped not merely be the changes I have described, but by your actions. A part of those actions will consist of your resolution of certain dilemmas, dilemmas that one can see even now, but dilemmas that will become more urgent as the changes I have described take place. I want to indicate what some of those dilemmas are. As with all true dilemmas, there is no easy choice: There is not a “good answer” and a “bad answer.'' However the dilemma is resolved, there are benefits and there are costs.

National coherence vs. multiculturalism

An important dilemma you will confront is a consequence of the immigration that accompanies the emerging global economic system. This is the dilemma of national coherence vs. maintenance of diverse cultural heritages. The issue currently can be seen in the battles over multiculturalism in schools and colleges. There is much to be said on both sides of the dilemma. On the national coherence side, there are the examples of countries split between different cultures or fragmented along ethnic and linguistic lines: countries as different as the Soviet Union, Canada, and Belgium. On the cultural heritage side is the importance of such a heritage to family functioning, to pride and self-respect, to one's identity. And also on the cultural heritage side is the long-term value to the nation's culture of inputs from the variety of vigorous cultures that immigrants bring to it. To lose these cultural variations is like losing from the evolutionary scene a living species that becomes extinct.

Experience in other countries suggests that maintenance of different linguistic enclaves within a nation state is harmful to national coherence, often disastrously so. For linguistic enclaves to live in proximity and harmony, coexistent with national coherence, would require some social inventions; but short of that, how can this dilemma be solved as the 21st Century forces it on us? It is a dilemma that I place in your lap, as new graduates, as young adults, to mull over and, as you begin to create the world of the 21st Century, to address.

Commercial society vs. communal society

There arises a dilemma today that goes fundamentally to the way a society is organized. This can be described as a dilemma of commercial society vs. communal society. Commercial society is built on formal organizations, within which persons are compensated for their individual contributions, and between which all transactions are (ideally, at least) at arm's length. An ideal commercial society is one in which each person's incentives are such that, in acting to realize his own interests, he acts in such a way that he contributes to the welfare of the whole. In a social system with incentives appropriately defined, the invisible hand of Adam Smith is in operation: Although each is concerned only with his own interests, each contributes to the whole. Self-interest is king, but all benefit, because the structure of incentives is well defined.

But this is only one way to organize a social system. In communal society, no transactions are at arm's length; all are between persons who see the transaction from the other's point of view as well as his own. The community consists of persons whose selves are highly interpenetrating; each takes the other's interest into account in determining his own action. There are differences and disputes, just as there are in commercial society. But in the normal course of everyday affairs, each is concerned with the other’s welfare, and the actions of each are modulated by this concern.

The society of a hundred years ago, at the end of the 19th Century, was one in which communal society was still strong, but was under insistent challenge from commercial society. The family was still the dominant social institution, and the church, as its natural extension, was strong as well. Traveling salesman jokes began at that time, for they depended on the confrontation of these two societies: the traveling salesman, a representative of the commercial society, and the farmer's daughter, a representative of the communal society. Such jokes could not arise earlier, because the traveling salesman was not yet present.

In the meantime, over the last hundred years, the insistent challenge of the commercial society has overwhelmed the communal society. The family is no longer the dominant institution in society; it has been replaced by the corporation. First the husband and father left the household as the locus of his productive labor, for the job in a factory or office; more recently, the woman has similarly left the household for employment in the commercial society. The farms, which in the 19th Century were the principal locus of production and of residence, have given way to the family, the office, the city and suburb. The traveling salesman jokes no longer make the rounds; they are irrelevant, because the farmer's daughter is no longer on the scene.

But this movement from communal society to commercial society leaves several problems in its wake. The interpenetration of selves that is intrinsic to the communal society meant that its institutions embraced quite naturally the problems of dependency: care of the young, the old, and the infirm; care of friends and relatives who are temporarily down on their luck; incorporation into the household of those who had no immediate family. There was no homelessness, except for the temporary dislocations of immigration. Government-provided welfare was not seen as necessary; the communal bonds within the family, the church, and the community were the source of the welfare activities that sustained persons in time of need. It is no accident that today, in the full flower of the commercial society, it is the churches which are most effective in providing food and shelters for the homeless.

The hallmark of the commercial society is celebration of the individual. From the perspective of the communal society, the result is rampant individualism, egoistic and selfish. From the perspective of the commercial society, it is liberation, freedom from the millstone created by the interpenetrating selves of the communal society.

Yet it is unlikely that a society can continue to exist based wholly upon the individualistic incentive structures of the commercial society, no matter how well designed. It is likely that both mechanisms of a social system, the incentive structures of commercial society and the interpenetration of selves of communal society, are necessary to the society's functioning. Even at the heart of commercial society, one sees signs of a hankering for less arm's-length transactions. Commercial banks advertise that your banker will be a person who comes to know you and your needs, who sees your situation through your eyes.

Brokers advertise that they are not engaged in transactions, but relationships. In effect, they are saying that there will not be the arm's-length transactions of commercial society, but the interpenetration of selves of communal society. Japanese export firms, the most spectacularly successful representatives of commercial society, owe a great part of their success to communal bonds: They depend upon, and generate, an extensive degree of identification of their employees with the firm; and they operate in a society that continues to depend heavily on communal bonds: The family is strong: the neighborhood is strong, even in urban areas; mothers selflessly sacrifice their self interests for the success of their children, especially their sons; and the sons in turn care for their aging parents as they become dependent. All this appears an anomaly, and perhaps it is only temporary, merely a way station between a communal society and a commercial one from which the communal bonds have been purged.

The dilemma of these two societies, commercial and communal, will confront you individually and collectively. It will confront you individually as you divide your life between family, community, and church on the one hand and work, career and individual freedom on the other. It will confront you collectively as you construct the institutions of the future. How will you construct, or reconstruct, the welfare institutions of society, settings in which children are raised to adulthood, the means by which the elderly are cared for, the institutions for caring for the sick, the ways of coping with the plight of the homeless?

The current institutions for addressing dependency in society, a crude amalgam of the remnants of communal society and defective constructions of commercial society, are less than adequate: many families are failing their children, yet schools have not filled the breech: there is a health care crisis; the homeless increase in numbers each year, and the welfare rolls show a long-term upward trend.

The dilemma, at a collective level, is a dilemma of which structures to strengthen, the incentive structures of commercial society that when well designed will motivate individuals to work in ways that while benefitting themselves financially and in their careers also benefit others; or the less tangible structures of relationships based on interpenetration of selves - structures that lead persons directly to care for dependent others. Perhaps the dilemma is not so stark as this; perhaps there are effective combinations that can build upon both the external incentive structures and the internal interpenetration of selves. If so, it will be your task to discover these combinations. But however the dilemma is resolved, this will be the society you create.

There are other dilemmas that you will confront as you move through adulthood. I have mentioned two, national coherence vs. multiculturalism, and commercial society vs. communal society, both brought about by the technological and demographic changes of modern society. Your resolution of these dilemmas, the two I have described and the others I have not, will give as a result a new society - the society you will create. I wish you well in this task.


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