Towards a Sociology of Endings

by Graham Crow
University of Southampton

Sociological Research Online, Volume 10, Issue 3,

Received: 25 May 2005     Accepted: 23 Sep 2005    Published: 30 Sep 2005


Sociological commentaries on the future are frequently built around the claim that we are witnessing the beginning of a new social phenomenon as a result of an existing one coming to an end. Recent examples of discussions framed in terms of new beginnings include reference to the emergence of new forms of family, community, politics, slavery and the international division of labour, while the focus on endings includes analyses of the end of marriage, masculinity, work, class, capitalism, development, history, and the world as we know it. This paper argues that such claims exaggerate the discontinuous nature of social change, and that a more nuanced account of the processes involved in beginnings and endings needs to be developed. As a contribution to this project, ten propositions are advanced about the processes whereby old social phenomena come to an end and new ones emerge. For example, people's perceptions about whether they stand to gain or lose from the substitution of a new social arrangement for an old one are volatile, and this has major implications for the prediction of their behaviour. Taken together, the ten propositions offer a distinctive perspective on the understanding of long-term social change.

Keywords: Endings; Social Change; Discontinuity; Continuity


1.1 Our attention is frequently drawn to the novelty of contemporary patterns of social organization. This is true, for example, of new forms of family relationships (Stacey 1998), of community relationships (Etzioni 1997), of politics (Hall and Jacques 1989), of poverty (Cheal 1996), of capitalism (Sennett 1998), of slavery (Bales 2000), and of the international division of labour (Cohen 1987; Harris 1996). Taken together, these and related changes can be regarded as heralding nothing less than the emergence of ‘a new society’ (Castells 1998: 340). The close of the millennium was correspondingly also a period of highlighted endings. Davis has called the final decade of the twentieth century ‘an age of inexplicable anxiety’ (2002: 4). This period and since has seen announcements concerning the end of masculinity (MacInnes 1998), of privacy (Whitaker 1999), of work (Rifkin 2000), of unemployment (Leadbeater and Mulgan 1997), of the nation-state (Guéhenno 1995; Ohmae 1996), of organized capitalism (Lash and Urry 1987), of capitalism as we knew it (Gibson-Graham 1996), of socialism (Hobsbawm 1994: ch.16), of the growth paradigm (Ayres 1998), of development (Thomas 2000), of history (Fukuyama 1992), and of the world as we know it (Wallerstein 1999). The same period saw pronouncements on the death of class (Pakulski and Waters 1996), of heterosexuality (Archer 2002), of photography (Mirzoeff 1999: 88), and of distance (Cairncross 1998). More uncertain variations on these themes are contained in Silva and Smart’s (1999) The New Family?, in Lewis’s (2001) The End of Marriage?, and in Kumar’s (2001: ch.6) consideration of whether the events of 1989 and the transition from state socialism marked the end of Utopia.

1.2 Endings, and the opportunities for new beginnings for which they open the way, thus merit some attention because they are so frequently a point of reference. Claims to have identified the emergence of a new social phenomenon and the end of an existing one are rhetorically powerful, but assessing them is by no means straightforward. To begin with, there are varying interests at stake in the promotion of certain social phenomena as ‘new’ and others as ‘dead’ or ‘dying’. Most social transformations have ‘losers’ as well as ‘winners’ (Crow and Rees 1999), even though the voices of the former tend to be drowned out by the latter. Secondly, the momentousness of social changes is not always apparent to the people living through them and, as a result, interpretation of their perceptions of continuity needs to be undertaken with caution. Conversely, developments that can seem momentous as they unfold can come to be regarded as less so with the passage of time. As Game and Metcalfe note, it is often the case that ‘events that we consider as beginnings later appear as continuations’ (1996: 70) when the opportunity has been taken to reassess the degree of their novelty. Thirdly, careful attention deserves to be paid to the processes by which beginnings and endings come about, not least because understanding of these processes allows a clearer discrimination between major long-term trends and less significant and less enduring patterns of change. There is more to the analysis and explanation of radical breaks with the past than simply invoking the terminology of long-term social change, important though concepts such as industrialization, democratization and individualization undoubtedly are (Crow 2002b). In general, the idea of a radical break with the past that is associated with such arguments is questionable in many instances where such claims are made, as happens for example where sight is lost of underlying continuities by focusing only on those elements in a situation that have changed.

