Friday, May 4, 2007

Tradional vs Technological Society: Stephen B. Clark's Analysis of Technological Society and Its Effects on the Family

By Howard King

What follows is the first of a two-part abridgement of the eighteenth chapter of Stephen B. Clark’s book, Man and Woman in Christ: An Examination of the Roles of Men and Women in the Light of Scripture and the Social Sciences. This book is simply one of the most important written in the twentieth century, and this chapter, “The New Social Environment: Technological Society” is one of the most important parts of the book. The historical and sociological data he presents are accurate and his analysis profound. Many of these facts have been presented by others before, but never have they been organized into the concise yet comprehensive and systematic form that Clark provides – and never have they been viewed from the perspective of a rigorous Christian orthodoxy.

This chapter, which occupies 40 pages in the original book, is jam-packed with information and insights. In attempting to distill the essence into two ordinary-sized magazine articles a great deal must necessarily be lost. It is this editor’s hope that the reader will be inspired by what he finds here to go on and read Clark for himself, in unabridged form. In any case, he will find much here that will help him to understand the predicament of the family in the modern world. —HK

The life of the human race has undergone a radical change in the last 250 years. We have moved from a traditional society, or, to be more accurate, a collection of traditional societies, to a world-wide technological society that is rapidly becoming universal for the human race. This change from traditional to technological society has revolutionized human life, and one of the elements of human life that has been radically altered is social relationships.

From a Relational to a Functional Society

When a human society moves from traditional to technological society, a basic principle changes in the organization of the social structure. The organization shifts from a social pattern in which relationship is the most fundamental consideration to a social pattern in which functional accomplishment is the most fundamental consideration. An overall systemic change occurs in the structure of human society, and this change reshapes everything in human life. Because the change is systemic, many elements change in a subordinate way. Family life moves from being consanguineal to conjugal. Government moves from being personal to bureaucratic. The fundamental unit of society ceases to be the family and becomes instead the individual. The care of social needs shifts from the realm of stable personal relationships to the realm of specialized social welfare institutions. Efficiency considerations replace status and honor considerations. Tradition as a source of authority yields to utilitarian rationalism as a source of authority.

The functional principle

When a group of human beings is highly interested in completing a task, they tend to organize their activities and interrelations according to a functional principle. One can speak of a functional approach to human activity and interrelations when a set of human interactions are systematically shaped to maximize production or to achieve other goals. The functional approach is most dominant in a situation where work occurs in a different time and place from "living," that is, when a work site such as an office or factory is separated from the home.. The chief or overriding criterion which organizes activities in the functional situation is task-efficiency. The functional principle is thus a work principle oriented primarily to production, achievement and efficient task-performance.

This criterion of task-efficiency is not universal to the human race. Those accustomed to the functional efficiency of the modern office or factory can be maddened when they visit another culture where work is not segregated from "life" in special environments dominated by a functional approach. They may become frustrated and confused when they discover that an official will readily spend hours talking to a friend who happens by, or when they confront a political situation in which ceremony is accorded a high value and consequently often replaces the functional tasks of government rather than being separated as much from them as possible. Such visitors are encountering a principle of social structure that differs from the functional principle.

The relational principle

The alternative to the functional principle of social structure is the relational principle. This has been the predominant principle shaping the social organization of most cultures throughout human history. The main remnant of such relational groupings in technological society is the family, but other remnants are sometimes found in villages, neighborhoods, religious communities or other intentional communities. People join together in relational situations primarily for the sake of living together and not primarily for the sake of accomplishing a task or producing a product. For example, a family often shows much devotion to a family member who is hostile, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to make a functional contribution to the family. If asked to explain such loyalty, family members would probably say simply, "he is my father," "she is my daughter," or "he is my brother." Questions of functional contribution and task efficiency are not primary in determining the structure and life of the grouping.

Many people living in technological society think of the word "functional" as a term of unqualified commendation. What is not purely functional is described as "inefficient," "purposeless," or "disorganized," in other words, as functioning poorly. However, though the relational approach is not primarily task-oriented, it is inaccurate to characterize it as "purposeless" or "inefficient." A different criterion for efficiency applies to relational settings. This criterion measures "relationship value" rather than "task efficiency." A type of purposiveness exists in relational groupings, but one that differs from the task-orientation of the functional grouping. The primary goal in a relational grouping is to strengthen the relationships and the people who are in the relationships. Task considerations are not ignored. However, they are secondary to the primary concern for the solidarity of personal relationships and the welfare of those individuals who are in the relationships.

