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Changes In Society In Western Europe History Essay

During the 18th and 19th Centuries, Western Europe saw a significant change in every aspect of society. These changes ranged from social, economical, political and cultural. The emergence of this modern society has been referred to historically as the Great Transformation. The Great Transformation was a platform for social change in Western Europe but whether each aspect was beneficial or consequential is a question of sociological interest. During this period norms rapidly changed and a modernized world emerged. Historical movements such as the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution are of great importance to this era. According to Giddens (2009), industrialization can be defined as the emergence of machine production, based on the use of inanimate power resources. This period saw advancement in most traditional societies in the West. Industrialization spawned a number of societal changes and impacted families, demographics and work patterns. Although a number of aspects associated with the Great Transformation may be perceived as detrimental to society, the majority of changes benefited the West significantly and paved the way for the emergence of a modernized society.

During the 18th Century, enlightenment was a growing trend namely in Britain, France and the Netherlands. In previous years, the majority of belief and logical thinking was based on religious thought. However, religious thought began to decrease as a result of minor or no change and resulted in a complete loss of faith. Scientific thought and methods were introduced in the 18th Century with in an effort to acquire absolute knowledge. Auguste Comte encouraged others to embrace scientific thinking as the primary source of knowledge. Comte’s illustrates the importance of scientific thought with his Law of 3 stages explaining that both theological thought, based on religion and metaphysical thought, based on the

Renaissance and natural ideas failed to deliver logical truths and the need for a new school of scientific thought was imminent. (Giddens, 2009) A number of medicinal discoveries including vaccinations for diseases such as anthrax, rabies and typhoid proved that scientific knowledge was the way forward. (Lambert, 2008)

This age of discovery and inventions continued well into the 19th Century with the development of transportation. The General Turnpike Act 1775 was passed by the emerging governmental forces to facilitate road building; this coincided with the emergence of railways in 1825 and canal production which were cheap and efficient ways to transport non-perishable items.

The transferral of power from the elite to the nation state and the emergence of the new political ideas were additional elements to this period. States now had the power to enforce several rules to govern their land. Different forms of political roles and institutions and there was a departure from the laissez faire attitude of governance adopted in the West. However, a particular aspect was considered to be a by product of the rise of nation states: nationalism. Nationalism is defined as loyalty to the state and a feeling of obligation to defend your country. An extreme exhibition of nationalism took place in Germany during the Holocaust which illustrates the effect that the nation state can have on its inhabitants and how influential they are. (Bilton, 2009) The sociological issue here is whether such a catastrophe transpired as a result of the societal changes during the Great Transformation or if it was inevitable.

Another important aspect of the Great Transformation was Western expansion. While this was advantageous to the West financially, it affected the colonised countries immensely. Land was utilised in Caribbean, African and South American nations in the Caribbean, Africa and South America to extract resources from coffee to sugar to be traded on the international market. Even though this was seen as an enormous financial gain for the west, it was recorded that only 5% of Europe’s earnings during the 1700s and 1800s was generated through colonialism. (Rose, 1970)

There was a significant growth in population throughout the continent of Europe in the 19th Century. Before the Industrial Revolution, approximately 120 million people lived in Europe compared to the 428 million people that resided there following the revolution. The majority of movement took place in Britain with a rise in urbanisation. This was due to the availability of jobs in the cities and the changes occurring in Britain where it was evolving into a more modern industrial country rather than an agricultural one. One of the driving forces behind the migration was the differences in wages in the manufacturing industry and the agricultural industry. Between 1750 and 1850 the population in Britain alone increased threefold with half of the population living in the towns; two million people resided in London. (O’Donell, 2002) Along with movement throughout Europe, there was movement across the world with many Europeans and African slaves migrating North and South America.

However, there was a downturn for the growth in the cities. The towns of Britain become stricken with poverty and disease. Poverty levels increased due to lack of steady income

after many moved to the city. At the end of the 19th Century more than 25% of the population lived below subsistence levels. (Rose, 1970) The rise in diseases at this time is often correlated with this. Tuberculosis and cholera became widespread epidemics towards the end of the 19th Century. Despite the issue of poverty, there was an increase in the birth rates which constituted a decline in the death rates.

The family before the 18th and 19th Centuries was a very close knit institution with the entire family partaking in the production field, lived within close proximity and the extended family was of great importance. (O’Donell, 2002) Industrialization and urbanization influenced this way of life. Women and children were completely excluded from the factories. Women adapted the role of housewives and education became compulsory for children. The elderly were also alienated from the factory lifestyle because of the complexity of the machinery. Several laws and acts were put into place to stop these groups from working, first by cutting the number of hours and then banning them completely.

Work patterns and conditions changed vastly with the move from agricultural production to a more controlled environment factory production. Division of labour and specialisation were introduced to the worker. Instead of performing an entire task or being a part of the entire process, the workers were now limited to a single part of the production process specialising in one aspect. Mechanization dominated this era which led to less people working in the factories because the need for a large amount of man power was no longer necessary. This was driven by the rise in steam power, which transformed the cotton industry over a 60 year period. Machinery such as the James Watts’ Steam Engine increased

the output of cotton one hundred fold. Even though this was hugely advantageous to the factory owners because production levels increased, it led to a feeling of alienation amongst the workers. Normally, it was a feeling of self worth to be able to produce something but in the factories they were subjected to being a number in the process doing simple tasks repeatedly. Karl Marx stated that specialization and the division of labour garnered harmful effects such as feelings of alienation amongst the workers because the feeling of self worth prevalent in the farming industry no longer existed. On the other hand, Emile Durkheim argues that these new processes would enhance human relationships because of the dependency on others. (Giddens, 2009)

Capitalism had a significant impact on this time with capitalists thriving to increase production at all costs. Strict policies on time and behaviour were enforced in factories and wage labour was introduced. Workers had to work extremely hard in order to provide for their families; another change from the farming industry which was a more ‘work at their pace’ environment. Workers had to work in terrible conditions and endure long hours for minimum wage.

The widening income gap between the capitalists and the working class became noticeable. Frustration rose amongst the workers who was a relatively larger group than the capitalists and various types of unrest occurred ranging from riots, rebellions, revolutions and strike. This can be illustrated by the Peterloo Massacre which took place in London 1819 with

workers rebelling against capitalists’ regimes. (Rose, 1970) The ill treatment of workers saw the emergence of trade unions and workers parties in an effort to secure better wages and working conditions. The main goal of these unions was to deal with the balance of power between the capitalists and the workers and represent the workers due to their lack of political rights. (Giddens, 2009)

It can be argued that consumerism developed in the 19th Century as a result of industrial capitalism and the changes stemming from trade unionism. Bilton (2009) defines consumerism as a culture based in the promotion, sale and acquisition of consumer goods. Mass production in factories meant that goods were cheaper and workers wages could afford more than the necessities. The issue surrounding consumerism is whether it was beneficial to society. Even though it can be argued that this brought a rise of individualism because its expressive nature, it gave rise to self indulgent attitudes.

In conclusion, despite many factors which may lead some to question the elements which emerged due to the Great Transformation it is clear that it shaped and changed society a great deal. Some of these changes are still existent and some even argue that we live in an extended version of this society. Whether or not we live in such a society, many of the norms and changes during this era reflect many of our daily lives today and helped to change the way of thinking of many.


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