Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2000


Irwin Deutscher (2000) 'A Bit of Sorcery: Peering into the Next Century'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 4, no. 4, <>

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Received: 23/2/2000      Accepted: 23/2/2000      Published: 29/2/2000

A Bit of Sorcery: Peering into the Next Century

I am inclined to leave prediction to magicians and sorcerers. By training and talent they are more fit to exercise that skill than most of us. Yet sometimes it seems possible to sense the gradual awakening of a redefinition of social reality. There are also times when the pressure of events imposes itself on what constitutes social reality. I intend to provide an example of each of these two processes which I believe is likely (and hopefully) to occur in the twenty-first century. If I am correct we will have a better, or at least a safer, world in the years to come. Both have to do with preventing us from hurting one another. Other than that they have little in common. First, a caveat: when I speak of reality, I do not intend the snobbery of suggesting that my world is a real one and other people's is not. There are as many social realities as there are social groups and it is pure ethnocentrism to use such an expression as "the real world."

Redefining Social Reality: The Mistreatment of National Minorities

An important instance of a gradual awakening is the growing acceptance of human rights as a universal social phenomenon which requires social action. Accompanying this is the diminished power of the archaic notion of "national interests" (exemplified in the United States by Henry Kissinger's foreign policy) as opposed to "humanitarian interests" (exemplified in the United States by Madeline Albrights's foreign policy). The old nation state, especially in western Europe, has already begun to delegate important economic and military powers to international organizations. I am not speaking of the catch word "globalization" which describes a phenomenon which may occur in the distant future and which seems to apply primarily to the production and distribution of goods. I am speaking of processes which already have begun to exist and which appear to have a momentum of their own.

The self-centered motivation of "what's in it for us" is being replaced by the humanitarian ideal that peoples must not be permitted to collectively suffer under the power of other peoples. We have seen this new ideal timidly implemented too late in Bosnia, too halfhearted in Kosovo, too cowardly in Somalia and Lebanon and hardly at all in Rwanda. I do not mention Kuwait because of the coincidence of both national interests and humanitarian ones in that case. The idea of national sovereignty imbedded in the international political traditions of the past century as well as in the charter of the United Nations, dissolves under these conditions. There is, I believe, increasing acceptance of the principle that a nation does not have the right to mistreat its own minorities.

The stumbling block to this developing process is less the dissolution of national sovereignty than it is the question of how to confront major powers such as the United States, China, or Russia when they misbehave. It is also true that a contradiction appears when the creation of new national sovereignties is the most immediately effective means of preventing ethnic conflict. The partition of Czechoslovakia is an example. Although sometimes necessary, this solution is contrary to the more general movement toward the reduction of national sovereignty.

The Pressure of Events: Accidents as Social Facts

Certain types of events universally defined as undesirable can occur with increasing frequency over a long period of time. This can be accompanied by a tolerant resignation by the society which disapproves of those events. From grand sociopolitical processes, we move to the more social psychological ones induced by the funny word "accidents." E.C. Hughes used to advise his students to listen for the funny words if they hoped to grasp the peculiarities of the worlds in which they did their field work. His somewhat myopic concern was with the world of work. But we can listen for the funny words anywhere. Consider the word "accident." The events called accidents are among the leading cause of death in both the developed and the undeveloped parts of the world. Most of these accidents involve motor vehicles cars, buses, trucks, mopeds, motorcycles, etc. Webster's unabridged English dictionary defines accident this way: a happening; an event that takes place without one's foresight or expectation: an event which proceeds from an unknown cause, or is an unusual effect of a known cause, and therefore not expected; chance; casualty, contingency.

Does this definition fit the orderly, regular occurrence of vehicles colliding with one another mostly during predictable time periods and on predictable routes? Radio producers in every city in the world know better. They program daily broadcasts of traffic conditions especially during the morning journey to work and the evening return. They know and their listeners know that there will be collisions at those times. And in order to keep the traffic moving everyone needs to know precisely where and when the anticipated events are taking place.

Emile Durkheim called such regularity a social fact. In his case, it was suicide that exhibited stable rates which varied by social categories. I submit the hypothesis that these collisions we refer to as accidents are in fact orderly social facts. Where and when they will occur are predictable. It is likely that the social categories most likely to be involved age, gender marital status, social class -- are also predictable. I suspect that in this new century the general public will be made aware of the orderliness of these events. Once they come to realize that these are not accidents at all and once the data are available which facilitates the redefinition of them as predictable and thus controllable, then the tolerant fatalistic resignation which now exists will be converted into a war on traffic collisions.

What is needed is for a 21st century Emile Durkheim of vehicle collisions to emerge to conduct the necessary research and to properly publicize it. This is research in everyone's' interest and because of that it is easily fundable by insurance companies, automobile clubs, traffic safety and traffic control agencies as well as automobile manufacturers to mention a few possible sources. In many parts of the world we address the problem only with efforts to relieve traffic congestion by building bigger and better highways or persuading citizens to use mass transportation. But projects designed torelieve congestion do not address the futility of altering events resulting from the funny and inappropriate word "accidents."

A Hopeful New Century

What do these two seemingly disparate predictions have in common? First, they are both optimistic about the new century. Second they bode well for the repute of sociology. With the help of a sociological perspective such major causes of death, misery, and mutilation as tribal warfare and motor vehicle collisions can be understood and largely resolved. Neither will be eliminated completely but there will be a significant reduction to the amount of harm we do to one another either intentionally or carelessly. In the 21st Century there will be statues erected to sociological heroes of discovery and the most coveted Nobel prize will go to the new Durkheims who provide knowledge and solutions to two of the worlds most deadly and serious problems.

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2000