People who live in a technological society usually find it difficult to understand the concept of "relationship value." This difficulty springs largely from the tendency to divorce purposive, goal-oriented activities from expressive activities. The sphere of expressive activities includes aesthetic expression (e.g., music, dance, painting), emotional expression (e.g., anger, affection, grief), and ceremonial expression. According to the functional approach, this sphere remains separate from the functionalized work setting, since expressive activities do not directly contribute to the accomplishment of the tasks at hand. As a consequence, the concern for usefulness and purpose is not supposed to interfere with the expressive sphere. A person gets angry, celebrates, or sings a song, simply on the basis of preference and feeling. Expression is an end in itself and is divorced from the purposive sphere of productive or utilitarian concerns.

This separation between goal-oriented and expressive activities does not occur in a relational situation. The relational work setting provides room for expressive activities, such as customs of respect or affection; as, for example, among a family preparing a meal. There is also a purposiveness in the expressive activities. They are not merely guided by emotion and preference. Activities such as showing affection, of respect, worship, ceremony, and celebration express aspects of a personal relationship when done in a relational grouping and are often done on the basis of objectively understood principles. They are not primarily ways of expressing emotion, though emotions can be involved. The purposive, goal-directed sphere is thus integrated with the expressive sphere within the context of stable personal relationships.

There are several other important differences between groups structured according to functional and relational principles.

Personal vs. task considerations

First, functional groups tend to be characterized by certain types of impersonality when contrasted with relational groups. Functional situations are normally structured in a way that makes them independent of particular people. This type of impersonality in functional groupings is sometimes described as the "institutional" or "bureaucratic" element of the grouping. An organization is created (a factory or a corporation or a government) which is staffed by people, but the people are replaceable. All of the people in the organization could die simultaneously and be replaced by people of like skills, and, if adequate records were left, the organization could continue on in the future as it did in the past.

A relational grouping operates according to a different principle: the work and life of the group depends to a greater degree upon the particular people within the group. The father of a family is not replaceable. If he dies, another man may marry his widow and care for his children, but he would not easily be considered more than "like a father" to the children. A family shop will be passed on to a son, even if he is not specially competent, rather than be given to someone who passes an exam.

A functional grouping is also impersonal in the sense that it tends to be concerned with people only insofar as they contribute to accomplishing a task. Each individual works according to the job description and procedures (whether specified explicitly or understood implicitly), and as far as the organization is concerned, the characteristics of the individual are irrelevant except insofar as they strengthen or weaken his or her ability to perform that job. The functional principle thus leads to the sharp distinction between purposive goal-directed activities and expressive activities. Family life, personal interests, and feelings have no place in the functionalized goal-directed work environment.

A relational principle of social structure, on the other hand, leads to the integration of personal considerations and task considerations, with the personal considerations predominating. The personal relationships determine how the group acts together. The son may be more competent than his father at managing the family business, but he will not therefore become the father's boss. The nature of their personal relationship precedes in importance strict task-competency considerations. Nor is there anything like a private sphere. The entire life of each member of the grouping is of concern to each other member. A father is concerned with his son's performance in school or work, but he is also concerned with his son's personal interests, desires, and relationships. Relational groupings thus take into account and even build upon personal considerations, without totally neglecting the accomplishment of tasks.

Specialized vs. holistic

Another important difference between functional and relational groups is that functional groups tend toward specialization and standardization, whereas life in a relational grouping is more holistic and varied. The tasks and roles that an individual performs in functional groupings tend to be highly specialized. Not only is economic life specialized by craft, but there is a tendency to specialize more and more within each activity. At the same time, a functional principle leads to greater standardization. There is a tendency to make everything uniform so that it can be interchangeable.

One result of the dual process of specialization and standardization is that people are mainly considered as the bearers of a skill. The chief interest that a functional grouping shows in another human being is in that human being's ability to perform a particular task effectively, i.e., that person's competence. Moreover, the functional grouping is only interested in individual bearers of skills. A civil service office or a factory cannot deal with a family as a unit. Families are not allowed to hold positions, only individuals who bear the requisite skills.

Life in relational groupings is approached in a more holistic and varied fashion. One man is father/farmer/warrior/builder/judge. As a result of this varied and holistic approach, people are not considered primarily as either individuals or bearers of a specialized skill, but as members of particular corporate groupings. A man is not primarily seen as John the lawyer or engineer, but as John the son of Will from Bridlington.

