Social Institutions and Change
Many changes occurred in the family, religion. education, the economy. and the political system during the twentieth century and early in the twenty-first century.
As we saw in Chapter 15. the size and composition of families in the United States changed with the dramatic increase in the number of single-person and single parent households. Changes in families produced changes in the socialization of children. many of whom spend large amounts of time in front of a television set
or in child-care facilities outside their own homes. Although some political and religious leaders advocate a return to "traditional" family life. numerous scholars
argue that such families never worked quite as well as some might wish to believe.
Public education changed dramatically in the United States during the past century. This country was one of the first to provide "universal" education for students regardless of their ability to pay. As a result, at least until recently. the United States has had one of the most highly educated populations in the world. Today. the United States still has one of the best public education systems in the world for the top 15 percent of the students. but it badly tails the bottom 25 percent. As the nature of the economy changes, schools almost inevitably will have to change. if for no other reason than demands from leaders in .business industry for an educated work force thar allows U.S. companies to compete in a global economic environment Political systems experienced tremendous change and upheaval in some parts of the world during the twentieth century. The United States participated in two world wars and numerous other "conflicts," the largest and most divisive being in Vietnam and the most recent being the war on terrorism. The cost of these wars and conflicts. and of increased security measures as a result of terrorism. is staggering.
A new concept of world security is merging, requiring the cooperation of high-income countries in halting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and
combating terrorism. That concept also requires the cooperation of all nations in reducing the plight of the poorest people in the low-income countries of the world.
Although we have examined changes in the physical environment. population, and social institutions separately. they all operate together in a complex relationship. sometimes producing large. unanticipated consequences. As we move further into the twenty-first century. we need new ways of COl1( actualizing' social life at both the macro level and the microlevel. The sociological imagination helps us think about how personal troubles-regardless of our race class, gender. age. sexual orientation, or physical abilities and disabilities-are intertwined with the public
issues of our society and the global community of which we are a part. As one analyst noted regarding Lois Gibbs and Love Canal. If Love Canal has taught Lois Gibbs-and the rest of us-anything. it is that ordinary people become very smart very quickly when their lives are threatened. They become adept at detecting absurdity.
even when it is concealed in bureaucratese and scisci scientific jargon. Lois Gibbs learned that one cannot always rely on government to act in the best interests of ordinary citizens-at least, not without considerable prodding. She determined that she would prod them until her objectives were attained. She led one of the most successful. single-purpose grass roots efforts of our time..(M. Levine. 1982: xv) Taking care of the environment is an example of something that government and each of us as individuals .