From Durkheim on, many leading figures in sociology have claimed a special place within the discipline for matters of comparison - Durkheim, indeed, saw comparative sociology, not as a branch of the discipline, but rather as 'sociology itself'. Comparison, of course, can take different forms, across time as well as space: the temporal/historical movement from pre-industrial to industrial capitalist forms of social organisation and production, for instance, as well as the spatial/geographical difference between the 'three worlds'. However, many changes in the world, as well as to sociological thinking, have occurred since the days of the 'founding fathers', including an increasingly politicised awareness of the assumptions built into 'development' models of the relationship between 'first' and 'third worlds', an equally politicised insistence that the Whig notion of progress is all too inadequate a way of thinking about the change from pre-industrial to industrial forms of society, and of course a feminist-inspired awareness of the ironies of the very patriarchal idea of 'founding fathers' for a discipline that has prided itself on its intellectual radicalism.
While many sociologists readily recognise the importance of concepts such as 'comparison', 'development', 'change', and 'social transformation', the intellectual and political trickiness of these has also become a part of the repertoire of contemporary sociological thinking. How, for instance, can western-derived ideas about advancement and progress, which are as much political, cultural and historical as they are economic, be prised apart from the kinds and forms of economic development that many formerly 'third world' now 'post-colonial' or 'Southern' national states want to embrace? How can even an apparently physiological state as the menopause be 'compared' across different societies when 'being a woman' has such different resonance, entails different experiences, is constructed through different forms of social expression and regulation, and all this in turn feeds back into how bodies as well as the processes of un/becoming women are understood and indeed felt? And how can change be adequately theorised when the baselines by which the notion is conceptualised, measured and evaluated remain not only largely taken-for-granted but also rooted in local knowledges imperialistically generalised as global phenomena? The key terms, then, are predicated upon hierarchical, gendered, essentialist, imperialist notions of states, persons and relationships; but they seem to be all that sociology presently has to work with.
These very different examples throw into relief two closely related issues that surround all the many manifestations of the 'comparative project' and have been the subject of much recent debate. The first is the conceptual issue of precisely what it is that is being compared, whether this is really of 'like with like', and how intellectually to grapple with the inevitable imperfections of matching that result in practice. The second is the methodological issue of what kinds of data, collected in what kinds of ways, and by whom and for what purposes, 'will do' for the comparative purposes in hand. There are political but also epistemological reverberations here, for these issues also raise central questions about knowing - who claims to know? by what means are competing knowledge-claims adjudicated and by whom? how are knowledge and mere opinion distinguished? who is seen to possess knowledge? who are the gatekeepers in knowledge production and distribution processes.
And of course the notion of 'social transformation' which stands at the head of this editorial call for papers does not stand apart here. Once we start to ask simple questions - such as what is being transformed and as compared against what? at what point can 'transformation' be discerned and what is the baseline from which it takes off? who defines this term and how is it used? why is it applied to some states and conditions (usually those that don't have 'it') but not others? - its implicatedness becomes immediately apparent. Once more the conjunction of the political and the epistemological is impressed upon us, and once more the questions raised have crucial consequence in the world as well as in the discipline.
This editorial call for papers on the broad theme of social transformation is, then, a call for a range of discussions about issues and problematics which are crucially important for the discipline of sociology, but also of central importance for how we understand processes of social change in the world. It is in this connection that the call for papers is being made jointly with the UNESCO MOST Programme <http://www.unesco.org/most>, and a brief account of the three main areas in which the MOST Programme encourages research initiatives will also be found as a Research Resource in this issue of Sociological Research Online.
The MOST Programme is concerned with encouraging international comparative social science projects as part of its remit of encouraging the development of 'sustainable links' between social scientific and policy-making communities so as to show the relevance of social science for policy- formulation. Sociological Research Online is concerned with encouraging the international community of sociologists to publish high quality work on the centrally important issues that confront and challenge the discipline, and there can be few issues of greater importance than those that surround the comparative project.
A conventional print journal would perhaps publish a 'special issue' in which papers and reviews on 'Social Transformation? Issues in Comparison, Development and Change' could be published. As an electronic journal, Sociological Research Online will publish work on this theme in a number of different ways.
First, articles and reviews on the broad theme of 'Social Transformation' should be sent to the journal in the usual way, and will be refereed and published once accepted. The theme of 'Social Transformation' should be interpreted broadly and inclusively, and theoretical interrogations of the central concepts as well as substantive explorations of them are equally welcomed. Such articles and reviews will be indicated in each successive issue of the journal by appearing on its title page under the heading of 'Social Transformation', and readers will note that two articles already appear under this heading in the current issue.
Second, from the March 1998 issue (volume 3, number 1) of Sociological Research Online, there will be a new 'Thematic Issue' on Social Transformation. Here all relevant articles, reviews and research resources from previous and current issues which bear on the broad theme of 'Social Transformation? Issues in Comparison, Development and Change' will be collected together for readers interested in following through discussions on this theme which Sociological Research Online has featured. And as with our other Thematic Collections, there will be a 'Debating Forum' attached to the Social Transformation collection, so that readers can comment on or add to the material published within it.
Third, Sociological Research Online together with the UNESCO MOST Programme is interested in helping to get off the ground an email discussion list on the broad theme of 'Social Transformation? Issues in Comparison, Development and Change'. For an initial period, this will be loosely attached to the journal, although eventually it is envisaged it will have a fully independent existence. The aim is to establish a truly international discussion list to enable scholars across the world who are working on any aspect of Social Transformation - conceived as widely as possible - to be in contact with each other, to exchange ideas and views, and to encourage the development of research and writing on this broad theme.
Any reader with a sociological background of work on the broad theme of 'Social Transformation? Issues in Comparison, Development and Change' who would be interested in joining the Editorial Board to act as a list manager should contact the Editor with a brief CV, letter of application and the names and addresses of two referees. Please note that applicants can be based in any part of the world, but must have an institutional base and email address. Applications should be received by 1 March 1998, and will be discussed by the present members of the Editorial Board.
Finally, comments on this call for papers, as with all other aspects of the journal, can be sent to the 'Dear Editor...' section of The Pinboard. I look forward to hearing from you.