Different views of change

Finally, functional and relational groupings differ from one another in the way they approach change. Functional groupings tend to prize innovation and flexibility, whereas relational groupings value stability. M. F. Nimkoff describes this contrast vividly:
An important factor here is that economic production, being based upon science, is subject to the process of rationalization, and the family is not. If science can be said to have a motto, it is: There is always a better way. Obsolescence and innovation are encouraged. But the family, like religion, is designed to afford stability to social life. We may be interested in a new model of car every year, but not in a new model of family life.
If something can be done better, the dynamic of the functional principle is to change to do it better – at least if the cost is not too great. This principle finds prominent expression in modern technological society, which exposes all of its members to a constant experience of change.

On the other hand, a relational principle tends more toward stability. Family relationships are considered permanent. No one can divorce their children, and divorce in a marriage is unfortunate rather than ideal. Friendship, neighborliness, and other bonds among people grow stronger over time. In addition, relational groupings value consistency in a personal relationship. When family members or close friends regularly rearrange their values or alter their patterns of response, the social group is weakened. Changes that are seen by all as improvements in someone's behavior are always welcome, but other types of constant change weaken and even destroy personal relationships. A relational grouping thus tends much more to stability than does a functional grouping.

Social Structure in Technological Society

Western European civilization began to undergo a significant change in the eighteenth century which led to the development of what is now sometimes called "technological society." A new type of society began to form, one based on new principles of social structure. The term "technological society" indicates the importance of the role technological change played in shaping this new form of society. However, technological development was not the only major factor involved in this process of social change. Economic and social factors played a major role with the growth of population, economic activity, and urbanization, and with the disruption of traditional social patterns caused by the new form of economic life and by the rapidly expanding cities and proletariat. Ideological factors also played a significant role with the increasing influence of Enlightenment thought on society and the declining influence of Christian belief, values, and order. Nonetheless, this new social order has been sufficiently molded by the demands of modern technology that the term "technological society" is an acceptable label for the new society.

A central characteristic of technological society is the way the functional principle dominates social arrangements. In traditional society, relationship considerations were dominant in shaping the social structure. Most modern people would be surprised at how little a functional principle was adopted as a way of structuring various groupings in traditional society. We are so thoroughly accustomed to the idea that people work in a different place from where they live that we tend to project this modern model into our view of the past. However, in past societies, most people worked at home: on a family farm, at a craftsman's workshop, or in a shop attached to a craftsman's or merchant's house. Moreover, functional considerations and family and personal considerations were much more integrated than they are today. People normally worked with members of their families or with members of other families as servants or apprentices, and the relationships shaped the way in which work was carried out. The functional principle played a more dominant role in some settings. However, before the eighteenth century, it was rare for a group of human beings in any setting to systematically organize all of their activities and interrelations to maximize their efficiency in completing certain tasks. In the eighteenth century, this functional principle began to be widely applied to certain economic enterprises with the development of the factory system of production. As time passed, the dominance of the functional principle spread to other areas of life.

In technological society, social relationships are thoroughly transformed. As the world of interactions that follow a functional principle expands and dominates new sectors of society, the overall shape of people's lives changes. There is a life-pattern that "fits" with the development of technology, a life-pattern in which the shape of a person's life provides the least obstacle for that person finding a place in the socio-economic activity that characterizes technological society. Central to this pattern is the establishment of the individual and the mass collective as the main units of society.

The individual and the mass collective

The primary unit in traditional society was a group, not the individual. Individuals functioned as part of groups in such a way that their lives were largely determined by the life of the group rather than by their own individual direction. People spent more time together in groups both physically (fewer homes had private rooms) and socially. Individuals in traditional society were more conscious than we are of belonging to certain groups and of identifying themselves according to their role in those groups. The primary group was the family, but not merely the nuclear family. The family in traditional society included a wider kinship grouping, though all in the grouping did not necessarily inhabit one residence. In addition, there was the larger social group of the village or the quarter of the city, or the guild or craft association.

In technological society an individual is detached from his group relationships so that he can function according to a skill he bears or a job he performs. Family commitments ideally play no part in a modern work environment such as a factory or an office. Guilds and other professional or religious corporations are inefficient and have to be eliminated because they operate as social bodies and fraternities rather than merely as functional groups. The dynamic of technological society undermines the groupings of traditional society which constitute its fundamental structural units and which provide people with a communal life and a sense of communal belonging and identity. These groups are deprived of their legal protection and either reduced in importance if indispensable (as was the conjugal family), eliminated (as were most guilds and corporations), or replaced by functional and relational groupings which are more clearly distinct (as "functional" professional societies and "relational" clubs replace the older corporations which integrate relational and functional considerations). This frees individuals to move and act independently of other individuals. People become more mobile. They can take a job, invest money, and change residence without needing the agreement of anyone else (other than immediate family members). They can fit into the technological system according to their competency and the system's need. In other words, individuals can fit into the system in a way determined solely by functional criteria and not by personal relationship or communal criteria.