1.3 These debates about beginnings and endings are not new within sociology. The debate over whether white-collar workers constitute the new working class in capitalist societies is a longstanding one (Hyman and Price 1983), for example, as are the debates about new classes elsewhere (Djilas 1957; Lane 1971; Szelenyi 1988) and about the novelty of new social movements (Scott 1990). Likewise, it is the case that there has been prolonged discussion about the end of ideology (Bell 1960), the end of the third world (Harris 1987), the eclipse of community (Stein 1964), and the death of the family (Cooper 1972). If we go still further back, we can understand the classical sociologists as exploring the implications of the end of the old social order and assessing the prospects for a new integration and a new humanity (Eldridge 1971), although it is salutary to remember Taylor’s (1967) observation that Marx and Engels in their Communist Manifesto, published in 1848, mistook capitalism’s birth pangs for its death throes.

1.4 My own thinking about these issues has its roots in a variety of different fields, between which comparison can be instructive. The first of these is the field of family farming businesses. O’Hagan’s (2001) The End of British Farming follows in a tradition of writing on agriculture in which present developments are taken to mark ‘the end of a way of life’. This book was researched before the foot-and-mouth epidemic, and echoes the long-standing idea that family farmers are ‘farming for survival’ (Newby et al 1981). Parallels exist between this literature and analyses in development studies of the anticipated demise of peasant households (Crow 1997: ch.6). Family sociology more generally draws attention to the question of whether and when it is appropriate for individuals to concede defeat and move on by making a fresh start. Simpson suggests that his approach to divorce as ‘an anthropology of endings’ provides ‘a parable of contemporary social life’ (1998: 3) in which people’s social and cultural organization has been disrupted by trends such as individualization. These trends force a readjustment of previously taken-for-granted expectations concerning marriage as a lifetime commitment. Sennett (1998: 25) has noted the parallel between this shift and the adjustment to the ‘no long term’ culture relating to work.

1.5 A further relevant field of enquiry that links in to family studies is community studies. The theme of the loss of community has been prominent in sociology since the foundation of the discipline and has rightly been criticised for exaggerating the demise of community relationships (Crow and Allan 1994). Communities have proved to be more enduring than they were expected to be by writers who regarded them as nothing more than ‘the social residue of modernity’ (Cooke 1990: ch.2). The classic studies of Banbury by Stacey and her colleagues (1960; 1975), for example, highlight in their titles the capacity of communities to combine important elements of continuity alongside change. Having said that, there are instances of particular communities coming to an end, and the stages by which this happens are instructive. Porteus (1989) describes the processes whereby Howdendyke was Planned to Death, while the story of St Kilda’s decline and eventual evacuation in 1930 continues to attract researchers’ attention (Fleming 2000;Steel 1994).

1.6 The literature on change in socio-economic systems constitutes a third body of research that is available to be drawn upon in order to develop the theoretical understanding of endings and beginnings. Much has been written about the end of state socialism in many countries in 1989-91, but the story of how the Soviet model became what Arnason (1993) calls The Future that Failed is frequently oversimplified. As Kumar has noted, the decline of communism illustrates the point that ‘the end may take a long time to come’ (2000: 65), and it is worth remembering that the system survived the so-called ‘dead period’ of the 1970’s. The experience of a period of stalemate during which pressures for change were resisted by formerly dominant groups aware of their increasingly limited ability to assert their authority preceded the end not only of communism in states such as Poland (Crow 2002a: ch.5) but also the South African apartheid system. As Fredrickson (2000: 187) notes, the supersession of apartheid did not involve a sharp break with the past but a much more lengthy and complex transition. The theorization of endings and beginnings presents a challenge in each of these bodies of literature: on family relationships where the unpredictability of interactions has to be accommodated (Simpson 1998); on community relationships where the recurrent idea of change as loss (Marris 1987) exists alongside the pursuit of new beginnings (Jasper 2000); and on socio-economic transformation in post-communist societies and in South Africa where the dramatic events of the late 1980s and early 1990s were part of much longer-term processes (Ray 1993).

