A Short History of Society

A Short History of Society

A Short History of Society

A Short History of Society

Excerpt

The cover of this book reproduces Las Meninas, painted by the Spanish artist Velazquez in 1656. Far more than any words can convey, this painting suggests much about the world in which we live: our recognition of its diversity and our self-consciousness about our social and personal selves. But given the date of its completion, the painting also suggests the continuities between different epochs: we can recognize ourselves in Las Meninas and that should give us some sense that we share a history with the people who lived in the seventeenth century. This book is premised on the importance of that relationship.

Amongst the many important themes of George Orwell’s novel 1984 is the way in which highly controlled societies can eliminate history. This book does not argue that the society in which we live has consciously attempted to banish our history and our collective memory of the past; whether or not that has happened is a matter for other discussions. But the following pages are written in the light of the disappearance, in various contexts, of both the chronological teaching of history and the recognition of the importance of the context of ideas and events. We are told that we live in a new ‘risk’ society (Ulrich Beck) and that human beings and their relationships with each other and themselves are radically different (Anthony Giddens, Bryan Turner and Donna Haraway). All these, and many other writers, offer interpretations of the twenty-first century which emphasize its difference from previous historical periods. This book does not engage with those questions but offers an account of the world before these apparently transforming events and is an attempt to show something of both the interrelationship of ideas and their context and the relationship of the past to the present. There are, however, a number of issues which need to be set out before readers begin this story.

The first is that this book assumes that ‘society’ exists. The British prime minister Mrs Thatcher famously stated that ‘society’ did not exist, and various sociologists (for example John Urry) have developed aspects of this idea, arguing that in a global world we no . . .

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