As the individual replaces the relational grouping as the basic unit of society, the mass collective also develops as the main corporate body. Society becomes less and less a structured set of interrelated groupings, each with its own rights and responsibilities. Instead, it becomes increasingly a mass aggregate of individuals.

The absolute state

Historically, this process was aided by the concept of the absolute state, and by the actual increase in the state's authority. A further major step was taken on the European continent beginning with the French Revolution: Many groups within society lost their rights. Local rights, guild rights, university rights, and church rights were frequently stripped away, or else conferred upon these groups by the sufferance of the state. The concept of the rights of man (i.e., the individual) and its correlate concept of state authority replaced the view of society as a network of interrelated semi-independent bodies, each with its own traditionally guaranteed rights. Jacques Ellul describes more fully this societal shift which occurred in France at the time of the French Revolution:
The very structure of society – based on natural groups – was also an obstacle (to the development of technological society). Families were closely organized. The guilds and the groups formed by collective interests (for example, the University, the Parliament, the Confraternities and Hospitals) were distinct and independent. The individual found livelihood, patronage, security and intellectual and moral satisfactions in collectives that were strong enough to answer all his needs but limited enough not to make him feel submerged or lost. These obstacles disappeared at the time of the French Revolution, in 1789... a systematic campaign was waged against all natural groups, under the guise of a defense of the rights of the individual; for example, the guilds, the communes, and federalism were attacked, this last by the Girondists. There were movements against the religious orders and against the privileges of Parliament, the Universities, and the Hospitalers. There was to be no liberty of groups, only that of the individual. There was likewise a struggle to undermine the family. Revolutionary legislation promoted its disintegration; it had already been shaken by the philosophy and the fervors of the eighteenth century. Revolutionary laws governing divorce, inheritance, and paternal authority were disastrous for the family unit, to the benefit of the individual. And these effects were permanent, in spite of temporary setbacks. Society was already atomized and would be atomized more and more. The individual remained the sole sociological unit. For the individual in an atomized society, only the state was left.
Thus the French Revolution gave considerable impetus to the movement towards the mass collective. This trend towards mass society is present today throughout the technologized world.

Personal care

The shift in the basic units of society is also reflected in the way that society cares for personal human needs. In traditional society, education, professional training, health care, and financial support all occurred within a relational social grouping. Family, guild, village, and church normally met these needs. Hospitals existed in Western traditional society, but they were only for special illnesses, and they were ordinarily administered and staffed by religious orders. The aged were cared for within the family. Orphanages existed, but they too were special facilities, administered and staffed by religious orders, for those individuals who had lost their place in the interrelated set of groupings which was society.

In technological society, mass institutions predominate in the care of personal human needs. Personal needs which were once met within a relational grouping are now handled by functionalized public institutions staffed by people hired and trained for the purpose and with whom the cared-for individual has no personal bond. The development of educational institutions is of particular importance. In traditional society, children were educated and formed in the course of daily life by their parents and older adults within a relational grouping. In technological society, they are segregated from normal adult life and entrusted to special institutions where they relate solely to other children (their peer group) and to professional educators. Just as government is exercised through a mass collective institution rather than a relational grouping, so personal needs are cared for within a mass institutional setting.

The functionalization of society thus undermines the traditional structure of society. Government and personal care are no longer conducted within a set of interconnected relational groupings which form the basis of society. Instead, the new technological social structure is based on mobile individuals and mass collective institutions which govern the aggregate of those individuals and care for their personal needs. The overall structure of society thus undergoes a change that has tremendous consequences for human life.

Values and Personal Relationships

In addition to the basic structural changes just described, the functionalization of society also produces concrete changes in values and personal relationships.

Ascribed and achieved positions.

In technological society greater value is given to achieved positions, whereas positions which derive from birth or inheritance are devalued. The key criterion for obtaining status and respect is competency defined in functional terms. Family background and inherited wealth no longer qualify a person for status or respect, except insofar as they put someone in a position of power. The positions of father, mother, son, or daughter are not highly valued, but are instead taken for granted (father and mother less so, since raising a family can be seen as an achievement). The functionalization of society thus leads to an increase in the status, respect, and value given to achieved positions, and to a corresponding decrease in the value given to non-achieved positions.