Ten Propositions about Endings and Social Change

2.1 In order to explore the issues that are raised when thinking about endings, ten propositions can be advanced.

2.2 Proposition 1: processes of decline are responded to in various ways. Hirschman’s celebrated identification of the three options of Exit, Voice and Loyalty has applicability beyond the decline in firms, organizations and states on which that study focuses, as Hirschman himself notes in his remarks about divorce and about comparative analysis (1970: vii, 5). Jasper’s claim that ‘Americans are quick to exit’ (2000: 183) is one contemporary application of these ideas, and it is interesting to speculate on the geo-political peculiarities that have produced this long-established characteristic of American culture. By contrast, in the St Kilda story, some of the islanders were clearly much more prepared than others to contemplate the exit option and the search for a new beginning (Steel 1994). Goffman’s (1962: 487-8) identification of promotion, abdication and involuntary loss as three types of disengagement made in the context of his analysis of how people respond to change provides an alternative typology of endings to explore in this context.

2.3 Proposition 2: Long-term decline is not necessarily perceived as such by those living through it, because of imperfect information (Golden 1997), self-persuasion (Boudon 1994), denial (Cohen 2001), nostalgia (Adam 1990: 140), or addiction (Elster 2000). As a result, decisive action may be preceded by lengthy periods of procrastination. Burgoyne et al’s discussion of how divorce often follows ‘an ultimately fruitless, final effort to make a marriage work’ (1987: 31) illustrates this point at the individual level. It is instructive that Goffman refers to the process of ‘de-courting’ (1962: 491) as an example of how people’s expectations may need to be actively deflated as part of coming to terms with a changed situation, and this idea is consistent with Hart’s (1976), Alvarez’s (1983), and Vaughan’s (1988) more formalised models of the stages that transitions from coupledom involve. Goffman also suggests that his analysis of the need for active management of people’s sense of self applies to others, such as those coming to terms with disabling conditions and who in the extreme are becoming ‘socially dead’ (1962: 504).

2.4 Proposition 3: People may be persuaded to remain loyal to existing arrangements even when they are undeniably in decline because they are convinced by one or more strands of The Rhetoric of Reaction (Hirschman 1991), the argument that efforts to change a situation are bound to fail or to bring even more undesirable consequences. Such ideas have been advanced, for example, to explain the persistence of support for Nazism long after military defeat became inevitable (Rees 1997). In Beevor’s analysis, ‘Germany had fought on for as long and as bitterly as it did because the idea of defeat produced "a conviction of total catastrophe"’ (2002: 415). Similar points could be made about the reasons behind the actions of those in the Boer war who fought ‘to the bitter end’ (Lee 1985). Schivelbusch’s analysis of the history of the American South suggests that even the final defeat of the Confederacy did not destroy attachment to its ideals, since the notion of cultural superiority not being ceded at the point of military surrender in 1865 provided an ‘emotional fortress’; following biblical parallels, Southerners could reason that ‘defeat did not destroy but rather exalted the spirit’ (2004: 64, 69), and that this culture was worth preserving.

