Paradigm for Understanding Social Change

With all the chaos of this current moment in Western society, analysts and experts are often tempted to explain big events with idiosyncratic factors. Indeed, specific factors and events explain how the ‘alt-right’ seized control of the national debate, how the Democratic Party is no longer in charge of most levels of American government and how Donald Trump gained the presidency. But these unique stories are only the barest part of the complete history of our times. Our work as pollsters and social researchers provides us a perspective that helps see how these events are the culmination of long-term societal level changes. Without these big forces, specific actions would produce wildly different results: the “alt-right” would likely remain cloistered in the dark corners of the internet, Democrats would be ascendant and Donald Trump would be an entertainer.

We have started using a simplifying construct of ‘the three -ographies’ to help make sense of these big forces. We think of them as demography, sociography, and econography. The last two are rarely used words. Demography refers to the vital characteristics of the population, particularly age, gender, and race/ethnicity. Sociography refers to the social or cultural aspects of the society. This is most clearly indicated by educational attainment and group identification. Econography refers to how economic activity is organized in the society, where wealth resides, and employment patterns. Western society has seen profound changes across all three of these dimensions in the past ten to twenty years.

Now, we are not trying to understate the importance of individual actors or actions. Instead, we are describing how social forces set up the environment that allows these actors to succeed. A metaphor of a garden helps clarify what we mean. You can grow a cactus or a water lily anywhere, but in a dry, arid desert, the cactus is going to have a significant advantage and is more likely to thrive. If instead we have a shallow pool the water lily might be advantaged and the cactus might drown. In this metaphor, the three ‘ographies’ are the soil, sun, and water.

Demography concerns the composition of a particular human population. Our focus on the United States’ population narrows our view to the age, gender, and racial or ethnic composition of the country. Here, the most salient trend at the end of the second decade of the 21st Century is the aging and diversifying American population. Americans of European descent are having fewer children, falling below the population replacement rate. Minority groups, particularly Americans of Hispanic descent, make up an increasingly large segment of the whole population. Indeed, there are currently more minority children than children of parents who identify as non-Hispanic white (white-alone in Census parlance). This indicates that in the next few decades the United States will become a ‘majority-minority’ country where the largest ethnic group — which will still be people of European descent — will no longer make up more than half of all citizens.

I use ‘sociography’ to describe the patterns in how society is organized. This includes both cultural factors and identifications, in addition to population-level attributes like education. The democratization of education has been a decades-long project. Currently more than 30% of Americans age 25 and older have at least a four-year college degree, up from the single digits in the 1950s. All in all, almost 60% have at least some higher education experience, and almost 90% have graduated high school. However, despite the increasing aggregate education level, Americans continue to identify as discrete groups or ‘tribes’. Indeed, as the demographics of the country of shifted the tribal identification of white Americans has come into a greater contrast.

Econography describes how commerce, labor and capital are deployed through the society. The most noteworthy aspect of the modern US economy is the rapid change brought about by technology and automation. Information technology combined with advanced robotics has increased the pace with which semi-skilled or semi-repetitive occupations can be taken over by machines. This is already far advanced in the manufacturing sector and is increasingly expanding into other areas such as basic financial services, food services, and transportation. This is driving whole categories of labor toward extinction, creating disjunctions between career aspirations and achievable paths for many Americans.

So, what is the point of categorizing societal trends into these three “prisms”? It helps people understand how specific events — like the election of Donald Trump – came to be possible. For instance, Nixon’s Southern Strategy played on Southern white racial resentment to redefine the Republican party as the party of “white” interests (the sociography level) after Johnson’s Democrats championed civil rights for African Americans. This resentment has become more salient by the demographic changes facing the country (and President Obama’s election). These trends combine to create fertile ground for Donald Trump’s dog whistle appeals to nativism and protectionism. At the same time if most Americans had greater faith and the political establishment, there would be no public appetites for an outsider with no political background to assume the highest office in the land. Finally, many of these same Republican Trump voters would be less concerned about protecting their idea of a ‘real America’ if they didn’t feel like they were looking at the near-term disappearance of both their way of life and their chosen careers.

Looking forward, we are going to dig deeper into each of these areas to discuss the trends that have shaped our current society and project out what we expect to see over the next 10 or 20 years.