The functionalization of technological society also affects the nature and quality of personal relationships. One major change occurs in the type of commitments that are made within social groupings. Technological society emphasizes partial, functionally specific commitments. Commitments in traditional society tend to be few, but they encompass the whole of life. For example, a guild was a professional society, but a craftsman's commitment to the guild extended far beyond what modern people would consider the limits of his professional life. It included an obligation for the welfare of the other members, who could call upon him whenever a need arose. The guild could discipline and regulate his private conduct. The guild was a religious body which worshiped together and a fraternal body which socialized together. By contrast, most commitments in technological society are functionally defined in a more specific fashion. This trend towards limited, partial, functionally specific commitments affects most of the groupings within technological society, including most religious groups.

Separate functional and personal spheres

Another significant change in personal relationships occurs as a result of the new division created within technological society between the functional and personal sphere. As mentioned earlier, traditional society incorporates purposive, functional activities and approaches into a broader network of personal relationships. Relational groupings in traditional society are stable, structured, and purposive, but they are also personal at the same time. They contain an order of authority, defined roles, and customary patterns of relationship; they are stable over a long period of time; and they encompass both the world of work and the world of family, preference, and emotion. Relationships in technological society, on the other hand, tend to follow one of two courses. Relationships are either structured, purposive, and functional, such as those on a work site, or they are informal, expressive, and non-purposive, as those in friendship groupings.

This separation is a consequence of both the breakdown of stable social groupings and the reaction to the preponderance of functional groupings in technological society. People in traditional society associate with one another primarily according to stable relationships and according to the roles and order of those relationships. The patterns of interaction are determined by longstanding family, kinship, village, craft, and religious relational groupings. On the other hand, in technological society the stability of relational groupings decreases as commitments are partialized. Kinship relations outside the immediate nuclear family become less stable than in the past, while associations centered upon work or residence become more temporary and less likely to be marked by stable bonds or commitments than was once the case. Therefore, the non-functional relationships that do exist tend to form according to interest, attraction, and sometimes according to current proximity, and tend to be characterized by fluidity, informality, lack of structure, and instability.

The formation of these types of relationships is also furthered by a popular reaction to the preponderance of functional groupings in technological society. Most people have some reaction against the impersonality and structured rigidity of functional groupings. Though they accept that some type of order is necessary in functional situations to efficiently accomplish a task, they desire that their "private life" be free of such an order and purposiveness. The personal realm thus becomes the antithesis of the functional realm. In the personal realm, emotion, spontaneity, and preference hold sway. One makes friends for reasons of mutual interest or mutual liking, and not for reasons of mutual advantage or benefit. Romantic love becomes the sole basis for marrying and remaining married. Arranged marriage passes away in technological society and family considerations no longer enter into the choice of marriage partner. To a person living in a society where the functional and personal realms have been almost entirely separated, considerations such as mutual benefit or advantage in friendship or marriage choice seem crass in contrast to pure preference or attraction.

The very term "personal relationship" as used in modern society reveals the extent of the divorce between functional and personal spheres of life. The term usually refers to human relationships that are not predominantly functional, that are in fact as different from functional relationships as possible. Since structure, order, and purpose characterize functional relationships, personal relationships should proceed according to different principles. Such a definition of "personal relationship" would be less intelligible to people living in a traditional society, where functional relationships are much less frequent and less important, and where "impersonal" relationships are nearly nonexistent. Almost all relationships in traditional society are "personal" in the sense that they involve all aspects of a person's life, though few relationships in traditional society would be “personal” in the modern sense.


The effects of this divorce are especially evident when examining the place of emotions in technological society. Emotional expression in traditional society was thoroughly integrated into stable relationships. People felt strongly and expressed themselves freely (perhaps more freely than people in technological society), but their emotions were regarded as but one element in their personal relationships. Emotion was not normally valued for its own sake, and the guide to genuineness in personal relationships was loyalty rather than emotional authenticity.

In technological society, as personal and functional spheres separate, emotion becomes more distinct from outside purposes, and becomes a major independent criterion of judgment. In fact, feelings become the basis and criterion of personal relationships. One should not show love without feeling love, nor show respect without feeling respect. To do so would be "inauthentic." Sharing of emotions becomes the crucial test of the depth of a relationship. For those who live in technological society, the traditional approach to emotions appears repressive or unpleasant. However, it is not in fact clear that the technological approach is superior. For example, it is arguable that arranged marriages in traditional society may succeed better than modern marriages based on romantic love.

This discussion has sketched the broad outlines of the substantial differences between technological society and traditional society. These changes amount to a radical transformation in the shape of human society. They also lead to significant changes in that grouping which proves most central for an understanding of men's and women's roles – the human family.

This article originally appeared in "Patriarch Magazine" edited and copyrighted by Phil Lancaster. Used by permission. All rights reserved.)

Part 2: The Family in Technological Society



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