2.5 Proposition 4: The sociology of emotions and rational choice theory both provide plausible starting points for the analysis of the decision to cut one’s losses by ending involvement in existing relations that are in decline, if and when it is taken. Both approaches are dynamic, which is important because people’s perceptions about whether they stand to gain or lose from the substitution of a new social arrangement for an old one are volatile. As Hirschman (1982) has noted, people’s patterns of involvement in collective behaviour have a tendency to shift over the course of their engagement in the public sphere; at some points calculation of individual benefits may come to the fore, while at others the emotional aspects of relations with peers will crowd out this mentality. Waddington and his colleagues’ account of how even miners with a strong tradition of collective resistance ‘had grown tired of living in constant insecurity over the future of their jobs’ identifies ‘demoralisation’ (1994: 145) as an important limitation on their ability to pursue rational action. The focus on the rationality and on the emotional dimension of behaviour makes the comparison of analyses based on these competing foundations a promising enterprise. Both approaches thus have the potential to take further the debate over the usefulness of the concept of ‘strategy’ (with all its connotations of rationality) in the analysis of decision-making (Crow 1989), as well as the more general debate over the relationship between passions and interests as bases of actions (Hirschman 1977).

2.6 Proposition 5: The social context of decision-making concerning endings is crucial. Craib’s criticism of the view that ‘in the modern world, the self is not something that is consistently rooted in the surrounding community’ (1994: 113) challenges Giddens’s influential account of how decision-making has become individualized, for example in relation to divorce and contemporary family relationships. The reassertion of the social processes that influence decision-making points instead to ideas like ‘gendered moral rationalities’ (Duncan and Edwards 1999) and to the positions of unequal power in intimate relationships (Jamieson 1998), that is, perspectives in which the notion of individualized decision-making is questioned. In the field of work, Pahl has argued that people respond to the situation in which ‘identity is not securely fixed by either community, class, kin or gender’ (1995: 194) by looking for social rather than individual solutions to the problem of what to do at the end of successful careers.

2.7 Proposition 6: The process of moving towards and beyond endings is rarely a smooth, linear progression through a succession of stages. Fagin and Little’s (1984) model of people whose employment has been ended responding by passing through phases of shock, denial and optimism, anxiety and distress, and resignation and adjustment has rightly been criticised for its determinism, as have similar models in other areas such as disability that involve a progression through to acceptance of ‘social death’ (Morris 1991). Ebaugh’s (1988) Becoming an Ex demonstrates that the process of ‘role exit’ is often erratic and incomplete, even among those people who enter into the process voluntarily. That said, it is nevertheless possible to identify some commonalities in people’s reactions to a range of endings. Schivelbusch identifies a ‘first stage of reaction to defeat’ common to the case studies he has researched in which ‘surprise, dismay, disbelief and the search for scapegoats’ all figure, before people ‘examine their history for the deeper reasons behind their failure’ (2004: 69). Nor are such generalizations restricted to endings involving failures, as Pahl’s (1995) observations about the tendency for career success to be followed by anxiety illustrates.

2.8 Proposition 7: Accounts of change after the event are vulnerable to post-hoc rationalizations in which the confusion and indeterminacy of events as they unfolded is played down and inevitability emphasised. Aron’s remark about how the language of ‘apparent necessity… creates an illusion of fatality’ (1961:178) is pertinent here. Burgoyne and Clarke’s respondents’ accounts of why their previous marriages ended contain a number of such rationalisations that reflected the ‘careful scripting’ (1984: 76) that had gone into their construction. It is instructive that Game and Metcalfe also use the process of becoming divorced to illustrate their point that the beginning of a story ‘can only be seen in retrospect; when it was beginning people were unaware of its full significance… Beginnings are always written from hindsight’ (1996: 70). The sense of predictability that such narratives convey often stands in stark contrast to the lack of certainty that people have while changes are unfolding about the direction in which they are heading.

