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August 19, 2001

ASA Presidential Address Highlights Role of Emotions in Social Life

Anaheim, CA-Douglas S. Massey, President of the American Sociological Association (ASA), presented dramatic and thought-provoking ideas about directions of human societies in his Presidential address to the 2001 Annual Meeting of the ASA. A fascinating blend of theoretical and analytic perspectives, the address provided rich data about the evolution of human societies into urban centers and profound insights about the implication of these trends for sociology. The remarks were made on August 19 in Anaheim, California at the 96th Annual Meeting of the ASA.

“Early in the 21st Century,” said Massey, “Two momentous events will occur. Toward the end of the current decade, probably late in 2007, humanity will cross a demographic rubicon: for the first time ever, more than half of all human beings will live in cities. From that point on, the bulk of population growth will occur in urbanized areas, thus guaranteeing that the human future will be an urban one.” Shortly thereafter, he continued, and surely during the second decade of the 21st Century, after 6 million years, the last hunter-gathers will cease to exist.

Massey argues that, while sociology should be well-poised to understand the nature and meaning of these incredible transitions, it is not, owing to several interrelated conceits. A central theme of his address was that sociologists have unwisely elevated the rational over the emotional in attempting to understand and explain human behavior. “It's not that human beings are not rational-we are, “ said Massey. “The point is that we are not only rational. What makes us human is the addition of a rational component to a pre-existing emotional base, and our focus should be on the interplay between rationality and emotionality, not theorizing the former while ignoring the latter, or posing one as the opposite of the other. Attempting to understand human behavior as the outcome of rational cognition alone is not only incorrect, it leads to fundamental misunderstandings of the human condition.”

In his address, Massey explained and expanded on these points by undertaking a brief review of human society from its origins to the present. He dated the origins of humanity from the point at which “we began to walk upright, thus freeing our hands for the full-time manufacture of tools and our brains for abstraction.” In tracing human origins from the remote past to the present, he sought “to discover the sort of beings we really are, and to understand how we can be expected to function in the dense, urban environments of the future.”

Focusing on population, community, technology, subsistence, and culture, he identified seven basic eras of social development, dating roughly from about six million years ago, through Agrarian societies where first settled cities first emerged about 12,000 years ago, to modern, industrial societies. He noted that the proportion of people in the world living in cities remained at no more than five percent during the eras of both Cesar Augustus and Queen Victoria, but for the former this implied a population of 13 million urbanites while for the latter a stock of 48 million city-dwellers.

Massey said that beginning around 1800, human society entered a remarkable new period of demographic growth. Hunting and gathering was the dominant mode of society for 6 million years and agrarianism for 10,000 years, but industrialism matured in less than 200 years. From a base of 954 million people in 1800, the human population grew to 1.6 billion in 1900, 2.5 billion in 1950, and 6.1 billion in 2000. More remarkable yet has been the shift of population from rural to urban areas. The transition to urbanism was rapid and complete by the mid-20th century in the industrializing societies of Europe and North America. Developing countries are now also rapidly urbanizing, and by 2025 the proportion of city-dwellers worldwide is projected to reach nearly 60 percent.

Moreover, said Massey, not only will a majority of human beings come to live in cities, but a growing fraction will reside in extremely large cities. By the year 2025, a quarter of all humanity will live in places of one million or more, and increasingly, most of these large urban agglomerations will be located in the Third World. In 1900, the five largest cities were London, New York, Paris, Berlin, and Chicago, but in 2015 they will be Tokyo, Bombay, Lagos, Dhaka, and Sao Paolo, followed by Karachi, Mexico City, New York, Jakarta, and Calcutta.

Massey then turned his attention to perceptions on how human behavior has been modeled, and the implications of these differing analytic approaches for understanding the future of human societies. If anything, he argued, emotionality supercedes rationality in timing and influence. Through historical, social, and biological evidence, Massey demonstrated that social communities grounded in emotion existed before they developed rational faculties, and using several contemporary examples-from marketing, advertising and political campaigning-showed how these current practical applications have “not simply recognized the duality between the emotional and rational brain, but have sought to cultivate and exploit it.”

As an example of how emotion influences human affairs, Massey returned to the reality that we will soon become, for the first time, a fully urbanized society. He emphasized that, “increasingly human beings will not only live in cities but that those cities will be very large and the largest among them will be in poor countries of the Third World. As a result, among both developed and developing societies, poverty will increasingly be urbanized and geographically concentrated. Within nations, the bulk of the poor will be housed in large urban agglomerations, and within these areas the poor will increasingly concentrate in poor neighborhoods, thus driving the spatial concentration of poverty to new heights.”

Sociologists, who have long studied the influence of urbanism on social life, have advanced different theories about the pathological effects of population density. Massey noted that recent work, however, has confirmed a clear relationship not between density and social maladies, but between the concentration of poverty and deleterious outcomes. Here, understanding function and operation of the emotional brain is of potentially great importance in illuminating the link between concentrated deprivation and behavior. Among other things, areas of concentrated poverty are characterized by high rates of crime, violence, and social disorder

Massey concluded by saying that, while emotion is not totally absent from social theory and research, sociologists have approached it more in philosophical than in scientific terms. He urged sociologists to take advantage of the great advances in neuroscience, to end their hostility to the biological sciences and to work to incorporate the increasingly well-understood biological foundations of human behavior into theoretical models. “We can and should ground our theories and models in actual knowledge about how people think and interact using both their emotional and rational brains,” he said.

More than four thousand participants are expected to attend the conference, which runs August 18-21 at the Anaheim Marriott and the Hilton Anaheim in Anaheim, CA. Members of the press interested in obtaining a copy of the Presidential Address or any other portion of the Annual Meeting, may contact Johanna Ebner in the Public Information Office at (714) 740-4568 in Anaheim or 383-9005 x320 in DC; or by e-mail at pubinfo@asanet.org. For further meeting information see www.asanet.org/page.ww?section=Meetings&name=Convention+Home/2001/index.html.

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