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Displacing Institutions and Civic Engagement

Nov 9, 2007
Since the introduction of traditional institutional forms of communication, like the press and telephony, people have been engaged in numerous discussions regarding their role in the process, their power to alter or affect technological innovations, their reactions to adopt or reject the latest manifestations. Academic debates and endless public discussions resulted in a situation where no right or wrong answer prevailed. All were possible, everything was applicable.

As historians emphasize, most people seemed reluctant to accept newer forms of communications as they were trying to sustain a certain way of living, secure their position in society and most importantly, maintain a clear focus between the old and the new needs that evolved. Thus, the outcome of any suggested displacement became one of the central focus points in cultural studies, politics and other sciences, since the disintermediation was able to blur the ground upon which an action could be decided and a conclusion reached.

One of the most important institutions that has been threatened to be displaced, if not in its entirety, in at least some of its functions, was that of the family. Traditionally, the institution of the family is responsible for the overall socialization of a person, as it constitutes the first small community in which an individual evolves and learns to interact with other community members. Over the past century, due to economic, political and social changes, the traditional family unit has altered the way it interacts in relation to its members and with the rest of the society. Unfortunately, especially in Western societies, the role of the family has been altered and individualism is promoted as the basic principle having the primary role in a person's life.

The institution of the family has lost its original appeal and power. This realization does not come as a shock, as it is directly related with the increasing divorce numbers or the lower numbers of civic engagement among other reasons that led to the diminished social capital. Parents and children reconstructed their relationships and directed their focus away from traditional family values. As an individual is taught from an early age that economic success and tangible rewards shall better serve him/her in the future, in comparison to healthy individual relationships, one tends to become less interested in creating a family, get involved in volunteer work, embrace humanitarianism or strive for social welfare. In today's fierce competitive environment, the focus of a person is directed towards a satisfactory monetary compensation during his/her professional career that is based on previous educational choices and academic performances.

These changes in the institution of the family have been reflected to other institutions as well, as that of church. According to social researchers, religious participation has decreased over the years and young believers have considerably been shrinking in numbers over the last decade. Although the institution of church is the next most important institution after that of family, as it compiles some of the most important social values and accelerates the individual's socialization process, it has managed to loose its appeal.

One of the most important advantages of the church is that it provides an important incubator for civic skills, civic norms, community interests, and civic recruitment. Religiously active men and women learn to give speeches, run meetings, manage disagreements, and bear administrative responsibility. In part for these reasons, churchgoers are substantially more likely to be involved in secular organizations, to vote and participate politically in other ways, and to have deeper informal social connections.

Although in a religious society like that of United States, the individual enjoys many advantages from his/her religious involvement, over the first two-thirds of the century, the latest research findings suggest that this is not anymore the truth. Contemporary citizens tend to judge negatively and suspect the intentions of the church clerics while sometimes they even denounce the church's efforts to improve social welfare. They interpret the role and practices of the church as that of a corporation that wants to exercise its power over its believers, in order to gain more power while focusing on increasing its revenues.

Whilst criticizing the church intentions, the former church attendees are skipping Sunday service and the institution of church is loosing its "believers" who tend to receive and offer comfort and support through other institutions. Excused by their reduced leisure time, the profound changes in their social life and their willingness to survive in a global competitive environment, past churchgoers avoid their religious involvement. According to these, among other reasons, civic engagement has decreased over the years and believers tend to fulfill their need to get involved, socialize, perform, and provide help to those in need through alternative channels. In fact, as religious involvement is a crucial dimension of civic engagement, the observed trends in civic engagement are closely tied to changing patterns of religious involvement.

Summing up, although religion is still considered today as a central fount of Western community life, the broad oscillations in religious participation during the twentieth century mirror trends in secular civic life. This disengagement appears to be tied to generational succession, as for the most part younger generations are less involved both in religious and in secular social activities than were their predecessors when at the same age. Evaluating the effects of changing communication forms and the development of additional channels over the recent years, along with how these developments, have altered one's understanding about oneself in relation to the discussed institutions.

The recent criticism about technology, institutions, media, disintermediation, and their social implications, may bring forward the opposite view and create debates. But, human history is full of numerous examples of clash and integration through which a more advanced synthesis was born. Thus, the issue remains not to cease the questioning and the criticism so as to avoid the uncomfortable zone of debate, but rather to use these methods as contemporary tools in order to evaluate the future implications of today's human praxis.
About the Author
Jonathon Hardcastle writes articles on many topics including Religion , Family , and Cooking
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