2.9 Proposition 8: The popular metaphors through which ideas about endings are expressed have a bearing on how people respond to them.The ideas of reaching ‘the end of the line’, ‘the bitter end’, or a ‘point of no return’, ‘flogging a dead horse’, ‘giving something up as a bad job’, being on a ‘sinking ship’, ‘fighting a losing battle’, ‘throwing good money after bad’, ‘cutting one’s losses’, ‘writing something off’, and the proverbial ‘straw that breaks the camel’s back’ have different implications from the ideas of a ‘turning of the tide’, ‘calling it a day’, ‘the darkest hour coming before the dawn’, or ‘one door closing and another opening’ which also mark end points but are less linear and more rhythmic in their understanding of time (Young 1988). Modernity’s linear conceptions of time produce more final understandings of endings than the conceptions of ‘cycles of renewal and regeneration’ (Adam 2004: 14) that characterise ancient perspectives on temporal processes.

2.10 Proposition 9: Sociological analysis is weakened when framed in terms of over-arching processes of social change that are presented as irresistible at the level of individuals, communities, or wider societies and socio-economic systems.The anticipation of the decline of Soviet communism was often framed in these terms (Collins 1986: ch.8;Collins 1999: ch.2), yet the timing and the style and diversity of the endings of that system were from such a perspective surprising (Kumar 2001). The same point may be made about the history of St Kilda, where Steel’s identification of the events of World War One as ‘the beginning of the end’ (1994: ch.11) is arguably insufficiently open to the possibility of continued habitation. In the field of community studies, there is a long history of accounts framed in terms of the inevitable progress of processes such as industrialization or globalization having to be revised in the light of subsequent divergence from these predicted paths. Similarly, Beck-Gernsheim’s observation that ‘The answer to the question “What next after the family?” is…. the family!’ (2002: ix) is made partly in recognition of the need to counter the idea that the process of individualization will be played out to its logical conclusion of a society of individuals who have dispensed with wider family ties.

2.11 Proposition 10: The analytical problems presented by the processes whereby social arrangements come to an end have very wide relevance.The ending of life by euthanasia or by the decision not to resuscitate has particular (but not exclusive) relevance to disability (Wolbring 2001), but the underlying issue of how to determine when a life is no longer worth living has parallels to decisions about when a marriage is no longer worth ‘saving’, a community no longer worth striving to preserve (Gray and Lawrence 2001), a job no longer worth staying in (Barnes et al 2002; Mann 2001), or a socio-economic system no longer worth fighting for. For similar reasons, the actions of people in these fields who pursue ‘lost causes’ have parallels with Luddite opposition (past and present) to technological innovation (Sale 1995). Schivelbusch’s account of how military defeat can lead to people believing themselves to be ‘losers in battle, winners in spirit’ (2004: 19) is also suggestive of parallels with fields of analysis well beyond combatants in war. It is one of the central themes of Goffman’s analysis of endings that losers in these processes need to save face by finding something positive in the experience, and his list of illustrations of this point include not only defeat in war but also job loss, retirement, imprisonment, deportation, and ‘being dropped from a circle of friends or an intimate social relationship’ (1962: 502).

Some General Conclusions

3.1 As Mark Twain might have observed, reports of the demise of various social phenomena have been much exaggerated, as have claims about the emergence of new social phenomena. Morgan’s (1992: 204) remarks about the phenomenon of ‘new men’, to the effect that we have been here before, run parallel to Cohen’s (1987) comment on the new international division of labour, that it is a case of ‘plus ça change’, Harvey’s (1989: ch.3) questioning of the identification of a specific time and date in 1972 marking the end of modernity, and McDowell’s (1992) view that the implications of post-Fordism for gender inequalities are ‘the same old story’. In each of these cases, and others besides, the stress on the novel characteristics of the situation is taken to be disproportionate relative to the continuities that are mistakenly neglected. The appropriate conclusion to draw is that the temptation to tell an attention-grabbing story should be resisted in favour of a more balanced assessment of change and continuity. Frequently this is encapsulated in the preference for the prefix ‘neo-’ over ‘post-’, as is the case, for example, in the debate about what follows Fordism (Amin 1994).

