Some musings about the times

By James Gyldenvand

Since the election, I couldn’t help but think of what Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (historian and former speech writer for President Kennedy) once said in a panel discussion on social change. He said that America experiences a cyclical type of political/cultural change.

About every block of time (i.e. 20 years), America takes a hard right or hard left turn culturally speaking, while intermediate time periods (varying in longevity) bridge the wider swings of the cultural pendulum.

Take, for example, FDR’s administration (13 years) which ran through the Great Depression and World War II. Extreme want and fear led to the creation of a more expansive “New Deal” government (a progressive idea).

Mainstream culture then turned much more conservative during the Eisenhower years.

The 1950s had housewife/ breadwinner roles, intact families, a culturally-dominant white middle class, but also highly materialistic goals, racist and sexist ideologies, lack of concern for the environment, a growing military industrial complex, and nationalism to a fault.

The dark side of the 50s led many youth, when they came of age in the 1960s, to self-consciously break the social mores of their time, and replace them with new ones (a liberal cultural era).

But the excesses of the 1960s and 70s (drugs, promiscuity, generalized norm breaking) led to a backlash and growing conservative movement that elected the law and order candidate, Nixon (in 1968), and culminating with the Reagan election in 1980. Social scientists generally view the 1980s as being a conservative decade.

Twenty five years later, the Obama era brought “hope and change” (progressive concepts), followed by conservatism prevailing electorally on Nov. 8. The back and forth continues; sometimes two steps forward and one step back, and sometimes the reverse.

History happens as actions beget reactions which beget actions, and so forth. At any given time, those who believe they are on the losing side of the culture wars (regardless of their preferred sides), can always take solace in the soothing thought that “this too will pass.” A sociological view of society tells us that one constant is… social interaction and change. The clock is already ticking toward something different and new. How long the transition will take is anybody’s guess.

One of my major objectives as a professor at FM is to encourage my students to think sociologically as a result of taking my courses: Introduction to Sociology, Diversity in America, Sociology of Families, and Deviant Behavior and Social Control. The sociological perspective fosters an awareness of broad cultural and social patterns, as well as one’s personal location within those patterns.

Our personal lives are played out at a particular place and time; biography intersects history and society. While we are being made by “society,” society in turn is being made by us. An interdependent relationship exists between the self and society; one is dependent upon the other. In that sense, sociology promises to be a consciousness raising discipline.

Students, regardless of their political beliefs, who develop an awareness of their connection to groups and the larger society will be in a better position to make more proactive, knowledgeable, empowered choices in their own lives.

James Gyldenvand is a sociology professor at FM.