3.2 Attention to continuity is important for a number of reasons, among which is the capacity of social arrangements to persist despite expectations to the contrary. One example of this is provided by analyses of the extent to which farming families manage to Carry on Farming (Gasson et al 1998) in the context of increasingly adverse economic conditions, and even following the disastrous impact of the foot and mouth epidemic in the UK. As Bennett et al note in relation to their study of farmers in Cumbria, where the impact of the epidemic was particularly dramatic, ‘It is perhaps remarkable and certainly contrary to opinion and predictions expressed generally in the farming press that [almost all farmers interviewed] said they would continue farming’ (2002: ii). Of course, one way of making sense of this and related findings is that those who remain are those most predisposed to be ‘stayers’ rather than ‘leavers’, to use Hart’s (1985) distinction. Those with less commitment to staying and/or with a wider range of alternatives open to them would be expected to leave first, as has happened in the context of other declining industries (Crow and Allan 1994: ch.3), but such patterns do not match up to the finality implied by the language of ‘endings’.

3.3 That said, people’s determination to carry on does not mean that they will ultimately succeed in doing so. Numbers of family farms continue to fall, and are predicted to fall further, however determined individual farmers may be. Continuity requires more than a matter of will, and sometimes people are compelled to change by forces beyond their control. This is Goffman’s involuntary disengagement, and it is possible to predict this happening, in general terms, as macro-level social trends unfold. Structural analyses often frame things in terms of ‘contradictions’ or ‘crises’, but such lines of analysis have tended to lose their power to convince because of the time that has elapsed since the crisis of the welfare state (Mishra 1984) and the various crises of capitalism (Habermas 1976; O’Connor 1984) were first identified. As Kumar says, ‘societies can live with their "contradictions", if not comfortably at least tolerably, for long periods’ (1988: 102). Thus while general theories of crisis may sensitise us to the prospect of broad social trends unfolding, their record in terms of illuminating the mechanisms by which change comes about and the timing of that change is less good.

3.4 It is instructive that O’Connor (1987) went on to round out his approach by attempting to draw connections between economic, political and social crises with the ways in which crises are experienced subjectively by individuals. His identification of the need for a theory of how ‘Personality crisis means a turning point in personality development; a time for decisions about life choices and actions’ (1987: 181) highlights the importance of paying attention to the social psychological dimensions of adjusting to change if people’s responses to societal crises are to be understood. Craib’s work on The Importance of Disappointment demonstrates nicely the complex nature of the processes whereby people come to terms with endings in their lives and links this in with the related issue of the source of many of our unrealisable expectations in ‘the myth of self-control and of the all-powerful self’ (1994: 117). Craib’s characterisation of the spirit of the times of late modernity stands in sharp contrast to Mills’s famous opening sentence of The Sociological Imagination (first published in 1959): ‘Nowadays men often feel that their private lives are a series of traps’ (1970: 9), the result of big impersonal forces seemingly beyond their control. But although the spirit of the times may have changed quite markedly, Mills’s argument about the potential of sociology to challenge the conventional wisdom of the day remains a powerful one.

3.5 Finally, we might note that sociologists have a mixed record in relation to realising this potential in the analysis of change, not least in terms of the premature identification of endings and new beginnings. Much is lost when complex analyses are reduced to the stark opposition of change or continuity, as is demonstrated in those more subtle analyses that highlight the ways in which change in one facet of a social phenomenon can contribute to the reproduction of other aspects. But caution about oversimplification regarding social change reinforces the case for a sociological approach to the study of endings. This is not least because there is so much more to be said than economists’ focus on the moment when profit turns to loss, and psychologists’ focus on motivation and individual adjustment. People’s perceptions about whether they stand to gain or lose from the substitution of a new social arrangement for an old one are more complex than the former and more volatile than the latter, and this has major implications for the prediction of their individual and collective behaviour and of longer-term social change.


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